The Sundance Film Festival unfolds virtually for ten days this January, starting on Thursday the 20th. At RogerEbert.com, we will cover, well, almost all of it. The programs have been divided among five of our contributors, including Nick Allen, Robert Daniels, Marya Gates, Isaac Feldberg, and yours truly. To give people a taste of what’s to come as well as a chance to get some remaining virtual tickets, we thought we’d spotlight 20 films that we’re excited to see and write about over the next two weeks. Come back for coverage of all the titles below and so many more. Get tickets here. (Program descriptions courtesy of Sundance.)
In 1969, bankrupt pizzeria owner Richard Davis invented the modern-day bulletproof vest. To prove that it worked, he shot himself — point-blank — 192 times. Davis then launched Second Chance, which became one of the largest body armor companies in the world. Charming and brash, he directed sensational marketing films, earning him celebrity status among police and gun owners across the country. But the death of a police officer wearing a Second Chance vest catalyzes Davis’s fall, revealing a man full of contradictions cultivated over decades of reckless lies. Equally as questionable as he was captivating, Davis saved thousands of lives while endangering exponentially more.
Acclaimed filmmaker Ramin Bahrani’s feature-length documentary debut continues his fascination with the perilous pursuit of the American dream as seen through a uniquely individual lens. The film shrewdly juxtaposes Richard Davis’s actions with those of his righteous right-hand man, Aaron Westrick. Unwilling to passively present questionable truths, Bahrani instead lays bare the complexities of one man’s supposed virtue while speaking to the nature of power and impunity in America.
Alice (Keke Palmer) spends her days enslaved on a rural Georgia plantation restlessly yearning for freedom. After a violent clash with plantation owner Paul (Jonny Lee Miller), Alice flees through the neighboring woods and stumbles onto the unfamiliar sight of a highway, soon discovering that the year is actually 1973. Rescued on the roadside by a disillusioned Black activist named Frank (Common), Alice uncovers the lies that have kept her enslaved and the promise of Black liberation.
In her debut feature, writer-director Krystin Ver Linden spins a modern liberation fable that is equal parts earthy Southern Gothic and soulful Blaxploitation. Inspired by true accounts of Black Americans who were kept in peonage for more than 100 years after the end of slavery, Alice is an audacious mix of grim historical fact and exceptional fiction. Moving from a purgatorial plantation overgrown with Spanish moss to the lively landscape of urban Savannah, Ver Linden traces Alice’s breathless journey down the rabbit hole and into the turbulent wonderland of the post–Civil Rights South.
“Brian and Charles”
An endearing outlier, Brian lives alone in a Welsh valley, inventing oddball contraptions that seldom work. After finding a discarded mannequin head, Brian gets an idea. Three days, a washing machine, and sundry spare parts later, he’s invented Charles, an artificially intelligent robot who learns English from a dictionary and proves a charming, cheeky companion. Before long, however, Charles also develops autonomy. Intrigued by the wider world — or whatever lies beyond the cottage where Brian has hidden him away — Charles craves adventure.
Jim Archer’s imaginative, heartwarming comedy about loneliness and friendship works because its characters are emotionally layered and genuine. That we forget Charles isn’t “real” is testament to the physicality and voice of actor Chris Hayward, who co-wrote the screenplay. In building somebody to keep him company, Brian (British comedian and co-writer David Earl) ironically finds the self-worth to talk to Hazel, a timid neighbor he likes. But — with playful echoes of Frankenstein — he also fails to realize the emotional, developmental needs of his creation until it puts them all in danger.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth”
Fresh out of college — but now what? Higher education failed to provide 22-year-old Andrew with a clear life path going forward, so he’s stuck back at home with his family in New Jersey. But if college did teach him one thing, it’s drinking and partying — skills that make him the perfect candidate for a job party-starting at the bar and bat mitzvahs of his younger brother’s classmates. When Andrew befriends a local mom, Domino, and her daughter, Lola, he finally discovers a future he wants, even if it might not be his own.
Cooper Raiff follows up his 2020 SXSW Grand Jury Prize–winning debut feature, Shithouse, with a tale of young love that brims with emotional honesty. He writes, directs, produces, and stars in this charmer that respects all its characters’ struggles, even in moments when its protagonist can’t see beyond himself. Featuring a fantastic ensemble cast including Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann, and newcomers Vanessa Burghardt and Evan Assante, Cha Cha Real Smooth is made for the hopeless romantic living inside us all.
Recently diagnosed with a rare and incurable disease, Sarah is unsure how to process the news. To help ease her friends’ and family’s impending loss, she is encouraged to participate in a simple futuristic cloning procedure called “Replacement,” after which Sarah’s last days will be spent teaching the clone how to live on as Sarah once she’s gone. But while it takes only an hour for a clone to be made, things become significantly more challenging when that double is no longer wanted.
This darkly off-kilter comedy marks a welcome return to the Festival from writer-director Riley Stearns (The Cub, Sundance 2013). He straddles a curious line between deadpan satire and high-concept storytelling to take us on a sci-fi journey into the ways a catastrophic life change can force reconsideration of one’s entire existence. In the lead dual role, an oddly charming Karen Gillan proves the perfect match for Stearns’s strange, strange cinematic world.
“Emily the Criminal”
Emily (Aubrey Plaza) is saddled with student debt and locked out of the job market due to a minor criminal record. Desperate for income, she takes a shady gig as a “dummy shopper,” buying goods with stolen credit cards supplied by a middleman named Youcef (Theo Rossi). Faced with a series of dead-end job interviews, Emily soon finds herself seduced not only by the quick cash and illicit thrills of black market capitalism, but also by her ardent mentor Youcef.
Writer-director John Patton Ford’s taut thriller follows Emily from the margins of the corporate gig economy to the borderlands of the Los Angeles underworld. Emily the Criminal keeps sharp focus on its ambitious and increasingly reckless protagonist. Plaza, last seen at the Sundance Film Festival in Black Bear (2020), gives a nervy, committed performance, transforming Emily from an embittered temp worker into a stone-cold thief. Rossi is disarmingly vulnerable as her partner in crime.
In the spring of 1972, police raided an apartment on the South Side of Chicago. Seven women were arrested and charged. The accused were part of a clandestine network. Using code names, blindfolds, and safe houses to protect their identities and their work, they built an underground service for women seeking safe, affordable, illegal abortions. They called themselves Jane. Facing off against the mafia, the church, and the state, the Janes exhibited unparalleled bravery and compassion for those most in need.
Co-directors and Sundance Film Festival alumni Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes unearth this incredibly timely story to demonstrate how the fight for safe and legal abortions was, and continues to be, an uncertain and perilous undertaking. Electrifying archival footage of Chicago in the late ’60s and early ’70s, coupled with affectingly honest interviews with the Janes themselves, brings to life the city and its spirit of revolution in that historic moment.
A veteran civil servant and bureaucratic cog in the rebuilding of Britain post-WWII, Williams (Bill Nighy) expertly pushes paperwork around a government office only to reckon with his existence when he’s diagnosed with a fatal illness. A widower, he conceals the condition from his grown son, spends an evening of debauchery with a bohemian writer in Brighton, and uncharacteristically avoids his office. But after a vivacious former co-worker, Margaret, inspires him to find meaning in his remaining days, Williams attempts to salvage a modest building project from bureaucratic purgatory.
Director Oliver Hermanus (Beauty) offers a poignant reimagining of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Ikiru (To Live). Nobel and Booker Prize–winning author Kazuo Ishiguro’s adaptation elegantly transposes the story’s profound humanism to postwar London. Free of false sentimentality and tragic intonations, Living finds its soul in the wistful dignity Nighy brings to Williams. Transcending its period setting, Living is a timely reflection on the compulsions and distractions that obscure what it means to live.
“A Love Song”
After unhitching her camper at a lakeside in the mountains, Faye finds her rhythm cooking meals, retrieving crawfish from a trap, and scanning her old box radio for a station. She looks expectantly at the approach of a car or the mailman, explaining to neighboring campers that she’s waiting for a childhood sweetheart she hasn’t seen in decades. When he does arrive, Lito and Faye, both widowed, spend an evening reminiscing about their lives, losses, and loneliness.
A whimsical romance, Max Walker-Silverman’s captivating debut feature shows an "American West" full of quietude, compassion, and introspection. It’s both naturalistic and vaguely surreal, blurring our sense of time and beauty, loss and vivacity, the grandiose natural world and intimate humanism. Career performances from Dale Dickey and Wes Studi bring an inescapable presence to people we don’t often see portrayed on film. They are gentle outliers possessed of resilience and existential spirit, seeking to process something elusive: a feeling of love for what’s no longer there. Like Faye turning her radio dial, they listen hopefully for the faint trace of a song.
Aisha, an undocumented Senegalese immigrant, lands a job as a nanny of a wealthy Manhattan couple. While she easily wins the affection of their young daughter Rose, she becomes a pawn in the couple’s facade of a marriage. The mother is as controlling as the dad is disillusioned and woke. Haunted by the absence of the young son she left behind in Senegal, Aisha hopes her new job will afford her the chance to bring him to the U.S. and share in the life she is piecing together. But as his arrival approaches, a supernatural presence begins to invade both her dreams and her reality.
As envisioned by writer-director Nikyatu Jusu and brilliantly embodied by actor Anna Diop, Aisha is a dynamic, fascinating protagonist. She displays tremendous strength in enduring challenging circumstances, but must reckon with her own disappointment and frustration, as ominous intrusions enter her already fraught life. Jusu elegantly weaves in supernatural entities derived from West African folklore, spinning Nanny into a singular genre all its own, with horrors specifically drawn from Aisha’s life and legacy.
Since the beginning of her career, Sinéad O’Connor has used her powerful voice to challenge the narratives she was surrounded by while growing up in predominantly Roman Catholic Ireland. Despite her agency, depth, and perspective, O’Connor’s unflinching refusal to conform means that she has often been patronized and unfairly dismissed as an attention-seeking pop star.
In this accomplished debut feature, Kathryn Ferguson navigates O’Connor’s rocky path to stardom with great clarity. The director makes a conscious choice to focus on the late 1980s and early 1990s, when O’Connor was establishing herself as an artist while fighting an onslaught of misogyny and prejudice in the male-dominated music industry and beyond.
Through the creative use of archival footage, as well as exclusive interviews, Nothing Compares challenges the image of O’Connor perpetuated by the media over the years. It’s an emotional portrayal of a thoughtful artist who has always cared about the bigger picture, and whose antiestablishment bravery and dedication to speaking truth to power would inspire generations to come.
Margaret (Rebecca Hall) leads a successful and orderly life, perfectly balancing the demands of her busy career and single parenthood to her fiercely independent daughter Abbie. But that careful balance is upended when she glimpses a man she instantly recognizes, an unwelcome shadow from her past. A short time later, she encounters him again. Before long, Margaret starts seeing David (Tim Roth) everywhere — and their meetings appear to be far from an unlucky coincidence. Battling her rising fear, Margaret must confront the monster she’s evaded for two decades who has come to conclude their unfinished business.
Writer-director Andrew Semans has crafted a surreal and deeply disturbing film, blending drama and horror to deftly unearth a nightmare that feels all too real. Hall masterfully embodies Margaret’s trepidation as her firmly controlled world begins to unravel, while Roth's David diabolically begins to pull the rug out from underneath her. Resurrection promises a gripping excavation of an inescapable past.
Sensitive and naive 26-year-old Sarah Jo lives in a Los Angeles apartment complex with her influencer sister and her disillusioned mother. She is also a wonderful caregiver to Zach, a child with an intellectual disability. Eager to lose her virginity, Sarah Jo embarks on an exhilarating affair with Zach’s dense but affable father, Josh. In the wake of the doomed relationship, Sarah Jo grapples with heartbreak by dedicating herself to unlocking every aspect of the sexual experience that she feels she’s missed out on for so long.
In an exciting return to feature filmmaking 11 years after Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham reestablishes herself as a major voice in independent cinema. With her signature unflinching and provocative approach, Dunham explores the vulnerability of her characters, whose dreams and expectations are elusive. Through Sarah Jo, who has been defined by her past trauma for too long, Dunham makes a bold statement about body and sex positivity. With humor and warmth, Sharp Stick redefines family and celebrates differences as it follows a young woman’s path to self-discovery.
True to their name, Slave to Sirens — the first and only all-woman thrash metal band in the Middle East — are utterly magnetic. Amid a backdrop of political unrest and the heartbreaking unraveling of Beirut, five bandmates form a beacon of expression, resistance, and independence. Director Rita Baghdadi follows founders and guitarists Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara as their tenderness, and sometimes bitterness, for one another grows in ways both unexpected and deeply moving. Joined by vocalist Maya Khairallah, bassist Alma Doumani, and drummer Tatyana Boughaba, these women negotiate their emotional journeys through young adulthood in tumultuous circumstances with grace, raw passion, and a ferocious commitment to their art. Their grit is tested as they grapple with the complexities of friendship, sexuality, and the destruction around them.
Sirens is Rita Baghdadi’s third documentary feature. Acting as director, producer, and cinematographer, her singular vision is gentle yet emotionally powerful. Her film and its incredible subjects are inspirations to all who seek light through darkness.
“Something in the Dirt”
Levi has snagged a no-lease apartment sight unseen in the Hollywood Hills to crash at while he ties up loose ends for his exodus from Los Angeles. He quickly strikes up a rapport with his new neighbor John, swapping stories like old friends under the glowing, smoke-filled skies of the city. One day, Levi and John witness something impossible in one of their apartments. Terrified at first, they soon realize that this could change their lives and give them a purpose. With dollar signs in their eyes, these two random dudes will attempt to prove the supernatural.
DIY wonderkids Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson make their Sundance Film Festival debut, serving as co-directors, co-stars, co-editors, writer (Benson), and cinematographer (Moorhead) of this twisted, sci-fi talkie. Their oddball chemistry shines on screen and in the script, as these two isolated and unfulfilled individuals spur each other toward wormholes and away from reality. Something In The Dirt tells a tale of these paranoid times, where every answer imaginable is just a Google search away.
“Speak No Evil”
While on holiday in Tuscany, a Danish family becomes fast friends with a fellow traveling family from the Netherlands. Months later, when an invitation arrives encouraging the Danish family to visit the Dutch in their countryside home, they don’t hesitate to plan a quick getaway. Free-spirited and adventurous, the Dutch welcome the Danes for the weekend, channeling an energy that rouses their visitors as drinks flow and they start to let loose. But what begins as an idyllic reunion soon takes a turn as the hosts increasingly test the limits of their houseguests. Now the Danes find themselves caught in a web of their own politeness, trying to understand whether their new friends are merely eccentric... or hiding something more sinister.
Christian Tafdrup directs a brilliantly provocative and simmering satirical work of horror, indicting the two sides as he sets up his characters for an unnerving descent into darkness. Both wickedly close to home and exceedingly strange, Speak No Evil suggests that the greatest cruelty lies in the nonsensical facades we contrive for ourselves.
It’s the waning days of summer for four friends Dina, Lola, Daisy, and Mari, who will soon be going their separate ways when they all start middle school. While planning how to spend their last weekend together, they stumble across a mystery that takes them on a life-changing adventure. The friends make a series of discoveries that are as much about solving the mystery as they are about learning the hard truths of growing up.
Director James Ponsoldt (The End of the Tour, 2015, and The Spectacular Now, 2013) returns to the Sundance Film Festival with a film for every generation. Anchored by engaging performances from its youthful cast and a strong script from Ponsoldt and co-writer Benjamin Percy, Summering is a refreshing rarity when compared to the familiar animated and special effects–driven movies usually directed toward multi-generational audiences today.
“We Need to Talk About Cosby”
During his nearly 50 years in show business, Bill Cosby became one of the most recognizable Black celebrities in America. With a career that included an astronomical rise on television in the mid-1960s; work in children’s programming and education; legendary stand-up performances and albums; and an epoch-defining hit sitcom, The Cosby Show, Cosby was a model of Black excellence for millions of Americans. But now, thanks to the brave and painful testimonies of dozens of women, we know there was a sinister reality to the man once extolled as “America’s Dad.”
Over the course of four gripping episodes that feature the voices of people closely connected to Cosby’s life on screen and off, including several survivors, director W. Kamau Bell digs into who Cosby was and what his work and actions say about America, then and now. We Need To Talk About Cosby is a powerful and timely reckoning destined to be widely discussed for how it urges audiences to reconsider not only what they know about Cosby but also about the culture that produced and celebrated him.
“When You Finish Saving the World”
From his bedroom home studio, high school student Ziggy performs original folk-rock songs for an adoring online fan base. This concept mystifies his formal and uptight mother, Evelyn, who runs a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse. While Ziggy is busy trying to impress his socially engaged classmate Lila by making his music less bubblegum and more political, Evelyn meets Angie and her teen son, Kyle, when they seek refuge at her facility. She observes a bond between the two that she’s missing with her own son, and decides to take Kyle under her wing against her better instincts.
In his carefully observed, aesthetically pleasing directorial debut, Jesse Eisenberg adapts his audio project of the same name to tell the story of a mother and son who fail to understand each other’s values. With gentle humor and pitch-perfect dialogue, When You Finish Saving the World reflects a moment of internet fame and youth activism, but it also recounts the timeless tale of parents and children struggling to connect across the generational chasm that separates them.
“You Won't Be Alone”
In an isolated mountain village in 19th-century Macedonia, a young girl is taken from her mother and transformed into a witch by an ancient, shape-shifting spirit. Left to wander feral, the young witch beholds the natural world with curiosity and wonder. After inadvertently killing a villager and assuming her body, she continues to inhabit different people, living among the villagers for years, observing and mimicking their behavior until the ancient spirit returns, bringing them full circle.
The debut feature of Australian-Macedonian writer-director Goran Stolevski, You Won’t Be Alone is wonderfully unlike any witch film you’ve seen. Its striking artistry and aestheticism blends supernatural horror (there’s no shortage of blood and entrails) with poetic fable, yielding a sensory meditation on life that is unexpectedly emotional and profoundly humanistic. Even the malevolent ancient spirit, born of suffering and loneliness, is a contoured character. And the young witch (played by multiple actors, including Noomi Rapace, Alice Englert, Carloto Cotta, and Sara Klimoska) suggests a transcendent spirit who, across successive lives — woman, man, mother, child — experiences what it means to be human.