For the second year in a row, the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, was moved completely online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While this development is an unfortunate setback to the theatrical festival experience, the decision to expand the festival’s virtual program subsequently made Sundance more accessible for attendees across the United States.
Having seen close to 20 features from the festival over the past week, I compiled a list of a few films that, for better or worse, really stood out from this year’s Sundance lineup.
When You Finish Saving the World
“When You Finish Saving the World” focuses on a complicated relationship between an abuse shelter operator and her son — a viral musician on the internet. It had the potential to be the most uncomfortable film at Sundance this year based on its premise alone, but instead, it packs an astounding amount of heart and humor into its relatively brief runtime.
It is a delight to watch Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard act opposite each other as their characters struggle to understand each other’s life choices and professions, especially as Wolfhard’s character misguidedly pursues politics in an attempt to woo a girl at his school. Funny and heartfelt, this debut from Jesse Eisenberg is easily one of the best titles to come from Sundance this time around.
Following in the footsteps of other topical horror films that have come before it, Mimi Cave’s “Fresh” attempts to serve up a compelling parable about the perils of modern dating. However, it ultimately lacks the bite to do so convincingly. Though it has some central surprises, “Fresh” is neither scary nor thrilling enough to be a great genre film — it relies too heavily on outdated tropes in order to move the already flimsy plot along. Plus, Sebastian Stan’s jarring and unwieldy performance in this is quite possibly his worst to date, which is very unfortunate to witness from such a talented actor.
Karen Gillan, who acts in two roles in “Dual,” can’t fully save this twisty sci-fi movie about a woman who trains to kill a clone of herself in a court-mandated fight to the death. Although the premise of “Dual” sounds solid on paper, the film’s droll sense of comedy becomes repetitive very early on, making it feel like a slog to get through at times. In no uncertain terms is this one of the most surprising misfires at the festival this year.
Rebecca Hall’s performance is a tour de force in this thriller about a mother who is forced to put her life on the line when her family is confronted by a mysterious figure from her past. Tense and unnerving, “Resurrection” brilliantly explores the lingering effects that manipulation can have on a person, all leading up to a deeply disturbing finale that will shock even the most hardened of viewers. This is one to look out for once it finds distribution.
With just his second feature film, writer-director Kogonada establishes himself as one of the most essential cinematic voices of this past decade. “After Yang” focuses on a family’s attempt to cope with the potential loss of their beloved robot, Yang, while examining the powerful hold that memories can have on both humans and artificial beings. Blending sci-fi with a strong emotional core, this movie is an undeniably resounding feat of filmmaking.
Bleak and timely as ever, this drama about a dedicated student’s quest to get an abortion in France in the 1960s, a time when such procedures were illegal in the country, is by far the most riveting film to feature at Sundance this year. Anamaria Vartolomei burns through the screen with a ferocity that is a marvel to witness. The claustrophobic way in which the film is shot ensures the viewer is always on edge about what might happen next. “Happening” is a brilliant film, featuring one of the most unforgettable endings in recent memory.
Speak No Evil
The less you know about “Speak No Evil” before watching it, the better. What starts as a seemingly tranquil film about two different families who meet on a vacation in Italy gradually devolves into a white-knuckle thrill ride that jolts the viewer into a state of absolute terror. This film doesn’t hold back whatsoever, and it revels in its nightmarish atmosphere right up to its chilling conclusion.