HtN’s Top Picks for Sundance 2022
Greetings readers, Hammer to Nail editor Don R. Lewis here welcoming you to our annual “curtain raiser” for the Sundance Film Festival. In talking to my staff, I realized that i’m pretty sure no other film site covers more films than Hammer to Nail and that’s something we’re pretty proud of. I think that one reason is the talented and diverse staff we always have covering. This year it’s Lead Critic Chris Reed, Editor-at-large Matt Delman and staffers Bears Rebecca Fonte, M.J. O’Toole and the amazing Melanie Addington. Some others might chip in as well so, stay tuned. All of their hard work keeps the site crushing it during bigger fests but their diverse tastes also allow us very little overlap on films which is a great reflection of the team and their passion for true indie cinema. It also allows us to really get in the nooks and crannies for the smaller, often overlooked films.
Sundance is a huge time of year for me because I 100% blame…err….recognize this festival as igniting my passion for indie film. When I was thinking about somehow writing about film, I volunteered for the festival. This was 1996. I came back as a volunteer every year for ten straight years and saw countless films that made a deep impression (good and bad) and made friends who today I still consider among my best friends. From there I began covering the festival for Film Threat and later, this very site. I even produced a film (The Violent Kind, now on Tubi for FREE!) that premiered there in 2010. So, clearly, all roads lead to Park City for me.
Sadly, no roads lead to Park City this year as the Omicron variant forced the fest to (wisely) go fully virtual. While this allows us to cover more films, it also allows readers to kind of read along at home as many titles will be streaming over the next 10 days. So, we hope you’ll check in, discover something new and spread the word to help smaller indies get some attention.
Hammer to Nail’s 20 Most Anticipated of Sundance Film Festival 2022
How did we get to a place where so many members of law enforcement treat peaceful street protests as riots waiting to happen? For an answer, look no further than director Sierra Pettengill’s fascinating examination of the late 1960s in America, when the federal government decided to train their military in how to violently suppress its own citizens . Setting up a number of “Riotsville, USA” locations, built like Potemkin villages and populated by soldiers impersonating hippies and Black activists, the United States Army trained its troops to expect the worst. Narrated by Charlene Modeste and edited entirely from archival footage, this documentary proves a searing indictment of misguided (at best) policies of the past that very much inform our present. (CLR)
Sharp Stick marks the return of (former HtN contributor) Lena Dunham to feature filmmaking since her 2010 debut Tiny Furniture. After the smashing success of Girls she has mostly stuck to television, with executive producer credits on HBO’s Camping and Generation, as well as directing an episode of Industry. This time Dunham employs a surrogate: relative newcomer Kristine Froseth, as the protagonist Sarah Jo–though I hear Dunham gives herself a small role. The film is about Sarah Jo’s exploration of her sexuality after a tumultuous affair with the father of her patient. I’m curious about the title, since a sharp stick is usually not something you’d want in the bedroom. Dunham is a provocative auteur, so strap in for the ride. (MD)
Mariama Diallo directs this University thriller for her debut, combining elements of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and John Singleton’s Higher Learning. As educational bodies become the front lines for the battle against institutional racism, the setting of a university built on the site of a Salem-era gallows hill feels like the perfect location to use a horror film to say something very politically-charged. This also feels like an outside-the-box production for Amazon Studios. It’s great to see them creating challenging content that will appeal to a BIPOC audience while their biggest competitor greenlights the next Dave Chappelle transphobic comedy special. (BRF)
Writer-Director Nikyatu Jusu’s feature debut uses the Horror genre to capture the modern immigrant experience in America. The film follows an undocumented Senegalese childcare worker (Anna Diop, Titans) who cares for an upper-class white couple’s (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector) young child, while being confronted by supernatural forces that threaten to destroy her and the new life she’s building for herself. Not since The Witch has Sundance premiered a horror film in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Sounds like we are in for a profound, revelatory, and likely terrifying experience from a breakout filmmaker. (MJ)
I am always deeply impressed by Jewish Israeli filmmakers who tackle complex subjects about their homeland, especially when their movies delve into the history of conflict with the Palestinians. It’s such a fraught issue that it takes a special kind of cinematic bravery to weather the inevitable pushback. As a matter of fact, Alon Schwarz’s Tantura is
about, among other things, that very kind of reaction, turning its lens on what happened in the seaside village of Tantura in 1948. Most Jews call the battles that followed the 1947 U.N. Resolution that created the nation of Israel the ‘War of Independence’, while Palestinians call it the ‘Nakba’ (or “catastrophe”), since so many of them were forcefully repatriated. But was that all that happened? Schwarz follows the story of Teddy Katz, a one-time master’s student whose thesis on Tantura caused a national scandal, proposing as it did that Israeli soldiers massacred Palestinians in a bout of ethnic cleansing (with uncomfortable comparisons to Nazis). Above all, this powerful movie is a tough look at how far humanity will go to ignore the truth when that truth runs counter to myth. A must-see. (CLR)
AM I OK?
A record of Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allyne’s relationship can be seen in the Sundance 2015 biographical documentary Tig. Now they team up to direct a fictional debut, that is no doubt in many ways based on their personal relationship. Stars Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno will undoubtedly bring their own shine to the characters. Lesbian dramas can be tricky to do well and appease the fans, but I feel like we are in good hands here with this creative team. Tig is a hilarious standup comedian, and the film boasts Will Ferrell as an executive producer, so we’re guaranteed at least a few laughs. (MD)
I never miss an opportunity to shower Maika Monroe with praise. With the double shot of awesomeness in 2014 that was It Follows and The Guest she proved she could carry a film and add a degree of nuance to characters that might have easily just been ‘scared’ or ‘angry.’ In this film, another first feature–from BIPOC director Chloe Okuno–the plot finds her frequently alone and unoccupied in an unfamiliar country when she realizes she’s being stalked. It sounds like a lot of quiet tension and a great canvas for Maika to paint. Okuno previously directed one of my very favorite horror shorts: the brilliant SLUT, set in a small Texas town, and coincidentally also released in 2014. (BRF)
Among this year’s documentary lineup, one standout is Aftershock from directors Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee. Lee happens to be married to another famous documentarian (Spike Lee). This character-driven document profiles two young women of color, Shamony McKeeba Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac, who lost their lives due to preventable childbirth complications. Their widowed partners, now single fathers, form a partnership to confront the system that could’ve given both women better care and to demonstrate how the maternal crisis is a human rights issue. Seems like an emotional, relevant call-to-action that’s worth experiencing. (MJ)
Director Rita Baghdadi’s documentary Sirens has one major thing going for it: the women at the narrative’s center. They are the members of Slave to Sirens, an all-female thrash-metal band based in Lebanon. Our time is mostly spent in the company of founders Shery Bechara (lead guitar) and Lilas Mayassi (rhythm guitar), best friends from childhood who were briefly lovers in the past (a fact which complicates their present-day relationship). We follow the group as they struggle to rise to the next level, traveling to a festival in Glastonbury, England, and playing concerts at home. Dissent causes friction, as does lack of tangible success. But they persevere, despite the many obstacles in their way. At just over 70 minutes, the film feels incomplete. While that lack of structure can be frustrating, there’s nothing wrong with leaving you wanting more. (CLR)
CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH
The other Dakota Johnson film this year is directed by none other than 24 year-old Cooper Raiff, who broke out at SXSW with his talky debut feature Shithouse, which took home the Grand Jury Prize and was acquired by IFC. You can read my interview with Cooper here. I’m eager to see what he can do with a bigger budget, and the starpower of Johnson and Leslie Mann. Not to mention another Sundance alum, Raul Castillo, from beloved indie gem We The Animals (2018). Cooper plays a bar mitzvah party-starter, which is already super cringe, but beneath that cringey exterior is a wise old soul who’s hopelessly romantic and sensitive. (MD)
In my third selection directed by a woman (Monia Chokrin), a man on leave for being a misogynist asshole contemplates his past misdeeds in a confessional book until he comes face to face with a new source of temptation; a mysterious and provocative babysitter described in the Sundance preview as the ‘Mary Poppins of Libido.’ Chokrin also plays the long suffering girlfriend of the lead character in this, her second feature, after her debut A Brother’s Love, won the Un Certain Regard jury’s Coup de Coeur at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019. Writer Catherine Léger was responsible for the brilliant 2018 comedy Charlotte a du Fun which received the unfortunately reductive English title of Slut in a Good Way. (BRF)
I, along with many Sundance filmgoers, always find myself moved by coming-of-age tales. Ricky D’Ambrose’s second feature, after 2018’s Notes on an Appearance, is a semi-autobiographical look at a young boy’s life in the late ‘80s as his parents’ marriage starts to fall apart. What makes this tale more unique is the significance of the objects and places which provide a new kind of childhood intimacy. Given how D’Ambrose is known to implement large quantities of ambient sound over still images, one can expect a more experimental approach to the coming-of-age story that makes the subject of memory somewhat more immersive. The credits list (former HtN Contributor) David Lowery as an executive producer, which sparks my interest even more. (MJ)
DEERWOODS DEATHTRAP (Short film)
48 years after they were hit by a train, Betty and John Gannon, parents of filmmaker James P. Gannon, return to the scene of their near-death experience to walk us through what happened. Shot on Kodak Super 8mm color film (with the exception of the opening composition), Deerwoods Deathtrap, a 9-minute short, is as much a meditation on memory as forensic investigation. The onscreen Ektachrome slides and vintage color scheme transporting us into the past via evocative visuals. Gently poignant, the movie is the perfect length, giving us just enough time with the subjects to celebrate their life (that almost wasn’t) and then briskly setting us free. (CLR)
A Sci-Fi story about a woman who clones herself and then changes her mind, so she has to fight her clone to the death. Sounds awesome! I admit I have not seen director Riley Stearns previous two features, Faults (2014) and The Art of Self Defense (2019), but the logline here was just too good to skip. XYZ films is the production company behind it, and their proficiency with genre bodes well. Karen Gillan, known best for her character of Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy, will be more recognizable here and tackles the challenge of playing two roles simultaneously. Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame also stars. (MD)
MEET ME IN THE BATHROOM
Is it possible to make a film about the importance of music that is only 20 years old? Are we really able to quantify what the Killers, the Strokes, and LCD Soundsystem did to ‘save rock and roll?’ Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace return to Sundance with a new documentary entitled Meet Me In The Bathroom. Their last one Shut Up and Play the Hits followed James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem front man, the two days around the band’s ‘final gig’, which of course turned out not to be their final gig (thank the dance punk gods). Most interesting for me is this is going to be the first documentary about a time in music that occurred while I was already in the musical deep end. Films like 20 Feet from Stardom, Hype!, The Decline of Western Civilization Part 2: The Metal Years, and Rhyme & Reason, while all great in their own right, felt a bit like homework for me. They’re taking me back to a time before I was either alive or paying attention. Assuming this documentary covers the same grounds as the Lizzy Goodman 600 page oral history that it is named for, Meet Me in the Bathroom will become another part of my ongoing argument that rock and roll neither needed to be saved in 2001, nor, if it was saved, it sure wasn’t saved by the Strokes. (shortform, the Strokes are actually incredibly regressive and set rock and roll back several years. And if you really think that that form of rock and roll was groundbreaking then you have to give credit to The White Stripes two years earlier.) But that’s because I love music, and I love the 2000s indie scene. I am looking forward to arguing with this film. (BRF)
MARTE UM (MARS ONE)
Writer-director Gabriel Martins’ Brazil-set drama follows a lower-middle-class black family in the days following Jair Bolsonaro’s election. The private lives of each family member are explored as they adjust to a new socio-political era that represents everything they are not. Reminds me of Edward Yang’s 2000 masterpiece Yi Yi, only Marte Um seems to have more of an urgent, socially relevant backdrop to it. I’m quite eager to see some portrayal of how Bolsonaro’s politics have affected everyday Brazilians. Overall, it sounds like a profound, heartfelt drama that will be worth the experience. (MJ)
Not surprisingly, music documentaries often depend on our personal relationship to the music of the subject. For me, as for millions of others around the globe, the work of Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor holds a place dear to my heart, especially since her rise to prominence coincided with my own young adulthood. Kathryn Ferguson’s moving documentary portrait of the star, which takes its title from her 1990 hit (penned by Prince) “Nothing Compares 2 U,” tracks O’Connor’s life from earliest days to her fall from popular grace after she dared attack the Pope on Saturday Night Live. With narration from O’Connor supplemented by audio interviews from friends and colleagues, the movie feels comprehensive. Above all, it is respectful and loving, and a gift to her fans. (CLR)
STRANGER THAN ROTTERDAM
This quirky short is animated with puppets, and tells the story of how director Jim Jarmusch and producer Sara Driver earned their funding for Strange Than Paradise, the hard way. Driver narrates the humorous tale, which involves her smuggling the only remaining print of Cocksucker Blues, a graphic documentary that follows the Rolling Stones on tour, to the Rotterdam film festival. This story is catnip for cinephiles, and fellow filmmakers will relish in Driver’s ‘make it happen at all costs’ doggedness. Clocking in at just under 10 minutes, I only wish it were longer. (MD)
Did you know there were such things as underground lap dance parties? Shoutout to San Antonio filmmaker April Maxey, Queer, BIPOC and Female, and who has credentials like AFI, Berlinale, Palm Springs Shortfest and Outfest in her bio. I love films that give us a peek inside sex work, especially when they are told from a female POV. While this is the year that Sundance is celebrating their anniversary and bringing back several fantastic shorts from past years (I highly recommend Boneshaker) don’t miss the new voices that can be discovered in the narrative shorts. There’s usually one a year that goes on to be made into a feature length version. (BRF)
Chase Joynt’s documentary premiering in this year’s NEXT lineup is a cinematic experiment that explores the legacy of a young trans woman who became a sociological subject. The individual at the center of the story is Agnes Torres who took part in a UCLA gender health research study in the ‘60s and long stood as a huge figure of trans history. To tell her story, as well as those of others whose cases were uncovered from the archives of the UCLA Gender Clinic, Joynt ensembles a cast of trans actors (Angelica Ross, Jen Richards, Zackary Drucker, Silas Howard, Max Wolf Valerio, and Stephen Ira) to reenact aspects of their participation in the program. This mission of reclamation sets Framing Agnes up to be a captivating, enlightening, and daring piece of LGBTQ cinema. (MJ)
And that’s it for our preview. Curious how you can see some or all of these? Visit the festival website for information on tickets to virtual screenings. Hope to see you there!