(CNN)If a film drops at Sundance and no one is there to see it, does it still make a sound?
After a last-minute change of plans brought on by soaring Covid-19 cases, Sundance made the decision to shutter its physical event in the mountains of Utah and make for the online hills. The infrastructure was already in place from last year and 2022 was supposed to be a hybrid event in any case, with some journalists and viewers logging in from afar.
The answer to that initial question, it seems, is yes. The online pivot has resulted in a growth in Sundance’s reach and money followed. Apple TV+ paid a reported $15 million for Cooper Raiff’s coming of age comedy “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” while Sony Picture Classics bought Oliver Hermanus’ “Living” (a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru”) for around $5 million and Searchlight spent $7.5 million on the Emma Thompson-fronted sex-positive chamber piece “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.” On the documentary side, National Geographic cleaned up, buying “The Territory,” a profile of indigenous conservationists in the Brazilian Amazon, along with festival smash-hit “Fire of Love,” about married volcanologists, while Netflix swooped in on “Descendant,” Margaret Brown’s moving account of the search for the last slave ship to reach US shores by the descendants of those who were on board.
None of these films were awarded grand prizes from Sundance juries, however. “Nanny,” Nikyatu Jusu’s phantasmagoric tale of an undocumented Senegalese migrant in New York, won in the US Dramatic category, while “Utama,” Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s sparse and beautiful Bolivian eco-parable, won World Dramatic. The US Documentary award went to Ben Klein and Violet Columbus for “The Exiles,” which follows the lives of exiled dissidents and a filmmaker reviving an a project with them, and Shaunak Sen won the World equivalent for “All That Breathes,” a profile of two brothers trying to protect local wildlife amid Delhi’s air pollution crisis. The Festival Favourite Award, selected by public vote, went to “Navalny,” Daniel Roher’s docuthriller about Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny (CNN and HBO Max are distributing).
A look at some of the noteworthy Sundance Film Festival titles follows below.
“You Won’t Be Alone”
Goran Stolevski’s dazzling fable about a body-swapping witch in 19th century Macedonia has much to recommend it.
The writer-director’s accomplished debut feature transports us into an agrarian past of calloused tradition and deep-set suspicion, not all which are unfounded. Baby Nevena has been abducted by an evil spirit and raised away from the village. At 16 she becomes a witch and makes contact with the nearby community, only to accidentally kill a woman (Noomi Rapace, “Lamb,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”). Nevena then assumes her identity; it won’t be her last.
The screenplay uses the bones of folk horror to explore patriarchal structures, family and sacrifice, employing this ultimate outsider as a curious mirror to society. The film benefits from beautiful work by cinematographer Matthew Chuang, who captures the idyllic countryside with a sense of wonderment and dread, while an ethereal voiceover threads together the thoughts of this young woman in various guises, striving to find meaning and connection.
The film was picked up by Focus Features ahead of the festival and will be released in the US in April.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth”
Cooper Raiff’s second feature is further evidence that one of the smartest things you can do for your movie right now is cast Dakota Johnson in it.
Raiff, writing, directing and starring as listless 22-year-old Andrew, enters the orbit of Domino (Johnson). Andrew’s little brother is in class with Domino’s daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) and both find themselves on the bar and bat mitzvah circuit (Andrew first as a chaperone then a professional party coordinator). There’s more than a frisson between the two, but she’s engaged, though her fiancé is mostly absent.
Johnson brings an air of mystery to every performance, and Raiff harnesses that intractability. Domino seems sad and wise, Andrew sweet and puppy-doggish. What does Domino really want? If Andrew stopped projecting on to her, maybe he’d find out.
Raiff’s smart script pokes holes in both rom-coms and coming-of-age narratives, and dares to suggest that life may not be figured out in line with society’s milestones. A bar mitzvah or degree does not a grown-up make. Nor does time always provide emotional intelligence. Snark and self-conscious laughs cede the floor to something satisfyingly earnest, with Johnson on hand to offer some much-needed counsel.
Students Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins), Sean (RJ Cyler) and Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) are kicking off the night to end all nights, but hit a bump when they discover an intoxicated girl on their living room floor. So far so normal for this entry to the “one-last-wild-night-out” canon. Where it goes is anything but.
Director Carey Williams and writer KD Davila offer a welcome corrective to the subgenre. The reality is that prevailing narratives — from “Booksmart” and “Superbad” back to “American Graffiti” by way of “Dazed and Confused” — have been dominated by White faces. How authorities react to the characters’ hijinks and farcical misunderstandings in those films is inseparable from their racial profile. As Sean points out, the same latitude would not be afforded to two Black men and a Latino trying to help a White woman. “Anybody who’s darker than a brown paper bag should get the f— out of here,” he says at one point.
Williams and Davila deliver a subversive blow to a cosy formula. The film is abrasive in driving home its point, and by the end is a jangling bag of raw nerve endings that feels thoroughly warranted (kudos to Watkins who provides the emotional clout). As an example of how prejudice imprints itself on the next generation it’s effective, but as a deconstruction of the subgenre, even more so.
It’s a bold idea to remake a movie by Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, although it helps to have Nobel Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro on screenplay duties and a star of Bill Nighy’s calibre on board. Let’s not take credit away from director Oliver Hermanus (“Moffie”) however, who delivers this reworking of Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” (1952) with real elegance.
The story moves from Japan to post-war Britain, but the stiff suits and crippling bureaucracy remains the same. Nighy is Mr Williams, a dreadfully repressed widow who’s made an art of passing the buck as a middle manager at London’s council. When he receives a terminal diagnosis, Williams goes through a Scrooge-ian epiphany, with co-worker Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood) and a bohemian Tom Burke helping him get there.
Williams’ mindset — that the worst thing you could possibly do to someone is bother them with your feelings — speaks to one of the most destructive aspects of polite society. If that doesn’t chime with you, then mileage may vary. However, for those who can handle the buttoned-up atmosphere, there’s rich rewards in Nighy’s delicate character study. As a gentleman who never learned how to live, it’s deeply moving watching him take tentative steps with one eye on his impending doom. The veteran thesp has never been better.
“Utama” (“Our Home”)
First-time director Alejandro Loayza Grisi heads for the Bolivian highlands in this quiet, well-crafted drama about an elderly Quechua couple faced with a life-threatening drought.
Real-life couple José Calcina and Luisa Quispe play Virginio and Sisa, llama farmers living on parched flats that haven’t seen rain for a year. The old, dwindling community pray, give offerings and hope. The other option, their visiting grandson Clever floats, is to up sticks and move to the city. Giving up a way of life in life’s twilight is not an easy decision, however.
A slight plot gives room for faces and places to breath. First-time actors Calcina and Quispe deliver the kind of stoic, affectless performances that are a boon for a director. Both seem capable of writing whole chapters in a single look — particularly Calcina as Virginio, whose fate seems tied to the land. The film looks great too, shot by Barbara Alvarez to maximize the grand sun-bleached vistas.
“Time has gotten tired,” we’re told. An eco-parable of stark beauty, Grisi’s film is a haunting, hypnotic experience.
“Fire of Love”
Katia and Maurice Krafft put the “rock” in rockstar scientists in Sara Dosa’s brilliant documentary destined to burnish their legend.
Her account of the late French volcanologists is witty, heart-warming and enthusiastically curious, much like the subjects themselves. Admittedly, the Kraffts are calling many of the shots — literally — as Dosa draws on found footage taken by the married couple between the 1960s and 1990s as they zigzagged the globe in pursuit of scientific knowledge. But what footage it is: just watching is enough to make you want to don one of their silvery protective suits.
The Kraffts were no stranger to the spotlight, evidenced by clips from talk show interviews and news reports. These scientists had a public persona, and Maurice particularly knew how to leverage their fame to finance their derring-do (and how their derring-do bolstered their fame). Paddling into the middle of a sulfuric acid lake in a rubber dingy may have scientific merit, but it also makes for a thrilling story.
Not that the couple — and by extension the film — is ever insincere about their vocation. We feel their devastation when thousands are killed by Mount Ruiz, Colombia in 1985, and feel for the couple, picking through the aftermath of Mount Saint Helens’ monstrous eruption in 1980.
“It will kill me one day,” Maurice says of his relationship with his work. We know that a volcano will claim them both, as Miranda July’s voiceover explains to us at the start of the film. This knowledge frames everything that follows. However, rather than paint them as reckless or spike the film with a dose of fatalism, Dosa’s portrait of a marriage — to each other and to volcanoes — remains earnest and full of admiration.
“Emily the Criminal”
Any film that allows Aubrey Plaza to unload like this is a worthy endeavor, and writer-director John Patton Ford gives the actor a lot to tear into as a debt-laden graduate digging herself out of a hole.
The titular Emily has fallen behind her peers. Earning crumbs in Los Angeles’ gig economy, a co-worker puts her in touch with a quick money “dummy shopper” operation involving cloned credit cards and soon-to-be black-market goods. It’s a ballsy scam and a good showcase for Emily’s chops. She’s wants more of a taste, linking up with Theo Rossi’s Youcef for more lucrative — and more risky — jobs.
Ford’s film is a true thriller, built around a series of stressful set pieces and little let up in between. Comparisons to the Safdie brothers’ “Good Time” and “Uncut Gems” are inevitable, but Ford’s film contains a stronger moral backbone. Emily wants to live straight, but a criminal record (for reasons best left unsaid) is a career obstacle. When interviewing for a long-term internship, she rightly calls out the employer when it becomes clear it’s unpaid. The labor market is broken, and exploitative practices on both sides of the law aren’t all that different.
Plaza is given a great showcase for her brand of weary righteousness, pouring scorn where she sees fit. Emily is far from perfect, but we’re always sympathetic toward her and her get-money crusade. That’s star power for you.
“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande”
Breathless headlines will tell you Emma Thompson bares all in this sex-positive drama from Sophie Hyde. That may be true, but they only prove the point made by screenwriter Katy Brand: that women past a certain age are expected to retreat from their bodies and bodily pleasure, rather than find cause for celebration.
Escort Leo (Daryl McCormack) is here to help widowed teacher Nancy (Thompson) do just that. Brand builds a trim screenplay around three meetings in a bland hotel room. If the space is lacking imagination, it’s only a reflection of Nancy’s vanilla love life to date. She’s on the other side of 31 years of marriage and has never had an orgasm; achingly self-conscious and wracked by feelings of hypocrisy and inadequacy, but also proud and prickly. Leo couldn’t be nicer (or is that professional?), and over the course of the movie is out to prove that sexual healing isn’t limited to the act itself.
Hyde’s chamber piece could easily be a stage play with its limited setting and tight focus on two actors circling one another. The ever-great Thompson finds an equal sparring partner in McCormack, whose break-out turn is sure to attract plenty of attention. Tender, smart and uplifting, it’s already starting conversations.
“Lucy and Desi”
Amy Poehler’s documentary about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz looks at the famous couple’s professional and personal relationship.
Poehler takes the talking heads route, with Bette Midler, Norman Lear, Carol Burnett and others weighing in. However, her most insightful interviewee is Ball and Arnaz’s daughter Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, who offers an intimate view of their marriage and its aftermath. More than anyone, she ties the whole story together.
Archival footage and home audio tapes are on hand to illustrate the couple’s rough ride to fame, their many achievements and the ways they changed the industry, from how sitcom “I Love Lucy” introducing the re-run model to the other iconic shows incubated by their company Desilu Productions. Poehler tells their story with love.
The Sundance Film Festival concludes on January 30.