Dispatches from the Sundance Film Festival are usually accompanied by descriptions of looming mountains, snowy premieres and frantic bus shuttles. This year’s Sundance, which took place entirely virtually due to the surge of COVID-19 caused by the omicron variant, meant less evocative screening circumstances: laptops, digital links and zooms.
But even in reduced form, the films were often hypnotic, thrilling and urgent. Here are 10 films that stood out from AP Film writers Lindsey Bahr and Jake Coyle from their virtual Sundance, which ended on Sunday.
– “Fire of Love”: Katia and Maurice Krafft were married French volcanologists who spent their lives documenting the world’s volcanoes and died on one such expedition to Japan in 1991. Werner Herzog briefly used them in ” Into the Inferno”, but the Kraffts and their stunning photography and 16mm film take center stage in Sara Dosa’s “Fire of Love”, a riveting and almost mystical portrait of love and the extremes of the natural world that will published by National Geographic. With a synthetic indie pop score (including Brian Eno and Air), narration by Miranda July and experimental editing, it’s like Mike Mills meets Terrence Malick meets Guy Maddin. -KG
— “Descendant”: Margaret Brown’s documentary concerns the discovery of the Clotilda, a schooner submerged in Alabama’s Mobile River in 1860, believed to be the last known slave ship to bring enslaved Africans to the United States. But Brown’s film, which was acquired by Netflix and the Obamas’ High Ground Productions, delves into much more than the Clotilda. Taking a broad lens to the descendants of the ship and the current circumstances of Africatown near Mobile, where many of the survivors have settled, “Descendant” lyrically ruminates on the legacy of slavery in America, telescoping past and present as few movies before. this. —JC
– “Cha Cha Real Smooth”: On paper, this movie looks like something out of a series of Sundance crazes: an aimless college graduate is hired by local mothers to be a party starter on the circuit local bar mitzvah and strikes strike up a friendship with a young single mother of an autistic teenager. And yet, Cooper Raiff’s second film, in which he stars alongside Dakota Johnson, is never what you’d expect. Sweet, funny and moving, it’s an indie gem that defies tropes that will be on Apple TV+ this year. -KG
— “The Exiles”: Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize winner for documentary is a sometimes awkwardly balanced fusion of two films that nonetheless constitutes a deep examination of political dissent and missed opportunities for change. “The Exiles,” directed by Ben Klein and Violet Columbus and produced by Steven Soderbergh, initially looks like a portrayal of Oscar-nominated filmmaker and brash teacher Christine Choy. Choy has more than enough personality to fill out a character study, but she’s a framing tool here. “The Exiles” is based on footage Choy shot in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre with a handful of Chinese protesters in New York. Decades later, Choy and the filmmakers meet again with these long-exiled dissidents to consider with tenderness and reflection their sacrifice and their unfinished battles for freedom. The compelling fabric of “The Exiles” is a firm, ardent belief that uncompromising outspokenness is the only way to live. —JC
– “We need to talk about Cosby”: Bill Cosby’s descent was pretty definitive. And yet, even with his (brief) incarceration and the broader cultural account of #MeToo, director W. Kamau Bell felt we had yet to fully process what happened to the man once known as america dad name. And indeed, the four-part documentary series “We Need to Talk About Cosby,” which will run on Showtime over the next three weekends, delivers its title. Bell speaks to survivors, colleagues and cultural commentators about Cosby’s life, career, impact and misdeeds, in his own attempt to fight the downfall of someone he and many others others once considered a hero. It’s an absolute must. -KG
— “Emily the Criminal”: The burden of starting out on a student loan is taken to dark and electrifying extremes in the tense neo-noir thriller from debut writer-director John Patton Ford. Above all, it’s a showcase for Aubrey Plaza, who plays a desperate young Los Angeles woman drawn into a criminal underworld through high-paying but dangerous scams (featuring a charming Theo Rossi) who slyly criticizes modern economic injustices. The ever captivating Plaza, who also produced the film, has never been more powerful. —JC
– “The Princess”: There are so, so many tales of Diana’s life, struggles, death and legacies (many recent and many excellent too) that even the idea of another movie seems exhausting. But “The Princess,” coming to HBO this year, is something else entirely. Director Ed Perkins tells the story of his public life using only archival footage, including news broadcasts, street man interviews, talk show segments, b-roll and extracts. Watching us watch her is an immersive, moving and eye-opening experience. -KG
— “Navalny”: Daniel Roher’s documentary on imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is a captivating, sometimes grotesque, often alarming portrait of a real geopolitical drama still unfolding. The film, which HBO Max and CNN will release later this year, was both the People’s Choice Documentary winner and the overall People’s Choice winner at Sundance. It’s a testament to Roher’s film and Navalny’s bold and entertaining manner. —JC
– “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande”: Emma Thompson plays a somewhat repressed widow who hires a handsome sex worker (Daryl McCormack) in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande”, a charming (and slightly blue ) about Searching Yourself Later in Life that Searchlight Pictures will release on Hulu. Sophie Hyde directs from a screenplay by Katy Brand, which turns what could have been a cheap gimmick into a terrifically witty and sophisticated adult comedy. -KG
– “The Janes”: Chicago’s underground and underground syndicates have long been a part of movies. But the HBO film “The Janes,” directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes, documents a lesser-known chapter in 20th-century American history with overwhelming relevance for today. Lessin and Pildes’ film chronicles the Jane Collective, a group of women who banded together in the late 1960s and early 1970s to provide illegal abortions to women in need, in the years before Roe v. Wade. In “The Janes”, these women – now in their 60s and 60s – tell their stories compellingly, many for the first time on camera. A fictional drama about the collective, Phyllis Nagy’s “Call Jane,” also debuted at Sundance.
Follow AP Film Writers Lindsey Bahr and Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/ldbahr and http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
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