Somehow, Sundance 2020 — the last in-person iteration of the fest, pre-pandemic — feels like it was both a million years ago and just the other day. If COVID has taught us anything outside revealing the darkest side of humanity, it’s that time is definitely a construct. Many are still trying to catch up on various titles they might have missed over the last twelve months — most, no doubt, out of enjoyment, but, always some out of perceived awards’ season obligation, let’s be real. With January comes a plethora of late-to-the-party viewing, as well as Park City clueing cineastes into next year’s potential Oscar hopefuls, plus up-and-coming filmmaking talents. And so, the circle of life — and movies — continues.
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Pivoting fully online last minute due to justified Omicron concerns, this year’s Sundance lineup is stacked with debut films from Black and female filmmaking voices, many of the mini-majors sitting the fest out without an in-person component. This means more eyes and ears on lesser/unknown artists looking to make their mark on the industry, which is a great thing to see.
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You’ll notice a handful of topical motifs run through many of the movies; horror-adjacent, genre-benders, and socio-political satires make up the most buzzed-about titles; directors looking to further shine a light on the systemic issues of abuse, racism, and abortion, both in fiction and documentary form. Discourse goes hand in hand with Sundance and discussions about these hot button issues are more key now than ever — screens separating so many of us in our own isolated bubbles. If you’re a lover of independent cinema as we are, there’s a lot at the fest worth getting excited about. With the virtual online screenings, that includes the access and inclusion factor. So, if it fits with your schedule and you’re able to snag some tickets, here are 20 films on our must-watch radar.
When a father’s disability check from Veteran Affairs never arrives, he takes drastic measures to ensure he and his daughter do not end up on the streets and homeless. Based on a true story, director Abi Damaris Corbin’s haunting debut feature would be a hugely buzzed-about title even if a certain tragic footnote weren’t associated with it: featuring the final screen performance of the great Michael Kenneth Williams (RIP). Also starring John Boyega and Connie Britton, “892” blends the dramatic tension of a hostage negotiation film with the intimate fallout of a life derailed as a result of a bomb going off.
Believing she was born a slave in 19th century Georgia, Alice (Keke Palmer) flees from her plantation after a violent confrontation with her supposed owner (Jonny Lee Miller). After escaping through the woods and stumbling upon a highway, however, Alice learns the real year is 1973, rescued on the side of the road by a demoralized Black activist (Common). Sounding like a blend of “Antebellum” and an M. Night Shyamalan movie, writer & director Krystin Ver Linden’s Gothic horror/Blaxploitation-hybrid journeys down a hateful Southern rabbit hole.
“AM I OK?”
The directorial debut of Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne, “AM I OK?” is one of the hotly hyped LBGTQ-focused titles at Sundance. Starring Dakota Johnson as Lucy and Sonoya Mizuno as Jane, two best friends who finish each other’s sentences and know everything about one another. Except Lucy has been repressing a secret: she’s exclusively into women; terrified this realization will ruin her friendship with Jane, after announcing plans to move to London. Poignant and endearing “AM I OK?” examines the unexpected routes romance can take our lives, often in transformative directions.
Set in 1968 Chicago, Phyllis Nagy’s “Call Jane” could end up being one of the most talked-about films in Park City. After a suburban housewife (Elizabeth Banks) has a life-saving, secret abortion, she seeks out an underground organization that gives women access to safe and healthy care, every woman a part of the operation collectively known as “Jane.” Also starring Sigourney Weaver and Chris Messina, “Call Jane” looks to follow in the footsteps of feminist period films like Julia Hart’s “I’m Your Woman,” and 2020’s Sundance breakout, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.”
“Cha Cha Real Smooth”
Coming off her strong work in “The Lost Daughter,” Dakota Johnson dances into Sundance with her second film, “Cha Cha Real Smooth” (apologies for the pun). Following a directionless college graduate who embarks on a “bar mitzvah party-starting gig,” “Shithouse” director Cooper Raif (who also wrote, produced, and co-stars in the movie) looks to continue exploring the boundaries of emotional hurdles that go hand in hand with young love. Featuring an ensemble cast that includes Leslie Mann, Raif’s sophomore movie “is made for the hopeless romantic living inside all of us.”