Your guide to 2022 Sundance Film Festival at home
Having grown up in Park City, Utah, the Sundance Film Festival probably hits a little differently to me than the average cinephile.
Every year in January, thousands flocked to the wealthy little mountain town (really, way more than the city is equipped to handle) and transformed the quaintness into cosmopolitan, fur-coat wearing pandemonium. There was a certain smugness that came with being a local amidst a sea of ridiculously dressed out-of-towners. I always loved rolling into high school — sweat pants’d, haggard, and smelling like socks and farts — and making eye contact with some sleek Hollywood type who had paid an exorbitant fee to park in our school’s parking lot.
As much fun as it was to make fun of those big-shot movie folk (“People In Black” or PIBs as local Parkites called them), I can’t deny how exciting it was to fall into the frenzy, especially when I became obsessed with filmmaking in high school.
Which is why I loved Sundance at home last year, and why I’m selfishly excited that they’re doing it again. Yes, COVID continues to suck — especially for all the filmmakers who weren’t able to showcase their accomplishments with a live audience — but silver linings, right? For the first time in over 15 years, Sundance’s 2021 virtual film festival allowed me to feel the unique excitement that comes from catching new and potentially groundbreaking cinema. I still made sure to wear black, though (black sweatpants, that is).
Perhaps the most fun aspect of Sundance is the gamble of it all. Unless you’re familiar with the director, actors or writer, you’re likely going into a movie without much more than a description from the Sundance film catalog. At $20 for a single ticket, this may seem exorbitant, but I’d rather take a risk on something that could be awful than spending that same amount on a superhero movie that I’ll forget the minute I exit the theater. Also, you might find something that takes you completely by surprise. Last year, I caught the premiere of Prano Bailey-Bond’s masterful horror film “Censor,” and it’s been exciting to watch many more people fall for the movie since then (“Censor” is now available to watch on Hulu). It’s like the “I knew of it before it was popular” sort of pride.
Given this experience, I thought I’d scour the program and pick out what I would pay for this year. There’s not a science to this stuff. The following films could turn out to be awful, but I generally know what type of films Sundance is good at showcasing, and I believe these picks reflect that.
“God’s Country”: Generally, you want to stay away from star-studded premieres at Sundance. At the in-person festival, people rush these for a chance to rub elbows with celebrities who may be in attendance, but the films themselves are often mediocre. But Thandiwe Newton is amazing in everything, especially her commanding performance as Maeve in “Westworld.”
In “God’s Country,” she plays a woman who’s grief-stricken about losing her mom, which — in addition to the racism and sexism she experiences daily — has left her emotionally ravaged, and all it takes is a confrontation with two hunters illegally trespassing on her property to send her to the breaking point. Whether this turns out to be an action-packed revenge film or a slow burn meditation on human resilience, I have no doubt Newton will slay in this.
“Hatching”: One thing that the festival does really well is horror. “The Blair Witch Project,” “Hereditary,” “The Babadook,” just to name a few, all premiered at the fest. Of all the films playing during this year’s Midnight showcase (which focuses on anything scary, bizarre, dark, inappropriate), I’m most intrigued by “Hatching.” The film follows a young girl from a turbulent family who finds a strange, large egg. She nurtures it until it hatches, and quickly befriends the grotesque nightmare that emerges. Creature feature? Commentary on domestic dynamics? Whatever the case, sign me up.
“Meet Me In the Bathroom”: A few years ago, I read journalist Lizzy Goodman’s massive oral history of 2000s NYC rock scene “Meet Me In the Bathroom,” and then proceeded to be one of those people that reads one (1) book and talks about it all the time. But having spent my 20s obsessed with the bands Goodman documents — The Strokes, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem, Vampire Weekend — I couldn’t get enough of the juicy, petty, insecure and insightful comments made by some of my favorite musicians (Julian Casablancas does not seem like a very smart person, and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy sounds like kind of a dick). Even if this documentary is just a film version of the same material, I’m still in.
“Summering”: Sundance shouldn’t just be for mature cinephiles who are into weird and twisted stuff, and I give mad props to the festival for offering a few selections for younger audiences. “Summering” is about a group of girls about to enter middle school — a milestone that will undoubtedly break up their group. However, on their last weekend together, they stumble upon a mystery that leads to a life-changing adventure. “Summering” sounds a little like an updated version of “Stand By Me” plus it was co-written by Benjamin Percy, who wrote my favorite werewolf book, “Red Moon.”
“2nd Chance”: When a documentary is about a single person, there’s a good chance that it’s going to be wild. It takes a lot of confidence to ask an audience to spend more than 90 minutes with a single personality — especially when it’s someone they’ve never heard of. But when it works, it works. Think of Mark Borchardt, the alcoholic, charismatic protagonist of the rightly lauded and celebrated documentary, “American Movie.” “2nd Chance” is about Richard Davis, who, in 1969, invented the modern day bulletproof vest after his pizzeria went under. And to prove the vest’s effectiveness, he shot himself in the chest 192 times. However, after a police officer died while wearing one of the vests, it was revealed that Davis’ enterprise was built upon a series of reckless lies. Deep dives into this sort of niche history is my catnip.
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