PARK CITY, Utah — This year marked a refreshing return to the Sundance Film Festival of yore, judging by the large crowd gathered on a snowy driveway outside a Deer Valley mansion. Greeting at least 50 guests were a phalanx of security guards handing down “You shall not pass!” decrees: No, ma’am, we’re at capacity. No, sir, I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are. Even Oscar-winning director Darren Aronofsky — who produced “Little Death,” the movie the party was for — had to have someone come out and fetch him from the throng.
For those patient enough to find their way inside, the party was — pretty good! A DJ playing bangers. Gaby Hoffmann kneeling on a basement banquette, deep in conversation. No room to move unless you went onto the balcony, where snowmelt dripped constantly on your head. But isn’t that the story you’d want for how you made your next film deal?
After a flurry of in-person screenings and parties for the first five days, Main Street became a ghost town when everyone went home to catch virtual screenings — and perhaps nurse the covid or flu they caught as a parting gift for attending this year. Fears of a content drought due to the strikes that shut down the film industry were unfounded. (Now everyone’s just worried about a delayed content-drought next year.)
At the awards ceremony Friday morning, “In the Summers,” a coming-of-age feature following two sisters, and “Porcelain War,” a documentary about Ukrainian artists in the midst of war, took the fest’s top U.S. grand jury prizes, while “Daughters,” a documentary about a daddy-daughter dance with incarcerated fathers in D.C., was audiences’ favorite film in the festival.
Despite slow sales, a handful of films still experienced the frenzied bidding wars that used to be de rigueur in pre-pandemic days. “I tried to say ‘hi,’ but Fox Searchlight was, like, inside Jesse Eisenberg’s body,” one sales agent was overheard saying the day before Eisenberg’s delightful sophomore feature, “A Real Pain” (which won the fest’s screenwriting award), indeed sold to Fox Searchlight for $10 million just 24 hours after its premiere. There weren’t any Oscars-y breakouts like 2021’s “CODA,” but instead tons of fun for fans of horror and pulpy genre fare like “It’s What’s Inside,” a body-switching comedic thriller about a wedding weekend gone terribly wrong that sold to Netflix for $17 million — the biggest sale of Sundance so far.
Here’s what excited us most coming out of the fest.
Best Kieran Culkin showcase
Return to menu
Eisenberg isn’t just a great director, as evidenced by the raucous standing ovation he got for “A Real Pain,” his second at-bat behind the camera; he’s also an incredibly generous one. Kieran Culkin has by far the juicier part in this comedy about two cousins with diametrically opposed personalities who take an organized tour through Poland to learn about the past of their late grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. Culkin’s Benji has Roman Roy’s chaotic energy, wrapped in a sensitive slacker’s exterior. He starts off by smuggling weed into the country, much to the terror of Eisenberg’s uptight dad David, and then proceeds to make the entire tour group fall in love with him, all while he’s having emotional breakdowns and berating them to be more authentic. Culkin even stole the show during the Q&A. When asked what it was like to be directed by Eisenberg: “He’d say, ‘Cut,’ and start giving me notes, and my first thought was, ‘B—-, I’ve got notes for you, too!’” — Jada Yuan