The 7 Best Films We Saw at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival

From a coming-of-age dramedy to timely social thrillers to a thrilling crime drama, here are the best movies we saw.

by | February 7, 2022 | Comments

This year’s Sundance Film Festival was yet again forced to go virtual. Though it was the Festival’s earnest hope to welcome journalists, filmmakers, studios, producers, and film fans alike to Park City, the OMICRON variant of COVID-19 dashed those plans a few weeks before the festival kick-off. The virtual affair, however, did not prevent Sundance from maintaining its place as the premier platform for new and emerging filmmakers. Last year’s virtual fest hosted the World Premieres of favorites Passing, Summer of Soul, and Oscar crowd-pleaser CODA.

After screening over 30 of the buzziest films of the festival, here are our picks for the best of what we saw. Read on for our list of the Best of Sundance 2022.

Nanny (2022)

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

Much was made online about the criticism surrounding writer-director Nikyatu Jusu’s film after its Sundance premiere. While it sparked a dialogue about translating Black art through the lens of people far removed from its historical and cultural relevance, we think it would be a shame for that to overshadow the transcendent piece of filmmaking that is her debut work. In Nanny, Anna Diop stars as Aisha, an undocumented Senegalese immigrant who lands a job as a nanny of a wealthy Manhattan couple only to be used as a pawn in a battle between her married captors employers. Saving up to bring her young son from Senegal to the United States, she endures all of it in silence in hopes of a better future for her child. However, his imminent arrival is marked by frequent visions of a mysterious presence and violent physical manifestations. A Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, the film borrows heavily from West African folklore, with Jourdain Searles of The Hollywood Reporter writing, “It’s the kind of film where the viewer loses sense of time itself, mesmerized by the beauty and melancholy of each shot.”

Cha Cha Real Smooth (2022)

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

For his directorial debut writer-director Cooper Raiff has transformed his time as a bar mitzvah hypeman into a tearjerking crowd-pleaser featuring another great performance from Dakota Johnson, who happens to be on the awards circuit this year for her incredible supporting work in The Lost Daughter. In Cha Cha Real Smooth, Raiff plays an autobiographical version of himself shortly after his college graduation. Just three years removed from the events of the film, Cooper’s debut screenplay finds his character back at home, sharing a bedroom with his teenaged younger brother and a house with his mom (Leslie Mann) and his curmudgeon of a stepdad (Brad Garrett).

Although Raiff does an incredible job in the lead as Andrew, balancing humor with the aimless messiness of postgraduate life, the supporting performances by Johnson as Domino, mother to newcomer Vanessa Burghardt, and Domino’s fiance Joseph, played by Raúl Castillo, elevate the film to its emotional heights. A few months before her wedding when Domino meets Andrew at a bar mitzvah and is immediately drawn to his infectious, albeit clumsy, courtship of her. A movie about falling in love as much as it is about loving being in love, Cha Cha Real Smooth does just enough to differentiate itself from the previous coming-of-age films it borrows from. The beats may be similar, but as Alissa Wilkinson of Vox wrote, “If [Cha Cha Real Smooth] sounds like standard twee Sundance fare, rest assured — Raiff and Johnson’s performances turn it into something irresistible and lovely.”

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022)

(Photo by Copyright Searchlight Pictures. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

A life without pleasure is a life not worth living. This is the main conceit of the funny, poignant, and very sexy Good Luck to You, Leo Grande starring Dame Emma Thompson and newcomer Daryl McCormack. A quiet relationship drama — not a romance — between an aging widow and the young escort she hires to help her find pleasure Good Luck follows the verbal seduction between McCormack and Thompson as it evolves and each becomes more vulnerable and intimate, primarily outside of their sexual escapades.

This is a two-hander with just the pair on-screen serving up a master class of back-and-forth of banter, seduction, and conflict for nearly the entire runtime. Thompson is particularly extraordinary, according to Shirley Li and David Sims of The Atlantic, “as she navigates the various insecurities that come with inexperience, age, and general repression,” adding her co-star McCormack “is a charming and understanding match for her.” We wouldn’t be surprised to see a late awards season push for Thompson, McCormack, and Katy Brand’s screenplay, as Searchlight pulled off a similar campaign for their 2018 release Can You Ever Forgive Me?

When You Finish Saving the World (2022)

(Photo by Beth Garrabrant courtesy of Sundance Institute)

The hilarity of an over-privileged, narcissistic teen falling for a selflessly committed activist is what fuels actor Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut When You Finish Saving the World. Its examination of parent-child relationships is where it shines. Eisenberg wisely casts the internet’s favorite Gen-Z teen heartthrob Finn Wolfhard as a self-absorbed internet music star and Julianne Moore as his well-meaning but overbearing mother. Moore runs a non-profit shelter for victims of domestic abuse and tries to play surrogate parent to a young boy whose mom is staying there, while her son is essentially wooing a version of her younger self played by Alisha Boe. A cringe-worthy coming-of-age tale that will feel like a homecoming for fans of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, “Eisenberg’s debut comedy-drama delivers cringes and finds trembling humanity within its narcissistic characters,” according to J.R. Kinnard of Pop Matters.

Speak No Evil (2022)

(Photo by Erik Molberg courtesy of Sundance Institute)

When to be polite and when to start losing your sh– is the issue at the center of our next selection. Vacationing in Tuscany turns sinister when two families — one Danish, one Dutch — meet and become fast friends. Deciding to repeat the serendipitous meeting, they head on a second vacation months later, and things gradually get out of hand as the joy of reunion is replaced with misunderstandings. The Dutch family starts to display odd new traits, and the Danes find themselves caught between their politeness and their desire to confront the increasingly eccentric — and possibly sinister — behavior. “[A] sadistic, slow-burn nightmare of Euro-middle-class mores curdling around the edges, especially once the penny drops,” writes David Fear of Rolling Stone.

Emily the Criminal (2022)

Aubrey Plaza in Emily the Criminal

(Photo by Low Spark Films courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Aubrey Plaza again displays why she is one of the most dynamic and entertaining stars of independent cinema with her latest turn in Emily the Criminal. Plaza plays Emily, a felon with a record trying to find steady work to quit her food delivery job. A chance recommendation introduces her to the world of organized credit card theft, and the fast money and thrills quickly seduce her. The good times turn sour, however, when she is put at odds with her charismatic but deadly handler (Theo Rossi). Critics were impressed by the film’s quick and thrilling screenplay, but the lion’s share of praise fell on our star. “Plaza’s ongoing determination to bring out the authenticity of the story makes the film darker than it would be as a traditional thriller,” writes Emily Zemler for Observer.

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

An uninterested young teen discovers the dangers of wanting to be wanted in Palm Trees and Power Lines. Lily McInerny stars as Lea, the teenaged daughter of an absent single mother who bounces between mindless house parties and unfulfilling romps with high school boys until she encounters a charismatic “love bomb” of a suitor played by Jonathan Tucker. Undivided attention and admiration is a potent cocktail to someone starved for it, and Lea becomes intoxicated by his charms, only to find out he might not be what he seems. A dark peek into lives of vulnerable teens, “Palm Trees and Power Lines goes somewhere even darker than Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, with a brave query into the notion of consent and a gut-wrenching parting note that feels like a scream stuck in one’s throat,” writes Tomris Laffly of Harper’s Bazaar.

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