Another virtual Sundance come and gone! Honestly, I went into this festival a tad disappointed. Before omicron I had planned to attend in person for the first time and while they absolutely made the right call to go fully digital it was still a bummer. But the one positive about watching from home is it’s way easier to watch a lot more. And I watched so many good movies!
The past week I’ve watched 25 features, 14 shorts, 2 pilots, and 1 VR experience. I reviewed 8 of the features but I also watched a lot I liked — and some I didn’t like — that I didn’t review. Here’s a little bit about everything I watched! Well, almost everything — the shorts included here are just my favorites. I hope you’ve enjoyed my coverage and I hope next year I get to be cold in Utah!
My Trip to Spain (pilot) (dir. Theda Hammel)
I’ve been a fan of Theda Hammel’s since seeing her production of Wallace Shawn’s Marie and Bruce. Like on-stage, in this pilot — that she wrote, directed, and stars in — she strikes an arresting balance between grounded pathos and entertaining irreverence. Low-budget, self-contained, and the obvious work of a singularly minded artist, this pilot is exactly the kind of work it’d be great to see more of at Sundance. I’m not sure where this series would go next, but I hope we get to see more soon.
When You Finish Saving the World (dir. Jesse Eisenberg)
Inexplicably written and directed by 38-year-old year actor Jesse Eisenberg and not a 70-year-old professor trying his hand at playwrighting, one of Sundance’s buzziest titles is also one of its worst. I get the feeling Eisenberg thinks his characters are somewhat flawed when they’re actually irredeemable in a way that feels both boring and unrealistic. Julianne Moore does her best to salvage this but she fails.
A Wild Patience Has Taken Me Here (short) (dir. Érica Sarmet)
This is the most lesbian short film that has ever lesbianed in our whole lesbian world. It follows a middle-aged motorcyclist who ends up hanging out with a foursome of young lesbians. While it may try a bit too hard to make a statement, its biggest statement is when it lets its characters just be. Whether they’re chatting about their different lesbian experiences or having a dreamy orgy, writer/director Érica Sarmet has created a group of queers that feel varied and true. Sarmet is currently developing their first feature and they are absolutely someone to watch!
Mars One (dir. Gabriel Martins)
After Yang (dir. Kogonada)
This is one of the rare movies to ever make me feel the way I felt as a kid reading good sci-fi. There’s so much creativity in this film’s world and its ideas and yet that never rivals its attention to character. Kogonada’s debut Columbus was another contemplative film about grief and so much more and this one is even better. With A24 behind it this is going to get a big release and I’m so excited for more people to see it.
We Met in Virtual Reality (dir. Joe Hunting)
This documentary was shot entirely in the VR platform VR Chat. It’s an interesting concept and there are some good moments — a discussion about gender especially stands out — but I didn’t feel like the movie did enough to explain the appeal of this virtual platform over others. And, in fact, I found spending even 90 minutes in this world kind of tiring.
Fire of Love (dir. Sara Dosa)
Miranda July is the perfect narrator for this creative and poetic doc about married volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. I enjoyed how the film showed their different approaches toward their shared passion. They may both have been daredevil volcanologists but the ways they complement each other are just as important as the things they share.
Mija (dir. Isabel Castro)
Nothing Compares (dir. Kathryn Ferguson)
Framing Agnes (dir. Chase Joynt)
Sharp Stick (dir. Lena Dunham)
I will always have a certain amount of respect for a movie that surprises me and Lena Dunham’s return to filmmaking certainly did that. In its weirdness and aggression, it feels less like her past work and closer to Todd Solondz and Miranda July. Unfortunately, I didn’t like it!
Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (dir. Nina Menkes)
This doc is a worthy introduction to concepts like the male gaze. But I felt frustrated by the ways it refuses complexity. It doesn’t make a distinction in its many examples between work that is using these techniques with some sort of purpose. Of course, Nina Minkes can disagree with the worth of that purpose, but it especially feels weird to include films like Hustlers and Titane that are playing with audience expectations. I think this would’ve been a lot better if queerness was threaded throughout instead of tacked on toward the end.
Sirens (dir. Rita Baghdadi)
Nanny (dir. Nikyatu Jusu)
The last few years have brought a wave of socially conscious horror, but it’s not enough to simply combine horror techniques with real world trauma. Work that does this is never as deep as it thinks it is and it can often dip into exploitation. Nikyatu Jusu’s feature debut is a masterclass in how to do this kind of horror right. There are critics far more qualified than me to write about the specifics of this film, but I loved it so much. It’s my favorite movie I saw at the festival that I didn’t review.
The Cow Who Sang A Song Into the Future (dir. Francisca Alegria)
Soft Animals (Short) (dir. Renee Zhan)
This three minute animated short is so weird and horny and has such inventive animation. I really need to watch more of Renee Zhan’s movies!
Work (Short) (dir. April Maxey)
Marisela Zumbado was one of the standout stars of Genera+ion and she’s even better in this very good and very queer short from writer/director April Maxey. The films follows Zumbado’s character as she spirals in the wake of a break up and returns to her old job at an underground lap dance party. There she reconnects with a former coworker who may or may not be the answer to her heartbreak. A good short tells a full story while leaving you wanting more and Maxey’s film does just that.
Hatching (dir. Hanna Begholm)
I had so much fun watching this creepy coming-of-age nightmare. If you’ve got mommy issues and like big birds this is the movie for you. A fun and effective little horror tale.
Am I OK? (dir. Tig Notaro, Stephanie Allynne)
Happening (dir. Audrey Diwan)
Reminiscent of other neorealist abortion films like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and one of my very favorites Never Rarely Sometimes Always, this effective drama based on Annie Ernaux’s semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of a desperate girl in 1960s France. It’s both a visceral story about the realities of illegal abortion and an origin story of sorts for a woman who realized the importance of telling her own story.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (dir. Sophie Hyde)
Emma Thompson is so fucking good and it’s a testament to Daryl McCormack that he’s right up there with her. This movie may just be the two of them in a room talking and fucking and mostly not fucking, but it is compelling from beginning to end. A beautiful movie about desire and pleasure, this is the rare crowd-pleaser that’s still willing to take risks.
Bring On the Dancing Horses (pilot) (dir. Michael Polish)
I don’t know how you take the premise “Kate Bosworth drives around listening to music and killing men” and make it boring. But I guess some men really are talented.
Girl Picture (dir. Alli Haapasalo)
My Old School (dir. Jono McLeod)
This is one of those docs that isn’t necessarily a great movie but it does tell a great story. If you go into this one knowing nothing, it’s a really good time, but if you want to just google the story that’s fine too. Of the movie’s devices, the Alan Cumming lip sync is far more effective than the animation.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. (dir. Adamma Ebo)
As a white Jew from California, I’m frankly out of my element to say anything interesting about this movie. But it’s really, really good and Regina Hall is astounding.
Neptune Frost (dir. Saul Williams, Anisia Uzeyman)
An Afrofuturist musical that’s both a queer love story and a call to action, this is a great example of art that’s revolutionary in form as well as subject. There’s a pulsating energy throughout this film that pairs with its innovative form to create a truly unique and essential experience.
God’s Country (dir. Julian Higgins)
I love watching movies at film festival knowing as little about them as possible. But if I knew this movie was explicitly about racism and sexism and was directed by a white man I would’ve skipped it. Thandiwe Newton is great but she really deserved a better movie.
The Janes (dir. Tia Lessin, Emma Pildes)
I’m sorry I didn’t get to the Phyllis Nagy directed Call Jane, but people seemed to agree it was just okay so I decided to watch the doc instead. And I’m so glad I did! I didn’t know much about The Jane Collective before this and I really appreciated getting to learn from this admittedly straight forward film. I especially appreciated how it connected their work to previous social justice work in the years prior.
Huella (short) (dir. Gabriela Ortega)
Glow’s Shakira Barrera stars in this wonderful mix of horror and dance. I don’t have much to say about this except be sure to watch it whenever it becomes available and definitely look to see what Gabriela Ortega does next.
Dos Estaciones (dir. Juan Pablo González)
Deliberately paced, but never boring, this movie about a butch tequila factory owner and her trans hair stylist was another hidden gem of the festival. It’s filled with great performances, the cinematography is stunning, and its slow-burn story is effectively well-told. There are some real moments of beauty in this one.
Starfuckers (short) (dir. Antonio Marziale)
This reminded me of an Almodóvar movie which if you know me you know I say as the highest compliment. Antonio Marziale — who you may know from The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo — wrote, directed, and starred in this which includes giving an incredible on-screen drag performance. There’s a righteous fury in this that makes its flash and fun perfectly bitter.
Prayers for Sweet Waters (short) (dir. Elijah Ndoumbe)
This is a beautiful doc about three trans sex workers in Cape Town. The three subjects offer their different experiences and perspectives resulting in a cross-section of stories about community and self-actualization
They Dream in My Bones – Insemnopedy II (VR experience) (dir. Faye Formisano)
I was not going to miss the VR experience about dreams and gender based on Orlando. It may have taken me awhile to figure out how to watch this on the VR headset Sundance gifted me last year but it was so worth it. A poetic journey through bodies and dream states with billowing screens and giant spiders, Faye Formisano has created a unique and memorable work of art.
Emily the Criminal (dir. John Patton Ford)
Aubrey Plaza is so hot and has so much chemistry with everyone I don’t even care if she’s playing gay or straight. She’s incredible in this film about a woman who gets involved in credit card fraud to pay off her art school debt. More neorealist films should feel like heist movies. This mixes its social commentary with its genre conventions so well and at its core is the truly stellar performance from its lead. She’ll have you gleefully cheering, “Be straight. Do crimes.”
And that was my Sundance! Did you get a chance to see anything at the festival? What were your favorites? What did I miss?