Stories of redemption, revelation and rebellion at Sundance 2022
Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack star in "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande," an astute, sexy and funny premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
In one of those sweetly serendipitous moments common to film festivals, I happened to see two of my favourite movies back to back at the Sundance Film Festival, which wraps up a second year of showing its offerings online this weekend.
“Living,” starring Bill Nighy, and “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” starring Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack, tell stirring and thoughtful stories of introverted and anxious people who decide late in life to find reason for their existence beyond just drawing breath for another day.
They helped make good on festival director Tabitha Jackson’s opening day promise that, despite a schedule heavy with urgent films about race, abortion and social justice, “joy is also an operating principle this year.”
Watching “Living” and “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” mid-fest was a balm to the soul after seeing multiple fortitude-testing movies about sexual predators, violent racists, creepy stalkers, homicidal vacationers and cannibal urges.
I also took in the NFB’s virtual experience “This Is Not a Ceremony,” a provocative and essential work by Ahnahktsipiitaa (Colin Van Loon). It depicts with searing intensity the 2008 death of Brian Sinclair, the Winnipeg Indigenous man who died of a bladder infection in a hospital emergency room after being ignored by medical staff for 34 hours.
There were some tough watches at Sundance 2022, to be sure. There were also great movies and a satisfying Sundance experience, despite the festival having to move almost everything online for a second year due to pandemic safety requirements.
Here are the 10 films I most appreciated at Sundance, which will soon be coming to theatres, festivals and/or streaming services near you:
The great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa used the phrase “cinematic beauty” to describe the deep emotions films arouse. It certainly applies to this impeccably understated English-language adaptation of Kurosawa’s life-affirming 1952 drama “Ikiru,” the story of a man’s 11th-hour redemption. This remake by Oliver Hermanus, set in 1953 England and starring the inimitable Bill Nighy as a stuffy bureaucrat seeking meaning as he faces his final days on Earth, unfolds in the grand tradition of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol.” Nicknamed “Mr. Zombie” for his paper-shuffling somnambulism, Nighy’s character opts for “yes” over “no” as darkness approaches. The beautiful outcome in both form and spirit makes “Living” an instant classic. Get out your handkerchiefs!
We Need to Talk About Cosby
W. Kamau Bell’s masterful docuseries, coming to Crave Jan. 30, inspires awe for its journalism and loathing for its subject. The four-hour film documents and contextualizes comedian Bill Cosby’s awful sexual history, in which more than 60 women — some of whom movingly tell their stories on camera — have accused the man once known as “America’s Dad” of rape, drug-facilitated sexual assault and other crimes over nearly 60 years. Bell’s doc goes deep, sparking difficult conversations, especially within the Black community that idolized Cosby, about society’s failure to acknowledge and stop rape culture and “how we confuse a celebrity’s image with their reality.” It’s devastating and essential viewing, carefully sourced and compassionately presented.
Toronto’s Daniel Roher (“Once Were Brothers”) brought this late add to the Sundance lineup straight out of the editing suite and it pulses with the energy of a great spy novel. It’s a documentary thriller about Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, anti-corruption activist and thorn in the side of Vladimir Putin. Cameras follow as Navalny nearly dies from a poison administered by suspected Kremlin agents but then recovers to unmask and punk his would-be killers. He returned to Russia a year ago, only to be jailed upon arrival. He was accused this week of terrorism by Putin’s regime. Navalny is fearless, charismatic and an agent of history. Roher’s timely doc puts us right there with him.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
Astute, funny, sexy and brave, Sophie Hyde’s two-hander brilliantly pairs Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack (TV’s “Peaky Blinders”) for sex-positive (and life-questioning) hotel trysts between a 60-plus widow and the 20-something lover she’s hired. Thompson’s ruffled Nancy craves the bedroom satisfaction she lacked in 31 years of marriage, but hang-ups persist; McCormack’s smooth Leo thinks he’s got it all figured out, but maybe not. Katy Brand’s screenplay sparkles, avoiding Hollywood clichés as both sides of this sexual exploration talk and act like real people rather than stereotypes. The ending, already much talked about, ranks as one of the most courageous cinematic moments ever.
Chloe Okuno’s stalker thriller is a study in unadorned dread, propelled by the marvellous Maika Monroe (“It Follows”) as a Bucharest newcomer fearful of a creepy guy across the way. Monroe’s Julie follows her boyfriend, Francis (Karl Glusman), to Romania for his new job, hoping for an adventure but finding loneliness when work keeps him away for long hours. She’s not alone, though — a strange neighbour (Burn Gorman, truly spooky) seems to be watching and following her, although Francis and the cops dismiss it as “Rear Window” paranoia. Monroe, Okuno and cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen team for a superior chiller, making excellent use of Bucharest’s COVID-emptied streets to evoke the still of fright.
Fire of Love
Katia and Maurice Krafft, Alsatian French scientists and lovers, were as eccentric as characters in a Wes Anderson movie. They died in 1991 after getting too close, as usual, to a lava flow from a Japanese volcano, one of many they’d studied over the years. Their deaths were perhaps inevitable — Maurice, a fatalist, spoke of their “kamikaze existence in the beauty of volcanic things” — but their lives were not without purpose. Their research led to timely warnings about eruptions that helped save thousands of people. Sara Dosa’s unique documentary refuses to wallow in tragedy. Instead, it commits to a mad embrace of destiny, with eye-searing archival footage and an appreciation of the ineffability of devotion.
A movie about chasing the soul inside the machine to rediscover life. Visually attuned “Columbus” writer/director Kogonada returns with a lyrical sci-fi saga about a near future where people, androids and clones grapple with loss, love and humanity. Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith play a busy married couple who have long relied on their devoted android, Yang (Justin H. Min), to look after their young daughter and run their household. When Yang malfunctions, possibly permanently, they discover he possessed an appreciation of human life that they have allowed to wither. A gorgeous piano score by composers ASKA and Ryuichi Sakamoto — I want this score! — completes the mood of blissful introspection.
Palm Trees and Power Lines
A terrific performance by newcomer Lily McInerny as 17-year-old Lea, a neglected teen in the Southern U.S. who trades boredom for danger when she’s wooed by Tom (Jonathan Tucker), a man twice her age. Jamie Dack’s contentious film, adapted from her 2018 short, should be shown in high school “How to Spot a Predator” classes: with his smarmy come-ons, motel abode and shifty moves, Tom is clearly up to no good. That’s not how he appears in Lea’s eyes, though, and to give actor Tucker his due, he invests Tom with believable charm as he calibrates his control. The film forces us to see things Lea’s way, past the point of understanding or even toleration but with a truthful depiction of harsh reality.
A Love Song
I’m tempted to call this Colorado Mountains romantic drama “Nomadland” as directed by Iranian minimalist Abbas Kiarostami, but writer/director Max Walker-Silverman brings his own poetry to his tale of a widowed sojourner. Character actors Dale Dickey (“Hell or High Water”) and Wes Studi (“Hostiles”) are superbly matched as lonely souls Faye and Lito, who meet at Faye’s trailer site to see if a barely remembered childhood friendship can become an adult relationship. They’re unsure if the stars they see are in their eyes or just in the heavenly sky above. A steady pace, gently beating hearts and a bevy of amusing co-stars make this film go down as smoothly as one of the yearning country songs on Faye’s transistor radio.
This ain’t “Straw Dogs,” it’s “Iron Woman.” There’s righteous ferocity from Thandiwe Newton, who delivers a career-peak performance as a fearless college professor in red state back country. All she wants to do is live quietly in her woodland cottage. Redneck hunters who trespass on her turf don’t take kindly to orders from a city slicker, least of all a Black one, but they picked the wrong woman to mess with. Julian Higgins’ auspicious feature debut employs genre violence to make social revolution explosively real. “Sometimes it feels like things never change,” Newton’s character, Sandra, tells her students. “But I promise you they do. They have to.” Rest assured she doesn’t just talk the talk.
Five other good watches: “Dual,” “Emily the Criminal,” “jeen-yuhs: A Kanye West Trilogy,” “Nothing Compares” and “You Won’t Be Alone.”
Two big disappointments: Lena Dunham’s “Sharp Stick” and Jesse Eisenberg’s “When You Finish Saving the World.” A celebrity director is no guarantee of quality.
(This story originally appeared in the Toronto Star.)
Three top Sundance 2022 faves, clockwise: "Living," "We Need to Talk About Cosby" and "Navalny"