After being initially conceived as a hybrid virtual and in-person event, the Sundance Film Festival last week announced this year’s 2022 edition would be entirely virtual, aside from a series of screenings at arthouses across the country. While the pandemic may have forced a major pivot to existing plans for on-the-ground action in Park City, a return to the fest’s popular digital platform ensures all sorts of film fans will get to check out the 82-strong feature film lineup on their own terms.
From the slate, we’ve selected 18 of the films we’re most excited to see at this year’s Sundance, from first-time filmmakers to perennial favorites, narratives to documentaries, and hell, even a series or two (turns out, the lines between “film” and “TV” are thinner than ever before). Given the depth of this year’s lineup, consider this guide simply a suggestion, and feel free to plunge deeper into a selection of films that unveils intriguing new options at every turn.
Curious about how to re-create the magic of Sundance at home? Public tickets and passes are on sale now, and our handy guide as to how to buy them (and which ones will suit your needs) is available right here. Not sure you’re going to “attend”? Plenty of premieres have already been picked up for wide release, and you get to know them right here, on our updating list of festival acquisitions. The festival kicks off next week and runs January 20 through January 30, 2022.
Eric Kohn, Anne Thompson, David Ehrlich, Ryan Lattanzio, and Jude Dry contributed to this article.
Ramin Bahrani follows up last year’s hit Netflix thriller “White Tiger” with a very different look at a corrupt social climber. The filmmaker’s first documentary feature focuses on Richard Davis, the controversial inventor of the concealable bulletproof vest. It wasn’t until recent times that his Zylon-based body armor lead to a tragedy that threatened to derail his career; before then, he was unstoppable. Davis popularized his method in part by dramatically shooting himself in the chest in informational videos, providing a shocking illustration of the militant bravado at the center of his bizarre version of the American dream.
From his early days as a Detroit pizza shop owner (until the business burned down under mysterious circumstances) to criminal endeavors that he continues to dance around to this day, Davis’ story is at once intriguing and ominous: Through his absurd propaganda films and his outsized local presence, he’s both modern day gangster and entrepreneur. With the awe-inspiring curiosity of vintage Errol Morris, “2nd Chance” shows a new side to Bahrani as a filmmaker and brings a wildly misunderstood figure into the unflattering spotlight he deserves. —EK
“Am I OK?”
Written by former “Saturday Night Live” and “The Ellen Show” writer Lauren Pomerantz and directed by married comedians Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne comes a gay coming-of-age comedy about a woman in her thirties (how about that?). Though Lucy (Dakota Johnson) and Jane (Sonoya Mizuno) have been best friends since childhood, everything is thrown into question when Lucy reveals her newfound interest in dating women. Not only must Lucy navigate this shifting friendship dynamic, but she must stumble through the awkward process of reinventing oneself in an effort live life on her own terms.
This is the first time Notaro and Allynne have directed a feature together, though they’ve long collaborated on Notaro’s Amazon show “One Mississippi.” Whether the material is up to their comedic standards remains to be seen, but with Johnson as an executive producer (alongside Will Ferrell), it’s a safe bet we’ll at least be entertained. —JD
Oscar-nominated “Carol” screenwriter Phyllis Nagy makes her feature directorial debut with this fictionalized story (written by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi) based on the true events surrounding the Jane Collective, a group of women who formed an underground abortion network in 1968 during the height of political upheaval in Chicago. Elizabeth Banks stars as a housewife who is navigating a medical system that seems unable to cope with her problem pregnancy. Soon she comes upon a clandestine operation that is set up to help women like her maintain control of their bodies: The Janes. Sigourney Weaver, Kate Mara, Chris Messina and John Magaro also star. —AT
“Cha Cha Real Smooth”
It makes perfect sense that “Shithouse” writer-director-star Cooper Raiff hasn’t wasted any time capitalizing on the success of his wonderful indie debut — winning SXSW at the tender age of 22 doesn’t exactly suggest a “sit back and wait” attitude — but it’s still exciting that his second film came into focus so fast, and all the more so because it was made with the help of some major Hollywood talent.
Named after a dance jam by one-hit wonder by Mr. C the Slide Man (and/or the Barney meme it inspired), “Cha Cha Real Smooth” stars Raiff as a wayward college grad who lands a job as a bar mitzvah party starter, which somehow leads him to spark a friendship with a young mother (Dakota Johnson, fresh off her brilliant work in “The Lost Daughter”) and her autistic daughter. The film co-stars Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett, and Raúl Castillo, among the other intriguing names who were drawn to the project, which is reason enough to believe that Raiff’s newest script is every bit as raw and hilarious as his last one, and that the movie he’s made from it will represent a big step up for someone already on top of the world. —DE
“The Cow Who Sang Into the Future”
Chilean filmmaker Francisca Alegria’s long-awaited feature debut will premiere in world cinema dramatic competition, starring heavy hitting Chilean actors Leonor Varela (“Blade II”) and Alfredo Castro (a mainstay of Pablo Larraín’s early filmography). Alegria’s similarly titled short, “And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye,” took home the jury prize for international short at Sundance in 2016, marking her as one to watch for a few years now. The film follows a woman who travels with her two children back to her aging father’s dairy farm after he has a heart attack. Back in her childhood home, she is visited by the spirit of her mother, whose suicide marked the family. As the farm animals sing about the future of her family, she begins the process of understanding her mother by listening to the nature surrounding her. —JD
Documentarian Margaret Brown (“The Order of Myths,” “The Great Invisible”) explores the story of the Clotilda, the last slave ship to (illegally) deliver slaves to the U.S. The ship arrived in her hometown of Mobile, Alabama in 1860, 40 years after African slave trading became a capital offense. The town burned the ship and buried its existence. After a century of hidden secrets and speculation, descendants of the Clotilda’s survivors, who now live in the area called Africatown, tell their story and join divers and Smithsonian archeologists to look for traces of the wreckage.
With this film, Brown uses this rich connection to the past to help the Black community redefine America’s understanding of itself. “This incredible piece chews into the sense that the past is the present is the future,” said Sundance director Tabitha Jackson. “It’s a real-life story, seismic in the historical understanding of the present-day implications of the last slave ships to make it to the coast of North America.” —AT
As much of a sure thing as you’re likely to find at a festival that thrives on the unknown, Riley Stearns’ “Dual” is the latest and most ambitious work from a rising filmmaker who’s darkly deadpan comedies about the violent underpinnings of modern identity have gotten sharper — and, in the case of 2019’s “The Art of Self-Defense,” much kickier — with every project since he first came to Sundance with the killer short “Cub” in 2013.
Epitomizing the heavy genre flavor of this year’s Competition lineup while also double-underlining Stearns’ affinity for Yorgos Lanthimos, “Dual” shows us a droll tomorrow in which dying people sometimes clone themselves so that their lives might seamlessly continue after they’re gone. But what happens to folks like Sarah (Karen Gillan), who go through the process only to make a miraculous recovery at the eleventh hour? More to the point: What happens to their doppelgängers, who have already been called into service? In the recent and more tonally conservative “Swan Song,” a similar situation led to a major spiritual crisis. In Stearns’ film, it naturally results in a court-ordered fight to the death. Whichever Sarah wins, it’s safe to assume that the movie around her will be one of a kind. —DE
“Emily the Criminal”
First-time feature filmmaker John Patton Ford seems to have a knack for casting already. You say “Emily the Criminal” and “she’s played by Aubrey Plaza,” and you’ve already got a tone, a worldview, even (as the kids say) a vibe in mind. The crime thriller follows the eponymous Emily “who gets involved in a credit card scam after being saddled with debt, what pulls her into the criminal and deadly underworld of Los Angeles.”
Plaza is a Sundance regular, and each subsequent showing at the festival — from “Life After Beth” to “Ingrid Goes West” and “Black Bear” — have seemed perfect fits for the event, even as they dramatically expand her range. A thrilling lead role like this fits into all that very nicely. The film, which is currently racing to finish in time for an enviable premiere berth on Monday evening, sounds like catnip for Plaza fans and dark comedy acolytes alike (and aren’t they really just the same thing?). —KE
Over 30 years ago, Oscar-nominated documentarian Christine Choy (“Who Killed Vincent Chin?”) attempted to make a film about the Tiananmen Square massacre. Now, with filmmakers Ben Klein and Violet Columbus by her side, she finally tries to finish it.
“The Exiles” follows Choy as she attempts to track down three exiled dissidents at the center of her original project. Blending Choy’s original footage with new material, the movie promises a closeup look at the colorful character as she confronts one of the darker chapters in modern Chinese history through a personal lens. Boasting Steven Soderbergh and Chris Columbus among its producers, “The Exiles” is poised to offer a fresh perspective on the events of Tiananmen Square no matter how much the Chinese government continues to try to suppress the truth. —EK
Sundance’s Midnight section has never been afraid to get “weird,” and thank goddess for that. The popular section has often played home to intriguing breakthrough offerings from some of our favorite filmmakers, both in the early stages of their career or enjoying a delightful spin in a new direction, including films like “Hereditary,” “Mandy,” “Relic,” and “The Babadook” (and those are just recent titles). Joining their ranks: Finnish filmmaker Hannah Bergholm’s feature debut, which uses a very big egg to unpack some very big ideas about womanhood.
It’s probably best just to know the broad strokes before you dive in: Tjina (a remarkable Siiri Solalinna in her first feature) is a shy, rail-thin Finnish tween just trying to get through her everyday (which is weird enough, thanks to her awkward dad, annoying little brother, and vapid mother, who hosts a terrible blog hilariously titled “Lovely Everyday Life”) when a bird comes crashing through her window. The bird might be dead (maybe), but it’s left behind an egg that tender-hearted Tjina takes under her wing (sorry), even as it grows bigger and bigger. When it hatches, it’s not just lovely everyday lives in its crosshairs, it’s everything (especially what it means to be a woman). —KE
Filmmakers Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes examine the Jane Collective, which mobilized to provide thousands of abortions during a four-year period. In the spring of 1972, police raided an apartment on the South Side of Chicago, arresting and charging seven women. The accused were part of the clandestine network known as The Janes. They used code names, blindfolds, and safe houses to protect their identities as they built an underground service for women seeking safe, affordable, illegal abortions, while holding off threats from powerful male institutions like the mafia, the church, and the state.
Using archival footage of Chicago in the late ’60s and early ’70s, along with interviews with those involved, this timely documentary reveals how dangerous the fight for safe and legal abortions can be. Alongside Phyllis Nagy’s fictionalized “Call Jane,” also debuting at the festival, the Jane Collective is poised for a radical (and necessary) new understanding and appreciation. —AT
South African director Oliver Hermanus delivered a gorgeous and brutal evocation of gay military life in Apartheid with last year’s “Moffie,” and he’s next set up to direct the gay romance “The History of Sound,” headed by Paul Mescal and Josh O’Connor. That’s already appointment viewing for queer viewers on the horizon. Until then, he’s directed a post-World War II era reimagining of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Ikiru,” here instead pivoting on the recollections of Bill Nighy as a veteran British civil servant. He’s joined by Aimee Lou Wood (“Sex Education”), Alex Sharp (“The Hustle”), and Tom Burke (“The Souvenir”) in a kind of swan song story of a widower up against bureaucratic obstacles, trying to recapture the debauchery of his glory days.
The screenplay is penned by British period master Kazuo Ishiguro, perennial chronicler of the interior lives of discarded people behind closed doors, from “The Remains of the Day” to “Never Let Me Go.” —RL
Premiering in dramatic competition, Regina Hall leads a biting thriller set at a fictional elite New England university. Built on the site of a Salem-era gallows hill, the school is haunted with specters of its racist past. As three women struggle to navigate the hallowed halls of this elite institution, they connect over shared visions that become increasingly supernatural. Beginning her career in mainstream comedies, Hall has gravitated towards darker and more dramatic roles of late, catching the indie film world’s attention in 2018 with her smart turn in Andrew Bujalski’s “Support the Girls.” She’s joined by “Jinn” breakout star Zoe Renee and “Hadestown” Tony nominee Amber Gray in the small ensemble cast.
“Master” marks the feature filmmaking debut of director Mariama Diallo, whose short “Hair Wolf” took home the U.S. fiction short jury prize at Sundance in 2018. She also wrote and directed on Terence Nance’s indefinable HBO series “Random Acts of Flyness.” It will be fascinating to see how her fine-tuned absurdist tone and satirical horror chops will translate to a feature length genre drama. —JD
Already a major figure in the short film world, Sierra Leonean-American writer-director Nikyatu Jusu has been a force of nature ever since her semi-autobiographical grad school effort “African Booty Scratcher” was picked up by HBO back in 2007. Since then, the NYU grad has displayed her talent across an impressive array of projects, from experimental thrillers (“Black Swan Theory”) to biting fantasy riffs (“Suicide by Sunlight,” a vampire saga which was executive produced by Terence Nance and premiered at Sundance in 2019) and a still-unproduced screenplay set in Freetown that was selected for a Sundance Institute workshop a few years back.
The debut feature that has finally earned Jusu a spot in the festival’s U.S. Dramatic Competition might seem a bit more local, but “Nanny” still traces back to the filmmaker’s African roots with its story of Aisha (Anna Drop), an undocumented childcare worker who left her son in Senegal and now looks after a rich white lady’s (Michelle Monaghan) kids in New York. On the eve of her son’s arrival in America, Aisha is confronted by a hostile supernatural presence that threatens to upend the life she’s built for herself and repay the sacrifices that were required of her along the way. After the breakout success of Remi Weekes’ similarly flavored “His House” in the festival’s Midnight section, it’s encouraging to see Sundance elevate a genre-inflected immigrant story with the spotlight of a Competition berth. —DE
Spanish director Carlota Pereda’s memorable debut suggests the unlikely convergence of Catherine Breillat’s “Fat Girl” with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Laura Galán delivers a bold, engrossing performance as Sara, an overweight teenager bullied by local girls in her small town until a serial killer rolls shows up and causes chaos. As Sara learns more about the identity of the killer, she struggles with whether or not to reveal the secret to the rest of her community. Shot in a claustrophobic Academy ratio and set to a pulse-pounding score, “Piggy” is an unnerving and immersive horror movie that amounts to one helluva tense coming-of-age story, and singles out Pereda as one of the genre’s most exciting new voices. —EK
No, no, no, you might be thinking, not more Princess Diana content. Hot on the heels of the success of everything from “The Crown” to “Spencer” and all manner of Oprah interviews and tabloid stories in between, Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Ed Perkins delivers something entirely different, and yet seemingly beholden to the same attitude that might keep people away from it. Haven’t we seen it all?, some might wonder. Perkins’ rejoinder: no, at least not like this.
Entirely comprised of thousand of hours of archival footage and without any of the usual talking head interviews one might associate with a biodoc about one of the world’s most famous people (and most infamous tragedies), Perkins’ film is as much about Princess Diana as it is about the world that made her into, well, whatever the world made her into. If you’re the sort of person who can easily tick off the names of all those recent Di-centric projects (guilty), then “The Princess” is for you, if only because it promises to reorient not just your thinking about Diana, but literally how we think about her, portray her, and yes, consume her. —KE
“We Need to Talk About Cosby”
Comedian W. Kamau Bell is best known these days for hosting CNN’s “United Shades of America,” which focuses on the needs of local communities around the country. For this four-part docuseries, however, Bell tackles a subject that should resonate on a much wider scale: the rise and fall of convicted sex criminal Bill Cosby, as well as the difficulty of broaching the subject for Black people who had a relationship to his work.
Bell’s exhaustive approach investigates each era of Cosby’s career, from his early standup days through the cultural zeitgeist of “The Cosby Show” and beyond, blending an intelligent blend of talking heads with several of his victims and comedians who knew and worked with him over the years. The result is a riveting and informative deep-dive into the paradoxes of a legacy informed on the one hand by its representational power, and on the other by the horrors of his actions that were covered up for so long. It’s an essential reckoning with the nature of Cosby that not only puts his story in the troubling context it deserves; it corrects the record on the system that allowed him to use his “America’s dad” moniker to shield the awful truth for so long. —EK
“You Won’t Be Alone”
There are a few reasons to be excited about Macedonian-born, Australian-hailing filmmaker Goran Stolevski’s feature debut, “You Won’t Be Alone.” First, the filmmaker recently landed on Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch list, which this year also elevates the talents of breakthrough directors like Maggie Gyllenhaal and Sundance filmmaker Cooper Raiff (“Cha Cha Real Smooth”). Second, it stars Noomi Rapace in her latest recent foray into supernatural folk horror following A24’s “Lamb” from 2021.
In this Macedonian fable, Rapace plays a feral witch left to her own devices by an ancient, shape-shifting spirit, and who lives surreptitiously in the shadows of her 19th-century Macedonian village by inhabiting the bodies of other people. Stolevski insists this is not a horror movie per se, and more a tone poem about the character’s feelings. But it easily sounds like the kind of buzzy, highbrow genre project that can burst out of Sundance. Think “The Witch.” —RL