With Sundance going virtual for the second year in a row, audiences could once again explore the lineup from around the world, including accredited critics and journalists. This year, 135 of them participated in IndieWire’s annual Sundance critics survey of the best films at the festival, and the results speak to the range of movies that stood out in this year’s lineup.
While several films from the festival have yet to secure distribution, the ones with the most support in our survey found it over the past two weeks, suggesting that buyers and critics saw eye to eye this year. “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” the sophomore effort from 24-year-old filmmaker Cooper Raiff, dominated the survey in the categories of Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. The movie marks Raiff’s second in two years, following his 2020 debut “Shithouse,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW.
In “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” Raiff stars as a bar and bat mitzvah party-starter adrift in life when he develops a complicated friendship with a young mother (Dakota Johnson) and her teen daughter (Vanessa Burghardt). The movie secured a $15 million distribution deal with Apple during the festival.
Notably, another big winner in this year’s survey landed a major deal early in the festival. Sara Dosa’s “Fire of Love,” which premiered on Sundance’s opening night, sold to National Geographic for an undisclosed seven-figure sum after a fierce bidding war. The story of married volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, who died while observing an eruption in Japan in 1991, pulls from years of unseen footage that the couple shot while traveling to volcanoes all over the world.
The winner of Best First Film was another opening night selection, Midnight entry “Fresh.” Acquired by Searchlight Pictures for an exclusive Hulu streaming deal ahead of the festival, “Fresh” marks the directorial debut of filmmaker Mimi Cave, and stars Daisy Edgar-Jones as a woman whose date with a mysterious man (Sebastian Stan) goes very wrong when he turns out to be a psychopath. “Fresh” also came in second place in the overall Best Film category, while Cave was the runner-up for Best Director and Katy Brand was runner-up for Best Screenplay.
As usual, the top winners in each category only tell part of the story. Critics were asked to rank their choices, resulting in an overview of several films that resonated across the lineup. That includes another debut, the winner of this year’s U.S. Grand Jury Prize. “Nanny,” the first feature from Nikyatu Jusu, follows the experiences of an African caretaker (Anna Diop) who contends with supernatural forces while working for an affluent white family in New York. The movie surfaced in three categories — Best Film (where it tied with the queer romcom “Am I OK?”), Best Screenplay, and Best First Film.
“Nanny” has yet to secure U.S. distribution, and it’s not the only finalist in that situation. Other significant entries that landed in multiple categories include “God’s Country,” the tense debut from director Julian Higgins, which stars Thandiwe Newton as a woman confronting the simmering racism in a small town. Higgins’ debut was a finalist for Best Film as well as Best First Film.
We invite readers to browse the full list below, and follow the links to additional information. For IndieWire’s entire coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, go here.
10. “God’s Country”
1. “Fire of Love”
3. “Lucy and Desi”
4. “Riotsville, USA”
1. Cooper Raiff, “Cha Cha Real Smooth”
2. Mimi Cave, “Fresh”
3. Oliver Hermanus, “Living”
4. Nikyatu Jusu, “Nanny”
5. Julian Higgins, “God’s Country”
1. Cooper Raiff, “Cha Cha Real Smooth”
2. Katy Brand, “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande”
3. KD Dávila, “Emergency”
4. Lauryn Kahn, “Fresh”
5. John Patton Ford, “Emily the Criminal”
Best First Film
2. “Emily the Criminal”
5. “God’s Country”