Sundance Film Festival 2021: The 10 best movies, as chosen by Total Film

With the Omicron variant an ongoing concern, the Sundance Film Festival 2022 went virtual, beaming a packed slate of lovingly curated, independently spirited movies to the sofa-plexes of attendees lucky enough to nab tickets. But what the festival lacked in old fashioned face-to-face camaraderie, it more than made up for with one of the strongest Sundance line-ups in years. 

There may not have been a big ticket sale to rival the $25m Apple paid for Sian Heder’s CODA last year, but don’t let that fool you – every film on this list is well worth seeking out when they hit screens (most at the time of publication, await distribution). In fact, the biggest challenge was narrowing this list down to just 10 films. Read on to find out our favorites.

10. Emily The Criminal

Aubrey Plaza in Emily The Criminal

(Image credit: Sundance)

The movie: Aubrey Plaza completes her transformation into tough-as-nails leading lady as a debt-riddled college dropout who enters the world of quick-cash credit card fraud in first time filmmaker John Patton Ford’s gritty LA noir.

Our reaction: Supremely tense and explosively pertinent, Emily The Criminal is a heist thriller rooted in cutting social commentary. Plaza surfaces her too-rarely-seen serious side as resourceful anti-hero Emily, a debtor-class, gig-economy worker with no prospects who’s pushed to escalating extremes. We’re a long way from Parks And Recreation…

9. Good Luck To You, Leo Grande

Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack in Good Luck To You, Leo Grande

(Image credit: Sundance)

The movie: A widow (Emma Thompson) who has only slept with her husband hires a sex worker (Daryl McCormack) to help her on a voyage of carnal discovery. But as the duo’s trysts metastasize from awkward to introspective, she unearths more than sex.

Our reaction: A barnstorming Thompson is matched by McCormack’s slinky nuance in a tender, frank and funny liberation story with a feminist twist. 

8. Am I OK?

Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno in Am I OK?

(Image credit: Sundance)

The movie: Tig Notaro’s directorial debut is a personal one – the story of a thirty-something woman (Dakota Johnson) coming to terms with her late-blooming sexuality tracks close to her wife and co-director, Stephanie Allynne’s own experience. The result is a comedy coming-of-ager and a celebration of female friendship. 

Our reaction: Johnson is luminous as Lucy, a woman latently realizing that she is gay – but her delightful turn doesn’t work without the brusque charm of Sonoya Mizuno’s Jane. Their bantz feel lived-in, real, and engage immediately.

7. God’s Country

Thandiwe Newton in God's Country

(Image credit: Sundance)

The movie: A grieving professor (Thandiwe Newton) living in rural Montana becomes engaged in an escalating conflict with two local hunters in director Julian Higgins’ stark neo-western. Through a deceptively rich backstory that echoes into the present, the film also examines the place of Black women in American society, against a backdrop of more traditional genre thrills.

Our reaction: Newton is career-best in this atypically intelligent revenge thriller that doubles as politically charged state-of-the-nation character drama. Higgins’ knows how to marshal nerve-fraying tension, but it’s Newton’s formidable performance as a harried woman whose fury at the world threatens to spill over that makes this such a riveting experience.

6. Emergency


(Image credit: Sundance)

The movie: Two partying black students (Donald Elise Watkins and RJ Cyler) hesitate to call the cops when they discover an unconscious white girl and spiral into a smart, socially-aware disaster night that tests their friendship and institutional racism.

Our reaction: Like a cross between Booksmart and Get Out, Emergency aces emotional wallop with a convincing friendship arc while also making salient points about bias. A warm, mirthful and pertinent bildungsroman. (Coming to Amazon Prime).

5. Fresh

Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones in Fresh

(Image credit: Disney)

The movie: Mimi Cave’s directorial debut recalls Promising Young Woman in its bait-and-switch exploration of toxic masculinity as Daisy Edger-Jones’ singleton endures horror on the LA dating scene. Sebastian Stan gets his teeth into a suitor role and dances like a demon. 

Our reaction: Darkly funny and tonally assured with a banging soundtrack, Fresh is a divisive, nasty thrill with meaty themes. To say more would be to spoil… (Coming to Hulu/Disney+)

4. You Won’t Be Alone

Noomi Rapace in You Won't Be Alone

(Image credit: Sundance)

The movie: “What if Terence Malick directed The Witch” is the elevator pitch for Goran Stolevski’s spellbinding folk horror, which follows a freshly turned shapeshifter who discovers her humanity by stealing strangers’ lives in 19th Century Macedonia. The faces of Noomi Rapace and Alice Englert are among those worn by the transformative central character.

Our reaction: Less horror (though there are horrors within), more character study of a reluctant monster coming to terms with the rules of the world around her, and her place in it, You Won’t Be Alone is a complex, challenging, and singular vision. First time feature filmmaker Stolevski has an eye to rival Malick’s pastoral poetry, while his script locates empathy and insight amid the spilt guts.

3. Living

Billy Nighy in Living

(Image credit: Film4)

The movie: Kazuo Ishiguro scripted this remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic Ikiru, shifting the story of a buttoned-down government bureaucrat (Bill Nighy) who finds renewed purpose in the face of his impending mortality from Tokyo to post-War London. Tom Burke and Sex Education’s Aimee Lou Wood also star.

Our reaction: A handsomely mounted and deeply moving slowburn, Moffie director Oliver Hermanus achieves results improbably close to Kurosawa’s masterpiece with this thoughtful remake. As the repressed Mr. Williams, who flowers with understated grace, Bill Nighy hits a heartbreaking career high. A transportive, precisely mannered period piece to luxuriate in.

2. Speak No Evil

Speak No Evil

(Image credit: Sundance)

The movie: A Danish and Dutch family click on a Tuscan holiday but when the Danes accept an invitation to spend the weekend at their new acquaintances’ rural home six months later, they discover a terrifying gulf between them. As one of their friends asks, ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ Um, where to start…

Our reaction: Soaked in dread from start to finish, this sharp psychological horror explores stranger-danger, social anxiety, Passive aggression, middle-class inertia, and cruelty to tortuous effect. Horribly great. (Coming to Shudder)

1. Cha Cha Real Smooth

Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in Cha Cha Real Smooth

(Image credit: Sundance)

The movie: Aimless but charismatic 22-year-old Andrew (Cooper Raiff) works as a party-starter at local bar and bat mitzvahs. One night he hits it off with Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), but the instant, effortless connection is complicated by Andrew and Domino’s critically different trajectories.

Our reaction: A film with the nuclear charm of its sickeningly talented leading man (Raiff, still in his early 20s, wrote, directed, and stars), Cha Cha Real Smooth is a profoundly bittersweet and terrifically funny crowd-pleaser. Andrew is an infectiously delightful man-child on a formative emotional journey, but it’s Johnson’s conflicted, richly realized young mother who anchors the film’s touching take on love and longing. Don’t be surprised if Raiff is everywhere in the next few years.

Honorable Mentions

These didn’t quite make our top 10, but race to watch them when they release:

2nd Chance
Brian And Charles
Call Jane
We Met In Virtual Reality
When You Finish Saving The World

Themes of Sundance 2022

Never trust a doctor.
Dance scenes – weird and joyful – are great.
Dakota Johnson is a force to be reckoned with.
Soft toys can be replaced.
Artificially created companions are trouble.
Watching Cary Grant movies at the cinema is cool.
Mixed age relationships are educational.
Lots of filmmakers liked Get Out.

For more film stories, check out the Total Film team’s Oscars 2022 predictions.

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