The sexiest, scariest and most Kieran Culkin-y moments at Sundance

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.)

My first Sundance: Stars recall tales of couch surfing, bidding wars

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

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, ‘I’ve got notes for you, too!’” — Jada Yuan

Most heartening window into America

When Will Ferrell’s friend of 30 years, Harper Steele, came out as trans, Ferrell suggested they take a road trip across America and film it — resulting in the sweet and funny documentary “Will & Harper, from director Josh Greenbaum (“Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar”). It was a way for Ferrell to get to know his friend again, as a woman, and also for Steele, who had spent decades driving across the country, to see if she could go back to the dive bars and dirt-racing tracks she once loved without hiding who she is. There are bad moments, such as unknowingly taking a photo with a politician who has shepherded anti-trans bills. But even in the deepest red towns, they’re mostly met with kindness and new friends. The film got two standing ovations, and it feels watching these two friends fumble their way through this conversation could be an invitation for others to fumble their way, too. — J.Y.

Sexiest Kristen Stewart performance

Sundance darling Kristen Stewart received the visionary award at the festival’s opening gala, which preceded the premieres of two different features starring the actress. In the first, the sci-fi flick “Love Me,” she voices a smart buoy that falls in love with a satellite (Steven Yeun). In the other feature, the gonzo thriller “Love Lies Bleeding, Stewart plays the stubborn daughter of a Texas crime boss. Her character falls in love with a body builder (Katy O’Brian) who gets caught up in a mess of murder and deceit. The film by Rose Glass (“Saint Maud”) offers a novel mix of queer romance and outlandish body horror. Despite all the oozing fluids, “Love Lies Bleeding” is also very, very sexy, complete with a scene in which Stewart’s character tells O’Brian’s to masturbate just inches from her face. It might be the hottest of the fest. — Sonia Rao

Most authentic Gen Z portrayal

HBO’s “Euphoria” trained older generations to look at Gen Z in half-shock, half-amazement. But in that gaze, there is room for recognition. You know who gets it? Megan Park, whose sophomore feature, “My Old Ass, sold to Amazon MGM for roughly $15 million — the second-biggest sale of the festival. The film follows the touching, surreal journey of 18-year-old Elliott (Maisy Stella), who encounters an older version of herself (Aubrey Plaza) while tripping on mushrooms the summer before college. The older Elliott gives her younger self a fair share of advice on better appreciating her family members, while the teenager teaches the 39-year-old Elliott to relinquish a bit of control. Stella is radiant in her debut feature role, full of sass and exuding a bold self-confidence. It’s nice to remember generational differences don’t always have to lead to strife. — S.R.

Most overblown controversy

When the trailer for “The American Society of Magical Negroes” dropped in mid-December, the backlash was almost immediate. The film focuses on a young artist (Justice Smith) who is taught by an older Black man (David Alan Grier) how to use his magical abilities to lessen the stress of White people on the brink of doing something dangerous. The artist ends up falling for the love interest of the White man he is meant to “save.” Naysayers on social media wondered why the rare fantasy film with a Black protagonist saddled the character with a trauma plot, and why — if that was the chosen direction — the societal critique seemed to be filtered through a rom-com. After its Sundance premiere, we can confirm that “American Society” oscillates between stinging satire and pleasant romance. Critics have found this back-and-forth to be confounding — as neither storyline allows the other to thrive — resulting in a film that might be more muddled than offensive. — S.R.

Most influenced by ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’

I Saw the TV Glow is, on the surface, the story of young suburban outcasts who meet in 1996 and become obsessed with a supernatural late-night TV show, “The Pink Opaque,” about two young women fighting the monsters who live just beneath the surface of their town. Writer-director Jane Schoenbrun is clearly influenced by “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and how the mythology of that show created a community of fans who felt like they were the only ones who got it (an actress who plays a friend’s mom is from “Buffy,” for instance). Watching the A24 film, which can be taken as a trans allegory, felt like witnessing one of the freshest new voices in film, with interludes by Goth bands, moody cinematography soaked in blues and reds, and impressive performances from Brigette Lundy-Paine and Justice Smith (in his second film of the fest). Like the show within the film, “I Saw the TV Glow” is a deeply sad love letter to outcasts and the pain of living in a world that will never quite get who you are. — J.Y.

If you were to walk into a screening of “Sasquatch Sunset” without reading the cast list, you might not recognize Eisenberg and Riley Keough as two of the actors behind the hairy makeup and prostheses. But when you are aware of their involvement, it becomes clear why two performers who excel at conveying nonverbal cues were cast in a film following the Steinbeckian plight of a sasquatch family whose habitat is slowly ruined by humanity. Not a single word of English — or any language, really — is spoken in the fifth feature by brothers David and Nathan Zellner to premiere at Sundance. The characters communicate through loud grunts to relay their emotions, which include childish excitement, sensual joy and pent-up frustration. Keough, in particular, stands out as a pregnant sasquatch who grapples with bringing life into a decaying world. — S.R.

Best communing with the dead — TIE

Steven Soderbergh really knows how to make a movie. His experimental ghost story “Presence, which was bought by Neon, follows a family as they move into a new house, and start to believe they’re not alone. What sets Soderbergh’s ghost story apart from any other is its incredible formal rigor; with continuous shots and wide-angle lenses, the camera never leaves the perspective of the spirit. We watch through windows, from inside closets, from up high in the ceiling as a couple (Lucy Liu and Chris Sullivan) falls apart, and as their teenage daughter (a terrific Callina Liang) rebels while trying to process the death of a friend. Not scary, per se, the movie is so intense it prompted walkouts — a ringing endorsement for one of the best things we saw at the fest. — J.Y.

In the documentary “Look Into My Eyes, director Lana Wilson (“Miss Americana”) explores the world of New York City psychics with empathy and grace. The film begins with a doctor haunted by the thought of a young gunshot wound victim she encountered during a hospital shift 30 years ago. Is the girl doing all right in the afterlife? Other figures include a man who lost his father to addiction, another who lost a brother to violence, a woman whose friend ended his own life. There are also humorous situations involving an animal psychic, who discusses with clients why their dog behaves so anxiously on walks, or whether the lizard they gave away is happy in New Jersey. One woman tears up at the death of a dog who kept her safe in an abusive relationship. By diving into each psychic’s journey to the oft-mocked practice, as well as the clients’ desperate pleas for any semblance of closure, Wilson explores the grief and humanity of those who are left behind. — S.R.

Sobs and sniffles could be heard throughout the entire run time of the documentary “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story. The film tells the heart-rending story of how Reeve became the biggest movie star in the world, as Superman, at 24, and then experienced a tragic horse riding accident that paralyzed him from the neck down, unable to breathe on his own. Using flashbacks and poetic flourishes, plus incredible interviews with Reeve’s three children, filmmakers Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui (“McQueen”) delve into Reeve’s close friendship with Robin Williams and his activism, with wife Dana Reeve, that changed the lives of millions of people living with disabilities. An audience member in a wheelchair told the family that reading their father’s memoir in the hospital had saved her life. Said one man in the audience: “I lost five pounds from the tears.” — J.Y.

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