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Sundance Film Festival Awards: Biggest Wins, Surprises, and More!

The prestigious Sundance Film Festival concluded this weekend, with award winners being announced this past Friday. Sundance 2022 sported a whooping 80 films (feature-length, documentary, as well as shorts) available for viewing, and the last minute change to virtual screenings essentially allowed festival goers to consume as much content as their minds could handle. Due to the rise in Covid-19 Omicron variant, the festival was forced to change course from in-person to online. They even opened up the award winners to the general public after they were announced. This meant that anyone with time and a little cash on hand could purchase packages or single screenings for the festival’s most recognized films.

This year, Sundance heavily favored documentaries, which dominated much of the critical discourse as well as captured many of the awards available this year. Let’s take a closer look at some of the biggest winners, as well as look as some of the biggest surprises and snubs. There’s a lot to unpack here, so we won’t get to everything that won or should’ve won. But we will take a look at some of the most anticipated wide release films coming this year that won, as well as some that many thought would win something but came up empty handed.

“Navanly,” Courtesy of Sundance Institute
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Let’s start with the documentaries, because they all but dominated the festival this year. The big winners this year were “The Exiles,” “A House Made of Splinters,” “The Territory,” “Aftershock,” “Descendant,” “Fire of Love,” and “Navanly.” That’s not even the complete list of documentary winners either, which should be a indication for just how much documentaries dominated the festival. There weren’t a lot of surprises here, as some of the most well received and talked about documentaries all earned awards in their respective categories. The only one that seemed a bit divisive among viewers and critics alike was “The Exiles.” The documentary seemed to be at odds with itself, and while the subject matter seemed important and insightful, it didn’t quite hit the mark the way many of winning peers did.

Luckily for many of the winners, all of them have been optioned by studios or streaming services. “Fire of Love” was bought by National Geographic, “Descendant” by Netflix, and “Navanly” bought by Warner Bros. Pictures for HBO Max. This means that many of the most talked about award-winning documentaries will be available on some of the larger streaming services later this year. Because of how stacked the category was this year, docs like “Phoenix Rising” and “We Need To Talk about Cosby” went unrecognized. While these films garnered quite a bit of fanfare, they were both optioned before they premiered, so despite being well received, they had more going for them than some of their competitors, and I believe were probably excluded by default.

Fire of Love

For feature films, “Nanny,”, “Utama,” “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” “Palm Trees and Powerlines,” “Klondike,” “Emergency,” and “After Yang” were the big winners from the festival. The clear no brainer was “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” one of the most highly regarded and acclaimed films from the entire festival. After its win, Apple purchased the film for $15 million and it is set for release later this year. It was easily the most talked about film from the entire festival, which says a lot considering how many films were screened. Noticeably absent from the awards list were audience favorites like “Emily the Criminal,” “See No Evil,” “Brian and Charles,” “Master,” “Living,” “Ressurection,” “Am I Ok?,” and “A Love Song.”

Now some of these are excluded by the very nature of their composition. “See No Evil” was one of the most talked about horror films from the festival, leaving viewers with queasy stomachs and a desperate need to unload what they just experience. While the Midnight section of the Festival is often known for this kind of reaction, they are often left out of the final awards. What is surprisingly missing from the awards are “Living” and “A Love Song,” two films that topped a number of top 10 Sundance Festival lists from a plethora of critics and viewers, but were nowhere to be found on the list of award winners.

Aubrey Plaza in a still from “Emily the Criminal,” photo courtesy Sundance Institute

Likewise, the surprise inclusion of “Palm Trees and Powerlines” over films like “Am I Ok?” and “Resurrection” was rathe shocking for most viewers. The award winning film is deeply disturbing, as it focuses on a toxic relationship centered on the grooming of young girls into sex work. A highly controversial film and because of its subject matter, it wasn’t viewed by a lot of festival goers. “Am I Ok?” sported a much more light hearted and well received outing, and also star the clear festival performer frontrunner with Dakota Johnson as its lead. It may not have been the most well made, complete film, but it was rather surprising to see it absent from the award winners.

Overall, the coveted awards were mainly comprised of documentaries, and left out some of the more enjoyed and talked about feature films. It seemed to have gotten more right than wrong, though. Minus a few missteps and exclusions, the awards mainly went to films that deserved it. Though the general consensus is that the festival was a lot of average films powered by above average performances, many of the award winners will be available to general audiences in some capacity later this year. Hopefully some of the unsung heroes like “Good Luck to you, Leo Grande” and “Emily the Criminal” will find a home (which they have), and will also be available for the general public to see.

I really hope the continue the virtual access even if Covid variants subside, as I believe it provided more access to people wanting to check out a number of these films. I also hope the pay to play access to the general audiences for award winners in the last weekend continues. It creates genuine buzz for optioned films, and instantly reaches a wider audience than the antiquated exclusivity model of screening. I say it everyday: Let us watch movies, you cowards!

You can read the full list of winners on Sundance’s official website here.

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