By Noah Gittell
To attend the Sundance Film Festival, you typically must travel to Park City, Utah, adjust to the high altitude, and trod through the snow and slush for a chance to see the buzziest new films of the year. In 2021, however, I was able to sit on my couch, staring out at the snow, and watch those very same films. Due to the Omicron surge, Sundance went virtual this year, making the exclusive festival far more accessible and affordable. Here are the five best films I saw from my couch.
At the dawn of the Civil War in 1860, long after the importation of slaves to the U.S. had been outlawed, a wealthy landowner in Alabama bet his friends he could still smuggle a ship of slaves in from Africa. That was the legend, and “Descendant” chronicles the efforts of a small but committed group of Mobile residents to turn myth into fact by finding the wreckage of the sunken ship that brought their ancestors to the U.S. Full of indelible, human moments, it’s a riveting work that shows the institutional challenges of revealing and revising history.
2. “A Love Song”
If you’ve watched even a sliver of American cinema over the past quarter century, you’ll likely recognize Dale Dickey’s face, but you probably don’t know her name. The veteran character actor gets a much-deserved showcase in “A Love Song,” playing a middle-aged loner who reconnects with her high school sweetheart at her desert home. It’s a quiet, gorgeous film that foregoes emotional fireworks and instead aims to reflect the rhythms of the natural world.
3. “After Yang”
Director Kogonada fulfills the promise of his 2017 debut feature “Columbus,” which won rave reviews and very little box-office, with “After Yang,” a soft sci-fi film chronicling the fallout in a family whose at-home android has irreparably malfunctioned. It stars Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner Smith (“Queen & Slim”) as the struggling parents, but the real showcase here is the boldly original production design, which is delightful to admire but also is woven into the fabric of the story. Rarely has a filmmaker so thoroughly probed our relationship to the spaces we inhabit.
Bill Nighy gives a career-best performance in this haunting remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” as an ineffectual bureaucrat who tries to make something of his life after receiving a terminal diagnosis. Transposing the story to postwar England, the screenplay by Kasho Ishiguro brilliantly captures the things we feel but do not say – much as he did in “The Remains of the Day” – and Nighy breaks your heart several times over. It’s no Kurosawa, but it comes closer than it has any right to.
5. “Emily the Criminal”
Slowly but surely, Aubrey Plaza is becoming the kind of actor I’ll watch in anything. She produced “Emily the Criminal,” and stars as its protagonist, a working-class stiff who dips her toes into the criminal underworld to pay off her student loan debt, and finds she has a knack for it. It’s a familiar story, but it succeeds due to Plaza’s committed naturalistic performance, and its effective blend of genre thrills and well-observed realism.
Honorable Mention: “Fire of Love”
This documentary chronicling the lifelong romance and poetic demise of two committed volcanologists is a little too twee at times – Miranda July narrates, for example – but its footage of erupting volcanoes is breathtaking. See it on the biggest screen you can.