When the 44th Sundance Film Festival kicks off Thursday night, the lights at the Eccles Theater will be dim, and there will be fewer cinephiles crowding the snowy sidewalks on Park City’s Main Street. But if 2021 demonstrated anything, it’s that the world’s premier independent film festival is more than just its ski town setting.
Sundance is back online this year, with nine days of high-profile documentaries about everyone from Kanye West and Princess Diana to Lucille Ball and Bill Cosby, buzzy first films from known and unknown filmmakers, virtual gatherings, and filmmaker Q&As. The festival had planned to return to the mountains this year, but two weeks before thousands were expected to gather in Park City, Utah, organizers decided to pivot rather than cancel or postpone, as many have done in the aftermath of the omicron surge.
The experience of 2021 taught the programmers that films could still break through even when filmmakers, audiences, buyers, sellers, and press were not all in the same physical location. Several films that debuted last year are in the running for awards, ranging from ” Summer of Soul ” to ” Passing “. The price was fueled, at least in part, by streamers in need of new entertainment, a demand that has only grown stronger during the pandemic.
And the festival’s programming is as robust as ever this year, with dozens of thought-provoking films.
Thursday’s selections include ” Emergency,” a darkly comedic look at issues such as race and assault, and Eva Longoria’s documentary ” La Guerra Civil,” about Oscar De La Hoya and Julio César Chávez’s 1996 fight and the questions of identity it raised for many Mexican Americans.
Some have already made a name for themselves at other film festivals, such as Audrey Diwan’s “Happening,” a French drama about a college student seeking an abortion in the 1960s that won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. However, the majority of others are looking for a spotlight and distribution. Sundance has always prided itself on being a discovery festival, and it has helped launch many filmmakers’ careers, from Steven Soderbergh to Ryan Coogler.
” 892,” directed by Abi Damaris Corbin for the first time, is based on the true story of a former Marine who holds up a bank. It is one of the more high-profile acquisition titles, starring John Boyega and backed by the late Michael K. Williams. Boyega revealed that he was in tears while reading the script.
In another hot title, “Watcher,” Maika Monroe plays an American who has recently relocated to Romania and suspects she is being stalked. Director Chloe Okuno’s atmospheric thriller captures a familiar experience for women and draws stylistic inspiration from films such as “Lost in Translation” and “Perfect Blue.”
There are also many debuts from well-known names, such as Tig Notaro, who directs ” AM I OK? ” alongside wife Stephanie Allynne, about two best friends played by Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno. The documentary “2nd Chance” by Ramin Bahrani is a lively and incisive look at the man who invented the modern bulletproof vest. And “Carol” screenwriter Phillys Nagy directs Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver in “Call Jane,” one of two films at the festival about the Jane Collective, an underground abortion group in Chicago in the early 1970s.
As is customary, pressing social issues are explored in a variety of ways, including genre fare such as Krystin Ver Linden’s ” Alice,” starring Keke Palmer as an enslaved woman who discovers it’s actually 1973, and more straightforward documentaries such as Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee’s ” Aftershock,” a moving look at the maternal health crisis and its disproportionate impact on Black women.
Some deals have already been made: Searchlight Pictures has acquired ” Fresh,” a dating thriller starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Sebastian Stan, which will be available on Hulu beginning March 4.
Still, it’s a bittersweet moment for many, particularly early-career filmmakers who were looking forward to the energy of an in-person gathering.
Though many individual films have already sold out, there are still many options available to film fans and Sundance-curious audiences who were unable to attend Park City. The Explorer Pass, which Jackson describes as a microcosm of the festival, comes highly recommended by Jackson.