Best of Sundance 2022 — from the 'secret' movie about poisoned Russian politician Navalny to films on the abuses of Bill Cosby and Marilyn Manson

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·12 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
'Navalny' (Sundance Film Festival)
Navalny (Photo: Sundance Film Festival)

We knew there were going to be some blockbuster documentaries premiering during 2022’s primarily virtual Sundance Film Festival, with W. Kamau Bell’s four-part series We Need to Talk About Cosby digging into the legacy of the disgraced comedian and Evan Rachel Wood opening up about the abuse she suffered at the hands of shock-rocker Marilyn Manson in Amy Berg’s Phoenix Rising.

But it was Sundance’s “secret” screening, the late-breaking doc Navalny that ultimately ruled the festival’s non-fiction offerings, winning the Audience Award on Friday.

Navalny was announced so late — five days into the festival — because of its highly sensitive subject matter. Directed by Daniel Roher (Once Were Brothers), the film presents an intimate look at Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, social media sensation and outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin who survived a poisoning attack in 2020 widely believed to have been orchestrated by the Kremlin.

As Roher noted introducing the film, Navalny’s premiere at the festival was bittersweet considering the politician has been imprisoned under highly dubious circumstances for the past year.

“I want every single human being on the planet Earth to know the name Alexei Navalny,” Roher said during a post-screening Q&A. “I want that name to be associated with a grotesque injustice being perpetrated by the Russian state against a man who survived a murder attempt and then was arrested for merely surviving. I want there to be a global outrage and outcry because of Alexei’s detainment, and I want people to stop doing business with the Russians, and I want there to be reasonable expectations for Navalny’s release.”

VLADIMIR REGION, RUSSIA - JANUARY 17, 2022: Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny is seen on the screen during a hearing at the Petushki District Court. The court considers Navalny's motion to cancel his record as 'prone to extremism'. Navalny is serving his 3,5-year sentence in the Yves Rocher case. Anna Ustinova/TASS (Photo by Anna Ustinova\TASS via Getty Images)
Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny is seen on the screen in court as he appeals his prison sentence for being "prone to extremism." (Photo: Anna Ustinova\TASS via Getty Images)

Also present at the Q&A was Alexei’s daughter, Dasha Navalny (also known as Daria), a psychology student at Stanford who provided a brief update on her father’s wellbeing.

“We are doing good, considering everything. Our primary thinking with this movie coming out is that we want Alexei to be released,” she said. “My dad is doing OK, but excited to see the movie if he ever gets to.”

Navalny arrived at Sundance with distribution already intact — CNN Films and HBO Max will release at a date to be announced later in 2022 — as did We Need to Talk About Cosby (which premiered Saturday on Showtime) and Phoenix Rising (HBO will premiere it in two parts sometime this year).

But as usual, there was a slew of acquisitions, topped by Apple TV+’s $15 million purchase of Cha Cha Real Smooth, writer-director-star Cooper Raiff’s buzzy dramedy in which he plays a bar mitzvah party starter who strikes up tender relationships with a young mother (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter (Vanessa Burghardt). Other big-ticket sales included the sexual discovery story Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (Fox Searchlight for $7.5 million) and the Akira Kurosawa remake Living (Sony Pictures Classics for $5 million), which generated major kudos for, respectively, Emma Thompson and Bill Nighy. Stephanie Allynne and Tig Notaro’s thirty-something coming-out comedy Am I OK? (also starring Dakota Johnson, who had quite the fest), meanwhile, went to Warner Bros./HBO for a reported $7 million.

Price tags aside, these were our favorite films screened at Sundance 2022 (listed in alphabetical order), along with their release info:

Descendant

In exploring the discovery of the sunken Clotilda, the last known slave ship to arrive in the U.S. (more than half a century after the trafficking and sale of human bodies was outlawed) in Alabama’s Mobile River, documentarian Margaret Brown also turns the lense on the people of Africatown, known descendants of the enslaved people on that ship, in this phenomenally illuminating and profound history lesson. In turn Descendant makes one of the most striking arguments for reparations ever put on film, the people of the industrial-surrounded Africatown still being victimized by the same wealth and racial power structure today that existed in the 19th century. The argument “but that was hundreds of years ago” doesn’t cut it here. — K.P.

How you can see it: Descendant was acquired by Netflix and Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground, and is expected to be released later this year.

Dual

The Last Duel is so 2021 — this year the only duel that matters is Karen Gillan vs. … Karen Gillan? The Guardians of the Galaxy scene-stealer headlines Riley Stearns’s dryly hilarious sci-fi picture Dual as Sarah, a young woman who makes the dubious decision to clone herself after being misdiagnosed with a terminal illness. That decision only grows more dubious when the cloned Sarah tries to claim the original’s friends and family as her own, setting the stage for a government-mandated duel to the death. Good thing that Sarah Prime has an expert in bad behavior — former Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul — as her trainer. Filled with the same deadpan humor and casual bursts of violence that distinguished Stearns’s previous film, 2019’s The Art of Self-Defense, Dual has the goods to be a midnight movie staple. — E.A.

How you can see it: RLJE Films is certainly betting on Dual's future cult following, picking up the movie in a reported seven-figure deal with a release date TBD.

Emergency

'Emergency' (Sundance Film Festival)
Emergency (Photo: Sundance Film Festival)

If we were looking for reference points to describe Carey Williams’s darkly comedic thriller it would go something like Superbad meets Very Bad Things meets The Hate U Give. But that movie math doesn’t do justice to this freshly conceptualized (its script won K.D. Dávila the screenwriting award), hilariously executed film. A pair of Black college students (Donald Watkins and RJ Cyler) and their Latino roommate (Sebastian Chacon) find a white girl passed out in their house, but are too afraid of what the cops might do to them if they call 911. A night of very funny hijinks and razor-sharp social commentary ensues in a film you’ll be hearing much more about in the months to come. — K.P.

How you can see it: Emergency opens in theater May 20 before premiering on Amazon Prime Video May 27.

Fire of Love

Better cue up your Elvis playlist, because Sara Dosa’s instantly acclaimed documentary Fire of Love made festival-goers’ temperatures rise. Working with hundreds of hours of archival footage shot by late volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, the film tracks their decades-long marriage to each other and, more importantly, to the art and science of filming erupting volcanos. Scored to Nicolas Godin’s majestic score and filmmaker Miranda July whimsical narration and featuring some of the most spectacular nature photography you’ll see, Fire of Love is a visual experience that cries out for the big screen. — E.A.

How you can see it: National Geographic will make sure general audiences see it big. The nature giant’s documentary arm — which previously released 2018 Oscar-winner Free Solo and this year’s Oscar hopeful The Rescue broke a heated bidding war by writing a seven-figure check to acquire the film with a theatrical release on the horizon later this year.

Fresh

'Fresh' (Sundance Film Festival)
Fresh (Photo: Sundance Film Festival)

Fresh is absolutely one of those movies you’ll want to know as little as possible about heading into, so we’ll just tease this as the plot: It follows a single white female (Daisy Edgar-Jones) tired of the dating game who thinks she’s finally found Mr. Right in Sebastian Stan’s plastic surgeon, only to find very, very, very disturbing things about him. American Psycho comparisons may abound, but it’s only like American Psycho if you watched that film in a state of infinite unease, nervously devising ideas in which ways one of Patrick Bateman’s victims could escape and savagely murder him. Stan (Marvel’s Winter Soldier) is a glorious creep, Edgar-Jones (Normal People) proves she’s the real deal and director Mimi Cave has made one of the best psychological thrillers in years with this nerve-wrackingly tense instant genre classic. — K.P.

How you can see it: Fresh was acquired by Fox Searchlight and will stream exclusively on Hulu beginning March 4.

God’s Country

Thandiwe Newton plays a college professor in the mountainous northwest battling grief over her mother’s death and institutional racism at the university when she confronts hunters trespassing on her land. The battle escalates to unpredictable peaks in this slow-burn thriller from director Julian Higgins (who co-wrote the script with Shaye Ogbonna) that keeps things taut until its explosive ending. But our biggest takeaway is: Give Thandiwe Newton more leads. She gives a fiery yet still understated performance that was one of the fest’s very best. — K.P.

How you can see it: God’s Country is still seeking U.S. distribution.

Living

Here’s how Bill Nighy plans to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Love Actually next year — winning an Oscar. Richard Curtis’s 2003 rom-com hit made the veteran British character actor as recognizable as Keira Knightley, and now Oliver Hermanus’s Living is almost certainly going to inject him into the 2023 awards race. An English-language version of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic Ikiru, the film stars Nighy as a civil servant in post-World War II era London whose quiet life is upended after a doctor diagnoses that he has mere months to live. Adapted by acclaimed novelist, Kazuo Ishiguro — whose past tear-jerkers include The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go — Living will give Anglophile audiences a good cry. — E.A.

How you can see it: Living was bought by Sony Pictures Classics for a reported $5 million price tag. But that number is a drop in the bucket compared to the awards attention that Nighy’s lovely performance is sure to attract when the movie opens in theaters this fall.

Nanny

Talk about your smooth moves: While Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth was the early favorite to win Sundance’s coveted Grand Jury Prize, Nikyatu Jusu’s haunting debut feature Nanny took home that honor instead. And festival audiences couldn’t ask for a more surprising — or deserving — winner. A rich fusion of African folk legends and American domestic horrors, the film features a breakout star turn by Titans fan favorite Anna Diop as a Manhattan nanny whose eccentric new employers (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector) complicate her plans to bring her young son to New York from her native Senegal. Look for it to pop up at additional festivals throughout the year where its taut pace and timely socioeconomic commentary will confirm Jusu as a fresh new filmmaking voice to watch. — E.A.

How you can see it: Nanny is still seeking U.S. distribution, though a deal is likely in progress considering its big Grand Jury win.

Navalny

Daniel Roher scored tremendous access to one of global politics’ most intriguing figures, Alexei Navalny — the charismatic lawyer-turned-opposition leader in Russia who has used his powerful presence on social media to lead a growing revolution against the nation’s controversial leader, Vladimir Putin. Navalny, of course, barely survived a poisoning attack likely as a result, and tells Roher — and by expansion, the world, through this exceptionally crafted doc — his story while in Germany recovering from the assassination attempt. You won’t find a more jaw-dropping sequence in any documentary this year than when Navalny poses as a Kremlin official and calls a man they suspect was involved in the poisoning, only to listen in shock as he admits and replays the entire murder plot. If you were even slightly distrustful of Russia’s leadership before, wait until you view Navalny. — K.P.

How you can see it: CNN and HBO Max will distribute Navalny later in 2022.

Phoenix Rising

Nearly one year after Evan Rachel Wood first named Marilyn Manson as her abuser, the Westworld star revealed more frightening details about her four-year relationship with the goth rock musician in Amy Berg’s two-part documentary Phoenix Rising. The film puts Wood front and center as she explains how her complicated family history, not to mention her early experiences in the film industry, left her susceptible to Manson’s grooming. In one particularly harrowing scene, the actress recounts being “essentially raped” on camera by the singer while shooting a music video. (Manson has denied those allegations.) But Phoenix Rising is also about turning trauma into triumph, as Wood helps spearhead a movement to challenge existing court statutes for abusers and encourage other survivors to share their stories. — E.A.

How you can see it: Phoenix Rising will air on HBO in two parts in March.

We Need to Talk About Cosby

'We Need to Talk About Cosby' (Sundance Film Festival)
We Need to Talk About Cosby (Photo: Sundance Film Festival)

The next time you’re not sure whether you should finish a demanding project, just remember that W. Kamau Bell stuck with We Need to Talk About Cosby and got the explosive docuseries into Sundance. “I thought, ‘Maybe this is just going to go away, because it’s so challenging,'” the comedian admitted to Yahoo Entertainment about his acclaimed four-part re-evaluation of Bill Cosby’s life and legacy in the wake of Cosby’s 2018 conviction on sexual assault charges. But Bell proves he’s more than up to the challenge, assembling a wide range of historians, comedians and former Cosby collaborators to talk about his subject’s pioneering career, while also leaving plenty of room for a number of Cosby accusers to share their devastating accounts of what was happening behind closed doors. — E.A.

How you can see it: We Need to Talk About Cosby is currently airing on Showtime.

Speak No Evil

Christian Tafdrup's nasty and damn-near nihilistic horror film is equal parts unsettling and blackly hilarious. When a Danish family agrees to an extended vacation with a Dutch couple at their remote home, the visitors ignore all the obvious warning signs that they should ... well, get out. What is it about people that compels us to remain in obviously dangerous situations than risk being direct and impolite? That’s the question at the center of this twisted flick, which explores the dark side of human nature in bracing ways, provided you can deal with the sheer brutality of it all. — Brett Arnold

How you can see it: Take the trip with Speak No Evil when it hits the Shudder streaming service later this year.