For the second year in a row, the Sundance Film Festival met its guests as a mostly virtual event. It was a surprise of sorts, but with wishful thinking dashed, in-person attendance pivoted to an online audience. As a result, we were treated with a far more traditional but still pleasantly eclectic collection of movies.
As per usual, several films came to the festival with distribution deals in tow (After Yang, We Need To Talk About Cosby, Navalny, etc.), while other award winners like Nanny and Framing Agnes still ponder their theatrical or streaming future. The festival featured a cadre of favored talents, but often, our hearts rested with the discoveries. Sundance delivered many surprises to kick off the year, and we’re eager to celebrate.
Among us — including four FSR contributors (Rob, Brad, Luke, and Valerie) and one representing our sister site, Nonfics (Christopher) — we covered a lot of ground reviewing 24 features and watching numerous others. Now it’s time to spotlight our favorites, many of which we haven’t already reviewed.
Kogonada’s sophomore feature is a pleasant sit until it’s not. He makes films that are carefully constructed and profoundly considered. The frame is managed, and you want to hang within it for as long as you can, and he is more than happy to let an image linger for your comfort. But while you’re hanging back, his characters are racing forward. Their evolution from beginning to end is radical, though quiet. And as you appreciate the craft and count the pretty pictures, you’re also falling deeper and deeper into their emotional mayhem.
After Yang concludes silently, but the impact left behind is bombastic. The science fiction ideas may appear grander than what Kogonada sought in Columbus, his first feature, but the internal condition traversed remains the same. The threat technology presents to humanity is self-inflicted. The only thing getting in our way is us. (Brad Gullickson)
Check out Brad’s review of After Yang.
Am I OK?
While film festivals in general, and Sundance in particular, are often home to serious, hard-hitting, emotionally draining movies, they also get their share of fluff. This tale of friendship and self-awakening from directors Stephanie Allynne and Tig Notaro is as lightweight as they come, but the damn thing is also immensely charming. A big part of that is due to the lead performances from Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno. The two play best friends about to face some difficult and challenging realizations about identity and their future, and the result is sweet, funny, and affecting in ways that leave you smiling. Sometimes that’s more than enough. (Rob Hunter)
Check out Brad’s review of Am I OK?
Cha Cha Real Smooth
Do I have a soft spot for Dakota Johnson? Maybe, but just because I’m picking a second of her Sundance films as among my favorites doesn’t mean the film itself isn’t the reason why. Writer-director Cooper Raiff follows up the emotionally open and emotionally fueled Shithouse (2019) with another coming-of-age tale. Raiff also once again plays the lead, a young man trying to figure things out post-college, who falls into a rut and into love with Johnson’s older woman. Things don’t go where you expect, and instead, the film finds laughs amid its honesty. (Rob Hunter)
Check out Rob’s review of Cha Cha Real Smooth.
Suspense comes in all forms, and while most movies find a high-concept or elaborate setup to jumpstart their tale, Emergency crafts tension out of the mundane. Three friends find an unconscious girl in their living room — she’s white, and they’re young men of color — and what should be a simple matter of calling the police/ambulance instead takes on new risks. The optics of the situation are not good and fearing an outcome all too familiar on the local news, they try to get her to a hospital.
Director Carey Williams and writer KD Davila craft a harrowing ride as we understand the fears driving otherwise teeth-clenching decisions, and the result is a steady climb in tension as we worry about these characters. The performances add to our concern making for an unforgettable journey. (Rob Hunter)
Emily the Criminal
Aubrey Plaza is just an eminently watchable talent. From her delivery to her silence, she’s an actor who holds our attention no matter the context, and that continues here even as she plays a young woman who slides into a world of illegal activities and violence. Writer-director John Patton Ford delivers a tight little tale about economic anxiety and unchecked ambition, and Plaza’s journey down the rabbit hole leads to some truly tense sequences. Expect comparisons to Uncut Gems, but here we’re given a protagonist who earns our sympathy even as she sinks deeper and deeper. Not everyone’s American Dream ends the same. (Rob Hunter)
Check out Rob’s review of Emily the Criminal.
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