I woke up in Park City, Utah, to the Academy Award nominations on Jan. 24, having spent the previous week sampling a variety of women-directed and female-driven films at the Sundance Film Festival. In those packed theaters, movies by and about women dominated the screens, from the pugnacious “Scrapper” to the heartwarming “Judy Blume Forever.”
So it was distressing to learn that no women were nominated for best director — and only one female-directed film, ”Women Talking,” received a best picture nomination — and it was also a far cry from the showings at Sundance, where more than half of the features slate had a female director.
Over the years, Sundance and Hollywood have reached a complicated symbiosis. Sometimes, indie excellence is recognized outside of the festival, as when the Sundance premiere “CODA,” directed by Sian Heder, won best picture at the Oscars last year. But most of the time, Hollywood lags behind.
Here’s to hoping this year’s top entries receive the attention they deserve.
The veteran director Ira Sachs (“Little Men”) returns to Sundance with a brooding study of a love triangle between three bohemians in Paris: the filmmaker Tomas (Franz Rogowski), his husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw), and the schoolteacher Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). This is Sachs’s eighth film to play at the festival, and like his earlier work, this gracefully observed drama is less interested in the machinations of plot than in bringing to life small moments of pleasure and pain. The film is also refreshingly frank about sex; in a cinematic landscape that increasingly shies away from bedroom scenes, Sachs admirably imbues his trio with a yen for lust.
It’s always a treat when a novelist adapts her own book for the screen, and in this case, author Ottessa Moshfegh (alongside her husband, writer Luke Goebel) has accomplished the task with humor, precision, and feeling intact. Directed by William Oldroyd (“Lady Macbeth”), the film is a period piece — it’s set on the Massachusetts shore in 1964 — about a dejected young prison secretary living with her alcoholic father. Like the book, the film takes an unexpected turn in the third act, and Oldroyd — with the help of a uniformly magnetic cast anchored by Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway — renders the events with bewitching power.
The definitive battle of the sexes movie for millennials, this knockout feature debut from Chloe Domont had audiences screeching in distress and delight. The film centers on the newly-engaged couple Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), who are keeping their relationship secret from their colleagues at the Manhattan financial firm where they both work. Revelry turns to rivalry, though, after Emily receives the promotion they both guessed would go to Luke. Domont brings their feud alive with an anxious soundscape and clipped editing that looks absolutely killer on the big screen. Netflix snapped up the film’s rights for $20 million, so here’s to hoping a theatrical run will precede the film’s streaming life.
‘Judy Blume Forever’
There are a handful of novels that I’ll never forget reading for the first time. “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” is a major one. Judy Blume books were a fixture in my room through my preteen and teenage years, but before watching this charming documentary, I knew few details about Blume’s personal life — for instance, that she was a stay-at-home housewife for years before she became an author, or that she maintained decades-long letter correspondences with readers seeking advice or comfort. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay to this irresistible film, directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok, is that I can’t wait to rewatch it with my mom.
The musical artist D. Smith makes her filmmaking debut with this stunning black-and-white portrait of four Black transgender sex workers in New York and Georgia. The exquisite high-contrast cinematography, undulating score, and energetic music tracks (Smith is a two-time Grammy nominee) set this documentary apart cinematically, but the honesty and energy of the subjects make it a staggering achievement.
When I interviewed Sundance Senior Programmer Heidi Zwicker before the festival, she advised me to look out for Charlotte Regan’s “Scrapper.” I’m delighted that I heeded the suggestion. This British dramedy about a precocious 12-year-old girl named Georgie (Lola Campbell) going it alone in the London suburbs after her mother dies contains some sequences that are stereotypical Sundance — as when Georgie anthropomorphizes the spiders residing in her flat — but beyond the tweeness, the film offers a touching ode to growing up, no matter one’s age.
The cartoonist and illustrator Adrian Tomine wrote the screenplay (and the graphic novel off of which it is based) for this genial friend-com that follows a surly Berkeley film buff named Ben (Justin H. Min) whose girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), and best friend, Alice (Sherry Cola), simultaneously decide to take some space from his downer attitude. A feel-good story about a feel-bad guy, this feature directorial debut from the comedic actor Randall Park is the rare Sundance crowd-pleaser that feels both broadly accessible and specific in its insights.
‘A Still Small Voice’
Documentaries set in hospitals — not to mention ones that take place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — rarely attain the level of access that the director Luke Lorentzen (“Midnight Family”) achieves in this observational profile of Mati, a chaplain-in-training at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. Lorentzen trails her through the hospital halls as she offers spiritual care to patients and their families during her residency in 2020 and 2021. A cathartic triumph of intimacy, the documentary also advances a persuasive argument for putting on your own oxygen mask (so to speak) before helping others.
‘You Hurt My Feelings’
I consider the filmmaker Nicole Holofcener to be among the preeminent American chroniclers of the urban, upper-class female experience. Her latest film is no exception, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as an author wrestling with the manuscript for a mystery novel that her husband (Tobias Menzies) claims he loves. When she overhears him admitting to the contrary, however, her world crumbles. Never have I witnessed a more authentic portrayal of the minutiae of life amid an artistic partnership, or the disproportionate agony of catching a loved one in a white lie.
Celine Song worked as a playwright before she wrote and directed this lovely first feature, which is based on her own experiences emigrating from South Korea to Canada as a child. The film traces the ebbs and flows of a relationship between Nora (Greta Lee), the Korean transplant, and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), Nora’s former classmate in Seoul. Song uses careful rhythms of dialogue and enchanting long takes as she explores how every step forward entails leaving something behind.
Natalia Winkelman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @nataliawinke.