A virtual audience watches a film premiere in the New Frontier. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Sundance Film Festival: Top Picks

The Sundance Film Festival — a breeding ground for independent cinema — was a fully virtual event for the second straight year. The festival was supposed to return to its home in Park City, Utah, with a hybrid model to allow audiences to experience the films both in-person and online.

But after the rise of the Omicron variant, the festival canceled its in-person festivities and went fully virtual. So instead of audiences getting bundled up in snowy Utah, they participated from their couches.

Nonetheless, the virtual Sundance was a massive success. As someone who attended the previous virtual rendition of the festival, the experience this year was much more seamless.

Several inherent issues arise when creating a virtual film festival. In a normal year, the best parts of the festival, such as live Q&As and after-parties, may have been taken for granted. In a time when seeing your favorite directors and actors in person is near impossible, the festival’s organizers created an ingenious alternative.

After every film premiere — which you could watch on the official Sundance app — the filmmakers and stars of the film you just watched would appear on your screen live via Zoom for a Q&A. The Q&As were moderated by a festival director, and audience members could submit questions directly to the panelists straight from the app.

Following the Q&A, the festival invited those watching to continue discussing the film with fellow audience members and the stars of the movie in the Metaverse. In what Sundance calls the New Frontier, the VR-compatible experience allowed the audience to design their own avatar and attend virtual after-parties where they can join live chat rooms to mingle and network with fellow festival goers. Totally normal.

But what stood out in this year’s festival was the excellent slate of feature films, documentaries, and shorts. Here are my top picks from this year’s selection.

After Yang

Visionary South Korean filmmaker Kogonada makes his second Sundance appearance with “After Yang,” a soft sci-fi film starring Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith and Haley Lu Richardson. The film comes to Sundance after its critically-acclaimed world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last July.

The film follows a married couple in a future world who have adopted a Chinese child. In order to educate their young daughter, Mika, about her Chinese heritage, her father (Farrell) decides to purchase a lifelike android named Yang from a company that specializes in giving adopted Chinese children an older, robotic sibling.

Mika and Yang form an unbreakable bond, which comes to a screeching halt when Yang malfunctions. The rest of the film follows Mika’s father, a tea shop owner, trying to fix Yang, as well as discovering his secret second life.

This film has a massive heart. It’s a much more optimistic look at the rise of artificial intelligence, and one that is centered on a pure brother-sister relationship.

It’s also beautifully shot. The world that Kogonada creates is aesthetically pleasing in terms of production design; there are zen gardens, self-driving cars and one beautifully interior decorated home.

“After Yang” is one of the most sentimental and excellently crafted science fiction films in recent memory that beautifully explores artificial intelligence and racial identity. It will be released by A24 in theaters and will stream on Showtime on March 4.

Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy

More than two decades in the making, Chike Ozah and Coodie Simmons’ three-part documentary chronicling the rise to fame of rapper, producer, designer and fashion icon, Kanye West, had its world premiere at Sundance. All 89 minutes of Act I of “Jeen-Yuhs” were shown virtually at the festival, with all three parts set to debut on Netflix in February and March.

Act I, “Vision,” documents West’s big break, his ambition for greatness and his place in the large and ever-growing Chicago hip-hop scene. The film starts with narration from Simmons, explaining how he first encountered West and how he spent the next 20 years of his life documenting the career and life of the rapper.

“Jeen-Yuhs” takes an unusual approach to the documentary format, telling the story and the perspective of the filmmaker before discussing the subject of the film. This format is surprisingly effective, as the film explores the friendship between West and Simmons and adds an extra layer of narrative to an already solid product.

“Vision” follows West after his first major producing credit, Jay-Z’s “H To The Izzo,” and his desire to be more than just a producer — more specifically, his desire to get signed to Dame Dash’s Roc-A-Fella Records, the label that housed Jay-Z himself.

After not getting a deal after “Izzo,” West took matters into his own hands. In an incredible scene with intimate footage, West ambushes the New York City Roc-A-Fella offices to play a demo of his debut album in hopes of being offered a deal.

This extreme tactic does not immediately result in a deal but shows the amount of ambition and confidence West had from an early age. The future installments of this trilogy will surely explore where those traits got him, for better and for worse.

“Jeen-Yuhs” is an inspirational origin story of one of the most polarizing pop culture figures of all time, and delivers astonishing, fly-on-the-wall footage of key moments that made West into who he is.

Navalny

In August 2020, Russian anti-corruption activist, Alexei Navalny, was allegedly poisoned by the Russian government. Navalny is a famous activist who has publicly clashed with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has a massive online following, and his YouTube and TikTok conspiracy videos amass hundreds of millions of views.

“Navalny,” directed by Daniel Roher, is a documentary-thriller hybrid that was by far the most riveting and commanding film at the festival. A camera crew documents Navalny early in his career as an activist, his poisoning and the aftermath of his near-death experience.

What made this film extra enjoyable is that everyone in the film, including the crew, found out new information in real-time, making it an immersive, edge-of-your-seat experience.

“Navalny,” a late addition to the festival, won the Festival Favorite award as well as the U.S. Documentary Audience award at Sundance. The film does not have a release date but will be distributed by CNN Films and will debut on HBO Max later this year.

Cha Cha Real Smooth

2020 SXSW winner Cooper Raiff writes, directs and stars in his second feature film, “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” which had its world premiere at Sundance and was received warmly by festival goers. The film won the audience-voted U.S Audience Award and was subsequently snapped up by Apple TV for a whopping $15 million. 

Raiff, at just 23-years-old, plays a recent college graduate living with his parents and unsure of his future. Without a real job, he starts accompanying his middle school-age brother to his classmates’ Bar Mitzvahs, where he unknowingly becomes the life of the party. After one party, he is approached by some of the moms at the school who want to pay him to be a “party-starter,” essentially a hype man for local Bar Mitzvahs.

While on the job, he forges a friendship with a mom named Domino, played by Dakota Johnson, and her daughter. The rest of the film serves as a triple coming-of-age story. Raiff’s character is figuring out who he is, Johnson’s character is figuring out the future for her family and the kids in the movie, like any 13-year-olds, are also coming of age.

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” is thoughtful, funny and features some amazing performances by both adults and children. Raiff, at his young age, continues to show why he is leading the next generation of independent film.

In a time when having a large, indoor film festival is near-impossible, Sundance re-invented how a festival can be experienced, while also making it more accessible to global audiences than ever.