In January, while Oscars discourse roils and people are still catching up on last year’s best movies, a new crop arrives via the Sundance Film Festival. This year, after two years online, the festival returned to Park City, Utah, where stars, filmmakers, and packed audiences gathered to revel in the joy of watching movies.
I saw about 30 movies at Sundance, out of 110, so there’s no way to make a definitive list. But of those films, a number of them — fiction and documentary alike — were so strong that it feels inevitable that we’ll be talking about them all year. If you like movies, or just want to like movies, you couldn’t do better than keeping tabs on these movies as distributors pick them up and release them to the public.
Here are the 17 best movies I saw at Sundance, and why you should keep an eye out for them.
A Still Small Voice
A Still Small Voice — one of the best documentaries I expect to see this year, from director Luke Lorentzen — follows a cohort of residents in Mount Sinai Hospital’s spiritual care department, all training to offer nonsectarian support to patients and families going through the worst experiences of their lives. The film mostly follows Mati, a resident passionately committed to her work. She’s grappling with the ways her work, and her own doubts about spiritual matters, are affecting her mental and physical health. Mati speaks to cancer patients, bereaved parents, and grieving families who feel guilt for not being able to save their loved ones. And when she comes home, she more or less collapses. As Mati’s professional life starts to suffer from her own stress, we begin to understand what the film is truly about: The lessons patients offer to Mati seem perhaps even more valuable than what she is able to offer to them, and the grace that flows off the screen is gutting.
How to watch it: A Still Small Voice is awaiting distribution.
Based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s first novel, Eileen is the kind of drama that feels like it’s got dirt beneath its fingernails. Mousy, miserable Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) lives with her alcoholic father in a small Massachusetts town and works at the local juvenile prison for boys. She’s stunned when a new criminal psychologist named Rebecca (Anne Hathaway, as a brilliant platinum blonde) starts working there, too, and the desire faintly drips off her. As their friendship twists, the film — directed by Lady Macbeth’s William Oldroyd — becomes something reminiscent of a Patricia Highsmith novel. Eileen is dank and disturbing and, when you’re in the mood for something that will mess you up, exactly right.
How to watch it: Eileen is awaiting distribution.
The Eternal Memory
At the center of director Maite Alberdi’s bittersweet documentary is Augusto, a Chilean cultural historian, and his wife Paulina. They’ve been together 25 years; eight years before the film’s beginning, Augusto was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Now his memory is really starting to slip. Paulina is his faithful caretaker, and most of the movie simply observes them in everyday life as Augusto slowly becomes less and less consistently aware of his surroundings — and of Paulina’s existence. The Eternal Memory connects his personal struggle to retain his past with the country’s amnesia. “Without memory, we wander, confused,” he says in archival footage near the end of the film.
How to watch it: The Eternal Memory will be released by MTV Documentary Films.
The couple at Fair Play’s center, Emily and Luke (Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich), are rising high-finance stars who have to hide their relationship at work. But when she’s promoted over him, things turn sour. Fair Play is caustic and enthralling, but mostly it’s the kind of movie that makes you wince with recognition — or, in any case, if you’ve ever made yourself small to avoid the rage of an insecure man. Luke seems like the best sort of supportive boyfriend until he senses that others are laughing at him, that the life he’s desperately convinced he deserves to lead is on the verge of toppling, and that Emily, who adores him, might look at him through a different lens.
How to watch it: Fair Play will be released by Netflix.
Food and Country
As the pandemic started, the celebrated food writer and former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl realized that restaurant closings weren’t just temporary inconveniences. They heralded a breakdown of the American food system, as repercussions reached from restaurant workers back to suppliers, ranchers, and farmers — and they exposed the cracks in our fragile system. Food and Country, directed by City of Gold’s Laura Gabbert, is a chronicle of Reichl’s year of conversations with the people who grow and distribute our food. They explain why the American food system is the way it is and what might be done about it. But it’s not all informational: it’s also a celebration of the role that farmers and restaurateurs play in their communities, and an invitation into caring about the truth of how we eat.
How to watch it: Food and Country is awaiting acquisition.
One of the most formally daring documentaries of the year bears its director’s name, and the weight of her memories. Having grown up in South Africa under apartheid, Milisuthando Bongela, an activist and artist, delves into the history of her family and her country — but in ways that may be unexpected. Raised in a middle-class Xhosa family in the Transkei, a separatist unrecognized state, Bongela lived first-hand through the “experiment” of apartheid and the myth that she and other Black South Africans in the Transkei did not experience its ills. The formal experimentation of the film is entrancing and dreamlike, feeling out the borders that our communities build for us and complicating narratives about race and oppression in modernity.
How to watch it: Milisuthando is awaiting distribution.
Tomas (Franz Rogowski) is a narcissist and a hot mess — that much is clear. Yet he’s also the kind of lovable scamp with sexual prowess that proves alluring to people almost against their will. There’s Martin (Ben Whishaw), his husband, whose steady stability in their relationship isn’t enough to keep Tomas from sleeping with Agathe (Adele Exarchopoulos), a schoolteacher he meets at a party. Passages chronicles months in the love triangle’s life, with Tomas bouncing back and forth between Agathe and Martin and making everyone miserable, including himself. It’s an extremely European film from the American director Ira Sachs, full of homages to classics of European cinema, and a portrait of a rascal and the helplessness of the human heart.
How to watch it: Passages will be released by Mubi.
Past Lives is a miraculous little film, steady and slow and haunted, in the existential sense, by possibilities. Nora (Greta Lee) leaves Korea as a 12-year-old, emigrating to Toronto and then New York, where she reconnects unexpectedly with her childhood sweetheart Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). But they lose touch, and when they reconnect again — this time with the addition of Nora’s writer husband Arthur (John Magaro) — shadows of the past reemerge. It sounds trite and melodramatic, so please do not mistake me: At every pass, Past Lives, written and directed by playwright Celine Song, chooses understatement. It’s gentle, funny, and achingly gorgeous — a film very near perfection, crafted with attention to the moment.
How to watch it: Past Lives will be released by A24.
The Pod Generation
Like her previous film Cold Souls, Sophie Barthes’s The Pod Generation is set in a slightly dystopian future, one in which technology has solved some existential problems but introduced a bunch more. Rachel (Emilia Clarke) and Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are going to have a baby, but not the usual way; in this near-future New York, they can use a “pod,” a kind of external womb shaped like an egg created by a corporation and housed in their state-of-the-art facility. This solves some problems — the inconveniences of pregnancy, childbirth, and recovery go away, the playing field in the workplace is evened — but the innovation introduces some other issues, and there’s a sense that something insidious could be going on in the background. But mostly, The Pod Generation foregrounds Rachel and Alvy’s relationship, exploring how technologies change our most intimate connections and raising questions from a world not so unlike our own.
How to watch it: The Pod Generation is awaiting distribution.
The creator of the fantastic TV show We Are Lady Parts, Nida Manzoor, makes her feature film directing debut with Polite Society, a zany and heartfelt comedy about the bond between two sisters. London teenager Ria (Priya Kansara) loves two things in life: her aspirations of becoming a stuntwoman, and her sister Lena (Ritu Arya), an art school dropout. But when Lena becomes engaged to the charming son of a wealthy family, Ria feels she must take action. Blending a heightened sense of reality with martial-arts moves and heist movie tropes, Polite Society borrows vibes from the movies of Edgar Wright (and maybe Everything Everywhere All At Once) but is a joyful romp all its own.
How to watch it: Polite Society will be released by Focus Features.
Adrian Tomine’s 2007 graphic novel comes alive in Shortcomings, from first-time director Randall Park. Ben Tanaka (Justin H. Min) is a misanthropic film nerd living in Berkeley with his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki), and they’re obviously not happy. But it takes some life shakeups with both Miko and Ben’s best friend Alice (Sherry Cola) for him to realize the problem isn’t external; it’s him. Shortcomings takes some bruising blows at cultural expectations about Asian Americans both inside and outside the community (Crazy Rich Asians is summoned for a skewering early on); it’s also about growing up a little too late and having to reckon with your own rotten self. Oh, and it’s hilarious.
How to watch it: Shortcomings is awaiting acquisition.
Elena (Greta Grinevičiūtė) is teaching a contemporary dance class to a group of deaf students, which is how she meets Dovydas (Kęstutis Cicėnas), their translator. They hit it off immediately, upon which Dovydas tells Elena that he is asexual. Despite her amazement (and not a little skepticism), Elena falls into a complicated romance with Dovydas in which they both shift and grow in their understanding of what love really is. Slow, from Lithuanian director Marija Kavtaradze, is a lush and sensual drama that evokes the rush of affection and excitement and delves into what embodied love means. Visually grainy, as if you can reach out and feel the film stock, with well-rounded characters, it’s stirring and moving at every turn.
How to watch it: Slow is awaiting acquisition.
Sometimes I Think About Dying
Daisy Ridley stars in this strange little film as Fran, who leads a drab life in a small Oregon coastal town. It suits her, or she believes it does, anyhow. She works in a dull office job and returns home to eat a patty with cottage cheese every night. She thinks about what it would be like to die, not because she wishes to die but because the concept intrigues her. Then one day, a new employee shows up in the office and attracts her interest — and, it turns out, challenges her sense of who she really is. Is there something to life she’s been missing? Rachel Lambert’s quiet, steady drama mixes Fran’s lackluster surroundings with the beauty of the Pacific Northwest and Fran’s own flights of fancy, and mixes, ever so subtly, the mundane with the sublime.
How to watch it: Sometimes I Think About Dying is awaiting distribution.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
In Estonia, a group of women gather in a sauna to sweat out their pain and suffering and find strength in one another’s company. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, from director Anna Hints, is a vibrantly intimate documentary that captures their rituals and conversations across the seasons. Rarely do we see faces; instead, the women’s naked bodies and movements — rubbing salt across their flesh, lightly beating their skin with branches — is paired with raw conversations about love, sex, abuse, and freedom. It’s a gorgeously captured space carved out away from the world of men, and Hints’s film renders it with lyrical intensity.
How to watch it: Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is awaiting distribution.
The Starling Girl
Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) is 17, devoted to her family and her fundamentalist church, and mortified when she accidentally breaks any rules. Her great love is her church liturgical dance group. Her youth pastor, Owen (Lewis Pullman), encourages her in leading the dance group — but as their friendship deepens, it changes into something that takes over Jem’s life and threatens to ruin it forever. The language and strictures of their religious community are perfectly rendered by writer and director Laurel Parmet, who captures the complicated interplay of power and immaturity that can blossom in isolated communities. We’re inside Jem’s mind, understanding her mix of maturity and childishness, and seeing what’s at stake as she fights through the confusion.
How to watch it: The Starling Girl is awaiting distribution.
The Tuba Thieves
To describe The Tuba Thieves in words is a challenge, but that’s by design. It’s a kaleidoscope of a film, in which director Alison O’Daniel evokes deafness in vignettes shot across Los Angeles. The idea in its title is simple: in Los Angeles, around 2012, instruments were stolen from high schools across the city — almost entirely tubas. Blending fiction and nonfiction, O’Daniel’s film evokes life for both the deaf and the hearing during the years of the disappearances, mixing dreamy sequences with soundscapes and total silence, reminding the viewer of the vitality of sound and silence, of absence and lack. All of which sounds very abstract — but watching The Tuba Thieves is mesmerizing and thought-provoking. If you’re like me, you’ll want to watch it over again as soon as it ends.
How to watch it: The Tuba Thieves is awaiting distribution.
You Hurt My Feelings
Nicole Holofcener’s brilliantly knowing comedy stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a writer and professor who’s published one pretty-successful memoir and is many drafts into her novel. Her beloved therapist husband (Tobias Menzies) is her biggest cheerleader. But one day she overhears him saying that he doesn’t think the novel is very good, and it will not surprise you to know that it kicks off a spiral. The film’s expertly sketched characters and their simple lives portray with great affection the ways we hide the truth from one another out of love — and the resulting film is warm-hearted and rueful and hilarious in all the best ways.
How to watch it: You Hurt My Feelings is awaiting distribution.