2022 Sundance Film Festival – Recap

After ten days, 84 feature films, and 59 shorts, the Sundance Film Festival completed its 2022 slate of programming. Fans around the world raved about their favorite features, documentaries, and shorts, the juries and audience deliberated on the best films of each category, and I experienced festival fatigue like never before…

It was all for good reason too. My fourth year covering the Sundance Film Festival was one for the books. After the last minute call to make the festival virtual, I wasn’t as excited as I’ve been for previous years. However, thanks to the programming from this year, that lack of enthusiasm was short-lived. This year’s programming proved that horror remains my favorite category, the Midnight section continues to get better, educational films are in, and my taste when it comes to film is quite eclectic. It’s exactly why Sundance is one of my favorite film events of the year. So without further ado, here’s a recap of some great festival moments:

The Best Feature Films of Sundance 2022

I don’t think that I have to remind anyone that film is subjective, but there are just certain features that speak to me in ways that others cannot. That’s especially how I feel coming out of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. While I tend to gravitate to horror, some of my favorite features perfected its entertainment value while actually having something to say. That, to me, is the making of a great film. Here are some of my favorite feature films from the fest:

5) When You Finish Saving the World | Director: Jesse Eisenberg

When You Finish Saving the World
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Beth Garrabrant

Sundance Synopsis: From his bedroom home studio, high school student Ziggy performs original folk-rock songs for an adoring online fan base. This concept mystifies his formal and uptight mother, Evelyn, who runs a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse. While Ziggy is busy trying to impress his socially engaged classmate Lila by making his music less bubblegum and more political, Evelyn meets Angie and her teen son, Kyle, when they seek refuge at her facility. She observes a bond between the two that she’s missing with her own son, and decides to take Kyle under her wing against her better instincts.

Review: Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut is a fine work of art that not only gives us insight into his inner conflict with his work in Hollywood, but it reflects Hollywood’s trend in delving into social activism on a surface level. This callout on faux activism is exactly the kind of film you’d expect from Jesse Eisenberg. It’s got a little bit of charm, a superfluous amount of awkward and intense frustration, yet the perfect amount of quietly loud moments that feel erratic yet sweet. For my full review, visit Pop Culture Reviews.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

4) Good Luck to You, Leo Grande | Director: Sophie Hyde

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Nick Wall

Sundance Synopsis: Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson) doesn’t know good sex. Whatever it may be, Nancy, a retired schoolteacher, is pretty sure she has never had it, but she is determined to finally do something about that. She even has a plan: It involves an anonymous hotel room, and a young sex worker who calls himself Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack). Leo is confident, dapper, and takes pride in being good at his job. He also appears to be intrigued by Nancy — one of many things to surprise her during their time together.

Review: No film throughout Sundance 2022 was as charming as Sophie Hyde’s Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. This intimate comedy on sex positivity and pleasure as we grow older is as awkward as it sounds, yes. But there is no clumsiness to Katy Brand’s script. She writes Nancy and Leo with such passion for human connection, that it’s easy to fall in love with these characters. It also helps to see that Emma Thompson and Daryl McComack share an on-screen chemistry like no other. Simply put, this is a must-see. And thanks to Searchlight/Hulu, you’ll be able to see it later this year.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

3) Watcher | Director: Chloe Okuno

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sundance Synopsis: Julia joins her husband when he relocates to his family’s native Romania for a new job. Having recently abandoned her acting career, she finds herself frequently alone and unoccupied. One night, people-watching from her picture window, she spots a vague figure in an adjacent building, who seems to be looking back at her. Soon after, while alone at a local movie theater, Julia’s sense of being watched intensifies, and she becomes certain she’s being followed — could it be the same unknown neighbor? Meanwhile, a serial killer known as The Spider stalks the city.

Review: I didn’t really expect to like Chloe Okuno’s Watcher before viewing it, but something told me to add it to my Watchlist anyway. I’m glad I listened to my inner horror fan because the film did not disappoint. The feature explores the fear of being alone in a foreign country and the paranoia that may come with it. As a result of this narrative, Okuno builds an atmosphere that makes you question your own sanity as you watch the events unfold. Plus, with an ending like THAT, I can’t recommend this film enough… Fans of psychological thrillers/horrors, you’re just in luck because Shudder/IFC has acquired the rights to this film!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

2) Master | Director: Mariama Diallo

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sundance Synopsis: At an elite New England university built on the site of a Salem-era gallows hill, three women strive to find their place. Gail Bishop (Regina Hall), just instated as “Master,” a dean of students, discovers what lies behind the school’s immaculate façade; first-year student Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) confronts a new home that is cold and unwelcoming; and literature professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) collides with colleagues who question her right to belong. Navigating politics and privilege, they encounter increasingly terrifying manifestations of the school’s haunted past… and present.

Review: Mariama Diallo’s debut feature, Master, is an intelligent story that masterfully blends psychological thriller, social analysis, and horror into a narrative about polite hostility and racial microaggressions. This intense film is a commentary on being the only Black person in the room, which when faced with the rude awakening of systemic white supremacy, is a nightmare in itself. I’m willing to go as far to say that this is essential viewing for its narrative alone. It’s also just extremely well done… For my full review, go to Film Threat.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

1) Nanny | Director: Nikyatu Jusu

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sundance Synopsis: Aisha, an undocumented Senegalese immigrant, lands a job as a nanny of a wealthy Manhattan couple. While she easily wins the affection of their young daughter Rose, she becomes a pawn in the couple’s facade of a marriage. The mother is as controlling as the dad is disillusioned and woke. Haunted by the absence of the young son she left behind in Senegal, Aisha hopes her new job will afford her the chance to bring him to the U.S. and share in the life she is piecing together. But as his arrival approaches, a supernatural presence begins to invade both her dreams and her reality.

Review: An incredible feature-debut from Nikyatu Jusu, Nanny is what happens when you mix supernatural terror with innate fear. This feature elegantly presents west African folklore, motherhood, and intuition unlike any work of art I’ve ever seen. It’s the perfect story about immigration and the American dream that will shock you to your core and leave a tear in your eye. Simply put, it’s flawless. For my full review, go to Pop Culture Reviews.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Noteworthy Studio Pickups

3) Resurrection | Director: Andrew Semans

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Wyatt Garfield

Fans of Rebecca Hall- get excited. Her latest film out of Sundance, Resurrection, has been acquired by Shudder. Before you know it you’ll be questioning your sanity along with her character in this thrilling and anxiety-inducing drama/psychological horror.

Sundance Synopsis: Margaret (Rebecca Hall) leads a successful and orderly life, perfectly balancing the demands of her busy career and single parenthood to her fiercely independent daughter Abbie. But that careful balance is upended when she glimpses a man she instantly recognizes, an unwelcome shadow from her past. A short time later, she encounters him again. Before long, Margaret starts seeing David (Tim Roth) everywhere — and their meetings appear to be far from an unlucky coincidence. Battling her rising fear, Margaret must confront the monster she’s evaded for two decades who has come to conclude their unfinished business.

2) Speak No Evil | Director: Christian Tafdrup

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Erik Molberg

Shudder also acquired the rights to director Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil. And a worthy pick-up indeed, as this tale of overt politeness and extreme civility can make anyone uncomfortable.

Sundance Synopsis: While on holiday in Tuscany, a Danish family becomes fast friends with a fellow traveling family from the Netherlands. Months later, when an invitation arrives encouraging the Danish family to visit the Dutch in their countryside home, they don’t hesitate to plan a quick getaway. Free-spirited and adventurous, the Dutch welcome the Danes for the weekend, channeling an energy that rouses their visitors as drinks flow and they start to let loose. But what begins as an idyllic reunion soon takes a turn as the hosts increasingly test the limits of their houseguests. Now the Danes find themselves caught in a web of their own politeness, trying to understand whether their new friends are merely eccentric… or hiding something more sinister.

1) Cha Cha Real Smooth | Director: Cooper Raiff

Cha Cha Real Smooth
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

This year, the audience award for the U.S. Dramatic category went to none other than Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth. Though it was far from my favorite of the festival, plenty of people around the world will get to see why. The film will make its public debut on Apple TV+ in 2022.

Sundance Synopsis: Fresh out of college — but now what? Higher education failed to provide 22-year-old Andrew with a clear life path going forward, so he’s stuck back at home with his family in New Jersey. But if college did teach him one thing, it’s drinking and partying — skills that make him the perfect candidate for a job party-starting at the bar and bat mitzvahs of his younger brother’s classmates. When Andrew befriends a local mom, Domino, and her daughter, Lola, he finally discovers a future he wants, even if it might not be his own.

The Best Shorts of Sundance 2022

This year, the Sundance Film Festival included 59 new shorts. In addition to those entries, 40 shorts from previous years were showcased to celebrate the Sundance Institute’s 40th anniversary of programming. Out of 99 shorts, I had the pleasure of watching 65 of them. How did I find the time? That’s a question I’ll never be able to answer, but I’m glad I watched as many as I could. Here are some of my favorite shorts from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (For my full list, go to Best Shorts of Sundance 2022 at Pop Culture Reviews).

Short Premieres
3) You’ve Never Been Completely Honest | Director: Joey Izzo

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sundance Synopsis: Through animation and reenactment, You’ve Never Been Completely Honest brings to life Gene Church’s original, never-before-heard interview recounting the harrowing physical torture and brainwashing he endured at a secretive, four-day business seminar in California in 1970.

Review: I wish I could say that this was the only film of the entire festival to make me livid, but it’s not. That’s the beauty of Sundance. You can become educated on an unfamiliar topic or learn about a heinous act in history for the first time. Director Joey Izzo’s short You’ve Never Been Completely Honest does exactly that. It’s about a cult-like business retreat where members of the company were tortured to the point of lifelessness. This raw and honest reenactment of Gene Church’s (co-author of The Pit) voice-over is quite-frankly sickening. Still, I think it’s essential viewing to understand corporate ethics and how this happened to so many people.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

2) Training Wheels | Director: Alison Rich

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sundance Synopsis: A socially inept woman rents one man to prepare for another.

Review: Nothing quite prepared me for Alison Rich’s Training Wheels. At this point in the festival, I suffered immensely from festival fatigue. But thanks to the opening sequence of this short, I found a burst of energy that I couldn’t get from any other. Films about dating always seem to go overboard on preachiness, favoring one sex over the other. Thanks to writer-director Rich’s talent for screenwriting, she avoids these tropes at all cost. This unique story is hilarious and sweet: it’s quirkiness and creativity done right. For these reasons, I highly recommend this short.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

1) Night Bus | Director: Joe Hsieh

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sundance Synopsis: On a late-night bus, a panicked scream shatters the night’s calm, a necklace is stolen, followed by a tragic and fatal road accident. The series of intriguing events that follows reveals love, hatred, and vengeance

Review: Director Joe Hsieh’s Night Bus is one of my favorite shorts of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival program. It also happen to take home the jury award for animation. The storytelling is balanced in story genre and it’s chaotic fun. If you’re in need of a little shock, laughter, and mayhem with a hint of gory fun, find a way to watch this short.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Noteworthy Festival Winners

Though many of my favorites did not take home prizes from this festival season, it makes me excited to know that I have even more films to look forward to throughout 2022. Here are some key films that took home jury prizes. (For a full list of winners, go to 2022 Sundance Winners)

5) After Yang | Director: Kogonada

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Benjamin Loeb / A24

The 2022 Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, presented to an outstanding feature film about science or technology, was presented to After Yang. The filmmakers received a $20,000 cash award from Sundance Institute with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Sundance Synopsis: When Yang — a lifelike, artificially intelligent android that Jake and Kyra buy as a companion for their adopted daughter — abruptly stops functioning, Jake just wants him repaired quickly and cheaply. But having purchased Yang “certified refurbished” from a now-defunct store, he’s led first to a conspiracy theorist technician and then a technology museum curator, who discovers that Yang was actually recording memories. Jake’s quest eventually becomes one of existential introspection and contemplating his own life, as it passes him by.

4) The Exiles | Director: Ben Klein

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary was presented to Ben Klein and Violet Columbus for The Exiles. Juror Joan Churchill said: “For the Grand Jury Prize, we recognize a film which is totally original, layered, philosophical and non-linear — challenging our understanding of history. For celebrating the power of documentary filmmaking and the responsibility of the filmmaker to examine the truth.”

Sundance Synopsis: Brash and opinionated, Christine Choy is a documentarian, cinematographer, professor, and quintessential New Yorker whose films and teaching have influenced a generation of artists. In 1989 she and Renee Tajima-Peña started to film the leaders of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests who escaped to political exile following the June 4 massacre. Though they never finished that project, Choy now travels with the old footage to Taiwan, Maryland, and Paris in order to share it with the dissidents who have never been able to return home.

3) The Territory | Director: Alex Pritz

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary was awarded to The Territory / Brazil/Denmark/United States (Director: Alex Pritz, Producers: Will N. Miller, Sigrid Dyekjær, Lizzie Gillett, Anonymous)

Sundance Synopsis: The Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people have seen their population dwindle and their culture threatened since coming into contact with non-Native Brazilians. Though promised dominion over their own rainforest territory, they have faced illegal incursions from environmentally destructive logging and mining, and, most recently, land-grabbing invasions spurred on by right-wing politicians like President Jair Bolsonaro. With deforestation escalating as a result, the stakes have become global.

2) Emergency | Director: Carey Williams

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: U.S. Dramatic was presented to K.D. Dávila for Emergency U.S.A. (Director: Carey Williams, Screenwriter: KD Davila, Producers: Marty Bowen, Isaac Klausner, John Fischer). Juror Marielle Heller said, “We celebrate KD Davila’s wildly inventive and instantly compelling script for Emergency. From the beginning premise, we are instantly hooked and on the side of our lead characters as they try to navigate an impossible situation with hilarious and gut-wrenching results. 

Sundance Synopsis: Straight-A college student Kunle and his laid-back best friend, Sean, are about to have the most epic night of their lives. Determined to be the first Black students to complete their school’s frat party legendary tour, the friends strap in for their ultimate assignment, Solo cups in hand. But a quick pit stop at home alters their plans when they find a white girl passed out on the living room floor. Faced with the risks of calling the police under life-threatening optics, Kunle, Sean, and their Latino roommate, Carlos, must find a way to de-escalate the situation before it’s too late.

1) Fire of Love | Director: Sara Dosa

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

The Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award: U.S. Documentary was presented to Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput for Fire Of Love / U.S.A. (Director: Sara Dosa, Producers: Shane Boris, Ina Fichman, Sara Dosa). Juror Peter Nicks said, “For its ability to distill a wealth of immersive archival material into a powerful story of human endeavor and love, the Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award goes to Fire of Love.”

Sundance Synopsis: Katia and Maurice Krafft loved two things — each other and volcanoes. For two decades, the daring French volcanologist couple were seduced by the thrill and danger of this elemental love triangle. They roamed the planet, chasing eruptions and their aftermath, documenting their discoveries in stunning photographs and breathtaking film to share with an increasingly curious public in media appearances and lecture tours. Ultimately, Katia and Maurice would lose their lives during a 1991 volcanic explosion on Japan’s Mount Unzen, but they would leave a legacy that would forever enrich our knowledge of the natural world.

Thanks for reading my recap of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The year is looking bright for film. Which features, short, or documentaries are you looking forward to the most?