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The Sundance Blues: Good Films Can’t Overcome a Muted Virtual Festival

Sundance 2020: This year was supposed to be a triumphant return to an in-person festival, but the pandemic other plans

AWARDS BEAT

The animated graphics that run before every film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival are unusually bright, vibrant and cheerful — a barrage of geometric shapes in vivid colors created by Studio Lowrie. And watching them on a computer screen or TV monitor, it’s hard not to imagine how celebratory they would seem if they were playing to an in-person audience in a crowded Eccles or Egyptian theater in Park City, Utah.

That’s how the 2022 Sundance was supposed to take place, and it’s probably the mood those graphics were designed to create – because after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the 2021 festival to go virtual, this year was going to mark the triumphant return to an in-person Sundance. But the spread of the Omicron variant forced the festival to bite the bullet and cancel its Park City portion on Jan. 5, which means that the cheery graphics are simply a reminder of the fun we might have had.

Last year’s Sundance had seemed all but inevitably virtual for months, so the lack of Park City events wasn’t a surprise. And the festival produced some record deals and a bumper crop of notable films, even with a slimmed-down lineup. Films included “CODA,” “Minari,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Mass” and five documentaries currently on the shortlist in the Oscars doc category: “Summer of Soul,” “Flee,” “In the Same Breath,” “Faya Dayi” and “Writing With Fire.”

But Year 2 of the virtual Sundance seems more muted and sadder, probably because the prospect of an in-person festival was offered by the organizers and then snatched away at the last minute by the pandemic. The lineup contains a lot of strong films, particularly in the nonfiction arena, but nothing is getting the kind of attention that “CODA” and “Summer of Soul” managed to stir up last year. And when it comes to deals, the festival has yet to produce any acquisitions that can even come close to the record $25 million Apple paid for “CODA,” the $15 million Netflix paid for “Passing” or documentary-record $15 million Searchlight/Hulu paid for “Summer of Soul.”  

There’s still plenty of time for dealmaking, but not much time for new films to grab the spotlight: All of the festival’s movies were programmed to launch in the first five days, with Monday’s lineup – which included “Emily the Criminal,” “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales,” “Dos Estaciones,” “The Janes” and “Am I OK?” – scheduled as the last of this year’s premieres. On Monday afternoon, Sundance added one final film, the documentary “Navalny” – but apart from its Tuesday debut, the final six days of the 11-day festival will consist of repeat screenings of films that have already bowed.

That will give viewers time to see more of the films that have drawn praise over the first five days, a group that includes the understated drama “A Love Song,” with Dale Dickey; the timely thrillers “Emergency” and “892”; Sophie Hyde’s “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” with Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack as the festival’s most deliciously unlikely couple; Juan Pablo Gonzalez’ melancholy “Dos Estaciones”; and “S—house” director Cooper Raiff’s follow-up to that Sundance award winner, “Cha Cha Real Smooth.”

As usual for Sundance, the documentary lineup is particularly strong, with many highlights from female directors, among them Margaret Brown’s haunted and haunting “Descendant,” about the discovery of the wreck of the final slave ship to come to America (but also about a lot more than that); Amy Berg’s “Phoenix Rising,” with Evan Rachel Wood detailing her abusive relationship with Marilyn Manson; “Lucy and Desi,” Amy Poehler’s affectionate study of Lucille Ball; “Jihad Rehab,” Meg Smaker’s startling look inside a Saudi facility created to rehabilitate terrorists; Tonya Lewis Lee and Paula Eiselt’s “Aftershock,” about the failures of the maternal health care system; and Rory Kennedy’s “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing,” a damning portrait of corporate negligence and governmental inaction.

And as usual for Sundance, the films serve as a portrait of our society even when they’re dealing with the past. Sharon Waxman has written about the trio of Sundance films (“Call Jane,” “The Janes” and “Happening”) that explore the subject of abortion rights at a moment when Roe v. Wade seems destined to be overturned. But Sundance has also brought films that deal in very different ways with race, from “Alice” to “Emergency” to “Master.” And while you can take Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut, “When You Finish Saving the World,” as a family drama between a mother and son, it’s also an examination of the social-media age that doesn’t let anybody off the hook.

Even Ramin Bahrani’s documentary “2nd Chance,” a portrait of a former pizza-parlor owner who went bankrupt and then invented the bulletproof vest, turns out to be about the whole idea of truth, falsehood and how the two often intersect. “As I was making it,” Bahrani said in TheWrap’s Sundance studio, “I started to realize how much it dealt with the way lies are presented as truth to us these days.”

So Sundance is a state-of-the-union address for 2022 – and yes, there are lots of COVID echoes in these films, most of which were produced during the pandemic. It’s just too bad that the circumstances have made it a muted festival. Sundance has added lots of virtual events, and you can even create an avatar and mingle in online lobbies before screenings, but the fact remains that these movies really ought to have been seen in different settings.

Case in point: Kogonada’s “After Yang,” a gentle and deeply humanistic sci-fi tale that premiered at Cannes but drew raves at Sundance, deserves a big screen, first rate sound and an audience that can be caught in its rapturous spell together. “Meet Me in the Bathroom” needs a room full of music fans who can stomp along with the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and LCD Soundsystem; Andrew Seaman’s “Resurrection” needs a crowd that can squirm together and hear every nuance of a sophisticated and creepy sound design.

The filmmakers have done what they could and the festival has done what it could. It’s not their fault that this year’s Sundance feels muted and sad, but not even those vibrant opening titles can make up for another difficult year.