Culture / Entertainment

Sundance Film Festival’s Virtual Return — Movies to Watch, Ticket Drama, Another Princess and America’s Dad Exposed

A Quickly Pivoting Movie Marathon Still Brings Major Star Power and Intrigue

BY // 01.20.22

The Sundance Film Festival, America’s largest and most prestigious independent film festival, which takes place in the ski town of Park City Utah (35 miles southeast of Salt Lake City) opened on Thursday. Last year’s festival was mostly virtual, and the organizers planned for Sundance 2022 to be both in-person and virtual. It was to be a reunion and a celebration.

Instead, just 15 days before the Sundance’s opening date, the spread of the COVID Omicron variant made the festival’s organizers quickly pivot to a fully virtual event. Again. Transforming an event — which in normal times attracts more than 100,000 filmgoers, major actors, publicists, volunteers and industry executives while creating more than $80 million in revenue for the community — to a virtual format is not for the faint of heart.

For longtime attendees, even before this year’s disappointing, sudden (and appropriate) in-person cancellation, the festival had gradually changed. Robert Redford, its founder, had retired. Buyers acquired several films before they screened at Sundance. Many films could be viewed on streaming services before festival goers’ planes even took off from Salt Lake City to go home. The hassle factor of getting tickets at ever increasing prices diminished the experience.

People who bought in-person tickets ($750 for 10 tickets) were not given refunds. Instead, they were only offered virtual tickets to this year’s festival and partial credit towards tickets for next year’s Sundance. There are complaints about lack of communication and customer service. One could forgivably characterize this year’s vibe as grumpy.

And yet for the diehard filmgoer, the Sundance Film Festival remains one of the most exciting events on earth. Nothing beats the thrill of discovering a new actor or film. Even if it is online. And there is always a silver lining. Last year Sundance invested in the infrastructure and worked out the kinks so that filmgoers could enjoy the festival from their home. Although tickets are more expensive than last year, when a pass for the entire virtual festival cost $350, there are still tickets on Sundance’s streaming platform for $20 per movie.  Zoom Q&As, short films, panels — including one with Amy Poehler and Eva Longoria — are free.

Sundance director Tabitha Jackson kicked off the traditional opening day press conference by saying: “A festival is more than about watching films. It is about shared experiences. Sundance’s mission is to support artists as a transformative force.

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“That hasn’t changed, but the world around us has. How do we adapt? What have we learned from the last two years?”

Jackson and her team of programmers spoke of recurring themes of this year’s slate of movies: the environment and environmental politics, films around reproductive rights and fighting systems and injustice from the viewpoint of women and people of color.

Sundance 2022 is making 83 feature films and 35 documentaries available (from approximately 5,500 submissions) for streaming over a nine day period. That’s about 10 more movies than last year, but lower than the 120 titles shown in pre-pandemic years.

During the second weekend of Sundance, seven arthouses will show selected films (none are in Texas after both Houston and Dallas were included last year). As in prior years there are short films, virtual reality experiences and panels. This year’s slate contains more horror movies than in past years, and both a documentary and a star-studded drama dealing with illegal abortions in the 1960s.

You can’t have Sundance without what I call quirky Sundance coming-of-age films. Sometimes they are a hit —think Little Miss Sunshine and last year’s CODA — and sometimes they are real bow wows. Some of the hottest tickets this year are:

Cha Cha Real Smooth

Cha Cha Real Smooth is one the most talked about movies of Sundance, largely because of its star Dakota Johnson, coupled with director Cooper Raiff who wrote, directed, and stared in 2020 SXSW winner Shithouse. The film’s name comes from a dance jam by one-hit wonder Mr. C, and stars Raiff as an aimless college grad who works as a bar mitzvah party starter.

He forms a friendship with Johnson and her autistic daughter. Lots of other interesting names are part of the movie, including Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett and Raul Castillo.

Call Jane

Call Jane brings an all-star cast of Sigourney Weaver, Elizabeth Banks and Kate Mara. It tells the story of Joy, a Chicago housewife who in 1968 becomes pregnant and develops a life-threatening condition. The medical establishment is unwilling to help, and her journey leads her to the “Janes,” a clandestine organization that provides Joy with a safer alternative and in the process changes her life.

When You Finish Saving the World

When You Finish Saving the World is Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut and is based on his 2020 audiobook drama of the same name. Starring Julianne Moore as a mother who runs a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse who struggles with the relationship with her son, a high school folk musician played by Finn Wolfhard.

Eisenberg’s first turn in the director’s chair explores the age old question of how parents bridge the generational gap and how children grow up.

When You Finish Saving The World – Still 1
Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore appear in When You Finish Saving the World by Jesse Eisenberg, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Beth Garrabrant)

Sundance Documentaries to Watch

The Princess is yet another documentary about the late Princess Diana, which has captured Sundance’s highly coveted opening night slot. I’m not sure what can be said that hasn’t been said but interest is high, perhaps because of the ongoing drama in the royal family with Prince Andrew being sued in American courts and Prince Harry suing the British government.

It seems the public’s appetite for the British royal family is insatiable. Not much information has been released about this documentary except it is entirely in Diana’s own words and is on almost every reviewer’s most eagerly anticipated movies list.

Sundance's opening night documentary The Princess promises a new look at the life of the late Princess Diana. (Photo by Kent Gavin)
Sundance’s opening night documentary The Princess promises a new look at the life of the late Princess Diana. (Photo by Kent Gavin)

Lucy and Desi, comedian Amy Poehler’s directorial debut, explores the onscreen and personal lives of iconic I Love Lucy couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Ball and Arnaz revolutionized the television industry and the cultural landscape. Following on the heels of Aaron Sorkin’s fictional movie Being the Ricardos, this documentary features previously unseen archival footage, still photography and a dazzling array of interviews with Desi Arnaz Jr., Lucie Arnaz, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear and Bette Midler.

Downfall: The Case Against Boeing chronicles the 2018 crash of two Boeing 737 MAX jets within five months of each other and the determination of family members, dedicated journalists and government officials to expose a culture of profits over safety at the once venerated company. With acclaimed director Rory Kennedy at the helm, this film may make us never assume that new planes are safe again.

Downfall: The Case Against Boeing – Still 1
The Case Against Boeing by Rory Kennedy, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Netflix)

Bill Cosby Under the Microscope

I have been reviewing Sundance films since 2009.  Each year an institution, culture or person is exposed for using their position to sexually attack or harass others. In prior years, Sundance has presented groundbreaking documentaries on Michael Jackson, Harvey Weinstein, rape on college campuses and sexual harassment in the military. To name but a few. This year expect a lot of buzz on the four-hour docuseries We Need to Talk About Cosby from acclaimed director W. Kemau Bell.

The searing series explores Bill Cosby’s 50 years in show business and his shocking fall.  More than merely retelling the events, the film questions the type of culture that produced and celebrated “America’s Dad.”

Jane Howze is managing director of The Alexander Group, a national executive search firm. This is her 13th year covering the Sundance Film Festival.

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