After two years of retreating online, as an unavoidable result of the pandemic, the Sundance film festival is set for a splashy return to Utah this week. While a digital component will still be maintained, in-person premieres and parties will allow for that all-important mixture of standing ovations, word-of-mouth whispers (it’s a major market festival) and celebrities wearing beanie hats.
But which are the big films we should all be looking out for?
It’s a refreshingly light year for A-list talent, refreshing because they tend to head to the mountains with some of their worst movies, providing a loud distraction from the smaller, mostly worthier options. But for every Downhill or Four Good Days, there’s a Good Luck to You, Leo Grande or The Father, and signs suggest that dark psychological thriller Eileen might be an inductee to the latter camp. It’s the turn again of Anne Hathaway, playing a seductive new employee at a prison who develops a sinister friendship with Thomasin McKenzie’s lonely co-worker. Hathaway’s track record at the festival might not be the best (she went from bad in 2014 with Song One to really bad in 2020 with The Last Thing He Wanted) but this time, she’s joined by director William Oldroyd, whose Lady Macbeth remains one of the most frighteningly impressive debuts in the past decade, and Ottessa Moshfegh, who became a Booker prize finalist for her acclaimed source novel.
Following in the recent footsteps of Promising Young Woman and last year’s Fresh, Booksmart co-writer Susanna Fogel’s big screen expansion of Kristen Roupenian’s viral short story Cat Person promises to offer another cautionary tale of gender politics in contemporary dating through a genre lens. The New Yorker tale, which became an internet sensation back in 2017, focused on a college student and the older man she gets entangled with and drew plaudits for its specificity and frankness, the suspense of getting to know someone you might never really know at all. The film, starring Coda’s Emilia Jones and Succession’s Nicholas Braun, aims to make that suspense more literal, transforming it into a full-throated thriller. Regardless of how that shift lands, it’s likely to be one of the most talked about films of the festival.
You Hurt My Feelings
Writer-director Nicole Holofcener makes a welcome return to Sundance with her first film at the festival since 2010’s Please Give (she also premiered both Walking and Talking and Friends with Money there before), teaming up again with her Enough Said lead Julia Louis-Dreyfus for another character-based comedy hinged on an uncomfortable premise. In You Hurt My Feelings (originally titled Beth and Don), Louis-Dreyfus plays a writer who overhears her therapist husband confess that he doesn’t rate her work, a brutal moment of honesty that conflicts with the support he’s given her for years. It’s a fascinating setup for an awkward examination of what we really want and then need from our partners and given Holofcener’s mostly unimpeachable track record in this particularly knotty area, expectations are sky high.
One of the greatest joys of Sundance is getting to see a trusty supporting actor get promoted to lead, a swell of well-earned good will pushing “that one from that thing” into the spotlight. Previous years have given John Hawkes, Nicole Beharie and Dale Dickey chances to shine and this year it’s the turn of Greta Lee, a scene-stealer from shows such as Inside Amy Schumer, Girls and Russian Doll. She’ll be keeping a straighter face in her latest, romantic drama Past Lives, centered on a childhood romance that gets cut short by circumstance but is given the chance to bloom decades later during a short period in New York. It’s from acclaimed playwright Celine Song and distributors A24 and sounds like the kind of intimate, talky romance that could make Park City audiences swoon.
It would be hard to craft a higher-profile breakout year than the one 33-year-old Jonathan Majors is about to enjoy, a combination of big and small but all through-lined by an interest in darker matter. In February, the actor will take on the role of fan favourite baddie Kang in the new Ant-Man movie (a multi-film villain set to rival Thanos) before beating up Michael B Jordan as an old friend seeking revenge in Creed III but first, he’ll preface his time at the multiplex with a return to the arthouse and the festival that originally brought him to prominence with 2019’s whimsical award-winner The Last Black Man in San Francisco. In Magazine Dreams, he’ll be heading for sour over sweet though, playing a temperamental body-builder pushing his body and mind to the very edge. Majors proved himself to be a more than adept leading man in last year’s stirring yet sorely underseen Korean War drama Devotion and it will be interesting, and gratifying, to see him edge closer to the spotlight this year.
Landscape with Invisible Hand
There’s something uniquely intriguing about a young director who changes tack with each of their movies, refusing to stick to one genre or tone, and it’s what makes Landscape with Invisible Hand one of the more promising unknowns of the festival. It comes from Cory Finley, who brought his debut film Thoroughbreds to Sundance in 2017. It was a Heathers-adjacent dark comedy which he then followed up with Bad Education, a Hugh Jackman-starring drama about public school embezzlement. The unpredictable film-maker is returning to Utah with an ambitious sci-fi satire about a future where aliens control the world by only giving their advanced tech to the wealthiest humans. It’s based on the novel by MT Anderson and features Tiffany Haddish, William Jackson Harper and When They See Us Emmy nominee Asante Blackk.
Another returning director this year is Ira Sachs, last at the festival with 2016’s Little Men, which followed on from acclaimed premieres of the heart-wrenching elder gay love story Love is Strange and Keep the Lights On. His last film Frankie, which was unveiled at Cannes, was seen as an uncharacteristic misstep so all eyes are on his latest, relationship drama Passages, to see if he can return to former glories. It’s a Paris-set story about a gay couple who each embark on affairs, one with a man and one with a woman. It stars Ben Whishaw, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Transit’s Franz Rogowski and sounds like the sort of interestingly messy and emotionally explorative drama that Sachs does best.
While Sundance is a place for revealing hitherto unknown talent, it’s also a place for those out of the running to get back in the race. Previous years have seen welcome comebacks for Michelle Pfeiffer, Holly Hunter and Kate Beckinsale and this year, after a thankless role in Top Gun: Maverick, Jennifer Connelly has a chance to return to the lead in the dark comedy Bad Behaviour. She plays a morally vacant former child actor relying on her worst instincts at a silent retreat, falling apart and taking everyone else along with her. It’s the directorial debut of actor Alice Englert (who was one of many great things about last year’s Sundance premiere You Won’t Be Alone), whose mother is none other than Jane Campion.