There’s something wholly intriguing about a debut filmmaker’s first film, which makes up a significant number of the movies premiered at Sundance Film Festival every year in Utah.
Though the relatively unknown directors may be able to land big stars occasionally, many of the films shown can feel like 40 minutes of good ideas with another hour of “what else can we do here” tacked on in between.
It’s not easy to go from shooting short films to creating full, feature length projects, but it’s the same inherent difficulty that delight Sundance viewers when it’s pulled off naturally and effectively. We’re gazing into the magical cauldron of bubbling new filmmakers here, and while it might explode in our face, usually a handful of the concoctions come out promising.
Below, you’ll find my favorite films of the roughly 20 entries I was able to catch at this year’s festival, and you can also follow my further adventures in moviegoing over on Letterboxd here.
Directed by Nikyatu Jusu, NANNY tells the story of Aisha, an undocumented Senegalese immigrant who lands a job as a nanny for a rich Manhattan couple. Blending in element of West African folklore such as Anasi the Spider, the psychological thriller explores the challenges and frustrations African women face as they move to America to create a better life for their families back home.
Starring Anna Diop from Jordan Peele’s Us and DC’s Titans, NANNY won top prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for the US competition. Though there has been no word yet as to when a theatrical release will happen, last year’s winner, CODA, was purchased by Apple for a record-breaking $25 million.
Marte Um (Mars One)
Written and directed by Brazilian filmmaker Gabriel Martins, Marte Um, a.k.a. Mars One, follows the lives of a lower-middle-class Black family as they try to move forward despite their country moving backwards. Deivinho, the youngest in the family, wants to learn about space and help colonize Mars, but his father has put all his squandered hopes and dreams into his son’s burgeoning soccer career.
Meanwhile, Eunice, their eldest daughter, falls in love with a woman, and the mother, Tércia, has a near-death experience that continues to haunt her. Shot right as the country elected far-right extremist Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, Marte Um‘s story depicts the struggles of a family forced to face inequality and dashed futures in Brazil.
Fire of Love
The most heartfelt story of Sundance 2022, Fire of Love is a documentary about two volcanologists–scientists who study active volcanoes–who found love over their shared obsession with one of nature’s most destructive forces.
Following the careers of famed French scientists Katia and Maurice Krafft, Fire of Love puts viewers as close to the action of an erupting volcano as the fearless explorers could get, underscored with a soundtrack from French electronic duo Air and narration from filmmaker Miranda July. After its premiere, the documentary was purchased for a future release by National Geographic.
Leonor Will Never Die
A charming film from the Philippines, Leonor Will Never Die pays homage to the country’s history of cheesy action films while also telling the story of a grieving family coming back together to heal.
One of the wackiest offerings this year, Leonor‘s meta-narrative of a grandmother magically transported into the world of her unfinished screenplay is loads of fun. For her creative storytelling, 29-year-old director Martika Ramirez Escobar won the festival’s Innovative Spirit Award.
Emily the Criminal
Stories of down-on-their-luck protagonists who rile at “The Man” have a history of coming on too snarky and shoving poorly written dialogue down the viewers throat, but Emily the Criminal somehow broke through that waste to tell an exciting story while also highlighting the problems that people face with even minor criminal records.
It’s not only hard to land a job (or even an unpaid internship), but many people find themselves turning to crime once again as the only way to feasibly make some dough and get out of debt. According to filmmaker John Patton Ford, Parks and Recreation star Aubrey Plaza found his screenplay and offered to help produce the film herself, going on to star in the titular role as well. Anchored by her stellar performance, Emily the Criminal is at times humorous and thrilling, but never without fear looming around the corner.
We Met in Virtual Reality
Filmed entirely in the digital space of VRChat, a virtual reality program created to help users interact in creative ways online, We Met in Virtual Reality is a documentary that chronicles couples who have managed to fall in love. Despite being hundreds of miles apart and represented virtually through anime-inspired avatars, people have come together–especially during the Covid-19 pandemic–to form real emotional bonds.
Through interviews and interactive experiences in VRChat such as ASL classes, dance lessons, and even a wedding, filmmaker Joe Hunting explores the digital frontier for all its oddities, never once showing you the true faces behind the avatars. As we hear from users deeply affected by the connections they’ve made online, the film begs to ask the question of whether what users felt in virtual reality was truly any less real.
– One extra note: I have yet to see Cha Cha Real Smooth, a romantic comedy which I heard was very cute, but luckily it was recently purchased by Apple TV+ for a future release.
What do you think? Drop your thoughts in the comments below.