After two years of virtual screenings, the Sundance Film Festival debuted a hybrid event for the first time, welcoming both in-person and online attendees to enjoy a fresh helping of titles. As ever, the festival, which The Atlantic tuned in to from home, set the stage for the year to come in indie movies: Veteran directors debuted their latest work, newcomers hit the ground with impressive ideas, and distributors entered a frenzy of dealmaking with hopes of scoring the next CODA, Minari, or Promising Young Woman—just to name a few recent Sundance premieres that went on to become major awards contenders. The festival yielded plenty of noteworthy features; below are our favorites from 10 days of pressing “Play.”Courtesy of Sundance Institute
The first fiction feature from the Oscar-winning documentarian Roger Ross Williams, Cassandro is a zesty peek into a world that might be unfamiliar to many: the luchadores of Mexican wrestling. Gael García Bernal plays Saúl Armendáriz, a real-life figure who helped transform the sport in the 1980s and ’90s. His onstage character, Cassandro, was flamboyant and wore drag, a persona known as an exótico in the scripted world of wrestling. Exóticos usually lose their fights, but Armendáriz turned Cassandro into a beloved champion. Bernal gives one of his richest performances ever, lending energy to the biopic, a genre that can often feel staid and repetitive. — David Sims
Fremont (no distribution set)
Babak Jalali’s film has more than a touch of Jim Jarmusch to it, especially in its handsomely grainy black-and-white photography and its gentle, slice-of-life plotting. It follows Donya (played by first-time actor Anaita Wali Zada), an Afghan immigrant living in the Oakland suburb of Fremont and writing fortune-cookie mottos for a San Francisco factory. The leisurely movie is focused mostly on Donya’s therapy sessions with a ruminative psychiatrist (an excellent Gregg Turkington) and her search for further companionship. But Fremont also goes in some surprising directions, and includes a brief but memorable appearance from The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White as a potential new friend. — D.S.
Mutt (no distribution set)
This intense and tender debut film, which draws from the background of its own Chilean, Serbian, and trans director, Vuk Lungulov-Klotz, is one of my favorite kinds of indie dramas. Set during one wild day in New York City, Mutt has a terrific sense of location, a crackling contemporary authenticity, and a real fun feel, even as it digs into the complex interpersonal dramas surrounding a 20-something trans man named Feña (Lio Mehiel). He’s dealing with the return of an ex-boyfriend, the arrival of his father in town, and the emotional turmoil of his teenaged half-sister, who is skipping school. The film bounces from one plot to another with zippy aplomb, delving into its protagonist’s inner conflicts without any preachiness. Mehiel’s performance was a highlight of the festival. — D.S.Photo by Guy Ferrandis/SBS Productions. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Ira Sachs, one of the most exciting indie filmmakers working (his career gems include Little Men and Love Is Strange), had a bit of a misstep with his sedate last feature, Frankie. But the spiky romantic drama Passages is a welcome return to form, led by three marvelous performances and a refreshingly direct depiction of sexuality on-screen. Passages follows Tomas (Franz Rogowski), a gay filmmaker in a long-term relationship with Martin (Ben Whishaw), who finds himself drawn to a woman named Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), creating a bizarre love triangle that nobody really wants to be a part of. Rogowski invests Tomas with compelling toxicity; there’s something undeniably magnetic about him, even as, more and more, he emotionally wrecks the people in his life. Passages is not a movie for anyone looking for a sympathetic protagonist, but it is a brutally funny and honest portrayal of soured love. — D.S.
Talk to Me (A24)
One of the big acquisitions at the festival was this gnarly Australian horror, which the indie-fright experts at A24 will release in theaters this year. Talk to Me is a sterling entry in the séance-gone-wrong subgenre, portraying a group of wayward friends who find a spooky embalmed hand and start using it to contact the dead. Some of the early set pieces of possession from beyond the grave have an anarchic-prankster element—think Ouija meets Jackass—but as things spin out of control, the visuals get impressively gory and intense, rendered with nasty glee by the brothers Danny and Michael Philippou (making their feature debut). — D.S.
Theater Camp (Searchlight Pictures)
Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s comedy was a charming surprise at the festival and has already been picked up by Searchlight for a theatrical release. It had all the risk factors for a grating mess, given that the main characters are adult camp counselors who have never outgrown their childhood sanctuary, a scrappy arts center called AdirondACTS. Gordon and Ben Platt play Rebecca-Diane and Amos, who spend their time sniping at the teenagers in their charge. The ensemble is filled with firecracker comic performances from Jimmy Tatro, Ayo Edebiri, Patti Harrison, and others. Theater Camp works because it manages to balance caustic one-liners with just the right amount of heart, injecting a little sentimentality into a largely scathing satire. — D.S.Photograph by Focus Features. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A Thousand and One (Focus Features)
The winner of this year’s Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition category, A. V. Rockwell’s feature debut is a novelistic wonder anchored by a fantastic lead performance from Teyana Taylor (who is probably best known as a skilled singer, dancer, and choreographer). Taylor plays Inez, a Harlem mother who abducts her son from the foster-care system after she’s released from prison. The film then follows their relationship through his entire adolescence, spanning almost two decades as Inez tries to hold her family together without running further afoul of the law. Rockwell’s script methodically builds to a heart-wrenching climax, but Taylor’s deep grasp of Inez’s strengths and flaws is what gives the story its power. — D.S.
You Hurt My Feelings (A24)
Nicole Holofcener is maybe cinema’s reigning master of the comedy of manners, but she hasn’t had a real hit in a few years—her last film, the Netflix release The Land of Steady Habits, was a rare misfire. You Hurt My Feelings puts her right back in her comfort zone, with a satire of the chattering classes that zeroes in on the tiny, unspoken slights that can ruin entire relationships. Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a novelist who’s wracked with self-doubt over her latest project; her husband, Don (Tobias Menzies), is a therapist wondering if he’s actually any good at what he does. Through a series of funny misunderstandings, those insecurities fester and spill over catastrophically, and Holofcener depicts all the fallout with her typical witty deftness. — D.S.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (A24)
The writer-director Raven Jackson’s debut feature, co-produced by Barry Jenkins, is more of a poetic collage than a straightforward movie. Though All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt traces a coming-of-age, Jackson is not concerned with delivering a linear story; instead, she carefully and steadily trains her lens on what her subject, a Black woman living in rural Mississippi, observes: fingertips tenderly brushing an ex-lover’s back; crickets chirping on a humid summer afternoon; mud squishing underneath people’s feet. I yearned at first for a more conventional narrative, but the film—with its gorgeous imagery and soundscape—had me spellbound before long. It’s an immersive meditation on how a lifetime is made up of so many small memories—and a reminder to pay more attention to every feeling. — Shirley Li
Drift (no distribution set)
For the first 15 minutes of Drift, the film’s protagonist, Jacqueline (played by Cynthia Erivo), doesn’t utter a word. She’s stranded and roaming on a Greek island, offering foot massages for euros while dodging the authorities. But what seems like a portrait of a mysterious woman turns into a touching exploration of care and friendship when Jacqueline meets Callie (Alia Shawkat), a tour guide with her own reasons for wandering the Mediterranean coast alone. In his first English-language film, the Singaporean director Anthony Chen draws a pair of quietly stirring performances from his leads. Even as the plot risks becoming a touch too melodramatic, Erivo and Shawkat keep the story grounded, capturing how a single connection can transform a life of grief. — S.L.
Eileen (no distribution set)
Adapted from Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel, Eileen is dark and unpredictable, seductive and sharp. In 1960s Boston, meek Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) longs for a more exciting life than the one she has as a secretary who also babysits her alcoholic father. When the glamorous psychologist Rebecca (Anne Hathaway, at perhaps her career best) swans in, Eileen is immediately infatuated—but Eileen is no Carol, even though the director William Oldroyd sneakily unspools the story like a romance, with glances across crowded rooms and close-ups of illicit touches. Oldroyd has a knack for telling tales of young women with disturbing wants, and he knows what the audience likely craves from Eileen: more confidence, more guts—the typical ingredients to self-discovery. All the more fun, then, that Eileen becomes something decidedly different. Desire, the film warns convincingly, is a dangerous thing. — S.L.
Magazine Dreams (no distribution set)
I’d be surprised if Jonathan Majors isn’t a part of the awards conversation this time next year. His performance as the tortured bodybuilder Killian Maddox is tremendous, even as Magazine Dreams evolves from a compelling character study into a painful viewing experience. Written and directed by Elijah Bynum, the film has an unsubtle story; in the tradition of films such as Taxi Driver and Joker, it tracks how a lonely, socially inept man grows violent by trying to mold the world to his vision. But though every second of Killian’s self-destruction comes with cinematic flair—one long, mesmerizing take follows him barreling onto a competition stage right after getting beat up—Majors finds the character’s vulnerability too. Killian’s intimidating physicality belies a fragile ego and a splintering state of mind. Majors infuses him with humanity, making it impossible to root against his potential salvation. — S.L.Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Polite Society (Focus Features)
If Jane Austen, Edgar Wright, Tina Fey, and Jordan Peele collaborated on a movie together, the result would be something like Polite Society—and that’s not including the Bollywood-influenced dance number or the many martial-arts showdowns that pepper the film. The pleasure of watching the writer-director Nida Manzoor’s zany, if somewhat bloated, debut comes from not knowing what genre she might possibly riff on in the next scene. The story follows a London teenager and wannabe stuntwoman named Ria (played winningly by Priya Kansara) as she tries to break apart her beloved sister’s engagement, which Ria finds surprising and therefore, you know, totally dodgy. Her well-intentioned quest quickly becomes chaotic, and Manzoor suffuses every moment with heightened silliness and lively tricks. Like a reverse spin kick done in midair, Polite Society is audacious, awesome, and hard to ignore. — S.L.
Rye Lane (Searchlight Pictures)
Call it a “weep-cute”: When Yas (Vivian Oparah) overhears Dom (Industry’s David Jonsson) sobbing in the bathroom after being dumped, she initiates a conversation that turns into a walk-and-talk through South London and—what else?—a budding romance. But Rye Lane isn’t just another entry into an embattled genre; the film offers a refreshing take on the risks that come with falling for someone new. Directed with fizzy energy by Raine Allen-Miller, the film stylishly tracks how Yas and Dom, both reeling from recent breakups, navigate heartache while keeping an eye on each other. The script is lighthearted and astute at the same time, flowing easily from flirtatious banter to guarded-but-revealing exchanges. Plus, there’s an A-list cameo for the ages about halfway through. — S.L.Photograph by Dustin Lane. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Sometimes I Think About Dying (no distribution set)
Don’t feel sorry for Fran, the quiet office worker played by Daisy Ridley. She likes her life just the way it is, even if, every now and then, she imagines her own demise to pass the time. Despite what the title may imply, the director Rachel Lambert’s wonderfully restrained film is more quirky than gloomy—and rather unexpectedly sweet. Ridley is excellent as an introvert with a penchant for cottage cheese, and she’s well matched by the comedian Dave Merheje as Robert, a new employee with whom she timidly pursues a relationship. Sometimes may be the funniest film I screened this year at Sundance; it’s a droll and perceptive look at how we tend to treat one another with more kindness than we do ourselves. To Fran, the mundane can be sublime, even beautiful. She just needs a push to see the same in herself. — S.L.
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