The EW movies department weighs in on the highs, lows, and whoas of this year's fest.

Thanks to bad luck and poorly timed variants, there was no sluicing through the Park City snow to get to screenings this year, no parties or premieres. But the Sundance Film Festival still took its middle name seriously, laying out a full roster of indie dramas, off-kilter comedies, documentaries, and world cinema.

We started ten days ago with clear eyes, full hearts, and 23 movies we couldn't wait to see; we conclude it older, wiser, and a lot less enthused about Lena Dunham. Read on below for the good, the bad, and the woo-woo extremes in between.

The Cha-Cha Charmer: Cha Cha Real Smooth

Filmmaker Cooper Raiff's impressively assured second feature is many things: low-key romantic comedy, post-college coming-of-age, journey through the dark underbelly of the New Jersey bar mitzvah circuit. Like Palm Springs and CODA before it, Real Smooth — which won the festival's annual popularity contest, a.k.a. the Audience Award — is a shinier kind of Sundance product, which has served the movie very well; by the end of the week it had a $15 million deal with Apple TV+. — Leah Greenblatt

Sundance Film Festival Preview
Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in 'Cha Cha Real Smoth'
| Credit: Apple TV+

The Hottest Doc (Literally): Fire of Love

It sounds like a Wes Anderson wet dream: two 1970s French volcanologists in love, traipsing across the world's hottest lava spots with their seismographs and their little red beanies. And director Sara Dosa imbues her breakout documentary with so much style and visual wit — Miranda July, naturally, narrates — that distributors NatGeo (who helped make an unlikely hit of the Oscar-winning 2018 climbing doc Free Solo) have wisely announced they're planning a full theatrical release before streaming; all this love and magma deserves to be seen on a big screen. — LG

Best Peele Effect: Master/Nanny

Almost immediately from its secret Sundance screening in 2017, Jordan Peele's Get Out was destined to make waves. Those waves came crashing back to the festival in a big way with Mariama Diallo's Master and Nikyatu Jusu's Nanny, both written and directed by women making their feature debuts — and both impeccably chilled with a real-world suggestiveness that goes well beyond typical bumps in the night. — Joshua Rothkopf

Least Thrilling Thriller: Watcher

Was this glacially paced Romania-set drama actually about vampires? Is that creepy stalker staring from across the courtyard a red herring? Was that too-good-to-be-true boyfriend a threat? Does It Follows' Maika Monroe actually get to act during this thing? If you answered "no" to all the above while coming up with about a dozen better developments and smarter endings in your head, then you should consider a career in the pictures. — JR

Sundance Film Festival Preview
Aubrey Plaza in 'Emily the Criminal'
| Credit: Sundance Institute

The Annual Aubrey Plaza Award: Emily the Criminal

For an actress whose participation in Sundance seems almost compulsory (see: Black Bear, Ingrid Goes West), Plaza outdid herself this year — turning in a vibrant, jittery performance as an L.A. art-school dropout who finds she has a unique gift for credit-card fraud in John Patton Ford's pitch-black Emily, one of the fest's best small surprises.  — LG

Greatest Scandinavian Nightmare: Speak No Evil

You may never house-guest again after Evil, in which a nice couple from Denmark and their young daughter spend a weekend with new friends, and soon learn the hard way how little they know their hosts. Expect an inevitable American remake, if other recent Danish arthouse hits (The Guilty, Another Round) are any indication — but Hollywood won't do it better than this. — LG

Best Secret Sputnik: Navalny

It came under cloak of night, or something like that: the project previously known only by the code name Untitled LP9, which turned out to be an engaging, harrowing, and often surprisingly funny portrait of would-be Vladimir Putin challenger Alexei Navalny. As cameras follow Nalvany — a singular political firebrand and also a donkey-loving, Call of Duty-playing dad — and his infamous near-fatal poisoning on the world stage, the movie becomes not just an urgent news piece or a quirky character study, but a living document of history as it happens. — LG

Sundance Film Festival Preview
Bill Nighy in 'Living'
| Credit: Sundance Institute

Biggest Shoes Filled: Living

A dying city bureaucrat yearns to make his final months count. That concept worked beautifully for Akira Kurosawa in 1952 when it was called Ikiru, and sure enough, this elegant English-language remake — scripted by The Remains of the Day novelist Kazuo Ishiguro and starring an inspired Bill Nighy — summoned the magic once again. The bidding war was won by Sony Pictures Classics, a studio that knows exactly what to do with this kind of low-key character study (CapoteJockey). — JR

Sundance Film Festival Preview
Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver in 'Call Jane'
| Credit: Sundance Institute

We Love Your Earlier Work Dept.: Call Jane

For her Carol screenplay alone, Phyllis Nagy will always own our hearts. So where was that neo-classic's daring and elegance when it came to Nagy's own directorial effort? Call Jane, a distinctly upbeat and untroubled abortion drama, could have used Nagy's fire on the page (it's scripted by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi). And despite the presence of Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver, feistiness was in short supply. — JR

Best Dark Magic: You Won't Be Alone

"Macedonian witches, but make it Malick": That's one of the breezier loglines on Alone, whose dreamy folkloric horror evoked comparisons to everything from Tree of Life to Midsommar. The movie's uncanny necromancing — a singular mix of B-movie gore (so many intestines!) and metaphysical mystery — was somehow both strange and surpassingly lovely. — LG

Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack appear in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande by Sophie Hyde, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Daryl McCormack and Emma Thompson in 'Good Luck to You, Leo Grande'
| Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Nick Wall

Best and Worst Naked Truths: Good Luck to You, Leo Grande/Sharp Stick

Sex positivity came in with a full-frontal bang via both Leo Grande — in which Emma Thompson plays a midlife widow getting her groove back with a male escort — and Stick, Lena Dunham's portrait of a virgin Lolita on the loose in Los Angeles. Thompson and her young costar Daryl McCormack shined, but it was Dunham's project that curdled on arrival — a disjointed and surprisingly retrograde drama whose winky messages of female empowerment ultimately rang hollow. — LG

Be More Courageous, Filmmaker: Nothing Compares

Sinéad O'Connor's career took a hairpin turn on October 3, 1992, when she came into violent contact with a photo of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live. But while Kathryn Ferguson's too-polite profile begins with harrowing footage of booing crowds, it barely touches on the aftermath. Did O'Connor soldier on? Did she convert to Islam and change her name? Did she continue to record and make art? Wikipedia awaits these inquiries and more. — JR

The Hungriest Horrors: Fresh and Resurrection

With Fresh, starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Sebastian Stan, first-time director Mimi Cave smartly satirized the horrors of modern dating in a stylish little thriller as, well, meaty as it is blithely entertaining. Resurrection took another, more humid view on bad romance, tweaking certain (extremely spoilery) taboos with a twist so patently ridiculous it entered almost immediately into the Malignancy hall of fame. — LG

Out of the Basement Award: Something in the Dirt

Sundance has a tradition of launching no-budget genre films that outclass the moneyed competition. (Remember The Blair Witch Project? Or 2004's we-built-a-time-machine prize winner, Primer?) This year, that movie was Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's cheapo stunner about two bickering L.A. losers (played by the directors themselves) who trip upon a crack in the fabric of space and time. Sometimes good ideas are enough. — JR

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