Why 'Sundance' Rocked — 10 Films to Look Forward To from the Film Fest

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday February 1, 2022

Twenty-eight films in five days, and it's a wrap — with ten more to recommend. This year's Sundance Film Festival rocked!†

Best performances in the second half are shared by Thandiwe Newton in "God's Country" and Aubrey Plaza in "Emily the Criminal." Emma Thompson is still my overall favorite for her incredible work in "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande." So, the women rule!

Other standouts: Anamaria Vartolomei in "Happening," John Boyega in "892," and Jonanthan Tucker's creepy turn in "Palm Trees and Power Lines." Meantime, "Am I Ok?" and "Something in the Dirt" have LGBTQ characters and deal with some interesting queer themes.

(Click here to see this year's winners.)

Here are 10 more recommended films:

'After Yang'

Films about AIs of all types have been made in the last few decades, exploring many aspects of how humans relate to them, but rarely do we get a film that delves deeply into how an artificially intelligent android (or technosapien, as a character in the movie refers to them) might be relating to humans — especially one that does so after said android has ceased to function. Kogonada's lyrical and beguiling "After Yang" wonders many of the heady questions Woody Allen tended to in his pre-banishment films, although he does so in a much more futuristic milieu. In Kogonada's world, humans have become quite intimate with their gadgets (opening up an entire can of impropriety worms to explore... but that's not what this film is about). His fascinating premise yields an equally intriguing discovery. Colin Farrell is superb, and newcomer Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja is truly magical.

'Happening'

Audrey Diwan's internationally acclaimed second feature, "Happening," is an unsparingly honest and necessarily gruesome look at a promising and ambitious young university student who finds she's pregnant at the worst time in her life. Also, the time is set in France in 1963, and the laws against abortions are so rigid that no one is willing to help her. Doctors pretend that they are, but then cunningly prescribe shots that strengthen the uterus. This potent film is adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux, and never shifts focus from the lead character, impressively portrayed by Anamaria Vartolomei. "Happening" is a true horror film.

'God's Country'

As towering dramatic showcases go, they don't come any richer than Thandiwe Newton's mesmerizing turn in Julian Higgins's anxiety-inducing feature debut, "God's Country." She plays Sandra, an exhausted college professor (with a compelling backstory I won't give away) mourning the loss of her mother and having to deal with two trespassing trouble-making hunters, as well as a racist university body, in either Montana or Wyoming (not sure; the locale is revealed). The tension escalates as the white trash duo make more trouble and Sandra is pushed to the breaking point. There is a lot in this film to unpack, and I admit to impatience with the narrative in the final quarter; but the final moments gave me satisfaction — which then troubled me.

'892'

John Boyega anchors "892," a taut, nail-biting thriller based on a true story, about a U.S. Marine driven to drastic measures after his Veterans benefits were misrouted. Boyega's Brian has run out of options, and anyone who has had to deal with the systemic red tape found in our country's horrifically damaged social system will be able to relate to his feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Abi Damaris Corbin keeps the "Dog Day" tension high, although I wish he had given us a bit more background on the supporting players, who are so good (specifically the late great Michael Kenneth Williams, Nichole Beharie, Olivia Washington, and Connie Britton). But this is Boyega's showcase, and he is beyond impressive. I would also argue that the film isn't damning enough to those who led the real figure to such extremes, as well as those responsible for his... end.

'Am I Ok?'

"Am I Ok?" has been labeled a coming out story, but it's really a film about a close friendship that gets tested when seismic changes are introduced into a relationship. The more focused and career-driven of two friends, Jane (Sonoya Mizuno), receives a promotion, which means moving to London. Her more lackadaisical bestie, Lucy (Dakota Johnson) is dealing with her own realization: That she is attracted to women — specifically, she's infatuated with a co-worker, played warmly by Kiersey Clemons. Real-life couple Stephanie Allynne and Tig Notaro affectionately direct from a screenplay by Lauren Pomerantz. The too-long friend-break feels contrived — mostly because Muzuno and Johnson do such a great job of cementing their bond early on — but the inevitable reunion is satisfying.

'Emily the Criminal'

Aubrey Plaza has a knack for playing odd lead characters and making them palpable. Her perfs in "Life After Beth," and "Ingrid Goes West" are two prime examples. In John Patton Ford's anxiety-inducing "Emily the Criminal" she has her most challenging role yet, as a young woman saddled with student loans whose minor assault conviction forces her into taking on a criminal endeavor to try and pay them off. Theo Rossi excels as the head of the shady gig/love interest. Plaza knocks this one out of the cinematic park. Her Emily is no one's fool. And she's a survivor.

'Emergency'

Carey Williams' "Emergency" begins as a campus odd-couple buddy comedy, and then gets shake-and-baked into an anxiety-fueled, racially-charge farce that twists and turns, but runs a bit out of steam because the stakes should have been raised. Still, the journey is worth taking. K.D. Dávila's script is sharp, and the three central performances by Donald Elise Watkins, RJ Cyler, and Sebastian Chacon are excellent.

'Something in the Dirt'

Celebrated idiosyncratic filmmakers Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson ("The Endless," "Synchronic") have hatched their strangest, most mind-fuckiest film to date with "Something in the Dirt." It's also super-surprisingly character-centric, as we learn quite a bit about the oddball gay Evangelical (Moorhead) and his asexual surfer-like neighbor (Benson), who find a glowing, floating rock/crystal-like thing that seems to have supernatural powers. The duo co-direct, co-edit, and co-star, with Benson penning the script and Moorhead operating the camera. The endeavor is more than promising, but loses steam (and lost me) in the last quarter. Perhaps the duo could have taken a mathematical chill pill and simply kept focus on character, where the film was strongest.

'Palm Trees and Power Lines'

"Some people just have no business having kids." This line is spoken, ironically, by a character who exploits teens in Jamie Dack's debut feature, "Palm Trees and Power Lines." It's impossible to enjoy this film as much as appreciate its intentions. Based on Dack's 2018 short, "Palm Trees" focuses on shy 17-year-old Lea (Lily McInerny), who becomes increasing curious about sex and tired of the boys she hangs with. Into her life pops the good looking, sweet talking, 34-year-old Tom (Jonathan Tucker), who isn't what he seems. Without revealing much more, the film painstakingly takes us through the next steps in Lea's coming of age. It's a far too real journey that isn't for the squeamish — until the last moments, where Dack's script betrays the character she's spent so much time creating.

'When You Finish Saving the World'

Jesse Eisenberg's feature debut as writer-director, "When You Finish Saving the World" begins with great promise and centers on an antagonistic relationship between an upper middle-class mother and her teen son. Bleeding-heart liberal Evelyn (Julianne Moore) runs a shelter for battered women, while her self-involved son, Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard), has his own social media site where he sings schmaltzy songs to his 20,000 followers and gets paid a hefty sum for doing so. Neither one respects the other. Evelyn becomes obsessed with a teen boy (Billy Bryk), while Ziggy crushes on a much brighter girl (Alisha Boo) at school. At first the film is rich with empathy for its idiosyncratic characters, but that dissipates in the second half as it becomes obvious that the affluent characters are more broadly drawn and easier to poke fun at, which left me unmoved by what should have been a sublime ending.

Frank J. Avella is a film journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep and a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. Frank is a recipient of the International Writers Residency in Assisi, Italy, a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, and a NJ State Arts Council Fellowship. His short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide (figjamfilm.com) and won awards. His screenplays (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW) have also won numerous awards in 16 countries. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute