Just like in 2021, this year’s edition of the Sundance Film Festival has been an all-virtual affair. Instead of a crowd of film critics descending on a small town in Utah, attendees have been watching film premieres streaming on their own televisions while taking part in Q&As with directors and actors that resemble Zoom meetings. It eliminates some of the prestige, of course, but thankfully, there has at least been a lot of interesting movies to take in.
I’ve spent the past week watching as much as I can — while, admittedly, being slightly distracted by a small video game release — which has included everything from meditations on memory and loss to avian body horror to a nonlinear sci-fi musical. You know, the usual stuff. There’s been a great mix, and below are my favorite films that I watched at Sundance.
Director and screenwriter: Kogonada
After Yang follows the story of a young family that’s suddenly broken in an unexpected way. The parents (Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith) purchase an Android named Yang (Justin H. Min) in order to better connect with their adopted Chinese daughter (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). But when the droid — known in this near-future as a “technosapien” — breaks down, it’s like a sibling was lost. As Farrell attempts to get Yang repaired, the family grapples with his absence and discovers just how important he was to them all, particularly the daughter, who essentially lost her big brother.
The movie tries to squeeze in a lot of things; it’s primarily a story about loss and memory and how the two can affect each other. But it also touches on elements of data privacy, transracial adoption, and even the ethics of cloning. Those are some heavy themes, but the film is presented with a soft, almost tranquil vibe, reminiscent of sci-fi classics Her and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It even has a moving soundtrack from famed composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. Production firm A24 hasn’t given After Yang a specific date for a wider release yet, but it’s expected to hit theaters sometime in March.
We Met In Virtual Reality.
Image: Joe Hunting.
We Met In Virtual Reality
Director and screenwriter: Joe Hunting
Thanks to folks like Mark Zuckerberg and Ernest Cline, the concept of the metaverse is generally viewed as a kind of corporate hellscape where the coolest thing you can do is dress up like Darth Vader in a work meeting. But We Met In Virtual Reality presents a much more wholesome and welcoming take on the phenomenon. The documentary follows a handful of people as they go about their lives in the midst of the pandemic; some are meeting new friends while teaching virtual ASL classes, others are learning to deal with a long-distance relationship.
The twist is that the entire movie was filmed inside of the social platform VRChat, where users can hang out and make their own virtual worlds while dressed up like anime girls or demon lords. You never actually see anyone’s real face or even learn their name. Instead, everyone talks to the camera as their VR avatar while using their chat handle. There’s a scene where a soon-to-be virtual bride tries on a new avatar decked out in a wedding gown, and another where a group of friends sits around a campfire talking about coming to grips with their gender identity.
These are real human conversations and moments. The only difference is some people are dressed like Kermit the Frog, and every other person is wearing bunny ears. I’d much rather strap on a headset for an experience like this than become a legless Facebook avatar. Unfortunately, it’s not clear yet when you’ll be able to check out the documentary outside of the festival circuit.
Image: IFC Midnight
Director: Hanna Bergholm; Screenwriter: Ilja Rautsi
Hatching starts out as a story about a picture-perfect family of Finnish vloggers, but it doesn’t take long before things get dark — and grotesque. It really kicks off when a 12-year-old girl named Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) finds an egg in an abandoned nest in the woods (at night, no less) and proceeds to put it underneath her pillow. As the stresses in her life pile up — the pressure to win a gymnastics competition, her parents’ seemingly loveless marriage — her grief, blood, and tears are passed on to the egg, causing it to grow to a monstrous size.
When it eventually emerges, the creature is almost like a horrible doppelgänger; it becomes both a friend to Tinja and like a child to her, before things take the inevitable turn to nightmare material. Hatching is gross and terrifying, but also heartwarming in a weird way. The monster isn’t exactly someone you’d want to hang out with, but you’ll probably feel sorry for it. IFC Midnight is bringing the film to both theaters and on-demand services on April 29th.
Image: Sundance Institute
Director and screenwriter: Andrew Semans
At first, Resurrection feels a lot like a standard thriller. Early on, a single mom (Rebecca Hall) is confronted with a mysterious man from her past (Tim Roth), which immediately sends her into panic mode. She starts becoming more and more paranoid, eventually keeping her nearly adult child under constant surveillance. I had all kinds of theories as to what it might mean: she had some kind of dark criminal past, maybe, or her child was born under circumstances she didn’t want revealed.
I won’t spoil anything other than to say that the twist in this movie is incredibly strange and seemingly ridiculous, and yet it works because of Hall’s incredible performance. Her rapid descent into madness is impossible to look away from — aside from the climax of the movie, which is the stuff of nightmares. I’m still haunted by it. There’s no word yet on when Resurrection will see a wider release.
Image: Sundance Institute
Directors: Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams; Screenwriter: Saul Williams
I’m not sure I could explain the premise of Neptune Frost, even after watching it, but I’ll try. Set in a futuristic version of Rwanda, the film centers on a worker in a rare-earth mineral mine (Bertrand Ninteretse), who falls in love with a transcendent hacker (played by both Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo), and the anti-capitalist hacking collective the two spearhead together. It can be hard to follow precisely what happens, as the story jumps around in time, and there are copious dream sequences that lend it a hazy, surreal feel. Sometimes characters suddenly freeze in place or start moving backward or the entire image turns glitchy.
It’s a dazzling experience, both visually and sonically, from the hacked-together aesthetic complete with lots and lots of circuit boards to the soundtrack produced by Saul Williams (who also co-directed the film alongside Anisia Uzeyman). It’s a musical that’s almost like a series of protest anthems — covering everything from the restrictive nature of gender to the exploitation of African land — that you can dance to. Neptune Frost has been making its way through the festival circuit since last year and should hopefully be more widely available soon.
Emily the Criminal.
Image: Sundance Institute
Emily the Criminal
Director and screenwriter: John Patton Ford
Like Resurrection, Emily the Criminal is a seemingly straightforward thriller about a struggling woman. Emily (Aubrey Plaza) is a former art student saddled with $70,000 in student loans, who also has a criminal record that’s making it impossible to find a decent-paying job. She’s stuck in the gig economy, working for a DoorDash-like delivery company, and can’t seem to find any way to get out from under her debt — that is until a friend gives her a number to call to make some extra money.
What follows is best described as a rapid ascent up the criminal ranks. Emily starts out small, buying TVs with stolen credit cards as part of a larger operation, before eventually forming her own little schemes with the help of Youcef (Theo Rossi), a kindhearted criminal with, naturally, dreams of going legit once he makes enough cash. The story is fairly simple, but the tension never lets up as Emily digs a deeper and deeper hole. It ends on a surprisingly upbeat note, but it’s worth watching for Plaza’s frantic performance alone. As of now, no wider release date has been announced.
Brian and Charles.
Image: Sundance Institute
Brian and Charles
Director: Jim Archer; Screenwriters: David Earl and Chris Hayward
And to end on something more lighthearted, there’s Brian and Charles, the story of a terrible inventor who somehow builds a robot that becomes his best friend. Brian (David Earl) is a lonely inventor with few good ideas; some of his projects include a messenger bag with pine cones glued to it and a belt with pouches for carrying around eggs. But then he has an idea for a robot, and 72 hours later, out comes Charles (Chris Hayward), a Frankenstein’s monster-like being made out of household items. As Charles likes to say: “My tummy is a washing machine.”
You can probably predict the main story beats: Charles has an endless appetite to learn about and experience the world, and soon enough, that extends beyond Brian’s modest life and property. There’s a love interest for Brian, a town bully who takes an interest in Charles, and a growing friction between the inventor and his creation that ultimately works out in the end. What it lacks in originality, though, Brian and Charles makes up with warmth and good humor. It’s equal parts goofy and endearing, an ideal pick-me-up viewing. The film is still seeking distribution and doesn’t have a wider release date as of now.