Every year around this time, film critics, movie-lovers, artists and producers descend on Park City, Utah for the storied Sundance Film Festival. This year, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic made gathering in-person an impossibility (as it did in 2021 as well), but that hasn’t stopped the world’s biggest cinephiles from seeing some of the most exciting films on the horizon well before they turn up at multiplexes.
From Jan. 20-30, our film critics are scoping out the best, buzziest and most unexpected titles of the festival. Read on for our fourth dispatch from the fest, which features a masterful Bill Nighy performance, Lena Dunham’s return to feature filmmaking, Colin Farrell in an elegiac sci-fi family drama and Sebastian Stan doing a scary little dance.
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Fresh: Craving a sharp, stylish satire? Bon Appétit.
Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones appear in "Fresh" by Mimi Cave, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
The premise: "Frustrated by scrolling dating apps only to end up on lame, tedious dates, Noa takes a chance by giving her number to the awkwardly charming Steve after a produce-section meet-cute at the grocery store. During a subsequent date at a local bar, sassy banter gives way to a chemistry-laden hookup, and a smitten Noa dares to hope that she might have actually found a real connection with the dashing cosmetic surgeon. She accepts Steve’s invitation to an impromptu weekend getaway, only to find that her new paramour has been hiding some unusual appetites."
Our critic’s take: When the title of "Fresh" pops up onscreen some 30-ish minutes into its expertly-paced runtime, the bold letters do exactly what they are meant to do: let the audience know that the movie has finally started. That might sound like a complaint, but it’s not. The opening act of director Mimi Cave’s assured, darkly comic debut feature immediately puts the viewer in the position of waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s honest storytelling and a fiendish trick all at once — after all, if you found yourself in the middle of a storybook meet-cute, wouldn’t you be suspicious too? And if you found yourself being suspicious, wouldn’t you wonder if you’re just being paranoid?
So, yes, "Fresh" takes its time getting started, but that time isn’t wasted. The first act allows Daisy Edgar-Jones (Hulu’s "Normal People") to bring unsatisfied singleton Noa to life, conveying intertwined feelings of apprehension and excitement as only part of the enormously appealing performance that anchors the film. It’s a turn that allows the audience to doubt and delight alongside her, so that when the penny finally drops, it’s as if we’ve all been duped together but somehow knew it all along.
That’s due in part to the funny, unhinged performance of Sebastian Stan, who operates in the Dan Stevens mode here, using his movie star good looks and charm to make "Fresh" just that little bit weirder. Cave and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski ("Midsommar") take obvious delight in the big swings Stan is making as dreamy plastic surgeon Steve. While Noa anchors the emotional core of the story (and plays the straight man, so to speak), the visual language is all Steve; glossy and appealing and wrong. For a sense of the film’s tone, imagine the series "Hannibal" as a punchy, hip comedy, or "Phantom Thread" by way of "Ready or Not."
In a perfect world, this review would say much, much more about "Fresh," from Jojo T. Gibbs’ terrific supporting turn as Noa’s BFF to the righteous soundtrack to the sharp-toothed sense of humor that never overwhelms Lauryn Kahn’s emotionally rich screenplay. Alas, writing about "Fresh" without giving away its secrets is pretty much impossible, so let’s leave it at this: See it. Have fun. And maybe don’t eat first. [Allison Shoemaker]
WATCH FOR FREE ON TUBI: Sebastian Stan in "I’m Not Here"
Living: Bill Nighy astonishes in an elegant "Ikiru" adaptation
Bill Nighy appears in "Living" by Oliver Hermanus, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Number 9 Films/Ross Ferguson.
The premise: "A veteran civil servant and bureaucratic cog in the rebuilding of Britain post-WWII, Williams (Bill Nighy) expertly pushes paperwork around a government office only to reckon with his existence when he’s diagnosed with a fatal illness. A widower, he conceals the condition from his grown son, spends an evening of debauchery with a bohemian writer in Brighton, and uncharacteristically avoids his office. But after a vivacious former co-worker, Margaret, inspires him to find meaning in his remaining days, Williams attempts to salvage a modest building project from bureaucratic purgatory."
Our critic’s take: Bill Nighy is one of the greats, and we forget it at our peril. "Living" will set even the biggest skeptic straight on that point. If his subtle performance — sure to be one of the very best of the year — was the only remarkable thing about this Oliver Hermanus-directed adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s seminal "Ikiru" (1952), it would be reason enough to seek out this gentle, profoundly moving film. Nighy is magnetic, heartbreaking and utterly unforgettable. Movies have become classics for less.
But while Nighy’s turn may be the film’s raison d'être, it is by no means its only strength. Working from an elegant screenplay by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, Hermanus mirrors Nighy's approach in his filmmaking choices. His is a light touch, the film laced with silence and stillness. Yet those wordless moments arrive in a multitude of shades: stillnesses borne of shock, or weariness, or comfort; the silence of absence, of hesitation, of snow falling. There's so much space, but no emptiness. It's a film that leaves room for growth inside itself, like the space inside a bottle of soda. Hermanus gives his characters (and his audience) room to breathe, lest they burst. (This is especially true of supporting player Aimee Lou Wood, giving a performance that would be a standout in a movie that didn't also include Nighy at his best.)
Those acquainted with "Ikiru" may be tempted to dismiss "Living" as another lazy Western remake, a film for English-speakers who can’t be bothered with subtitles. But this is an adaptation in the truest sense: an exploration and examination of source material clearly cherished by its adaptors, and enriched by the reverence and insight they bring to the table.
In Thornton Wilder’s "Our Town," a character asks if people "ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?" The response she gets is a quick no, with an addendum: "Saints and poets, maybe — they do some." Perhaps "Living" has a saint or two behind the scenes; if nothing else, it’s a film determined to make poets of us all. [Allison Shoemaker]
After Yang: Colin Farrell grapples with the loss of his android son
Colin Farrell appears in "After Yang" by Kogonada, an official selection of the Spotlight section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Benjamin Loeb / A24.
The premise: "When Yang — a lifelike, artificially intelligent android that Jake and Kyra buy as a companion for their adopted daughter — abruptly stops functioning, Jake just wants him repaired quickly and cheaply. But having purchased Yang "certified refurbished" from a now-defunct store, he’s led first to a conspiracy theorist technician and then a technology museum curator, who discovers that Yang was actually recording memories. Jake’s quest eventually becomes one of existential introspection and contemplating his own life, as it passes him by."
Our critic’s take: "Tone poem" and "memory play" are two of the most overused terms when it comes to indie arthouse films, yet it’s hard to think of better descriptors for writer/director Kogonada’s elegiac sci-fi family drama "After Yang." After an exuberant burst of an opening credits dance sequence, the movie quickly becomes a wistful meditation on what it means to be human, what it means to be an android and what it means to be a family. When your child’s robotic big brother breaks, is it like fixing an iPad or losing a son?
In contrast to something like "Westworld," which imagines a deeply cynical future between man and machine, "After Yang" takes a more hopeful view. "Cultural technosapien" Yang (Justin H. Min) isn’t human and doesn’t necessarily want to be. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love his adoptive family — and that they don’t love him back. In fact, it’s not until Yang goes on the fritz that dad Jake (Colin Farrell), mom Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) and little sister Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) begin to realize just how integral he truly was to their lives. Jake’s quest to have Yang fixed soon becomes both an external and internal journey towards deeper understanding of his technospaien son and how he viewed the world.
Kogonada finds elegantly simple ways to flesh out his near-future world. There are echoes of "Ex Machina" and "Her" in the film’s cozily sleek aesthetics; self-driving cars come equipped with little fern gardens, and films can be watched on the inside of sunglasses. Like those other lo-fi sci-fi movies, "After Yang" also has no shortage of ambitious metaphorical ideas at its center. Yang’s purpose is to teach Jake and Kyra’s adoptive daughter about her Chinese heritage, but what does he really know about being Asian, he wonders, when his connection to Chinese culture is learned more than lived? "After Yang" is the sort of meditative science fiction tale that feels both broadly humanistic and deeply personal for its South Korean-born American director.
With an evocative, slightly jarring editing style and almost monotone serenity, there’s a touch of detachment here that could leave some cold by the time the credits roll. Yet give it a day or two and you might find that "After Yang" sticks with you like an android dreaming of electric sheep. [Caroline Siede]
WATCH FOR FREE ON TUBI: Colin Farrell in Michael Mann’s "Miami Vice"
Sharp Stick: Lena Dunham’s third film is a dicey provocation
Kristine Froseth and Jon Bernthal appear in "Sharp Stick" by Lena Dunham, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
The premise: "Sensitive and naive 26-year-old Sarah Jo lives in a Los Angeles apartment complex with her influencer sister and her disillusioned mother. She is also a wonderful caregiver to Zach, a child with an intellectual disability. Eager to lose her virginity, Sarah Jo embarks on an exhilarating affair with Zach’s dense but affable father, Josh. In the wake of the doomed relationship, Sarah Jo grapples with heartbreak by dedicating herself to unlocking every aspect of the sexual experience that she feels she’s missed out on for so long."
Our critic’s take: Lena Dunham’s first feature since 2010’s "Tiny Furniture" (she made HBO’s "Girls" in the interim), "Sharp Stick" certainly feels like the product of a woman reflecting on more than a decade in the spotlight, with all the praise, criticism and controversy that entails. It’s a grand understatement to say the past few years in Dunham’s life have been eventful; to summarize it all would take up about as much time as "Sharp Stick" does, so let’s just say that it’s complicated.
Regardless, the real-life event that most likely inspired her script is her hysterectomy. (Dunham specifically cited "medical trauma" as an influence in a Sundance Q&A session.) Here, that experience belongs to 26-year-old protagonist Sarah Jo, played with idiosyncratic enthusiasm by Kristine Froseth. The procedure and its aftermath cause Sarah Jo to emotionally regress to a naive, almost childlike state, stunting her emotional growth and leaving her fearful of sex. Enter an aw-shucks himbo (Jon Bernthal) who awakens something inside her, launching Sarah Jo into something of a sexual rumspringa — including an obsession with her new favorite porn star (played by Scott Speedman).
Dunham essentially performs a full-on pivot to provocateur with this film — it is a lot. Yet the intensity is leavened by the kind of whimsical quirks typically found in the films of artists like Miranda July. (Sarah Jo’s alphabetical sexual checklist — A for anal, the list goes on — is written out as a big arts-and-crafts mural in her room.) The result is messy, less a cohesive motion picture than the first-draft sketching of an artist scrambling to put herself back together after years of medical and professional strife. It feels like an elevation of Dunham’s visual craft, to be sure, toying with the limits of her typical formalism with animated sequences and playful editing. And if it doesn't altogether work, it still shows Dunham growing as an artist, exorcising her personal demons around sex and personhood. "Sharp Stick" may be self-consciously provocative, but that provocation at least provides plenty to unpack. [Clint Worthington]
WATCH FOR FREE ON TUBI: Jon Bernthal in crime thriller "Wind River"
The Janes: A winning doc about radically empathetic abortion activists
A still from <i>The Janes</i> by Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
The premise: "In the spring of 1972, police raided an apartment on the South Side of Chicago. Seven women were arrested and charged. The accused were part of a clandestine network. Using code names, blindfolds, and safe houses to protect their identities and their work, they built an underground service for women seeking safe, affordable, illegal abortions. They called themselves Jane. Facing off against the mafia, the church, and the state, the Janes exhibited unparalleled bravery and compassion for those most in need."
Our critic’s take: It takes real finesse to deliver a history lesson that’s lively, funny and personal but still conveys the weight of its subject matter. And that’s exactly where HBO’s upcoming documentary "The Janes" excels. "We were really ordinary women, and we were trying to save women’s lives," one interview subject recalls near the end of the documentary. "We wanted every woman who contacted us to be the hero of her own story." She’s talking about the Jane Collective, the underground Chicago network that provided around 11,000 safe, affordable, illegal abortions between 1968 and 1973. Equal parts accessible and informative, "The Janes" shines a light on what life looked like at a time when a woman’s right to choose wasn’t protected by law.
It’s hard not to come away a little bit in love with the now 60- and 70-something women of Jane, who give this documentary its backbone through lively, sharp talking head interviews about the risky yet empowering work that defined their young lives. Frustrated by the patriarchal undertones of the anti-war and Civil Rights movements, as well as the intangibility of the fight to legalize abortion nation-wide, the founding members of Jane decided to bring some Midwestern practicality to the issue: They set up a phone line where women could call to receive safe, non-judgmental abortions, complete with taxi service and aftercare.
Directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes excel at mixing streamlined yet nuanced historical context with personal anecdotes that bring that history to life. There’s quite a lot of information packed in here — including perspectives on race, class and privilege that many of the members of Jane (most of them middle-class white women) admit they can see more clearly now than they could in the late 1960s. Yet it’s also evident just how personal this work was for these radically empathetic activists, many of whom joined the organization out of a desire to ensure other women had better abortion experiences than the harrowing ones they were subjected to in dingy, uncaring settings.
"The Janes" never loses sight of the high stakes at play, both for the women receiving abortions (often from abortionists without medical licenses) and for the women running the highly illegal operation. But what emerges most strongly is the sense of how empowering and transformative this work was for the women of Jane, who created in each other the sort of compassionate health care system that condescending male lawmakers and doctors so cruelly denied them. Given the current state of the abortion debate in America "The Janes" is a harrowing glimpse at a potential future, but also a loving tribute to unsung heroes of the past. [Caroline Siede]
101 minutes. Documentary. Dir: Tia Lessin, Emma Pildes. Distributed by HBO.
WATCH FOR FREE ON TUBI: Historical drama "Ask for Jane"
About the writer: Allison Shoemaker is a Chicago-based pop-culture critic and journalist. She is the author of "How TV Can Make You Smarter," and a member of the Television Critics Association and the Chicago Film Critics Association. She is also a producer and co-host for the Podlander Presents network of podcasts. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @allisonshoe. Allison is a Tomatometer-approved Top Critic on Rotten Tomatoes.
About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she lovingly dissects the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her ongoing column When Romance Met Comedy at The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).
About the writer: Clint Worthington is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, and a Senior Writer at Consequence. You can find his other work at Vulture, Nerdist, RogerEbert.com, and elsewhere.
Build your own film festival with these award-winning titles, streaming (for free!) on Tubi
Schindler’s List (1993): Liam Neeson leads Steven Spielberg’s harrowing account of the Holocaust and the heroic man who saved more than a thousand lives. "Schindler’s List" won three Golden Globes and seven Oscars, and is often held up as one of the greatest films ever made. Rated R. 195 minutes. Dir: Steven Spielberg. Also featuring: Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes.
Lion (2016): Dev Patel transformed his career (and his public image) with this critically acclaimed true story of a young Indian-Australian man who becomes determined to find his lost birth family. With four Golden Globe nominations, six Oscar nods and two BAFTA wins, it’s a cross-cultural story that resonated around the world. Rated PG-13. 118 minutes. Dir: Garth Davis. Also featuring: Sunny Pawar, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, Priyanka Bose, David Wenham.
Lilies of the Field (1963): The great Sidney Poitier made history when he won a well-deserved Oscar for this comedic drama, an adaptation of William Edmund Barrett’s 1962 novel "The Lilies of the Field." When Homer (Poitier), an itinerant worker with long-dormant dreams of becoming an architect, saw a group of German nuns attempting to build a fence on a ramshackle Arizona farm, he probably didn’t expect to wind up taking on a massive construction project — but thanks to the intrepid Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), he’s persuaded to stay and help with a number of small jobs, then some medium-sized jobs, and then a whole church-sized job. It’s a charming film anchored by Poitier’s warm presence and thoughtful performance, a turn that will appeal to believers and non-believers alike. Rated TV-PG. 94 minutes. Dir: Ralph Nelson. Featuring: Sidney Poitier, Stanley Adams, Lilia Skala.
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