Right now, as we type this, Sundance is handing out its annual audience and jury prizes. They will doubtlessly highlight a few films that Katie and I caught this past week, and many more that we didn’t. A few days ago, I likened film festivals to buffets. They may offer “all you can eat,” but both time and appetite will have some say in the matter. After a week gorging myself on a virtual library of titles, I am ready for the check. But the system doesn’t go dark until Sunday. Will I find room for one more movie? How about two or three? Those feted favorites are just sitting there, awaiting discovery.
Still, the awards ceremony feels like a proper cutoff point for The A.V. Club’s official coverage of this second virtual Sundance and its bottomless selection of oddball documentaries, hard-nosed teen dramas, and all manner of spooky fare, the newly dominant genre at America’s biggest film festival. Below, you’ll find our respective favorites of the fest, with one grueling period piece about reproductive rights the sole point of overlap.
Roughly a decade ago, an American named Glenn Kurtz found a 16mm home movie that his grandfather shot while vacationing in Europe in 1938. Included was just three minutes of footage of his hometown—a Jewish community that, one year later, would be destroyed by the Nazis. Bianca Stigter’s remarkable essay film doesn’t cut away once from the miraculously restored images David Kurtz captured that day. Instead, it dives deeply into the footage, slowing it down, zooming in on pertinent details, snapshotting the faces of the roughly 150 people who wandered into Kurtz’s moving frame. Three Minutes becomes more than just an invaluable act of preservation. It’s also a triumph of historical detective work and film analysis, putting names to those faces and filling in details about the town and its people. By the end, you understand the title as a kind of statement of impossible purpose: an attempt to create an eternal present tense for this fleeting glimpse into the past, delaying the tragic way all the stories contained within it came to an end.
Horror movies were everywhere at Sundance 2022, spilling out of the gorehound playground that is the midnight program and into other corners of the festival lineup. Speak No Evil was the best of the ones I watched, for how it monstrously exaggerated real-life anxieties through the story of an eternally acquiescing Danish couple pushed to the limits of their politesse during a nightmarishly awkward weekend with new friends. The devilishly satirical genius of the movie is how it equates misguided adherence to etiquette with the way characters in much dumber thrillers refuse to read the signs of danger ahead; anyone who’s ever squirmed through a social situation they should have taken control of sooner will shudder in recognition. (And speaking of Shudder, the film hits that streamer later this year.)
3. After Yang
Video-essayist and Sundance alum Kogonada (Columbus) returned with this quietly moving science fiction drama about a futuristic family reassessing their lives after their robotic companion/caregiver goes on the unresponsive fritz. Reactions from Cannes last summer were as muted as the movie’s color palette, but the response from virtual Sundance has been warmer. To these eyes, After Yang is most affecting as an adoption allegory, using the layered emotional history of an artificially intelligent being to meditate on questions of nature versus nurture and what it means to be a child of two cultures.
I’m not made of stone. At a festival where the highlights were mostly some shade of harsh or depressing, Cooper Raiff’s heartfelt comedy about a college graduate fumbling his way into the bar mitzvah business—and tiptoeing into a romance with a married woman (Dakota Johnson, never better)—wormed its way past my defenses. So much of its charm comes down to its youthful writer-director-star, who manages to find new shades on the Apatovian color wheel of prolonged adolescence and something funny, rather than annoying, in a character who’s basically just a decent kid with a good heart. I cannot begrudge this film the Audience Award it just predictably took home.
Last year’s big Venice winner is as rigorously, single-mindedly focused as its heroine, a teenager in 1960s France who spends the early weeks of her pregnancy trying to secure an abortion, while everyone around tries to nudge her into silent acceptance of motherhood at the expense of her education and desired future. Like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days and fellow Sundance selection Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the movie becomes a damning procedural portrait of a culture that puts multiple flaming hoops in the path of any woman trying to make this choice. That the three films share so much overlap in the experiences they depict, despite being set in different decades and countries, reinforces the truth that stories on this topic are as timeless as they are timely, and depressingly universal as well.
I found this gritty, street-level L.A. thriller satisfying on a number of levels. First, it brings the moral ambiguity of ’70s crime movies into the present day, another era where economic instability drives complicated people to make desperate choices spurred on by broken systems. (Specifically, I got a Michael Mann flavor from our protagonist’s discovery that her calling in life is credit card fraud.) Second, it’s a great vehicle for Aubrey Plaza, an actor whose career gets more interesting with every new indie production she shepherds into existence. It’s still too rare to see women in juicy, amoral parts like this one, and Plaza’s portrayal of Emily is at turns both sympathetic and alarming.
I will not dispute the assertion that Resurrection is totally batshit. That’s what I liked about it. Andrew Semans’ Black List script takes the psychological thriller to some disconcerting, borderline supernatural places, asking the audience to suspend disbelief on a scale that’s distressing for the conscious mind to accept. And yet, Rebecca Hall and Tim Roth’s delivery of this “WTF?” material is so convincing that the film works. What these characters are doing, and asking each other to do, makes no rational sense. But it produces a nauseating pit of dread in your stomach anyway. As a portal into Hall’s character’s panicked state of mind, it’s brilliant, going beyond depicting a fractured reality to place the audience inside of that reality.
Abortion, and what happens when the right to decide one’s own reproductive destiny is taken away, was an accidental theme at this year’s Sundance. And Audrey Diwan’s Happening, winner of the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, was far and away my favorite of the films on the subject. Based on a memoir of a real-life abortion in early ’60s France, Happening is unsparing in its depiction of both the psychological and the biological realities of a young woman trying to retake control of her destiny in a culture that sees her as secondary to the clump of cells in her uterus. But while the film can be harrowing, it’s not a grim slog by any means. It ends up being rather life-affirming, putting the lie to the idea that abortion opponents are truly on the “pro-life” side of this issue.
This was the last film I caught up with before filing a top five list for Sundance, and boy am I glad I made time for it. Winner of a Special Jury Prize in the World Dramatic Competition, Leonor Will Never Die was a wonderful surprise. The bright, joyful, and original genre-bender from a first-time Filipina writer-director affectionately looks at life, death, family, and creativity through the lens of cheesy ’80s action movies. It’s difficult to stop something as meta and layered as this film from collapsing in on itself. But writer-director Martika Ramirez Escobar has an intuitive sense of when to bring the story back down to Earth, and when to insert a song-and-dance number.
This is another movie that asks a lot of its audience. But if you surrender to You Won’t Be Alone’s unique grammar and hypnotic pacing, you’ll experience a beautifully shot metaphysical film with poetic insights into gender, human relationships, and the oneness of all living things. Rooted in Macedonian folklore, the film stakes its place in the the burgeoning “folk horror” subgenre with a surprising amount of gore and presence of shapeshifting, anti-establishment witches. But writer-director Goran Stolevski is less concerned with scaring the audience with pre-modern terrors than he is with conveying the essence of pagan spirituality. Here, the witch is mother and child, God and devil, human and animal, animating a cycle of creation and destruction that births the world anew every spring.