As this year’s Sundance Film Festival comes to a close, the mostly virtual event introduced a hefty number of films worth getting excited about beyond the festival. The hope was this year would have marked a return to an in-person Sundance, but this year’s festival still played home to a wide variety of wonderful films.
From new works from some of our favorite filmmakers to rising stars making their debuts, our favorites include the latest from SXSW winner Cooper Raiff (the charming “Cha Cha Real Smooth”), Aubrey Plaza’s latest leading-lady evolution (“Emily the Criminal”), a pair of character-centric dramedies starring some of our greatest living actors (“Living” and “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande”), provocative documentaries (“Descendent,” “Navalny,” “The Janes”), the inevitable Kanye West deep dive (“jeen-yuhs”), and at least one movie about a very big egg and the girl that loves it.
At publication, a number of these films have already been picked up for distribution; some even have release dates ready. In those cases, we’ve made a note of when and how you can check them out; for everything else, we’ll keep updating this article as more announcements are made, so feel free to keep it bookmarked.
Eric Kohn, Anne Thompson, Christian Blavuelt, and David Ehrlich contributed to this article.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth”
How and When You Can See It: AppleTV+ purchased the film at the festival, and will release it on its streaming platform on a to-be-announced date.
Following his SXSW-winning “Shithouse” with another effortlessly funny and endlessly forgiving MASH note to anyone who’s struggled to reconcile the life they got with the one they imagined for themselves, 24-year-old triple threat Cooper Raiff took Sundance by storm with a second feature that scales up the disarming earnestness of his debut without losing any of its intimacy. Unimpeachably the greatest movie ever made about a bar mitzvah party starter (not bad for a goy!), “Cha Cha Real Smooth” stars Raiff himself as an aimless college grad who finds more satisfaction in making older women smile than he does in making anything of himself.
He finds a perfect vessel for his predilection in the form of a beautiful 29-year-old mom (a sensational Dakota Johnson) with an autistic 12-year-old daughter (winsome newcomer Vanessa Burghardt), both of whom could use a measure of the warmth and grace Raiff’s character is so eager to provide. From there, Raiff spins a wry and tender drama that isn’t above indulging in the obvious tensions of its story, but is also much less interested in the “will they or won’t they?” of it all than it is in the magnetic force between two souls who are so defined by taking care of other people that they have absolutely no idea what to do in a situation where they both need something for themselves.
The Audience Award winner is the rare movie that feels more honest for its sweetness — Apple paid $15 million for the pleasure of sharing it with “Ted Lasso” fans — and one that further cements Raiff’s status as a major force on both sides of the camera. —DE
How and When You Can See It: Netflix and Higher Ground purchased the film at the festival, and will release it on a to-be-announced date.
Distribution offers poured in for this deeply moving multi-generational exploration of a place and time; the bidding war was won by Netflix and Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground label. Filmmaker Margaret Brown (“The Order of Myths”) tracks the Africatown community near her hometown of Mobile, Alabama as divers try to salvage the Clotilda, thought to be the last slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the United States, the year before the launch of The Civil War. Eager to hide their illegal and immoral activity, the owners burned and sank the ship, and scattered the 100 or more surviving enslaved people who were chained in the hold around the area. Brown intimately gets to know many of their present-day descendants in Africatown, which is surrounded by toxic industrial plants, and reveals the deep ongoing racial divide in America. —AT
“Emily the Criminal”
How and When You Can See It: The film is still seeking distribution.
Think you love Aubrey Plaza? Wait until you see what she’s up to next. As the eponymous antihero at the heart of John Patton Ford’s film, Plaza continues to build on her post-“Parks and Recreation” career with serious style. Thanks to turns in projects as varied as “Black Bear,” “Ingrid Goes West,” and “Happiest Season,” Plaza (who also produced Ford’s film, adding to a growing resume) has managed to turn her pitch-black sarcasm into something with real depth and nuance. You always know a Plaza performance will be good, but over the past few years, Plaza has seemed to make it a priority to surprise her audiences with just how good she is.
The film casts Plaza as Emily, whose entire life has been upended because of her criminal record. Hell, maybe not even upended, more like never been able to start. Saddled with student debt for a degree she never got and unable to land a good job because of that damn, dirty record, Emily finds herself drawn into a new kind of enterprise. Yes, it’s criminal, but maybe that’s why she’s do damn good at it. The film has drawn early comparisons to “Drive,” and while the downtown LA setting and pulsating score from Nathan Halpern fit, Ford and Plaza offer something a bit trickier. It’s also more satisfying, blending style with a timely message about the way capitalism beats down people just looking to make some honest cash, the way a criminal past can mark someone for life, the way it’s impossible to move past certain circumstances. —KE
“Fire of Love”
How and When You Can See It: National Geographic Films purchased the film at the festival, and will release it on a to-be-announced date.
Continuing the archival doc boom at Sundance this year, director Sara Dosa (“The Seer and the Unseen”) oversaw the assembling of footage shot by staggeringly brave volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. The couple, who bonded over their love of putting their lives in danger to study eruptions around the world — proving there truly is someone for everybody — captured film of lava flows and expelled ash that’s so intently focused on the world around us, and seeing it in ways so few of us do, that it feels otherworldly.
Dosa’s credits at the beginning list the Kraffts as the film’s stars — in addition to being its camerapeople — alongside Mauna Loa, Mt. St. Helens, and the other volcanoes they studied during their two-decade career in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Functioning as both a “nature doc” (it’s already been picked up by NatGeo) and something more abstract and mysterious, “Fire of Love” isn’t committed to showing how much we know, or how much the Kraffts’ learned, about how much is simply unexplainable. From the unpredictability of explosive “gray volcanoes” to the reasons why people are drawn to each other. Even if you’ve never heard of the Kraffts before this, their journey follows a richly compelling arc, building to a finale that may be the one predictable thing about their story, or about any of our stories. —CB
How and When You Can See It: Searchlight purchased the film before the festival, and will release it on Hulu on March 4.
It’s clear from the start that Mimi Cave’s feature directorial debut is operating on its own special wavelength. While initially presented as a modern-ish rom-com about how bad dating sucks (so bad that someone as charming as Daisy Edgar-Jones’ Noa can’t find a good man, that’s pretty bad), Cave’s humor is cutting and snappy from the jump. Gussied up with the usual trappings of a contemporary rom-com — she’s got a “sassy Black BFF,” they go to boxing class together, dating apps are ruining their lives — Cave gently steeps Noa (and us) in what seems to be one thing, before cleverly cleaving into something else.
That “Fresh” sees Noa’s life thrown into disarray by the arrival of a handsome new suitor (a delightfully nutty Sebastian Stan) isn’t a secret, and neither is the fact that “Fresh” eventually turns into a horror film, gory and scary and blood-soaked. But the twists and turns of how that all happens — and the tropes Cave turns on their head in service to it — should stay under wraps for as long as possible, because so much of the pleasure of “Fresh” is in the discovery of what’s to come. It’s tasty. —KE
“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande”
How and When You Can See It: Searchlight purchased the film at the festival, and will release it on Hulu on a to-be-announced date.
In Australian filmmaker Sophie Hyde’s pandemic two-hander shot chronologically in one hotel room, Emma Thompson plays a widow who hires a sex worker (breakout Daryl McCormack) in order to find out what she has been missing. She wants to have some fun, but doesn’t know how to get there.
Over the course of several assignations, she is afraid, curious, hesitant, and brave, while he is relaxed, confident, and vulnerable as she probes into the man behind the perfect abs and calm facade. On the first day of production, Hyde rehearsed in the nude with Thompson and McCormack, and it was smooth sailing from there. An outspoken feminist, Thompson deserves full credit for baring her 62-year-old body, in front of a full-length mirror, with acceptance and love. Searchlight acquired the film for $7.5 million for release via Hulu. —AT
How and When You Can See It: IFC Midnight will release the film on April 29.
Finnish director Hanna Bergholm’s shocking and insightful creature feature was supposed to premiere at Sundance a year ago, but it was worth the wait even without the physical premiere. The story finds a struggling adolescent gymnast (Siiri Solalinna) uncovering an egg in the wilderness, only for a disturbing crow monster to hatch out it in her bedroom. The young girl attempts to keep the monster under wraps, but it gradually begins the fill in the void in her life until…well, no spoilers, but Bergholm has come up with quite the grotesque coming-of-age metaphor as her protagonist confronts her overbearing mother.
In lesser hands, “Hatching” would devolve into a crass allegorical guilty pleasure, but Bergholm shows the subtle instincts of early Guillermo del Toro, transforming her zany horror tropes into a complex statement on emerging agency. —EK
How and When You Can See It: HBO Documentary Films joined the project in the development stage will release it later this year.
“I had no other options. I wanted it over with. And I didn’t care how it was done, I was that desperate.” Such is how Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’s intimate and informative “The Janes” opens, introducing audiences immediately to one woman, now decades removed from the period of her life in which she needed the help of the underground abortion service and feminist collective, who can still conjure the same emotions and circumstances that drove her to her choice. And yet what might be most inspiring and special about Lessin and Pildes’ documentary is that this single woman who opens the film doesn’t serve as some sort of stand-in for the thousands (yes, thousands) who utilized the services of the Jane Collective (or just “Jane”) during 1969 through 1973, but simply one facet of a story long deserving to be told.
Funnily enough, “The Janes” is not the only Jane-centric film to arrive this year (it’s not even the only Jane-centric film to arrive at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; Phyllis Nagy makes her directorial debut with the fictionalized feature “Call Jane”). The present, it seems, is finally catching up with the past — albeit in some terrifying ways — and renewed interest in the work and legacy of Jane is inevitable and necessary. Lessin and Pildes’ film ably weaves together the group’s history, stories about the many people (not just women) who made it what it was, and the fascinating process by which it operated. At once deeply personal and painfully political, “The Janes” should be required watching for everyone. —KE
“jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy”
How and When You Can See It: Netflix will release the film on its streaming platform in weekly installments starting on February 16.
A fly-on-the-wall doc with a time-spanning expansiveness to rival the “Up” series — or Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” for that matter — “Jeen-yuhs” takes us on one of the great thrill rides in music. Chicago comic and public access TV host Coodie Simmons amassed nearly 400 hours of intimate handheld camera footage of Kanye West as he hustled, grinded, and rapped through even a wired-shut jaw to make his debut album, “The College Dropout.” Later partnering with Chike Ozah, with whom he co-directed West’s “Through the Wire” video (and together became known as the directing duo Coodie & Chike), Simmons was there for stunning moments: when West storms Roc-a-Fella Records to spit some rhymes face-to-face in a bid to get a record deal, when he plays “Through the Wire” for the first time for Pharrell Williams who becomes a Kanye convert on the spot, recording “Slow Jamz” at Jamie Foxx’s house studio because Roc-a-Fella won’t give him the studio time, having a heart-to-heart with his mom, Donda.
Coodie had decided that this nerdy “backpack rapper” was worth following closely, even if it meant moving to New York City to keep filming him. The fact that he became one of the biggest artists on the planet, is a payoff he could never have dreamed. But the third episode of this four-and-a-half hour, three-part epic sees West spiraling back down to earth as Coodie & Chike reenter his circle from about 2018 on — after years of absence. They’ve sculpted a narrative arc as endearing, and tragic, and harrowing as anything Hollywood could have scripted, wrapped up in the trappings of a Millennial “Get Back.” —CB
How and When You Can See It: Sony Pictures Classics purchased the film at the festival, and will release it on a to-be-announced date.
South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus knows what he’s doing in this Ealing Studios-inspired fifth feature, with help from “The Remains of the Day” novelist-turned-screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro, who adapted this quiet tearjerker from Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic “Ikiru.” Master thespian Bill Nighy gives a delicate performance as Williams, a shut-down London public works manager who is shaken to the core when he discovers he has a limited amount of time to live. He’s “a certain kind of Englishman,” said Nighy at the Sundance Q&A, who is also “a hero.”
Williams makes the most of the moment: he blows off work, recruits a charming loafer (Tom Burke) to take him on the town, hangs out with a lively young office clerk (Aimee Lou Wood), and dusts off his stacks of paper with renewed vigor. Sony Pictures Classics will push the film forward into awards contention: Nighy could earn his first Oscar nomination. —AT
How and When You Can See It: Amazon Prime Video will release the film on its streaming platform on March 18.
Two Black women sit at the center of a creepy white college in the Northeast. Before you can say “Get Out,” don’t: Mariama Diallo’s unpredictable thriller isn’t a refashioning of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” through a horror lens. Instead, it’s the story of an alienated first-year student (Zoe Renee) and a similarly ostracized dean (Regina Hall) as they navigate an ominous arena haunted by the specter of Salem witchcraft trials and menacing threats from students and faculty alike. The movie veers in a series of unpredictable directions, teasing out its potential for supernatural chills before diving in a series of other unexpected directions, right down to the subtle act of defiance in its memorable finale. Diallo’s first feature is so confident that it never seems like it’s falling prey to the horror tropes lurking beneath the surface; instead, it uses them to shake up the material with the dread experienced by its characters, only to find that the real fear is much deeper and rooted in the profound injustices of real life. —EK
How and When You Can See It: The film is still seeking distribution.
Filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu has been traveling festivals with short films for almost 15 years, teaching film at George Mason University, and trying to get a feature off the ground for most of that time. Ultimately, that was “Nanny,” the riveting tale of a Senegalese immigrant (Anna Diop) tasked with caring for a white family in New York while coping with strange supernatural forces that hark back to her homeland. The slow-burn story is both artful and unnerving as it digs inside the psychology of a woman at odds with the attempts to recenter her life in foreign terrain.
The project landed on the 2020 Black List and received support from Sundance and IFP labs ahead of its completion last year; so far, it has yet to secure U.S. distribution. That, however, will likely change soon: the film just won Sundance’s highest honor, the U.S. Narrative Competition Grand Jury Prize, putting Jusu in rarefied territory and ensuring her breakout feature will (rightly) capture plenty more attention. —EK
How and When You Can See It: The film will air on CNN and be available to stream on HBO Max later this year.
Like “Citizenfour” before it, director Daniel Roher has captured a real-life superhero in action. You might think you know the story of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who was poisoned by Putin and returned to Russia even though it meant prison time. But this closeup portrait elaborates on his fierce, deadly activism by exploring how he funnels it into charisma and a hunky physicality worthy of movie stardom, all of which is to say he’s a master image-maker in tandem with his desire to address corruption at the highest levels of his country’s government.
Recovering from his poisoning in Germany, Navalny goes on a quest to sort out the truth, an act that culminates in the most remarkable “gotcha!” moment ever caught on camera — though this remarkable cinematic achievement is rivaled by the intensity and emotional frustrations that bubble up when he’s arrested back home, and separated from his supportive wife. A riveting meditation on activism and responsibility in the face of unthinkable fears, “Navalny” is also simply greater cinema — as producer Cassian Elwes tweeted during the festival, it’s a better “Bourne” movie than any of the “Bourne” movies, and deserves the same blockbuster audience. —EK
How and When You Can See It: IFC Films and Shudder picked up the film during the second half of the festival. IFC Films will release the film in theaters and on VOD, while Shudder will take the first streaming window.
Fiendishly splitting the difference between the kind of low-rent parental vigilante movies that will always live on basic cable, and the kind of high-brow polymorphic freakouts that all but died with Andrzej Żuławski, Andrew Semans’ aptly named “Resurrection” may never quite reach “Possession” levels of psychic collapse (what does?), but it sure gets a hell of a lot closer than the broad familiarity of its setup might lead you to expect. Rebecca Hall, who can often be found starring in smartly fucked up Sundance films when she’s not at the fest for directing exquisite prestige fare, plays a type-A+ Albany biologist who rocks a ferocious power suit at work, dominates a married coworker on her own time, and runs home at an Olympic sprint so that she can supervise the teenage daughter she’s raised by herself.
The grip she maintains over her life is so tight that everything in it seems grasping for air, and when a man from her past (an ominously cast Tim Roth) shows up out of the blue with a wild claim that you really have to hear for yourself, we start to understand why our heroine has developed such a pathological need for control. From that broadly familiar setup, Semans unpacks the kind of guffaw-inducing, hand-over-your-mouth cinematic breakdown that epitomizes the guilty pleasures of a typical psychological thriller at the same time as it transcends them. His artful storytelling and fearless cast help leverage any number of schlocky tropes into an unforgettable, swing-for-the-fences examination of a trauma that can’t be rationalized away. —DE
“Speak No Evil”
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
How and When You Can See It: Shudder purchased the film before the festival, and will release it on a to-be-announced date.
A wincingly funny (but also deeply upsetting) horror movie that exists in the dark void somewhere between “Force Majeure” and “Funny Games,” Christian Tafdrup’s “Speak No Evil” will strike pure terror into the hearts of people-pleasers everywhere. The story is ripe for discomfort: When an average Danish couple receives an invitation to spend a weekend with the vaguely off-kilter Dutch family they met on vacation the previous summer, our protagonists decide that it would be impolite to say no — that an eight-hour drive and the stress of being guests in a stranger’s home would be worse than a simple “no thanks.”
Needless to say, that will not be the last inch of themselves these people surrender on their reluctant trip, which begins with forgivable social faux pas (and the discovery that their hosts’ young son has a red wound in his mouth instead of a tongue) and escalates into more sadistic territory as the Danish couple fails to remove themselves from the situation. By the time Tafdrup’s masterfully uncomfortable saga arrives at a third act that pushes well beyond the current boundaries of good taste, “Speak No Evil” seems to have less in common with contemporary genre fare than it does the Grimm perversity of a weathered fairy tale intended to warn good children and adults alike from letting evil win on the grounds of decorum. —DE
“When You Finish Saving the World”
How and When You Can See It: A24 financed, produced, and will release it on a to-be-announced date.
Continuing a recent Sundance trend of famous actors delivering excellent directorial debuts, Jesse Eisenberg’s “When You Finish Saving the World” finds the “Adventureland” star mining the anxious sense of inadequacy he felt when falling in love with his eventual wife — a Marxist raised with an intimidating political acumen — for a cuttingly poignant coming-of-age story about a narcissistic teenage live-streamer who develops a crush on the Noam Chomsky of his chem class. What sounds like a golden opportunity for the kid’s NPR-addled mom to close the distance between them proves to to be the exact opposite, leading her to become uncomfortably invested in another boy his age who might be more responsive to the love she has to give.
Adapted from the writer-director’s 2020 audio drama of the same name and lead by deadly sharp performances from Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore, “When You Finish Saving the World” is a wonderful (albeit cringe-worthy) cautionary tale about the humiliation of trying to love someone on unilateral terms; one so deeply informed by Eisenberg’s dry comic sensibilities that you can almost hear him delivering each line from behind the camera. —DE