The experience of attending the Sundance Film Festival, even when it happens in a crowd in Park City, is different for every person.
Even in person, no two people see the same movies, or hear the same Q&A sessions, or ride the same shuttle buses, or eat the same food.
This year, being the second in a row held mostly online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that feeling of uniqueness is heightened. Even when we watch the same movie, we’re not watching on the same screen, we may not be watching in the same moment, and we probably don’t hit the pause button — so we can grab a soda or walk the dog — at the same instant.
So when Sundance gives out awards (as they did Friday night, ahead of the festival’s conclusion on Sunday), every viewer will have opinions that don’t match with that of the juries and audiences that chose from 84 films screened over the last 10 days. In that respect, I’m no different than any other attendee. Here are the winners of my own personal Sundance awards:
Best double act • A tie, between Dakota Johnson for roles in the romantic films “Am I OK?” and “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” and Regina Hall for playing a college professor in the spooky thriller “Master” and a televangelist’s wife in the satire “Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.”
Best double act in one movie • Karen Gillan, who’s great as Sarah, a woman with a terminal diagnosis, and her clone — whom Sarah has to fight to the death when she learns she’s not dying — in Riley Stearns’ offbeat comedy “Dual.” Gillan has acted opposite herself before (as Amy Pond on “Doctor Who,” or as Nebula in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), and here she displays the subtle differences between the original and the copy.
Most “she was kidding!” response in a Q&A • Dakota Johnson, after the premiere of “Am I OK?,” talked about preparing to play a woman discovering her attraction to another woman: “I went around and made out with a lot of women during COVID before we started filming to practice.” Comedian Tig Notaro, who co-directed the film with Stephanie Allyne, responded: “Nailed it!” (In real life, Johnson has been in a relationship with Coldplay frontman Chris Martin since 2017.)
Hottest on-screen romance • Easily, it’s Katia and Maurice Krafft, the married French volcano experts profiled in Sara Dosa’s documentary “Fire of Love.” The Kraffts traveled the world to get up close to active volcanoes, and the footage they got while pursuing their shared obsession is spectacular. It may be the one movie this year that I wish I had seen on the giant Eccles Theatre screen in Park City. (National Geographic Documentary Films bought worldwide rights to the film, and plans to put it in theaters later this year.)
Best hair • Keke Palmer’s Afro in the second half of director Krystin Ver Linden’s “Alice” — a story set on an antebellum plantation that isn’t what it seems — is at once a symbol of empowerment and a tribute to the legendary Pam Grier.
Scariest performance • Sofia Heikkilä, playing a perfectionist homemaker video blogger in Hanna Bergholm’s Finnish horror thriller “Hatching,” is the Martha Stewart clone from hell.
Most psychedelic camerawork • In my favorite movie of the festival, the brilliant documentary “I Didn’t See You There,” director Reid Davenport zips through Oakland, Calif., on his wheelchair, usually mounting his camera on the chair for continuous shots. The most fascinating shots come when the camera is pointed at the ground, as asphalt and concrete and brick zoom past — like the “beyond the infinite” scenes in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but with recognizable textures.
Most troubling statistic in a documentary • In the moving documentary “Aftershock,” directors Paul Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee start with this fact: Black women in the United States are four times as likely to die while giving birth than white women at the same income level. The reasons — from hospitals ordering more cesarean section deliveries to a centuries-long dismissal of Black midwives — point out a long history of the medical profession exploiting or neglecting Black women.
Most ubiquitous subtext • Racism, which is at the heart of half the U.S. Dramatic competition films. Racism propels the comedy of “Emergency” (about two Black college students trying to help an unconscious white girl without getting killed by the cops), the horror of “Master” (Black student terrorized by campus ghost) and “Nanny” (domestic servant beset by trickster demons), the tension of “892″ (hostage thriller in a bank, starring John Boyega), and the blaxploitation imagery of “Alice” (set on a Southern plantation, pre-Civil War).
Most jaw-dropping documentary moment • In “Navalny” (coming soon to CNN and HBO Max), director Daniel Roher follows Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny as he and journalists investigate who was responsible for his near-fatal poisoning (spoiler alert: his name rhymes with Gladimir Gluten). The best scene in the film is one that — to avoid giving away the game — I will call simply “the prank call.”