All the best movies we saw at Sundance Film Festival, ranked (including 'Navalny,' 'Nanny')
Omicron's kept Hollywood from jetting out to snowy Park City, Utah, for a second year in a row but the Sundance Film Festival soldiered on again virtually, with plenty of great cinema viewable from our couch.
Like last year's online fest, there was major acting talent – from Julianne Moore starring in Jesse Eisenberg's directorial debut "When You Finish Saving the World" to a double dose of Dakota Johnson in "Am I OK?" and "Cha Cha Real Smooth." Regina Hall also headlined a couple of projects – "Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul" with Sterling K. Brown, as well as "Master" – and Lena Dunham returned to the director's chair for "Sharp Stick." Plus the documentary slate was particularly high profile this year, with movies focused on Princess Diana, Bill Cosby, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and Ye.
Here are the best films we saw this year at Sundance, ranked:
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Director Mimi Cave takes on modern dating in this horror movie with shades of "American Psycho" and "Hannibal." Noa ("Normal People" star Daisy Edgar-Jones) has had it with meeting people on apps when she has a grocery-store meet-cute with handsome vegetarian doctor Steve (Sebastian Stan). They hit off and start dating, but their relationship takes a gruesome turn when a romantic getaway turns into a fight for survival and the reveal of Steve's creepy business for a rich clientele with distinct tastes. Though "Fresh" doesn't do enough with its darkly comic sense of humor and shies away from gore (though is still plenty disturbing), you'll never look at a Hello Fresh box the same way again.
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21. 'When You Finish Saving the World'
Jesse Eisenberg's feature directorial debut is a dysfunctional family dramedy with standouts Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard as a mother and teen son who are both insufferable narcissists unable to get out of their own way. Ziggy (Wolfhard) livestreams shallow folk songs to his online following, his mom Evelyn (Moore) runs a women's shelter, but neither are very good at wielding their potentially powerful platforms. Each tries to find outside connections – Evelyn by supporting a teen (Billy Bryk) at the shelter, Ziggy with a politically active crush (Alisha Boe) – which leads to new understanding on all sides.
20. 'Sharp Stick'
In writer/director Lena Dunham's sex comedy, Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) is a naive 26-year-old caregiver who, after losing her virginity in a doomed affair with an older man (Jon Bernthal), hatches a multi-part plan to try out every sexual experience possible. While the film is slow to get moving and the adulterous relationship leans a little creepy (though the sex scenes are filmed well), Dunham's movie really finds a groove – and a sweet heart at its core – when Sarah Jo embraces her new mission inspired by an online porn star (Scott Speedman) and finds new connections with her family members.
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19. 'Speak No Evil'
Officially taking the festival spot for feel-bad film that "Hereditary" once filled, director Christian Tafdrup's horror film is a slow-burn, super-duper bleak thriller of manners that's quite well-done despite how utterly depressing it is. On a vacation in Tuscany, a Danish family befriends a Dutch clan who, after some months pass, invite the Danes to their place for a weekend getaway. The houseguests feel like something's wrong but instead of embracing the instinct to flee, they stick around. They stop being polite and that's when things get very real, which leads to an unbelievably brutal third act.
18. 'Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul'
Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown are a holy duo in director Adamma Ebo's mockumentary. Atlanta pastor/showman Lee-Curtis Childs (Brown) has endured a scandal that sent his legion of followers to a rival church, and he and faithful wife Trinitie (Hall) hire filmmakers to follow their Easter relaunch, one plagued by a host of issues. The film doesn't lean into the comedy as much as you'd expect but has its hilarious moments. And praise Hall and Brown as heavenly highlights: Lee-Curtis is his own worst enemy while Trinitie tries to maintain sanity yet can only repress her feelings for so long.
In the hostage drama based on a real-life story, John Boyega turns in a powerful portrayal – and more than ever reminds of a young Denzel Washington – as Brian Easley, an Iraq war veteran separated from his ex-wife and daughter. He walks into an Atlanta bank, takes hostages (Nicole Beharie and Selenis Leyva) and threatens to blow up the place if he doesn't get his disability check from the VA. But the money isn't as important to him as telling his story, and in his final role, Michael K. Williams is a moving presence as a police negotiator connecting with Brian on a soldier-to-soldier level in director's Abi Damaris Corbin's reminder of the importance to take care of those who serve.
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Director Carlota Pereda's scrappy Spanish coming-of-age horror movie posits an intriguing conceit: What if a slasher villain wasn't that bad of a guy? Sara (Laura Galán), an overweight butcher's daughter, is ruthlessly bullied by fellow youngsters in her village. She's the victim of a cruel prank by these kids at the pool, soon after she sees them screaming for their lives in the back of a van, but she doesn't report the incident when the killer does her a kindness. Sara's moral quandary grows more complicated from there in the extremely bloody but surprisingly empowering thriller.
Karen Gillan pulls double duty in Riley Stearns' dark sci-fi comedy, set in a futuristic world where terminally ill people can commission clones to take over their lives when they die. Sarah (Gillan) chooses this route when she's diagnosed with a super-rare disease and teaches her doppelganger to be her, but when Sarah is told she's actually dying, she and her clone are legally forced to have a duel to the death. Aaron Paul co-stars as a guy who trains Sarah to have a killer instinct in a drolly humorous movie about identity crises and finding reason to fight for your life.
14. 'Lucy and Desi'
Hot on the heels of Aaron Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos” is director Amy Poehler’s deep dive into the formative early lives of Hollywood power couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The documentary touches on their childhoods in upstate New York and Cuba, respectively, before starring in movies together and ultimately becoming the creative forces behind TV's hit sitcom “I Love Lucy” in the 1950s. Their shared professional life outlasted their marriage, however, and Poehler’s film – using old Ball and Arnaz interviews – is best when mining fascinating off-camera details about the two small-screen icons.
'Lucy and Desi': Amy Poehler discovered a 'very sexy power couple' at the heart of 'I Love Lucy'
13. 'Something in the Dirt'
For their pandemic project, directing duo Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson ("The Endless," Marvel's upcoming "Moon Knight") also star in this very bizarre and often humorous sci-fi movie about two new LA neighbors who discover something very weird happening with an ashtray in one of their apartments. The peculiar pair decide to make a documentary to prove this possibly supernatural phenomenon, investigating a series of weird markings and otherworldly performances of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," though personality conflicts turn the collaborators into hostile frenemies.
This sly Finnish body-horror satire about adolescence and parenthood stars Siiri Solalinna as Tinja, a 12-year-old gymnast whose demanding vlogger mom chronicles her every move. Tinja finds an egg next to a wounded bird in the forest and brings it inside, though to her surprise, the egg soon grows to a huge size and hatches an otherworldly creature. Tinja goes to weird lengths to care for it as an adoptive "mother" and the beast evolves into its ultimate form in vicious and bloody fashion. “Hatching” is clever and absolutely bonkers, though is in its own way peculiarly heartwarming.
11. 'Good Luck to You, Leo Grande'
Nancy (Emma Thompson) is a widowed and retired British schoolteacher who really, really wants to have a truly excellent time in the sheets, just for once. She hires an attractive, super-charming sex worker named Leo (Daryl McCormack) for a hotel rendezvous, though she doesn't quite know what to do with him when they're together. Director Sophie Hyde's intimate and thoughtful dramedy explores two people who undress each other emotionally before any clothes come off, as Nancy and Leo discuss their pasts and what they want in their present.
The highlight of Andrew Semans' unhinged psychological thriller isn't the insane ending but instead an increasingly feral (and fearless) Rebecca Hall. She stars as Margaret, a focused businesswoman and overprotective single mother of a college-age daughter, who comes undone when she inexplicably sees a man (Tim Roth) from a traumatic past she left behind two decades prior. Their reunion means nothing good for Margaret, whose gripping truth is revealed midway through in a knockout, eight-minute monologue by Hall, though audiences will likely be divided on the film's untidy final moments.
9. 'The Princess'
Royal fans and those who dove into the many Diana projects of the past year, from the critically acclaimed "Spencer" to much-derided "Diana: The Musical," won't learn anything earth-shatteringly new about her tragic story. However, the documentary acts as an essential companion to all that. Using only archival media coverage and interviews rather than talking heads, the film lays bare the media and public's disconcerting obsession with the popular princess and the effect of constant paparazzi on Diana's marriage to Prince Charles, their implosion and her 1997 death.
Director chat: Why the new Diana documentary 'The Princess' relied on archival footage
Daniel Roher's documentary, which earned both the U.S. documentary audience award and the audience-voted festival favorite award, is a riveting and inspiring stranger-than-fiction deep-dive into the life and almost death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The movie chronicles the investigation into the 2020 poisoning of the charismatic dissident (and President Vladimir Putin's chief political rival), including an entertaining and revelatory phone call Navalny has with one of the guys who actually tried to kill him. But it also hits on an emotional level, including interviews with Navalny's kids and Na himself, a man willing to go to extreme lengths to better his country.
7. 'After Yang'
Director Kogonada's quiet and heartfelt sci-fi drama stars Colin Farrell as a tea-shop owner named Jake who makes it his mission to fix Yang (Justin J. Min), a lifelike companion android for his adopted Chinese daughter who's also a beloved member of the family. When Jake discovers that Yang has recorded all his experiences, he gets a look at the robot's memories and investigates a mysterious young woman (Haley Lu Richardson) who shows up in them. There's a joyous nature to "After Yang" – the dance-y opening credits are a sight to behold – and also a soulful one in Kogonada's introspective film about loss and what it really means to be human.
First-time feature filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu's horror movie, the winner of Sundance's U.S. dramatic grand jury prize, weaves African folklore and legends into a haunting, gut-twisting story about the immigrant experience. Wanting to bring her little boy to America, Senegalese woman Aisha (Anna Diop) takes a job as a nanny for a wealthy Manhattan couple (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector) and develops a quick rapport with their 5-year-old daughter. Long hours and getting stiffed on pay begin to weigh on Aisha, as do mysterious, unnerving visions that infect her nightmares and waking life in a scary movie that wields beautiful imagery and an affecting fear factor.
5. 'Cha Cha Real Smooth'
Writer/director/star Cooper Raiff follows up his wonderfully awkward "S#!%house" with another sweetly unconventional coming-of-age dramedy, a Sundance audience award winner. Just out of college and healing a broken heart, Andrew (Raiff) is a charismatic 22-year-old who finds his calling as a party-starter at bar mitzvahs. It's on that circuit where he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson), an older woman with a teenage daughter (Vanessa Burghardt) on the autism spectrum. He begins to care strongly about both in Sundance's most feel-good film so far, about soulmates, growing up (even when you're a "grown-up") and the importance of loving who you are.
4. 'Am I OK?'
Johnson is low-key the MVP of this Sundance: She's solid in "Cha Cha" and outstanding in this entertaining coming-out comedy directed by Tig Notaro and wife Stephanie Allynne. Lucy (Johnson) and Jane (Sonoya Mizuno) are best friends, and when Jane announces she's going to move to London for work, Lucy reveals she really likes women and has for years. Jane's eager to help Lucy explore her sexuality and find dating possibilities before leaving, but an argument leaves them navigating these new life paths for the first time without the other. Laugh-out-loud moments and strong character work (especially from Johnson) combine for a joyous movie about female friendship.
3. 'We Need to Talk About Cosby'
Director W. Kamau Bell's insightful four-hour docuseries is a comprehensive exploration of Bill Cosby's controversial life and career, from "America's Dad" to an accused serial sex abuser and, for many, a "monster." Bell interviews fellow comedians, "Cosby Show" co-stars, experts and several accusers to chronicle the icon's rise, his importance to the Black community, the red flags that were always there and how Cosby became a symbol of America's rape culture. What makes it a must-watch, though, is Bell's effective personal touch in his storytelling, looking at a man who was once a hero and questioning if he (and society) can or even should separate the art from the artist.
'We Need to Talk About Cosby': W. Kamau Bell wrestles with comedian's complex legacy in the wake of sex-abuse charges
Like "Booksmart," director Carey Williams' excellently crafted college comedy takes the familiar "one crazy night" model for a spin while adding deeply affecting social commentary in regard to racism and prejudice. Black best friends Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler) are college seniors preparing for a historic night of partying on campus when they find a young white girl unconscious in their house. Because of the optics, the pair and their Latino roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) take matters into their own hands getting her help, leading to a series of misadventures and a gripping climax.
Five years after Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” hit Sundance, director Mariama Diallo's stunning social horror film goes to similarly dark places with this thriller set at an elite Massachusetts college built on land near where a Salem-era witch was hung from the gallows. Gail (Regina Hall) is a new dean of students (called a "master") at the school who’s seeing terrifying images and ghosts, while freshman Jasmine (Zoe Renee) is placed in a notoriously haunted dorm room. Both Black women face microaggressions, inequality and other non-supernatural obstacles as well in a film that uses genre tropes to discuss institutional racism and white supremacy.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sundance 2022: All the best movies we saw (including 'Navalny')
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