The Sundance Film Festival rolled with the continued punches of the pandemic, turning its intended in-person festivities into an online celebration of cinema of all sorts. The snowy queues outside of Park City’s theaters were transported online to apps, where virtual tickets allowed critics and movie-lovers to safely watch an array of 84 features, plus film shorts, virtual reality offerings, Q&As, and more — all from the comfort of our couches.
I took in 31 films, ranging from gut-churning horror to side-slapping comedy, jaw-dropping documentaries, mind-bending thrillers, and soul-stirring dramas. From there, I’ve selected 11 sensational films to highlight. These are mesmerizing movies you’ll want to keep an eye out for.
Here are the 11 best movies of Sundance 2022, according to Mashable.
1. 2nd Chance
Innovation meets American gun culture in this outrageous documentary about a man who shot himself in the chest 192 times to sell his concealable bullet-proof vest. At first, 2nd Chance feels like a quirky hobby doc, in the vein of The King of Kong. Sure, eccentric entrepreneur Richard Davis is quite the character, willing to put his money where his heart is. But can he face off against the rumors, scandals, and dangerous accusations that have plagued him for decades? What does it mean to be a self-made man when the self-made bit includes self-mythologizing? How might your morals be morphed by a business that’s fueled by fear?
Writer/director Ramin Bahrani is best-known for poignant dramas like Man Push Cart, Goodbye Solo, and The White Tiger. Here, he employs his eye for character arcs to masterful effect, initially presenting Davis the way the man would like to be seen: an All-American hero with a personality as big as his brass balls. But through interviews with former colleagues, ex-wives, and strangers impacted by gun violence, Bahrani complicates that portrait, exposing the warts and all of a businessman who is uniquely American in his ambitions, successes, and failings. Astute audiences who note the holes left in certain stories in the first act will be elated to see how Bahrani circles back to knit together a story personal and political, touching on family burdens, remorse, redemption, and the insidiousness of copaganda.
2. God’s Country
Your home should be your domain, your castle, your safe space. But college professor Sandra (Thandiwe Newton) learns that’s not the case for her when a pair of hunters invade her land in rural Montana. To urge them to hunt elsewhere, she tries a note on their windshield, then asks them directly, to little avail. Over the course of seven days, things escalate quickly, drawing in a shrugging sheriff, unsympathetic neighbors, sneering co-workers, and masked men oozing with malice. In this battle of wills, who will be left standing in God’s Country?
With co-writer Shaye Ogbonna, writer/director Julian Higgins explores how gender, race, socio-economic status, and other identity markers impact the sanctity of “safe spaces” in America. When an arrow comes thunking into her front door, Sandra, who is a Black woman from a big city, is swiftly made to feel like an outsider on every front. A thoughtful script unfurls scenes that are tensely true-to-life, rich with snarling subtext and unspoken threats. Yet God’s Country might be most alive when its embattled heroine reaches across these dividing lines — sometimes with compassion; sometimes with outrage — to push her neighbors toward growth, empathy, and community. Slow-burning but unrelenting, this fierce thriller will leave you rattled long after its fearsome final showdown.
How to watch: TBD*
In the home of a mommy-blogger with a picture-perfect family, something horrid is Hatching. 12-year-old Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) has a massive egg hidden in her room, and she aims to nurture it better than her image-obsessed mother (Sophia Heikkilä) ever could. But she’ll soon learn the unpredictability that comes with parenthood.
Screenwriter Ilja Rautsi explores the tenderness, tensions, and horror of mother-daughter relationships within a modern fairy-tale structure, fostered by psychological agony. Director Hanna Bergholm creates a pretty world of warm pastels and floral prints, then splashes them in body-horror gore, like blood, vomit, and bile. Not only does this make Hatching addictively unnerving, but also it serves as a metaphor for the messiness of womanhood, in which your body becomes strange, then — potentially — births a creature that is of you and yet not really yours. By blending the pretty and the putrid, this Finnish film proved uniquely frightening. It’s an absolute must-see for fans of folk horror.
How to watch: IFC Midnight is releasing in theaters and VOD Apr. 29.
4. Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul
If you’ve seen The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the premise of this Sundance standout will seem familiar: prosperity gospel turning to hypocrisy, a sex scandal that rocks a marriage and a mega-church, and a wife whose complicity is in question. However, writer/director Adamma Ebo brings a fresh eye, empathy, and a sharp satirical edge to this tale in Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul.
Regina Hall stars as the first lady of a Southern Baptist megachurch felled by the (alleged) actions of her charismatic pastor husband (Sterling K. Brown). Determined to rehabilitate their soiled image, they agree to be the center of a documentary. But forgotten mic packs and unblinking cameras don’t shine a kind light on the couple. Within this mockumentary setup, Ebo gives her leads plenty of space to dazzle and score laughs, often at the expense of their characters’ vanity. So, we witness Brown turning a baptism into a thirst trap by shedding his shirt, while Hall surrenders her Sunday Best to become a literal clown. But beneath the face paint, Hall trembles with emotions that will lead to a poignant and powerful finale. Regrettably, the documentary device is unceremoniously dropped for some scenes. Still, though, Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul proves a cutting comedy on the level of Drop Dead Gorgeous. (I assure you, that’s high praise coming from me.)
How to watch: TBD
5. Fire of Love
A tender romance that ends in a blaze of glory and lava, Fire of Love delicately pours forth the stranger-than-fiction story of Katia and Maurice Krafft, two scientists whose shared love of volcanos led to their marriage, their mission, and their untimely demise.
Directed by Sara Dosa, this sentimental and startling documentary is stitched together with a wealth of archival footage, some of it from quirky appearances on talk shows, but most from the hundreds of hours this power couple shot in their explorations of an untameable force of nature. Lava flows, scorching burns, cooling magma, and an acid lake are all regarded with earnest wonder. Between a spacey score and the amazing images of these explorers in their astronaut-like fire-retardant safety suits, the film has a sci-fi swoon to it, reflecting the excitement of trekking into this final frontier. Tying all these interviews and images together is a narration from Miranda July, whose whispering tone suggests she’s scratching at the sacred secrets of our brutal but beautiful world.
6. My Old School
A couple of Sundance standouts are fictional films that play in the documentary format, but this documentary turns the tables by leaning into the fantasy of its curious subject. In 1993, Brandon Lee enrolled in a Scottish high school, eager to excel at his studies and maybe make some friends along his path to med school. Despite some oddities, he was embraced by his classmates…that is, until his bizarre secret broke, sparking a scandal that decades later is still inspiring juicy gossip.
You could google what went down. But trust me, you’ll want to go on the journey My Old School sets up. Director Jono McLeod was one of those classmates (hence the title), and so sits down with his peers for a reunion that’s charged with nostalgia, excitement, and awe. Leaning over school desks, the interviewed chuckle, recollect, and speculate with an enthusiasm that invites us in as one of the gang. Rather than live-action re-enactments, McLeod pays tribute to the ’90s with animation that has a distinctly Daria style. But what to do when Lee refuses to appear on camera for his interview? Take the audio and allow Scottish actor Alan Cumming to lip-synch the interview, giving a face to a tale too wild to spoil here. The combination makes for a doc that’s rollicking fun, featuring not only a big twist and tons of jaw-dropping details, but also a lot of heart — plus room to let the impact of all this drama sink in softly but surely.
How to watch: TBD
Aisha (Anna Diop) is an undocumented Senegalese single mother trying to build a new life for her young son by working as a nanny to a rich and entitled couple in Manhattan. Day and night, she is run ragged by this fraught family’s demands, racist microaggressions, and outright avarice. But not even sleep gives her rest, as strange nightmares of sneering doppelgängers, creeping spiders, and mythical creatures haunt her. Before long, they begin to creep into her waking hours, too. Are they a warning or a threat? Can she make out their murky message in time?
In her feature film debut, writer/director Nikyatu Jusu employs folklore and surreal horror to turn the all-too-real struggles of immigrant mothers into a vividly haunting thriller. A story of contrasts and conflict, Aisha’s humble home and cheerful community explodes with bold colors, while the apartment of her employer is a draining sprawl of grays. In costume and attitude, a captivating Diop reveals the code-switching required in surviving as a nanny. Her eyes flash with righteous fury as the leering lens of nanny-cams pop up around her. A score of skittering bugs and human groans plays as a perfect backdrop to a downward spiral, slippery and spooky. With a climax that hits as hard as a tidal wave, Nanny is a crowd-pleaser. It’s little wonder it took home the U.S. Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic Competition slate. Whether you relish thoughtful character studies or the treacherous terrains found in horror, you’ll want to seek this one out.
How to watch: TBD
Margaret (Rebecca Hall) is a single mother with a tidy home, a successful career, and a brilliant daughter soon to be sent off to college. Her carefully composed life is thrown into a spiral of chaos when her ex David (Tim Roth) unexpectedly re-emerges. On its surface, Resurrection seems like a drama about the trauma born from an abusive relationship. But as the layers are pulled back on the toxic romance, an unsettling core of grisly horror is birthed.
The clever psychological thriller’s big twist has critics drop-jawed in shock and awe. But don’t seek out spoilers. Instead, trust in the impeccable pairing of Hall and Roth, who created onscreen chemistry that is as riveting as it is revolting. In one long take, Hall delivers a monologue that is positively gut-wrenching, then Roth responds with a matter-of-factness that makes her reveals all the more chilling. Together, they perform a tango of terror that loops in paranoia, stalking, gaslighting, and how love might be weaponized for blackmail. Writer/director Andrew Semans proves a malevolent maestro, conducting this carnage to a climax that is stomach-churning, spine-tingling, and mind-melting.
If, like us, you can’t wait for Season 2 of We Are Lady Parts, you’ll relish this documentary about the Middle East’s first all-female metal band, Slave to Sirens. Against a backdrop of political unrest in Beirut, Lebanon, two best friends, guitarists Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara, find solace and freedom in founding this head-banging band. But amid electric outages and creative differences, keeping the dream alive and the band together can be a challenge.
Documentarian Rita Baghdadi gets up close and personal with Shery and Lilas, inviting us into moments of tenderness, heartbreak, and volatility. The focus of the film is the band as they move from sparsely attended shows to bigger venues and a glittery spotlight. Along the way, Baghdadi gently explores the lives of these ambitious and electrifying young women to touch on themes of friendship, feminism, resistance, sexuality, and self-discovery. As these sirens shriek for a better tomorrow, we are emotionally entangled in their rhythms, their world, and their revolution.
How to watch: TBD
10. Something in the Dirt
Some friendships lead us down incredible paths to adventure, big dreams, and heady realizations. Others end in tragedy. Some do both. Such a story is at the heart of Something in the Dirt, the latest collaboration between Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, where the co-directors/co-stars play Los Angeles neighbors who are drawn together by a glimpse of the supernatural.
As with The Endless and Synchronic, Something in the Dirt uses a cerebral sci-fi premise to explore the complicated bond between its heroes. Here, a frustrated loner and a happy-go-lucky drifter find unexpected community and purpose by happenstance. Naturally, they decide to make a documentary about their findings. Thus, this movie is revealed to be a mockumentary, where the crew keeps quitting, the re-enactments become increasingly (and purposefully) sketchy, and the answers to its big questions aren’t guaranteed. The result is a film that is trippy, unsettling, and sometimes sharply funny.
How to watch: TBD
11. Speak No Evil
Have your instincts ever screamed for you to leave a place, but your commitment to being polite held you frozen in place? Then, you’ll appreciate the psychological horror of Speak No Evil, a film that turns the social contract into a slowly tightening noose.
Co-writer/director Christian Tafdrup wowed Sundance audiences with his tale of two families whose growing bond goes grim. For much of the runtime, Speak No Evil plays as a cringe-comedy, where cultures clash over vegetarianism, parenting, and PDA. The Dutch family visiting their new Danish friends might exchange glances of annoyance or slight concern. Yet even as things turn bizarre, they can’t seem to escape this holiday turning hellish. The final act leaves civility behind with frank violence and realistic gore that had Midnight movie fans cheering. No wonder Shudder was quick to snap up this sharp, suspenseful, and sensationally sick treasure.
How to watch: Coming to Shudder.
*This piece will be updated as acquisition news and release dates are announced.