As 2022 dawned, the Sundance Film Festival seemed set to welcome moviegoers back to the streets of Park City, Utah, for another week-long binge of the best and brightest in independent film. But on Jan. 5, festival organizers made the difficult decision to go virtual for the second year in a row, a direct response to rising coronavirus case counts fueled by the Omicron variant. The 10-day event will now play out online, between Jan. 20 and 30.
But even a remote Sundance boasts the same star-powered premieres and breakout titles that define the in-person version. This year’s line-up features a bevy of buzzworthy films you can expect to hear about all year long. Yahoo Entertainment surveyed the 2022 line-up and put together a curated guide to some of the festival’s most promising offerings, including Lena Dunham’s first feature film in over a decade, new documentaries featuring Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Evan Rachel Wood and a TV show that wrestles with the legacy of Bill Cosby.
Lena Dunham begins her second act
Lena Dunham has been on a bit of a break from writing and directing since the end of her groundbreaking HBO series, Girls, in 2017. But Dunham is headed back to the big screen in a big way in 2022 with Sharp Stick — her first feature since 2010’s Tiny Furniture put her on the map. (She’s also completed a second film, Catherine, Called Birdy, which is expected to debut later this year.) Rising star Kristine Froseth stars as a 26-year-old caregiver who embarks on a torrid love affair with an older man (Jon Bernthal), which they try to keep hidden from his wife, played by Dunham. The writer/director has referred to Sharp Stick as a “sexual fable” in interviews, which suggests that it will tackle sex and sexuality with same kind of bracing frankness that defined Girls. You can see the impact of Dunham’s early work on two other stories of coming of age sexual awakenings that are premiering at Sundance. Finnish filmmaker Alli Haapasalo’s richly-observed Girl Picture follows two teenage friends as they explore new relationships and all the drama that comes with them. And Jamie Dack’s unsettling Palm Trees and Power Lines follows a neglected 17-year-old girl who gets involved with a 34-year-old man, and stands by him even as his true intentions become disturbingly clear.
Evan Rachel Wood/Marilyn Manson doc Phoenix Rising headlines #MeToo-era trifecta
In November, Rolling Stone’s Kory Grow and Jason Newman dropped a bombshell of a report detailing various allegations of sexual assault and psychological abuse against shock-rocker Marilyn Manson. The exposé followed similarly highly publicized claims from actress Evan Rachel Wood, who dated the musician for several years. In the late-breaking Sundance addition Phoenix Rising, directed by Oscar-nominated documentarian Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil), the Westworld star and abuse survivor-turned-activist Wood will tell her full story in a film that’s sure to generate some more unsightly Manson headlines. Rising is one of three noteworthy #MeToo-era docs unspooling at Sundance this year. Also look out for Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, Nina Menkes’s searing look at the visual objectification of women on screen, and The Princess, Ed Perkins’s deep-dive into the mistreatment and tragic life of late royal Diana Spencer.
Sinead O’Connor’s trailblazing career is celebrated on film amidst the singer’s personal tragedy
Sinead O’Connor’s pioneering path towards the top of the international charts would be ideal material for the rock doc treatment in any year. But the Sundance premiere of Kathryn Ferguson’s Nothing Compares is made all the more dramatic by the Irish singer/songwriter’s painfully recent personal tragedy: the death of her teenage son. O’Connor — who was recently hospitalized after expressing suicidal thoughts on Twitter in the wake of her loss — won’t be attending Sundance alongside Ferguson, but she did participate in the film, which spans the first half of her groundbreaking career and covers triumphs like the blockbuster single, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” as well as such travails as the intense public backlash to her 1992 Saturday Night Live appearance where she ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II. Other music-related documentaries launching at this year’s festival include Kanye West’s hotly anticipated Netflix collab, jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, and Meet Me in the Bathroom, a treasure trove of archival footage covering the early-2000s indie rock scene in New York City that birthed such major acts as the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
AOC also rocks Sundance
Don’t be surprised if political rockstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets the biopic treatment at Sundance’s 2032 edition. For now, New York’s most popular Congressional leader plays herself in To the End, Rachel Lears’s gripping, in-the-trenches portrait of climate change activists trying to make Washington D.C. — and the world at large — pay attention to their cause. As one of the most prominent backers of the Green New Deal, AOC is their voice in Congress and appears throughout the documentary expressing both hope and frustration as early victories are followed by painful setbacks. Climate change isn’t the only hot button political issue moviegoers can expect to encounter at Sundance. Abigail Disney calls out the country’s billionaire corporate class in The American Dream, which explores the dire and often desperate economic circumstances facing the lower-income families who are employed at her family’s world-famous theme parks. And Ramin Bahrani’s new documentary, 2nd Chance, smartly uses the rise and fall of a bulletproof vest industry titan as a way to comment on America’s gun culture and the perils of contemporary policing.
A host of racially themed thrillers have our attention
Maybe it’s the bloom from seeds planted during the racial reckoning that followed the police murder of George Floyd. Maybe it’s the influence of our new Master of Suspense, Jordan Peele. Or maybe it’s just Hollywood finally opening up some doors for more diverse storytellers in every genre. But one of the most noticeable themes to this year’s Sundance slate is its rich offering of racially-themed thrillers. Alice stars Keke Palmer as a woman escaping plantation enslavement to discover it’s actually 1973. The darkly comedic Emergency puts a couple fun-loving Black college students in a bind when they find a white girl passed out in the house but are too fearful to call the cops. An undocumented Senegalese woman (played by Titans star, Anna Diop) confronts supernatural evil in Nanny. Three Black women discover horrifying secrets at an elite New England university in Master. And Thandiwe Newton is a grieving college professor who must confront two white hunters trespassing on her property in God’s Country. We’re here for them all.
W. Kamau Bell is ready to talk about Bill Cosby
As a child of the ’70s and ’80s, comedian W. Kamau Bell freely acknowledges being a “Cosby kid,” one who was raised on a steady diet of seminal Bill Cosby-fronted series like Fat Albert and The Cosby Show. But as the world now knows all to well, Cosby’s avuncular public persona masked a decades-long history of alleged sexual abuse that culminated in his 2018 conviction and jail sentence. (He was released in 2021 after that conviction was overturned.) Bell’s four-part series, We Need to Talk About Cosby is his attempt to come to terms with Cosby’s tattered legacy, featuring interviews with fellow comedians, pop culture historians and some of the women that Cosby assaulted, who recount their stories in devastating detail. We Need to Talk About Cosby already has a Jan. 30 launch date on Showtime, but two other TV shows are arriving at Sundance looking for outlets. The A24-produced, Instant Life, is a fascinating three-part portrait of Yolanda Signorelli, the star of numerous black-and-white exploitation films whose late husband some of the most famous novelty toys ever sold in comic book back pages, including X-Ray Specs and Sea Monkeys. And Kate Bosworth stars as an unlikely assassin in the 10-episode series, Bring on the Dancing Horses, directed by her soon-to-be-ex husband, Michael Polish.
There are big stars onscreen, as always…
A former colleague of ours used to say Sundance was a golden opportunity to look at photo collections of “stars in parkas.” With Sundance gone virtual for the second year in a row, we’ll be missing out on the parkas, but the stars will still be aligned. After recent accolades for The Lost Daughter, Dakota Johnson keeps chugging in the female-friends-in-love dramedy AM I OK? and as the “older” woman alongside buzzy Gen-Z writer-director-star Cooper Raiff in Cha Cha Real Smooth. Star Wars alum John Boyega has lost his hair but not his mojo as a military vet threatening to blow up a bank in 892, which also marks Michael K. Williams’s final film role. Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith are parents desperate to fix their android daughter in After Yang. Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall satirize a Southern Baptist megachurch in Honk for Jesus: Save Your Soul. And Aubrey Plaza is Emily the Criminal, no other context needed.
…And a few big stars behind the camera, too.
It’s well-documented how difficult it is to get your project into Sundance as a first-time filmmaker. Not so much if you’re a well-known name for dozens of marquee acting credits on IMDb. Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network, Zombieland) makes his directorial debut with When You Finish Saving the World, a comedy-drama about a non-connecting mother (Julianne Moore) and son (Finn Wolfhard) who subconsciously seek replacements for one another. After directing two movies, two television series, and one TV movie, Parks and Rec favorite Amy Poehler makes her documentary debut revisiting the story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in Lucy and Desi, as does Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria Bastón, who looks at the rivalry between boxers Oscar De La Hoya and Julio César Chávez in La Guerra Civil.
A double dose of Janes hit Sundance as abortion debates intensify again.
Sundance has never shied away from abortion stories (see the 2020 breakout Never Rarely Sometimes Always) but this year a couple films dealing with the subject come loaded with newfound urgency in light of Texas’s controversial 2021 abortion ban after six weeks of pregnancy. On the documentary front, co-directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes look back at an underground network of abortion providers in late-1960s, early-1970s Chicago in The Janes. And in a perfect companion piece, the scripted drama Call Jane, Elizabeth Banks is a 1968 Chicago woman desperate to find one of those providers when her pregnancy leads to a life-threatening condition.
A new cult horror movie will be hatched at midnight
Sundance’s always-buzzy Midnight lineup is once again teeming with great reasons to stay up late, starting with the Finnish feature, Hatching — a Grimm’s fairy tale for the Instagram age. Guilt-ridden over repeatedly falling short of being her vlogger mom’s picture perfect daughter, young Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) literally hatches a creature that weaponizes all of her insecurities. Meanwhile, if Yellowjackets left you with a craving for more cannibalism-laced stories, you might want to sample Mimi Cave’s Fresh, in which breakout Normal People star, Daisy Edgar-Jones, starts dating Sebastian Stan only to discover his not Marvel-ous culinary tastes. And while it’s not part of the Midnight line-up, Goran Stolevski’s You Won’t Be Alone is a lyrical take on folk horror that unfolds in the 19th century Macedonian countryside, where mythical monsters mingle amongst humankind.
The 2022 Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 20-30. Visit the festival’s website to purchase single tickets or viewing packages.