Sundance 2022 marked the second time the famed film festival ever went virtual as its back-to-back online festivities continued weathering the COVID-19 pandemic in safe style. Last year’s fest gave us some of 2021’s best docs and a couple horror films we won’t soon forget. This year, the strong genres shifted but everything else was well familiar: We watched a ton to find the best movies of Sundance 2022.
While there was brief optimism about returning to Park City, the rise of a new variant and the ongoing uncertainty surrounding public gatherings—the same anxiety and safety concerns that’ve been affecting how we watch movies for what seems like half a decade at this point—kept ticketholders at home. While we missed the big screen and the camaraderie, we weren’t just more used to the streaming experience in 2022, but thankful to stay warmer and healthier on our couches thanks to the hard work of the Sundance team and the fest’s reliable virtual platform. We also saw a virtual ton of films. From documentaries to slow experimental cinema to idiosyncratic debuts to returning auteurs of every shape, size and language, Sundance 2022 inspired us with its progressive and always entertaining programming.
Here are Paste’s picks for the 10 best movies from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival:
One of my grandpas died right before the pandemic. My grandma met someone in the middle of it. Her new relationship wasn’t well-liked in my family, but it made her giddy as a schoolgirl—finding another cowboy to look at livestock with, play cards with, to make dinner with. When I was little, she used to live in a trailer, driven out into the woods and bricked into the earth. I see a lot of her in writer/director Max Walker-Silverman’s sublime debut, A Love Song, where a widow and widower find a teenage verve for each other—weathered but not beaten in the sun of the American west. Faye (Dale Dickey) lingers at one of several campsites surrounding a crawfish-filled lake, waiting for Lito (Wes Studi). She’s not sure he’ll arrive, but as we observe her daily routine—listening to birds, making coffee and catchin’ crawdads as she spins the radio dial in search of another country tune—her uneasiness is couched in a kind of contentment. Walker-Silverman situates us the same way, with ogling environmental photography that takes pleasure in a rare flowery purple on dried brown dirt and Faye’s tininess in relation to the lake, the mountains and the overwhelming dark (or starry splendor) of night. The location is spectacular but, conspicuously, never as enthralling as the actors. When they eventually meet up, top-level turns from Studi and Dickey combine for a contained masterclass, a relationship that’s been nursing a low flame for decades. They’re shy, affectionate and oh-so awkward—spurred by nervous attraction and lingering guilt surrounding their lost loved ones—with an honesty that makes the most of a sparse and quiet script. A Love Song’s a brief and pretty little thing—less than 90 minutes—with the warm melancholy of revisiting a memory or, yes, an old jukebox love song. Walker-Silverman displays a keen eye, a deep heart and a sense of humor just silly enough to sour the saccharine. Dickey takes advantage of one of the best roles she’s ever had to tap into something essential about loss, lonesomeness and resilience. Her performance is a gift, one given by someone who knows about simple pleasures and those that last—how both are important, and how they might not always be separate.—Jacob Oller
Every once in a while you meet someone who’s truly just some guy, with no discernibly extraordinary qualities, for whom things seem to work out based on charisma alone. In writer-director-star Cooper Raiff’s friendly sophomore feature Cha Cha Real Smooth, that guy happens to be Andrew (Raiff), a charming and disarming recent Tulane graduate whose sole motivation is to make enough money to join his Fulbright scholar girlfriend in Barcelona. Unfortunately, the only job he can grab is as a minimum wage cashier at an unforgivingly named food court stand in his hometown (Meat Sticks for the Miscellaneous Sundance Audience Award!) while he crashes in his little brother’s room, fights with his pragmatist stepdad (Brad Garrett), and attempts to convince his mom (Leslie Mann) that she has the wrong taste in men and he has the right taste in women. Into this meandering existence stumble the opportunities of his lifetime thus far. While escorting his brother, David (the cute-as-a-button Evan Assante), to a bar mitzvah bash, Andrew takes it upon himself to spice up the floundering dance floor, and to make friends with the resident rumored bad mom, Domino (Dakota Johnson), and her autistic daughter, Lola (natural newcomer Vanessa Burghardt). He succeeds wildly at both, getting hired by a mob of Jewish moms as a party starter for their childrens’ b’nai mitzvot, and securing Domino’s affection in the process. In this indie, as with many before it, nothing is more attractive to a hot mom than a goofy, unfiltered young man-child who treats her own child like royalty. Also in this indie, as with many before it, Judaism is used as a backdrop and as texture, but isn’t engaged with on any level beyond its visual symbolism. (At one point, both Andrew and Domino bemoan that they’re not Jewish.) For the runtime of Cha Cha Real Smooth, Raiff’s clever script, affable characters and naturalistic direction make it painless enough to sympathize with someone who can’t moonwalk, but will nevertheless skate on by.—Shayna Maci Warner
Magical realism meets the real threat of environmental catastrophe in The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future, Chilean director Francisca Alegría’s feature debut following the success of her 2017 short And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye. Though the film can at times feel long-winded—a common predicament when transitioning from shorts to features—it is a heady and hypnotic parable for the irreparable ecological harm humans have committed, while insisting that it’s not too late to connect and reconcile with the land that nurtures us. When the toxic runoff from a cellulose factory begins polluting the Cruces River in verdant south-central Chile, fish begin dying in droves. As their corpses float atop the drifting water and begin to wash ashore, a haunting hymn appears to escape their lifeless lips. “Come close to us,” they chant in booming unison. “Is the end nigh?” Just when their urgent melody concludes, a woman named Magdalena (Mia Maestro) springs forth from the water’s depths, long hair cascading over a leather jacket and her hand clutching a motorcycle helmet. She gasps for air, crawling out of the river while still coughing up water. It turns out she died in these very waters decades earlier—her death ruled a suicide by local police—and has some unfinished business with the family that has grown up and moved on in her prolonged absence. When she walks into an electronics store to appear before her would-be widow (Alfredo Castro), he immediately suffers an acute heart attack. Worried about her father’s hysterical insistence that her dead mother has returned from the grave, Cecelia (Leonor Varela) brings her two children to spend some time with her on the family’s dairy farm while she cares for the aging patriarch. Little do they know, the cows also have a song to sing, and Magdalena’s presence is more than an old man’s apparition. Though the premise hints at a horror movie, The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future never ventures into supernatural vengeance. Instead, the film incorporates the horrors of the world around us—ecological, political, domestic—to craft a modern fable of immense guilt slowly transforming over time into paralyzing denial, complete with a resolution that promotes the prosperous power of atonement. The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future is Alegría’s assertion that we can only move forward by candidly confronting and protecting what we have previously harmed. Hope is far from lost, despite the prevalence of despondent environmental nihilism—the nature of Earth is to breed and support new life, an act of cultivation that is either hugely abetted or quashed by human intervention. It’s not too late to confront, assess and ameliorate the damage we’ve already done, as long as we’re not too cowardly to admit that we’ve seriously fucked up. —Natalia Keogan
The lush, rolling hills of Western Mexico set the scene in Juan Pablo González’s Dos Estaciones, the director’s first foray into narrative filmmaking. More specifically, the rows of agave plants that speckle these highlands are what bring the film into sharp focus, as the succulent plant’s most prized byproduct—tequila, named after the town in Jalisco it was first distilled in—is the lifeblood of the film’s namesake, a tequila factory named Dos Estaciones. González takes his sweet time bringing characters and their motivations to the forefront, relishing in the details of the laborious process inherent to producing the coveted spirit coupled with the surrounding natural beauty of his home state. Having grown up in Atotonilco El Alto, Jalisco, across the street from a tequila factory owned by his grandfather, González imbues the film with intimate touches gleaned by a native to the state and its most lucrative industry—blending his sparse yet stirring narrative with the observational eye typical of his previous documentary work. The director’s personal history is also evident in the setting of the titular tequila factory, which is actually owned by González’s extended family. However, for the purposes of Dos Estaciones, the factory’s owner is María García (a superb, shattering performance by Teresa Sánchez). She oversees everyone—from the fieldhands to the women who hand-affix stickers on each bottle—with a brusque directness, yet is clearly respected and admired by her workers despite her inability to promise paychecks on time. Gruff demeanor and dwindling finances notwithstanding, María is a beloved pillar of her community: she loans out her own equipment to workers, regularly supports other local businesses, and even attends the birthday parties of her employee’s kids. Dos Estaciones is Mexican slow cinema that defies conceptions often projected onto the country by Americans, while simultaneously criticizing the role the U.S. has played in destabilizing a vital industry in its financial and cultural infrastructure. Whether a tequila factory is owned by American corporations or a local independent business, those responsible for the laborious process of actually making tequila will likely always be Mexicans. What was once a mode of production that sustained a community is now having its resources depleted, with all gains flowing into one corporation’s pocket instead of the land which cultivated it—certainly something to keep in mind before buying Kendall Jenner’s recently launched tequila brand.—Natalia Keogan
In Dual, everyone talks like they’re a robot. Perhaps that’s because they want to better integrate new Replacements, clones made of terminally ill or otherwise on-their-way-out people, into the world. Maybe it’s because the delivery is supposed to be as dry, strange and winning as the low-key sci-fi itself. Regardless, this idiosyncratic acting choice by writer/director Riley Stearns is just one of many over the course of his third and (so far) best movie. The world of Dual is near-future, or present-adjacent but in another dimension. Its video chat is Zoom-like, but texting has more of a coding aesthetic. Its minivans still run on gas, but you can make a clone out of spit in an hour. Its people still love violent reality TV, but its shows sometimes involve government-mandated fights to the death between people who discover they’re no longer dying and their Replacements. It’s the latter situation in which Sarah (Karen Gillan) finds herself. After puking up blood, creating a clone to take over her life and receiving improbable good news from a scene-stealingly funny doctor, Sarah finds that she has a year to prepare for the fight of (and for) her life. Stearns shoots the film in grim, hands-off observations sapped of color and intimacy, but with amusing angles or choices (like a long take watching characters do slo-mo play-acting) that add visual energy to the bleakness. As we see this unfurl, we root for Sarah’s success not because we want her to get her old, sad life back, but because the training process has opened her up to life beyond those walls. It can be read as a redemptive allegory representing a life-shaking break-up or other crisis, but Stearns’ deadpan script and wry situations rarely give you enough distance to consider Dual beyond the hilarious text in front of you. Gillan goes beyond a cutesy Black Mirror performance to find tragedy, obscene humor and warmth even in her relatively stoic roles, but the shining star of the show is Aaron Paul, who gets the biggest laugh lines as her intense combat instructor. Somewhere between a living instruction manual and the “Self-Defense Against Fresh Fruit” Monty Python sketch, Paul’s character is a riot as he attempts to familiarize Sarah with weapons and desensitize her to violence. His performance is just as committed as his serious scene partner’s, but when the two are in the groove together, Dual transcends to such big-hearted, surreal silliness that I had a hard time calming my laughter down as the film reminded me that death was on the line. Stearns’ work has always been a bit of a specific flavor, a little like that of Yorgos Lanthimos where if you’re not in on the dark joke you can feel ostracized from the universe of the movie, and Dual is both his most successful and most eccentric yet. But if you’re blessed with matching taste, where you’ll put up with a bunch of over-literal, stiff-backed oddballs dealing with a clone crisis, you’ll find a rewarding and gut-busting film that’s lingering ideas are nearly as strong as its humorous, thoughtful construction.—Jacob Oller
A calculated love story told through reps and calories, the Hungarian Gentle flexes all the right muscles. Writer/directors Anna Eszter Nemes and Laszlo Csuja have found two stunning non-professional actors, injecting their enhancing performances into their beefy tale of bodybuilding obsession, romance and (un)fulfillment. Well-defined and stylishly posed, Gentle has a big heart beneath the bulk. Edina (Eszter Csonka) is a rising champ in the bodybuilding world. Under the exacting eye of her professional and romantic partner Adam (Gyorgy Turos), she’s qualifying for bigger and better tournaments, evening out her Herculean proportions, and linking her poses together with fluid grace. A stunning opening long take is as unable to look away from Edina as her spectators, twirling around her as she does the same for the judges. Csonka immediately proves herself an engaging actor, compelling in performance mode and with butterflies in her washboard stomach, especially shining when she makes that magical leap from artist to artform when striking a pose. Turos is just as fantastic as his foil, resigned and hopeful and loving behind stoic eyes that once knew the spotlight. Both performers undergo a shift when faced with the financial reality of getting Edina to the next step in her competitive journey. Affording an expensive cocktail of supplements, lean meats and chemicals—not to mention plane tickets, entry fees, gym memberships—is an expensive ask, especially without a sponsor or patron. Through a contact hanging around the backrooms of the bodybuilding world, Edina finds her way into specialty sex work, where the superficial links of showmanship and physicality give way to more intimate satisfactions, making the most of her unique build. She starts simple. She’ll just do what she does on stage: Strike her mandatory poses, tighten her muscle groups in turn, and allow people to fetishize her body. But, like bodybuilding, this gives way to more nuanced pleasures. Gentle’s delightful contradictions of self-harm and self-love bolster the sweet film beyond its garish and attention-grabbing premise. Just as its stars clearly have more to offer than their images, Nemes and Csuja’s movie interrogates superficiality in all forms—and pushes those who’ve made it their business to the limits.—Jacob Oller
Growing up can be brutal. Especially when you’re at what Finnish director Alli Haapasalo describes as the “liminal” age of 17 or 18—aware enough to know you want more, young enough not to know how to get it. In Haapasalo’s beautifully designed, emotionally honest Girl Picture, three teenagers who are not exactly girls and not yet women look for love, sex, belonging and, most importantly, the strength of their own voices to carry them through a moment in limbo. Ronkko (Eleonoora Kauhanen) and Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff) are best friends, classmates and coworkers at a smoothie shop where they use their free time to tell each other everything. Emma (a graceful and compelling Linnea Leino) is a figure skater and fellow classmate with an eye set on the European championships, and a mother who just wants her to take some time to be a kid. When a high-strung Emma locks eyes with a cynical Mimmi at the smoothie counter, sparks fly. Whether those sparks are between friends, enemies or lovers isn’t made clear until a mutual classmate jokingly invites Mimmi and Ronkko to the party Emma begrudgingly attends that night. While Emma and Mimmi are making nice on their own storyline, Ronkko (whom Kauhanen plays with an endearing, open bubbliness) is on a mission to orgasm, or at least to figure out what’s going wrong in her hookups. Staunchly heterosexual and in dogged pursuit of pleasure, she stumbles from one oversexed, awkward interaction to another. These are stories on a micro scale, but Haapasalo treats them with an investment and verve that respects her characters. When you’re walking the tightrope of your late teens, every day is the most important day of your life, every argument the one that will potentially bring the sky tumbling down. That Haapasalo and screenwriters Ilona Ahti and Daniela Hakulinen understand this makes for a film that not only calls out its characters on their overreactions, but examines and has great empathy for the source of those wounds. Amidst the depths of that respect and discovery, Girl Picture is a joyous, resonant snapshot of growing into one’s own, and challenging even your own expectations of who you thought you could be.—Shayna Maci Warner
“Did you know the sun we’re seeing now is the sun of the past?” In writer-director Gabriel Martin’s sensitive, sincere family drama Marte Um (Mars One), teenage Deivinho (Cícero Lucas) makes this nerdy observation to two friends who are more interested in playing chicken than indulging Devinho’s closeted obsession with astrophysics. It’s one of many fervent thoughts that stands as a representation of Deivinho’s setting: Brazil on the night of Jair Bolsnaro’s presidential win and subsequent installation. The audience already knows that things are about to get materially worse for a working class family like Deivinho’s, and even though the film is grounded in 2018’s relatively recent reality, watching their bad luck unfold sometimes feels like a prophetic dream. Joining Deivinho as the film’s center are his near-college-graduate sister Eunice (Camilla Damião), janitor father Wellington (Carlos Francisco), and part-time housekeeper mother Tércia (Rejane Faria). The foursome are the main solar system of the film, and Martin does an impressive job of fully developing each character so that their conflicts, closeness, and resolutions all feel integral and earned. It’s a pleasure to spend time with each character individually, both on the basis of their writing and performance. Thanks to Martin’s patient shot length, immersive instinct, and expressionist lighting, viewers get to experience the often reserved, always naturalistic reactions of each family member as if from a fully formed person that we’ve known for far longer than the film’s generous 115-minute runtime. The viewer is allowed into the everyday trials that the rest of the family aren’t able to experience, lending a benevolence and graciousness to each character’s flawed attempts to love each other while still standing their ground. Even if we don’t agree with each character’s choices, Martins presents the chance to really listen to and understand what they’re saying with or without speaking a word. It’s treacherously hopeful to premiere Marte Um in a year that Bolsnaro is up for reelection. By turns spiritual and grounded, one might hope that the film teaches empathy to those who need it most, but in all honesty it’s less about breaching a hardened heart, and more about offering reassurances to those who have to keep going. Insightful, kind and exceptionally well-acted, Marte Um reminds its characters that they’ll find what they need if they just keep looking.—Shayna Maci Warner
Maika Monroe knows better than almost any actor working today how to turn her head or widen her eyes in mounting horror. The control she has over her body, the ability she has to convey realistic fear and her 2014 double-header of The Guest and It Follows made her an instant household name for genre fans. Perhaps one of those was director Chloe Okuno, who knows exactly what to do with her star in her paranoid debut feature (which follows her V/H/S/94 segment from last year), Watcher. A straightforward little B-treat, Monroe’s furtive glances out her Rear Window morph Watcher into a moody thriller elevated by its acting. Monroe plays Julia, a beautiful young housewife cooped up in an empty apartment and cooped up in an intimidating and isolating Bucharest after moving there with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) for his work. Francis speaks Romanian. He entertains clients, makes friends, grabs drinks, chastises fresh cab drivers and translates day-to-day interactions with neighbors and landlords. Julia has none of that. No job, no friends, no real way to communicate with the world aside from her baser senses. She has her taped language lessons, which soundtrack her wistful wanderings around her lovely pale apartment and its massive window. Through that window, she sees those marking the building across the way. One of them contains a figure that also stands at the glass, looking right back. As Okuno twists the screws on the plot—Francis and Julia take a late-night stroll past police, conducting what they later learn to be a serial murder investigation—her characters unravel exactly how we want them to. Watcher flourishes as it complicates its premise beyond the unknowable and faceless desires of a shadowy silhouette. When do finally meet said suspicious neighbor (Burn Gorman), the resulting scenes are the film’s best. Monroe is fantastic alone—reacting both to intense fears and to indignation at Glusman’s fed-up patronizing—but with the always-nuanced Gorman, Watcher taps into something sharper, creepier and enjoyably ‘90s in its psychological execution.—Jacob Oller
The sprawling, mountainous landscape of nineteenth century Macedonia envelops every frame of You Won’t Be Alone, writer-director Goran Stolevski’s feature debut. A meandering portrait of shape-shifting sorceresses who live on (and off of) the peripheral terrain of a pastoral village, the film is particularly interested in the shifting state of power and peril that comes with practicing witchcraft. Though its leisurely pace and sinuous storyline might test the audience’s patience, the Macedonian-Australian filmmaker packs his folk horror breakthrough with enough guts and gore to keep eyes fixed on the screen. When a mute baby girl is left by her mother in a cave to evade a seemingly inevitable indoctrination into witchcraft, she gradually grows into a feral young woman (Sara Klimoska). When a beldam “wolf-eatress” (Anamaria Marinca) eventually arrives to court her into the occult, the girl follows, cautiously curious about life outside of the cavern that sheltered her for the past 16 years. After being ritualistically branded with the witch’s mark, the girl realizes she possesses the ability to take on the form of any living creature she kills—coupled with a newfound appetite for hot blood and entrails. However, the girl’s swelling affinity for a world she had previously been cut off from clashes with the misanthropic outlook of her mother superior, resulting in the young witch going off on her own. In attempting to forge her own livelihood, the girl crosses paths with a young peasant woman (Noomi Rapace) and her newborn baby. Thinking the girl will do harm to her child, the mother lunges at her and is mortally wounded by the young witch’s talon-like nails. Arrested by fright and intrigue, the girl resolves to take this woman’s form for herself—a decision that sets forth a journey in understanding the intricacies of human life she might never have experienced otherwise. Though You Won’t Be Alone is entrenched in a hearty humanism that embraces the ordinary toil of staying alive, it is also steeped in observations of gendered strife as it has historically affected women. Before the young witch encounters Rapace’s peasant, the camera cuts to the woman clutching onto the wooden beams of a fence on her farm’s edge, crouching and caterwauling mid-labor. As soon as the baby is delivered, the midwife ushers the child away—and the blood-flecked woman waddles back to the working fields. Stolevski’s debut is enthralling and thoughtful, cutting through the clichés of similar recent releases of the same vein. Despite its under-interrogated premise, You Won’t Be Alone is an intriguing, unsettling feature debut with an incisive bite—a strength that the filmmaker will surely sharpen over time. The result is an enticing witch’s brew you can’t stop sipping, even if there’s a slightly sour aftertaste.—Natalia Keogan