Sundance Film Festival went virtual for 2021 from 28 January to 3 February. Pared down compared to the the previous year’s fest, the programme still comprised an impressive 41 in-competition features over four separate strands, with 32 additional films premiering on a non-competitive basis. Despite existing primarily in cyberspace (some flagship theatrical screenings are the exception) the majority of SFF21 was for a US-only audience.

It’s wasn’t just the big-name directors who put on a show this year. In addition to established talents such as Ben Wheatley, Nanfu Wang, Sion Sono and Edgar Wright, debut filmmakers were well represented – 39 of the 73 features at Sundance this year were the filmmaker’s first.

Below we bring you round-ups of each of the festival’s four competitions as well as first-look reviews of over 40 films.

US dramas round-up

Coda (2021)

Coda, written and directed by Sian Heder, emerged as the festival’s big winner with the US Grand Jury prize and directing award among other accolades. A remake of the French comedy La Famille Bélier (2014), the film follows a hearing teenager (CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults) torn between her responsibility to her family and her dreams of becoming a singer.

Also triumphant, Clifton Collins Jr. deservedly snagged an award for his sensational performance in Jockey as Jackson, a debilitated horseman reluctant to confront the approaching end of his career. Things grow even more complicated when he meets young rookie Gabriel (Moises Arias), who insists that he is Jackson’s son. Clint Bentley’s film charts fairly conventional terrain as far as sports dramas go but it boasts some magical visuals from cinematographer Adolpho Veloso and Collins delivers a wonderfully layered performance, of the kind the reliable character actor has long been known for.

On the Count of Three (2021)

Some of the best films in this year’s competition reckoned with duality, or the powerful and sometimes detrimental emotional pull between two characters. On the Count of Three was a standout, an impressive directorial debut from comedian Jerrod Carmichael. Best friends Val (Carmichael) and Kevin (Christopher Abbott), each grappling with their own enduring childhood traumas, make a suicide pact and the film follows what is presumably their last day. Newcomer Carmichael seamlessly balances comedy and tragedy in a sleek, heartfelt reckoning with mental illness.

The film devastatingly grapples with certain social realities that determine how mental illness is handled. Without giving too much away, Kevin, who is white, frequently references his awareness of the racial disparities between himself and Val, a Black man. The film opens in a psych ward and ends, well, somewhere else, in a move that powerfully acknowledges these material divisions despite the deep connection the two men share. Apropos, the chemistry between Carmichael and Abbott is pitch perfect – as it needs to be – to reveal that, even when they themselves cannot see, everything isn’t so hopeless. 

Wild Indian (2021)

A far more haunting twosome is at the center of Wild Indian, from director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., about two indigenuous men linked by a history of violence: a serial killer thriller animated by Biblical allegory. Young Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) kills a classmate in cold blood and enlists his cousin Ted-O (Julian Gopal and Chaske Spencer) to help him bury the body. Makwa (Michael Greyeyes) grows up to be a successful and wealthy man, having adopted all the classic trappings of assimilation: an English name, a white wife, Christianity. Ted-O, clearly the more traumatized of the two, has been in and out of prison. He emerges a stoic man in contrast to the gentle boy he once was. Greyeyes is another consistently excellent actor who thankfully gets to showcase his range here as the cruel, deadly Makwa. Meanwhile, Corbine establishes himself as a director to watch with this compelling portrait of assimilation as a sinister infection with fatal consequences.

On a somewhat lighter note, Superior is a fun retro romp with assured direction from Erin Vassilopoulos. On the run from her abusive boyfriend, Marian (Alessandra Mesa) returns to her hometown where she reunites with her estranged identical twin Vivian (Anamari Mesa). The two women couldn’t be more different but the longer they spend together the more the lines between their identities begin to collapse. It’s a stylishly made film and, although it has garnered many comparisons to David Lynch’s work, the film has a gloriously distinct character. Vassilopoulos confidently carves out her own space with meticulous aesthetics and a wry take on the doppelganger thriller.  

— Kelli Weston

US drama reviews

Passing puts its racial go-betweens inside a frame

By Kelli Weston

Passing puts its racial go-betweens inside a frame

Judas and the Black Messiah lays bare the criminality of a US police state

By Devika Girish

Judas and the Black Messiah lays bare the criminality of a US police state

US Dramatic Competition

Out of competition

US documentary round-up

Ailey (2021)

This year there was no rising at dawn in the high altitude of Park City’s mountains to start the first journey of the day. No bluish light on the snow that crunches beneath your feet in a lumbering scramble to the nearest bus stop, recalling Stan Brakhage’s flailing figure in Dog Star Man. However, after nearly a year of film festivals being forced to transform themselves into digital alternatives, the first virtual edition of Sundance Film Festival was a close imitation of life: timed screenings with live Q&As; a second chance to watch the films until their views ran out, resembling the race of a waitlist queue; and a virtual space in the form of the New Frontier, where you enter galleries and film parties as an avatar. I even had a festival buddy, with whom I attended screenings in the same time-space, if not physical space.

A Glitch in the Matrix (2021)

At the same time, I was solitary, curtains opening for food breaks, closing for screenings, bedtime at midnight, rising at dawn. Elements of A Glitch in the Matrix, Rodney Ascher’s documentary that premiered in the Midnight strand, played on my mind. I thought of one of Ascher’s subjects, who believes to have seen beyond the simulation of our existence. He developed a conviction that real life is in fact a computer-generated simulation and, like video game characters, when other people went home they just stood facing a wall, arms outstretched, instead of continuing to go about their lives. He wasn’t far off my domestic reality.

Another documentary premiering outside of the competition was Nanfu Wang’s In the Same Breath. Wang’s devastating documentary speaks to our turbulent present, ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic. Her storytelling power emerges from an empathetic, personal place – as it did in her award-winning film of 2019, One Child Nation.

Rebel Hearts (2021)

The US doc competition buzzed with observations about the future we are creating and the reclaiming of history that has been overlooked. Two of the strongest films in the competition featured astonishing, exuberant and celebratory archive footage of Black life in America: Ailey, Jamila Wignot’s biographical documentary about legendary choreographer Alvin Ailey, and Grand Jury Prize winning Summer of Soul (Or…When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson’s exceptional directorial debut, working-titled in the film as ‘Black Woodstock doc’ on Questlove’s clapperboard, tells the story of the 1969 Harlem Culture Festival. It also won the audience award. In another journey back to the 1960s the revolutionary nuns in Rebel Hearts become activists for civil rights and women’s rights, upsetting the white Catholic patriarchy.

Kids’ perceptions of the racist, sexist and homophobic forces in our institutions were explored across the strand. Cusp, which won the Special Jury award for Emerging Filmmaker, is a gorgeously filmed observation of teen girls living in a small military town in Texas. Winner of the Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award, Homeroom focuses on a group of remarkable students committed to creating social change and a more caring system.

Cusp (2021)

On the border of Mexico in El Paso, Texas another group of students in their high school senior year are dreaming of the job security that comes with working for border control and law enforcement. At the Ready follows their journey of self-discovery and growing ethical dilemmas. Meanwhile, a senior class at prestigious San Francisco high school in Try Harder! deal with their ‘tiger mums’ and high hopes and expectations in a delightfully fun documentary that is in equal measures moving and humourous.

Other highlights in the documentary competition imaginatively expressed how technology is driving our future. Winner of the Directing Award, Natalia Almada’s Users is a beautiful work of science-fictional nonfiction cinema which explores how the imitation of life has become second nature. Theo Anthony’s All Light, Everywhere received the Special Jury award for Nonfiction Experimentation and is an outstanding, conceptual exploration of surveillance, or how photography has historically been weaponised. 

On the closing night I paced the New Frontier gallery as an avatar and caught a portal ferry to Amsterdam, on a virtual platform created by IDFA, joining others in a booth for karaoke. We headed to the champagne room, where floating on the surface of our delicate glasses we encountered Sundance Director Tabitha Jackson, whose first year leading the festival has shown great vision. To celebrate in our virtual champagne coupes felt like an apt ending to a remarkable and strange festival.

— Sophie Brown

US documentary reviews

Summer of Soul brings us the Black Woodstock, four decades late but still vital

By Devika Girish

Summer of Soul brings us the Black Woodstock, four decades late but still vital

All Light, Everywhere is an illuminative meditation on the nature of seeing

By Laura Jacobs

All Light, Everywhere is an illuminative meditation on the nature of seeing

US Documentary Competition

Out of competition

World cinema dramas round-up

Pleasure (2021)

When you’re ‘at’ a film festival whilst surrounded by home comforts (and distractions), the reasons for this now less unusual form of spectatorship are inevitably going to impact your interpretation of the films on show.

The Pink Cloud (2021)

Anything can be a pandemic film if you try hard enough, but in the case of Iuli Gerbase’s The Pink Cloud no stretch of the imagination is required whatsoever. “This film was written in 2017 and shot in 2019. Any resemblance to actual events is purely coincidental”, say the opening titles of this Brazilian lockdown drama in apology to its hesitant audience. A toxic pink cloud makes the outside world deadly, forcing one-night-standers Giovana and Yago to shelter in place together. The shifting tides of their relationship crash against the rocks of lockdown fatigue and boredom in a relatable but inventive drama that spans a decade in the couple’s life.

Ana Katz’s The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet is another film featuring suddenly toxic air as a plot point – a meteor crashes into Earth, making the atmosphere from four feet up poisonous – but its oddball story comprising the meandering, disjointed episodes of its rather blank protagonist falls flat, despite the crisp monochrome photography.

If a kooky, deadpan, black-and-white comedy is what you’re after, Amalia Ulman’s charming debut El Planeta is a much better option. Set in the sleepy Spanish coastal town of Gijon, it stars director Ulman and her mother Ale, playing a delightful mother-daughter duo unable to pay their bills whilst kitted out in couture clothing. Think Miranda July’s Kajillionaire remade by an art student.

Hive (2021)

Female companionship is also a key theme in the World Drama competition’s big winner, Blerta Basholli’s Kosovan drama Hive, which takes home the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award and a Best Director gong. It’s a safe but not entirely undeserving choice, an earnest dramatisation of the true story of a courageous woman battling patriarchal oppression in her conservative town.

Luzzu’s lead actor Jesmark Scicluna is the jury’s selection for the competition’s acting award. His muted and understated performance, entirely in keeping with the neorealist style of Alex Camilleri’s film, is strong when in its cinematic context, but pales in comparison to some of the bravura displays elsewhere (see in particular Pleasure, below).

Baz Poonpiriya’s One for the Road, a cocktail of one part Thai road trip and one part New York romance, takes the Special Jury Award for Creative Vision. The film, produced by Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai, certainly has a flashy, in-your-face style but is a tame, commercial film with two unpleasant lead characters.

Two well-made, atmospheric domestic dramas come in the form of Indian director Ajitpal Singh’s debut Fire in the Mountains and Ronny Trocker’s second feature Human Factors. The former is an impressive and moving slow burner that builds to an explosive crescendo, with the Himalayan backdrop stunningly shot. The latter, a cold but thought-provoking German drama, employs a structure of jagged flashbacks to create a pervasive uneasiness reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s Hidden.

Prime Time (2021)

The two standouts in a generally strong competition came from first-timers Jakub Piatek and Ninja Thyberg, the two films for my money most likely to make it out into the wider world.

Polish director Piatek’s thrilling debut Prime Time has a touch of the Safdie Bros. about it. A carefully crafted package of ever-ratcheting stress and slowly evolving chaos, it sees a disgruntled and desperate man take hostages in a TV station on New Year’s Eve 1999 with the goal of broadcasting his manifesto to the nation. Bartosz Bielenia (best known as the lead in Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi) is terrific as a sympathetic but dangerous lost soul.

Far and away the best of the competition, however, is Ninja Thyberg’s eye-catching portrait of the L.A. adult entertainment industry Pleasure. Sofia Kappel is astonishing in her debut role as Swedish import Bella Cherry, who descends on Hollywood with porn-stardom in her sights. The remarkably, unapologetically graphic nudity on display pushes the envelope and helps to create a rich and varied landscape of a toxic industry rarely shown in this much detail.

Sundance's virtual meeting place

Sundance 2021 was a relatively solitary affair, as has come to be expected over an almost-year of virtual festivals. Despite the amusing (if gimmicky) attempts by the organisers to create spaces for virtual communion, the frenzy of an in-person festival made way for a relaxed but altogether less exciting occasion. Perhaps it was the paucity of genuine standout films, but organic ‘buzz’ was harder to come by, with recommendations coming from polite Twitter requests rather than spontaneous chats in screening-room queues.

— Thomas Flew

World Cinema Dramatic Competition reviews

Censor splices cut-throat video nasty violence with smart social commentary

The cynical gore of 1980s horror movies seeps into the real world in Prano Bailey-Bond’s razor-sharp debut, starring Niamh Algar.

By Ela Bittencourt

Censor splices cut-throat video nasty violence with smart social commentary

World cinema documentaries round-up

Flee (2021)

The title of the opening film of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Flee, aptly connected much of the selection’s best films. Escape stories – tender studies of people, communities or entire countries seeking refuge from their circumstances; bold investigations delivering harrowed insight – were both prominent and well-executed with open and dedicated relationships between filmmakers and subjects.

Whether documenting those fighting governmental corruption, carrying out life-threatening rescue operations or interrogating individual power and tragedy, these films harnessed the gravity of what it means to hope for a better future.

A bright start to the festival, the animated documentary Flee emerged as perhaps the standout film of the competition and was deservedly awarded the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary. Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s portrait of Amin (a pseudonym), a close friend since high school, uses animation as a cinematic safety net to protect Amin’s identity while allowing him to tell his story of fleeing Afghanistan as a child as openly and comfortably as possible. The format is vibrant and evocative, the narrative affecting and delicately told. Rasmussen’s compassionate storytelling gives the film space to explore a tapestry of Amin’s experience, the burden of his suffering as well as the joy of his journey to discovering his sexuality.

Sabaya (2021)

While Flee offers a poetic opportunity for resolution in a refreshing new documentary format, Sabaya employs a more conventional style of observation for a nonetheless dramatic narrative of escape. Director Hogir Hirori travelled to Syria in 2018 to investigate the Yazidi women who had been kidnapped and hidden in the ISIS-held Al-Hol Camp and the infiltrators who helped a group of volunteers plan the women’s rescue. It’s a film in which the subject matter invariably overshadows any formal innovation; director Hogir Hirori’s camera is composed and assured, even as Daesh soldiers speed towards the volunteers’ car and fire shots relentlessly, or as their local village burns down in a revenge attack. The film delivers a sharp and direct view on brutality and fear in both the fractured circumstances of the camp and those in which the filmmaker must work.

Taking a more abstract approach is Faya Dayi, Jessica Beshir’s lyrical ode to Ethiopia and its lucrative khat crop, adopting a tone and aesthetic reminiscent of the plant’s highs. Placid and meditative, the film invites a mythic view of the lives of Ethiopians young and old who seek refuge in either the spiritual and chemical effects of chewing khat or their dreams of travelling across the sea to find new opportunities. It’s a laborious film at times, drifting in and out of narrative focus over two hours, but remains a sensorial wonder with lush black and white cinematography elevating the visual and sonic landscape in its simplicity. Faya Dayi is loosely centred on 14-year-old Mohammed, an individual caught in the crossfire of his country’s khat addiction and a desire for change, who serves to delicately represent both his own struggle and the wider issues at hand.

Faya Dayi (2021)

From a philosophical shouldering of a country’s woes to the explicit difficulties of bearing a nation’s hopes: Camilla Nielsson’s President moves forward through Zimbabwe’s recent political history, following her 2014 hit Democrats, with a behind-the-scenes portrait of underdog figure Nelson Chamisa’s presidential campaign. Chamisa’s determination to overturn the ingrained practices of ballot-rigging and bribery in Zimbabwe’s electoral system gained him a legion of supporters and furthered his motivation to free the country of such criminal activity. There are no documentary-thriller gimmicks here; the narrative needs no dramatic enhancement and Nielsson is content to sit back and bear witness to a series of events that reveal the insidious reach of corruption and the devastating frustrations of those intent to stop it

— Caitlin Quinlan

President (2021)

World Cinema Documentary Competition reviews

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Originally published: 29 January 2021