25 must-see movies from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival

A man talks to a woman while she enters a doorway
Cooper Raiff, left, and Dakota Johnson in “Cha Cha Real Smooth.”
(Sundance Institute)

As the second consecutive virtual Sundance Film Festival comes to a close, the heartening news is that the indie film showcase once again unveiled a lineup of movies worth dissecting and discussing in the year ahead.

Here are some of our favorites from the festival’s feature competition sections, as well as Next, Midnight and Premieres.


‘Am I OK?’ / ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’

Two women lie face to face in a bed
Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno in “Am I Ok?,” directed by Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne.
(Emily Knecht via Sundance Institute )


One undisputed star of this year’s festival was Dakota Johnson with two films as actor and producer, Cooper Raiff’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth” and Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne’s “Am I OK?” both displaying that there can still be something fresh from even within seemingly venerable Sundance loglines of self-discovery. In “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” Johnson plays a mother to an autistic teenager, conflicted about how to move forward in her life as she strikes up an unexpected friendship with a 22-year-old played by Raiff. In “Am I OK?” Johnson plays a woman who finds her relationship with her longtime best friend (Sonoya Mizuno) pulling apart at the exact moment she needs it most, as she embraces for the first time her identity as a lesbian. Both films have a sense of discovery and an enveloping warmth, and “Cha Cha” became the biggest sale of the festival so far when it went to Apple TV+ for a reported $15 million. (It also won the audience prize in the U.S. dramatic category.) (M.O.)


‘Call Jane’ / ‘The Janes’

Two women sit outside on steps
Elizabeth Banks and Wunmi Mosaku in “Call Jane,” directed by Phyllis Nagy.
(Sundance Institute)

At a time when America looks poised to take a giant step backward in the rights of women to make decisions about their own bodies, this pair of films — one narrative, one documentary — about an underground network providing abortion access to women in pre-Roe v. Wade Chicago serve as particularly urgent dispatches from a more shameful time. “Call Jane” director Phyllis Nagy tells the story from the perspective of a suburban housewife (a masterful Elizabeth Banks) who goes from a client to one of the group’s leaders. “The Janes” directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes offer up the perfect complement with a colorful oral history as told by the real women, and some men, who lived it. (G.B.)

An old photo of young women outside in bathing suits
A still from “The Janes,” directed by Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin.
(Sundance Institute)


‘The Cathedral’

A young boy stares off
Henry Glendon Walter V in “The Cathedral,” directed by Ricky D’Ambrose.
(Sundance Institute)


Ricky D’Ambrose’s semiautobiographical memory film tells the story of a young boy growing up during the ’80s, ’90s and early aughts, but with few of the usual coming-of-age drama hallmarks. By playing with visual and emotional distance — the camera often watches from a deliberate remove; a narrator calmly fills in detail after detail — he emerges with a subtly prismatic portrait of life and death, marriage and divorce, celebration and estrangement, in which life’s disappointments are seen and comprehended with a rare and heart-crushing truthfulness. (J.C.)



The back of a girl as she looks out at the sea
Emmett Lewis appears in Descendant,” directed by Margaret Brown.
(Sundance Institute )

One of the most essential and urgent films of the festival, nonfiction or otherwise, Margaret Brown’s lyrical documentary first centers on the 19th century slave ship Clotilda, the last known vessel to illegally transport enslaved Africans to the United States. Fabled to have been sunk by its white owner, Timothy Meaher, more than a century ago, its potential discovery opens a door to healing for the residents of Africatown in Mobile, Ala., descended from the ship’s survivors. That story, told with great empathy through the eyes of community members and with the added revelation of “Barracoon,” a long-buried Zora Neale Hurston text only published in 2018, would be compelling on its own. But as she widens her scope, Brown reveals the insidious tentacles of systemic racism and oppression that continue, infuriatingly, to link past and present — not only in this community but in countless others like it where justice and closure remain elusive, their scars woven into the fabric of contemporary America. (J.Y.)


‘Emily the Criminal’

A woman in dim lighting looks scared
Aubrey Plaza stars in and produced “Emily the Criminal,” directed by John Patton Ford.
(Low Spark Films via Sundance Institute )

The most reliable thing about Aubrey Plaza as a Sundance regular is her unpredictability, as she has proven herself capable of wildly varied performances in films ranging from “Ingrid Goes West” to “Black Bear.” In “Emily the Criminal” she again finds a new gear. A gripping thriller, the feature debut from writer-director John Patton Ford stars Plaza (also a producer) as a young woman who gives in to the rage of feeling the system stacked against her, as crushing student debt and diminishing prospects push her to an escalating life of crime. (M.O.)


‘Every Day in Kaimuki’

A man stands in the middle of the street at night
Naz Kawakami stars in “Every Day in Kaimuki” by debut filmmaker Alika Tengan.
(Sundance Film Festival)


Twenty-something Naz (Naz Kawakami) is at a crossroads in “Every Day in Kaimuki”: He’s ready to make the big move from his Honolulu hometown to New York City. Or is he? Director Alika Tengan’s charmingly lo-fi debut feature, co-written by Kawakami (who plays a heightened version of himself), strikes lovely rhythms as Naz skateboards, works his final shifts at the local radio station and prepares to leave the only life he’s known for an uncertain future. With a keen naturalistic eye, a killer soundtrack and a hybrid docu-narrative approach, Tengan locates evocative truths in the specificity of Naz’s tale, one of the exquisite discoveries of this year’s Next sectionlineup. (J.Y.)


‘Fire of Love’

A woman in an industrial suit in front of a big blaze
A scene from Sara Dosa’s “Fire of Love.”
(Sundance Institute)

Werner Herzog’s “Into the Inferno” devoted some time to the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft, a married pair of French volcanologists who lived and died doing what they loved: filming and studying eruptions up close. Their unconventional love story and utterly astonishing footage get more extensive treatment in Sara Dosa’s captivating documentary, which thrilled virtual Sundance crowds but deserves the biggest screen possible. (J.C.)


‘Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’

A man and a woman sit in a bed looking at each other
Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” directed by Sophie Hyde.
(Nick Wall via Sundance Institute)

Two actors. One hotel room. It sounds like the perfect set-up for a COVID-era scaled-down production. But the genuine magic of this witty, intimate, engrossing look at sex, aging and emotional baggage comes from its perfectly matched stars — a top-of-her-game Emma Thompson as a sexually frustrated widow taking control of her neglected desires and breakout star-on-the-rise Daryl McCormack as the impossibly slick and charming male companion she hires — its canny screenplay by Brit comedian Katy Brand and perceptive direction from Australian Sophie Hyde. It’s no surprise a big name like Searchlight acquired the movie for release later this year on Hulu. (G.B.)


‘Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul’ / ‘Master’

A woman wearing a scarf outside in the dark looking worried
Regina Hall in “Master,” directed by Mariama Diallo.
( Amazon via Sundance Institute )


Few people felt as emblematic of this year’s Sundance as Regina Hall, capturing the ways in which genre was deployed to examine deeper issues in “Master” and “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul.” Though the two performances are very different, Hall makes them both emotionally vivid. In Mariama Diallo’s restrained “Master,” Hall (also an executive producer) plays a newly promoted dean of students at a prestigious college, navigating the structural inequities of an institution haunted by all manner of past traumas. Adamma Ebo’s affectionate satire “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul” finds Hall (also a producer) in a more comedic mode as the first lady of a Southern Baptist megachurch rocked by scandals caused by her husband (Sterling K. Brown), struggling to put a positive face on the growing realization that things may not work out. (M.O.)

A man and a woman on throne-like chairs on a stage
Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown in “Honk For Jesus, Save Your Soul,” directed by Adamma Ebo.
(Alan Gwizdowski via Sundance Institute )



A man and a suit and bowler hat checks his watch
Bill Nighy in the movie “Living.”
(Sundance Institute)

For the record:

2:36 p.m. Jan. 31, 2022An earlier version of this article cited Yasujiro Ozu as the director of “Ikiru.” Akira Kurosawa directed the 1952 film.

After several unflinching features about violence and repressed sexuality in his South African homeland (“Beauty,” “The Endless River,” “Moffie”), Oliver Hermanus seeks out gentler terrain with this exquisite London-set remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic, “Ikiru.” As the city bureaucrat whose terminal illness occasions a profound and challenging bout of soul searching, Bill Nighy has seldom been more dryly restrained — or more deeply affecting. (J.C.)


‘A Love Song’

A woman looks pensive
Dale Dickey in “A Love Song,” directed by Max Walker-Silverman.
(Sundance Institute)


Ever since she terrified me in “Winter’s Bone” exactly 12 Sundances ago, I’ve been waiting for the day the great Dale Dickey would get the lead role she’s long deserved. She gets it here opposite an equally fine Wes Studi, the two of them playing old childhood friends who reunite at a sunny Colorado campsite in Max Walker-Silverman’s beautiful, bittersweet debut feature. The isolated locations cast a spell, but the actors’ extraordinary faces are by far the movie’s most expressive landscapes. (J.C.)


‘Mars One’

A woman smiles sitting next to a boy
Camilla Souza and Cícero Lucas in the movie “Mars One.”
(Sundance Institute)

A stirring highlight of the festival’s World Cinema dramatic competition, Gabriel Martins’ feature writing-directing debut follows a struggling Black family of four in the aftermath of the 2018 election of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. But despite the sense of grim foreboding at the outset and throughout, it’s a warmly affirming drama about the resilience of family bonds, the pursuit of individual dreams and desires, in which gestures of love and understanding become their own vital acts of resistance. (J.C.)



A woman smiles dancing in blue light
Music manager Doris Muñoz in “Mija,” the first feature film by Isabel Castro.
(Sundance Institute)

Playing as part of the festival’s ever-vital Next section, Isabel Castro’s documentary “Mija” examines the intersecting trajectories of two young Mexican American women, both the American-born daughters of undocumented parents, as they realize dreams both of their own and for their families. Castro utilizes a dreamy, artful style in following music manager Doris Muñoz and Jacks Haupt, the rising talent she bets big on, with an understanding eye and sense of drama big and small that makes the film an intimately emotional journey. (M.O.)




A woman appears to be tangled up underwater
Anna Diop in “Nanny,” directed by Nikyatu Jusu.
(Sundance Film Festival)

In a year with many notable debut films, few have the power of vision and complex depth of writer-director Nikyatu Jusu’s “Nanny.” Anna Diop stars as Aisha, a Senegalese immigrant who takes a job as a childcare worker for an upscale New York City couple (Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Spector) in hope of earning enough money so her son back home can join her. With a sleek, confident style, the film uses folklore and horror to center a story too often pushed to the margins. (“Nanny” won the grand jury prize in the U.S. dramatic competition.) (M.O.)


‘Palm Trees and Power Lines’

A man looks at a woman in a car
Lily McInerny and Jonathan Tucker in the movie “Palm Trees and Power Lines.”
(Sundance Institute)

While it plays out in a key of hypnotically mundane realism, Jamie Dack’s debut feature is considerably scarier — and bleaker — than most of the jump-scare-laden horror-drama hybrids in this year’s U.S. dramatic competition. Lily McInerny and Jonathan Tucker give complex, eerily synched performances as a disaffected 17-year-old and the man twice her age she falls for — a disquieting enough premise that Dack pushes to ever more sinister extremes. (J.C.)


‘Phoenix Rising’

A woman's hair blows in the wind under a blooming tree
Evan Rachel Wood in the documentary “Phoenix Rising,” an official selection of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
(HBO via Sundance Institute)


Following years of activism in service of domestic-violence survivors, actress Evan Rachel Wood opens up about her own experience with allegations of abuse against ex-husband Brian Warner (a.k.a. Marilyn Manson). Director Amy Berg’s personal, raw documentary only screened the first of two parts as a work in progress (the complete project will air on HBO this year), but it was enough to establish that this isn’t just a portrait of a celebrity relationship but a story shared to help others whose lives aren’t in the public eye. (G.B.)



A woman covered in blood stands in the middle of a road
Laura Galán in “Piggy,” written and directed by Carlota Pereda.
(Jorge Fuembuena via Sundance Institute)

Writer-director Carlota Pereda expands her short film into one of the most arresting, and unsettling, feature film debuts of recent years. With a scenario that seems ripe for exploitation, the razor-sharp thriller follows teen outcast Sara (a commanding Laura Galán), who forges an unspoken bond with a mysterious killer (Richard Holmes). Pereda borrows elements of horror classics from “Carrie” to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” but by continuously confounding expectations — and imbuing Sara with a lived-in complexity far beyond most movie teenagers — “Piggy” carves its own unique space in the genre landscape. (G.B.)



A woman with short brown hair looks concerned
Rebecca Hall in “Resurrection,” directed by Andrew Semans.
(Wyatt Garfield via Sundance Institute)

Last year Rebecca Hall was at Sundance with her debut as writer-director, “Passing,” and this year she returned as an actress with “Resurrection,” further confirming her place among the premier purveyors of high-strung fragility and inner resolve. Written and directed by Andrew Semans, the film stars Hall as a woman whose carefully controlled world is upended by the reappearance of a man from her past, played with menacing relish by Tim Roth. Anchored by Hall’s mesmerizing performance, the startling, surprising film is part domestic thriller and part unnerving freakout. (M.O.)



‘Something in the Dirt’

Two men examine diagrams on a wall
John (Aaron Moorhead, left) and Levi (Justin Benson) encounter the unexplainable in an L.A. apartment building in the indie sci-fi “Something in the Dirt.”
(Aaron Moorhead via Sundance Institute)

A lot of us spent COVID lockdown feeling isolated, wandering down online rabbit holes and letting those existential “what ifs?” spiral out of control. Filmmakers Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (“The Endless,” “Synchronic”) channeled those feels and their trademark heady sci-fi leanings into the wildest, weirdest, most L.A. DIY film of the pandemic. Filming in their actual apartments with a skeleton crew, the co-directors and co-editors also co-star as new neighbors Levi (Benson, also screenwriter) and John (Moorhead, also cinematographer), who unexpectedly connect over a reality-shifting phenomenon in their building. Crystals, “The X-Files,” Ye Rustic Inn, coyotes, earthquakes, ancient math conspiracies — this movie has it all, colliding in a kaleidoscopic maelstrom of comic paranoia and wonderment. (J.Y.)


‘Speak No Evil’

The silhouette of a man looking at photos on the wall
Morten Burian in the movie “Speak No Evil,” directed by Christian Tafdrup.
(Erik Molberg via Sundance Institute)

Note to self: If you ever meet a family on vacation and they invite you to spend a few days with them at their remote Dutch cottage, best not to accept. Christian Tafdrup’s Midnight section standout is a doozy of a cautionary tale, but what gives it its blood-curdling oomph is how honestly it grasps the nature of psychological paralysis, the tendency of good people to do nothing. (J.C.)



A man with big headphones on at a desk with piles of cassettes
A scene from the documentary “Tantura.”
(Sundance Institute)


The events surrounding the 1948 destruction of an Arab fishing village by Israeli soldiers are brought to light — but also plunged into heavily distorting shadows — in Alon Schwarz’s complex, measured but thoroughly blood-boiling documentary. An invaluable addition to cinema’s reckoning with what Palestinians call the Nakba (“catastrophe”), it also holds up a mirror to any country — like, say, ours — that refuses to stare its own sins in the face. (J.C.)



A woman looks through a fence
Maika Monroe in director Chloe Okuno’s “Watcher.”
(Sundance Institute)

Coming off the visceral subterranean thrills of her “V/H/S/94” segment (all hail Raatma!), director Chloe Okuno flexes major chops in her elegant and terrifying feature debut, “Watcher.” Maika Monroe is mesmerizing as Julia, an American woman who moves to a Bucharest high-rise with her husband (Karl Glusman) only to become alienated and lonely in a strange country. (It doesn’t help that she’s definitely-maybe being watched by the creepy neighbor in the building across the way.) Okuno, credited as writer alongside Zack Ford, keeps tight command over her audience, spinning an increasingly claustrophobic web around Julia’s escalating fears of stranger danger. One of several genre offerings in this year’s U.S. dramatic competition, “Watcher” should land a distributor ASAP and bump both director and star even farther up industry watch lists. (J.Y.)