From Lena Dunham to Kanye, 10 Sundance Films to Look Out For

Cha Cha Real Smooth proves that “Sundance movies” can still succeed. For a good stretch of the ’90s and ’00s the term “Sundance movie” took on a specific meaning. Though a wide assortment of films made their bows at the fest, the Sundance name became synonymous with sometimes quirky, often bittersweet stories of everyday life. Broadly speaking, the term could be applied to everything from You Can Count on Me to Little Miss Sunshine and wasn’t always used as a compliment, particularly when applied to movies that seemed like they were trying too hard to fit the molds of past Sundance triumphs.

Last year, CODA proved a “Sundance movie” could still thrive at Sundance and this year that honor belongs to Cha Cha Real Smooth, the second feature from writer, director, and star Corbin Raiff (Shithouse). Raiff stars as Andrew, a directionless recent college graduate who moves back home to figure out what to do next, then drifts into a job as a bar mitzvah MC and an ill-defined, vaguely romantic relationship with Domino (Dakota Johnson), the single mom of an autistic teen. That sounds like, and in many ways is, a jumble of familiar indie elements. But Raiff’s openhearted, confident direction confirms him as an exciting young filmmaker and on-screen, his remarkable charm as a well-meaning, enthusiastic fuck-up contrasts beautifully with Johnson’s elusive, melancholy performance.

Descendant is a documentary in the spirit of the 1619 Project. Though slavery didn’t end until the Civil War, the United States banned the slave trade in 1808, making it a crime punishable by death. This didn’t deter the wealthy owner of a Mobile, Alabama shipyard from using his ship the Clotilda to import imprisoned Africans in 1860. Burned to cover up the crime, the Clotilda lay lost somewhere in the waters outside Mobile for years, making it an object of tremendous interest for those wanting to recover a piece of history.

Margaret Brown’s documentary Descendant covers that search but also looks beyond it. In Africatown, the neighborhood settled after the Civil War by Clotilda survivors, she finds a community surrounded by property and industries owned by many of the same white families that dominated the region at the time of the Clotilda’s arrival — including the Meahers. In the story of Africatown, she finds a struggle to redefine how we look at the past akin to the 1619 Project, and an attempt to get beyond the region’s myths and offer a fuller account of its history, however upsetting that might be to those in love with a romantic view of the way things used to be. This is a wide-ranging look at the way the past never really disappears, no matter how much effort goes into covering it up, and a vital consideration of the impossibility of moving forward without looking back.

Speak No Evil is the latest European friendship horror story. While vacationing in Italy with their daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg), Danes Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) meet a seemingly charming Dutch couple named Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders) and, after hitting it off, agree to visit their new friends at their country home. Once there, they find themselves too polite to object to some off-putting requests and odd arrangements that become increasingly disturbing. Directed by Christian Tafdrup, the film begins as a chilly comedy of manners reminiscent of Force Majeure only to reveal it’s really more akin to Funny Games and that the Danes’ reserve and unwillingness to offend might have sealed their fate. It’s expertly done but not for the faint of heart–the last act goes places most horror movies don’t dare.

Fire of Love has spectacular volcano footage, a poignant love story–and Miranda July. For over two decades, Katia and Maurice Krafft shared an intense professional and romantic partnership rooted in their love for one another and their shared obsession with volcanos. To fund their studies, and the travels needed to perform them, the Kraffts documented their adventures in a popular series of books and movies, until their 1991 death in the eruption of Japan’s Mount Unzen. Drawing from the Kraffts’ archive, Sara Dosa’s documentary mixes mesmerizing footage of volcanoes in action with candid snippets that capture the Kraffts’ relationship, all set to lyrical narration by Miranda July. Already picked up by National Geographic, with luck this will get the big-screen release the Kraffts’ otherworldly images demand.

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