The Sundance Movies And Performances You Won't Want To Miss

From Regina Hall in two wildly different roles to Amy Poehler's "Lucy and Desi" documentary, here are some highlights from this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Illustration: HuffPost; Photos: Sundance Institute/Nick Wall/Chris Witt/Low Spark Films/Benjamin Loeb/A24/Rita Baghdadi

For the second consecutive year, the Sundance Film Festival was held completely online. It must have been a bummer for the filmmakers who didn’t get to have an in-person premiere at Sundance, which has long been a launchpad for emerging artists. At the same time, the virtual format made it easier than ever to check out Sundance’s robust slate of dozens of movies, all from the comfort and safety of our homes. HuffPost culture reporters Marina Fang and Candice Frederick share some of their favorite movies and performances from this year’s festival.

“After Yang”

Director Kogonada’s 2017 feature film debut, “Columbus,” is one of those ruminative “walking and talking” movies that made me feel lots of feelings. In “After Yang,” he brings some of that same quiet, reflective mood and gorgeous visuals to sci-fi. Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith play a couple who purchase a “techno being” named Yang (Justin H. Min) so that their daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), an adoptee from China, can have an “older brother” who is also Chinese. When Yang has “a core malfunction” and begins to deteriorate, Jake (Farrell) is determined to find a way to fix him, which brings up all sorts of themes around parenting, identity, grief, time and memory. Prepare to be emotionally wrecked. (I’m curious to know what transracial adoptees think of the movie.) The great cast also includes Sarita Choudhury as a museum curator who’s interested in studying Yang’s unusual characteristics, and “Columbus” star Haley Lu Richardson as a mysterious figure who keeps showing up in Yang’s memories. (“After Yang” will be released by A24 in March.) — Marina Fang

“Fire of Love”

After watching this documentary, I could not believe we haven’t all heard of its magnetic protagonists: Katia and Maurice Krafft, a French couple who built their life together through their shared passion of studying volcanoes. I’m glad director Sara Dosa has brought this story to a wider audience, sifting through video footage the Kraffts and their colleagues shot during their many expeditions, as well as interviews they gave over the years. Combined with narration from writer-director Miranda July, the documentary is equal parts whimsical and poetic. It reminds us of both the beauty and the danger of the world and how we can be agents of change but also be powerless against it. As Maurice once said: “Look at how small we humans are against this volcanic force. The only thing that will remain of our passage is that we can write, tell stories and film.” (National Geographic will release “Fire of Love” later this year.) — Marina Fang

Shery Bechara and Lilas Mayassi in "Sirens," by director Rita Baghdadi, an official selection of the World CInema: Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival.
Shery Bechara and Lilas Mayassi in "Sirens," by director Rita Baghdadi, an official selection of the World CInema: Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival.
Rita Baghdadi, courtesy of Sundance Institute


This is another documentary in which the main subjects are just so fascinating that it seems unnecessary to say much else. In this case, director Rita Baghdadi follows Slave to Sirens, an all-female metal band in Lebanon. The band navigates how to find their place in both a society and a genre that don’t readily accept loud and bold women. The political and social context is certainly important to their identity as artists. At the same time, the documentary is also about their everyday problems, such as personal tensions within the band, and just the routine uncertainties of being a woman in your 20s. At only 78 minutes, the documentary’s one major flaw is that it feels too short and at times too episodic, leaving me wanting to learn even more about these extremely cool women and their musical journey. — Marina Fang


Regina Hall was the MVP of Sundance this year, with not one but two starring roles that show off her incredible range. In the horror drama “Master,” Hall plays Gail, the first Black woman to serve as a “master” at the fictional Ancaster, an elite New England college. Meanwhile, Jasmine (Zoe Renee) is starting her first year at the school, one of very few Black students on campus. Both Jasmine’s dorm room and Gail’s house are haunted for reasons that are later revealed, and the college is near the site of the Salem witch trials. The horror imagery that surrounds them links the racism of the past with that of the present. Toward the end, the movie piles on a few too many ideas, symbols and subplots, but overall it’s a tremendous feature film debut from writer-director Mariama Diallo. (“Master” will be released by Amazon on March 18.) — Marina Fang

“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.”

A mockumentary satirizing the culture of Black megachurches that stars Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown? Say no more. This was definitely one of my most highly anticipated movies going into the festival, and boy, did it deliver. What a wild ride. Hall and Brown are pitch-perfect as Trinitie and Lee-Curtis Childs, who are attempting a comeback after multiple congregants had accused Lee-Curtis, a once-revered pastor, of sexual misconduct. Writer-director Adamma Ebo’s brilliant choice to switch in and out of the mockumentary format brings out the discrepancies and contradictions between the Childses’ public and private images. — Marina Fang

“Every Day in Kaimukī”

I always appreciate seeing classic genres and storylines feature people who traditionally haven’t been represented in them on a wide scale. Director Alika Tengan does that in “Every Day in Kaimukī.” It’s a “deciding whether to leave home” movie, a “hang out” movie, a “20-something person figuring out adulthood” movie — while set in Hawaii and featuring a Native Hawaiian protagonist. The film’s star, Naz Kawakami, who plays a version of himself and also co-wrote the film, is about to move from Honolulu to New York. He’s dealing with the logistics: selling his stuff on Craigslist and making multiple phone calls to his airline to confirm he can safely bring his cat on the long flight. He’s also reflecting on what he’s leaving behind, like his friends at the skate park and his job as a late-night DJ at a community radio station (which helps give the movie a killer soundtrack). “Every Day in Kaimukī” is a lovely meditation on when it’s time to let go of the familiar and take a leap into the unknown. — Marina Fang

“The Princess”

You, like me, may be wondering: “What else is there to say about Princess Diana?” Yes, there has been a plethora of Diana-related pop culture recently — and likely more as we approach the 25th anniversary of her death this August. And yet I was immediately sucked into “The Princess.” Director Ed Perkins’ choice to build the documentary entirely around archival news footage is mesmerizing. Many of the interviews of Diana herself are instantly recognizable. But there are also man-on-the-street segments and b-roll of the crowds that would pack pubs to watch her interviews and eat up every nugget of news about her. The documentary isn’t so much about her but rather about what her indescribable appeal and our insatiable fascination with her say about us. (“The Princess” will air on HBO later this year.) — Marina Fang

Daryl McCormack and Emma Thompson in "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande."
Daryl McCormack and Emma Thompson in "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande."
Nick Wall

“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande”

I went into this having no idea what to expect from its premise and came out of it feeling utterly delighted and charmed to bits. Director Sophie Hyde’s wonderful two-hander gives Emma Thompson one of her best roles in years. Thompson proves she’s a legend with her endearing performance as Nancy, a widow and retired religious education teacher. After years of decidedly unexciting sex and very little sexual agency with her late husband, she wants to have a more adventurous sex life. So she hires a sex worker named Leo Grande (a very charming Daryl McCormack). The pair, along with writer Katy Brand’s stellar script, anchors this great dramedy that becomes about unlearning shame and finding unlikely companionship. (“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” will be in theaters and on Hulu later this year.) — Marina Fang

“The Worst Person in the World”

There aren’t a whole lot of films that can justify a two-hour-plus runtime, but writer-director Joachim Trier’s emotional odyssey “The Worst Person in the World” is such a compelling portrait of a so-called unlikable female protagonist that it’s impossible to tear your eyes from it. Julie, compassionately portrayed by Renate Reinsve, falls in love with and cheats on her boyfriends, bashes the idea of motherhood and burns professional bridges, all the while trying to do the right thing for herself yet feeling icky about her selfishness. Breathlessly told through chapters, “The Worst Person in the World” is a complex character study of ultimately what it’s like to be a fully dimensional woman and choosing to forgive yourself (“The Worst Person in the World” will be released by Neon on Feb. 4.). — Candice Frederick


You know you’ve discovered a great short film when even at its brief length it brings you on a satisfying journey brimming with rich characterization and nuance. So much so that it leaves you yearning for a 90-minute feature. That is writer-director Gabriela Ortega’s 15-minute horror story “Huella,” which centers on a disillusioned flamenco dancer (Shakira Barrera) who is resolved to work at a desk job but then suddenly receives a series of visits from her dead female ancestors. Urging her to remain true to herself, her culture and dreams, these sensitive hauntings show by example the devastating cost of subjugation. — Candice Frederick

Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) in Audrey Diwan's "Happening," a drama about a university student seeking an illegal abortion in 1960s France.
Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) in Audrey Diwan's "Happening," a drama about a university student seeking an illegal abortion in 1960s France.
IFC Films


Sometimes it feels like even though everyone’s abortion story is different, onscreen portrayals often lack the variety of experiences that exist in reality. But writer-director Aubrey Diwan’s drama “Happening” is so honest and specific that, although fiction, it’s apparent it was inspired by a real-life account. Diwan and co-writer Marcia Romano adapted “Happening” from Annie Ernaux’s same-titled novel derived from memories of her personal experience. The film tells an unflinching story of a college student (Anamaria Vartolomei) whose unexpected pregnancy sends her on a desperate, increasingly panicked search for a safe abortion in 1960s France, where it is illegal. The result is a simmering yet powerful film about a young woman who quietly rejects expectations and changes the course of her life in ways that surprise even her. (“Happening” will be released by IFC Films this year.) — Candice Frederick


The image of a bloodied, fat teenage girl on the poster for writer-director Carlota Pereda’s “Piggy,” while provocative on its own, doesn’t even come close to the most shocking elements of the film. But Pereda’s brilliant horror film isn’t necessarily about shock value. Rather, it’s about female adolescence and the ugly things that too often come with it: bullying, silencing and the exchange of personal freedom for others’ comfort. Even at its most monstrous, it empathetically confronts the terrors of female youth. — Candice Frederick

“Lucy and Desi”

It’s more than a little awkward that the same studio that’s award-campaigning for a whole other Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz movie right now (ahem, “Being the Ricardos”) has a much better movie about the late Hollywood couple making waves at the festival. Because Amazon’s “Lucy and Desi” is a far more earnest and intimate portrait of one of the most beloved pairs that ever graced the screen together, told through interviews with their children and comedy legends of today’s generation. First-time documentarian Amy Poehler leaves no area unturned — from Arnaz’s alcoholism and Ball’s short temper to the trials and triumphs of their romance and the revolutionary Desilu Productions that was behind the iconic sitcom “I Love Lucy.” And the film is better for it. (“Lucy and Desi” will be released by Amazon on March 4.) — Candice Frederick

“Nothing Compares”

If we’ve learned anything from today’s era of pop culture reckoning, it’s that if a young female pop star at the height of her career suddenly vanishes from the mainstream, there’s often a serious reason why. Such is the case of Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor, whose story of resistance and fame is sensitively told in writer-director Kathryn Ferguson’s documentary, aptly titled “Nothing Compares.” Though the film’s title is a nod to O’Connor’s most popular song, the Prince-penned “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the narrative here is firmly about everything else but that hit. Through O’Connor’s own words, “Nothing Compares” traces her life from her abusive childhood and rejecting the draconian Roman Catholic church to finding her voice as a musician and it being shunned by the same fans who once propped her up. By reframing O’Connor’s story for today’s audiences, “Nothing Compares” becomes a critical reminder of the singer’s importance in the movement for equality at a time when we might be more willing to accept it. — Candice Frederick

“We Need to Talk About Cosby”

Though its title sounds more like an invite to an exasperating discussion, director W. Kamau Bell’s four-part docu-series is actually a challenge to confront the conflicting cultures that created the disgraced Bill Cosby: patriarchy, rape culture, silence and exceptionalism, to name a few. It results in a sobering, infuriating and compelling dialogue from cultural thinkers and scholars, fellow actors, survivors and activists. And it proves necessary. (“We Need to Talk About Cosby” will premiere Jan. 30 on Showtime.) — Candice Frederick

Aubrey Plaza in "Emily the Criminal."
Aubrey Plaza in "Emily the Criminal."
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Low Spark Films

Aubrey Plaza in “Emily the Criminal”

Whenever I see Aubrey Plaza’s name pop up in anything, I’m instantly interested. Her titular role in “Emily the Criminal” is unlike anything she has done before. Plaza appears in nearly every frame of this thriller about a woman who finds herself involved in a criminal scheme that becomes increasingly risky in order to pay off her student loans. She is electrifyingly good. — Marina Fang

Dakota Johnson in “Cha Cha Real Smooth” and “Am I OK?”

Writer-director-star Cooper Raiff is the center of “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” playing Andrew, a recent college grad living at home who starts a side hustle as an in-demand party planner on the local bar and bat mitzvah circuit. But it’s Dakota Johnson as Domino, the mother of one of Andrew’s younger brother’s classmates, who gives the movie’s standout performance. The actor also co-starred in another movie at Sundance, “Am I OK?” as Lucy, who’s dealing with a bunch of big life changes at once. She is realizing she might be a lesbian at the same time she’s about to be separated from her best friend, Jane (Sonoya Mizuno), who’s moving to London. The pair of movies adds to Johnson’s outstanding run of performances lately — I also loved her in “The Lost Daughter” and “The High Note.” (“Cha Cha Real Smooth” will premiere on Apple TV+ later this year.) —Marina Fang

Julianne Moore in “When You Finish Saving the World”

Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut, one of the festival’s opening night films, didn’t always hold together for me. But I did enjoy a lot of its component parts, most of all the great Julianne Moore. The Oscar winner stars as Evelyn, the director of a domestic violence shelter who has been struggling to understand her teenage son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard). To fill that void, she becomes a bit too personally invested in helping Kyle, a teenager at the shelter. Moore’s brilliantly understated performance, perfectly conveying Evelyn’s frustration and earnestness, reminds us why she’s one of the best. — Marina Fang

Rebecca Hall in “Resurrection”

For the first 30 minutes or so of writer-director Andrew Semans’ “Resurrection,” it’s a mystery why Margaret (Rebecca Hall) is perennially on edge. As a school counselor, she dishes out straightforward advice about how to confront male toxicity, is a loving yet overprotective single mother to high schooler Abbie (Grace Kaufman) and is in total control of the situationship with her lover. But it becomes increasingly clear that she can unravel at any moment. When a horrid memory from her past (Tim Roth) resurfaces, Hall exquisitely balances the duality of power and powerlessness in a performance that only she could accomplish. It is masterful. (“Resurrection” will be released by IFC Films and Shudder.) — Candice Frederick

John Boyega in “892”

Though writer-director Abi Damaris Corbin’s white-knuckled drama “892” will immediately remind viewers of 2002′s “John Q,” John Boyega’s portrayal of a desperate father and Marine war veteran who holds up a bank when the VA cheats him out of $892 is entirely singular. You could pretty much guess how the story will end, even if you’re not already familiar with the real-life Brian Brown-Easley, who Boyega plays. Even Brian says in the film that he knows he’s not going to walk out of this bank alive. But it’s about principle, and what he deserves after the sacrifices he’s made for this country. Mental illness and the meager services for veterans will give you plenty to debate after watching, but it is Boyega’s compassionate performance of a man who’s had enough with merely trying to keep it together will be what stays with you. — Candice Frederick

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community