What I Saw During the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

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I recently got to attend the 2021 Sundance Film Festival online.  It was a wonderful experience.  I got to see an array of unique films. and discover some new favorites.  While I’ll be posting reviews of my favorite films from the festival, it would be impossible to review everything I experienced.  Here, though, is a brief rundown of every movie I watched over six days. All links go to our reviews at RunPee. 

Pre-festival free film: Columbus

On Wed night, Sundance made a film from the 2017 festival, Columbus, available for free.  This gave everyone a chance to test out their technology and make sure there were no issues with streaming the movie on their tablet, computer, and/or phone.  While the film features strong performances from John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson, it left me cold.  I don’t consider it my first Sundance film.  That honor goes to One For the Road, which premiered the next night and was as magical and romantic as I hoped it would be.

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Opening Night of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

One for the Road–A man accompanies his dying friend on a road trip to say goodbye to all the girls he has loved.

Producer Wong Kar-wai is known for directing romantic films full of longing.  A few years ago, I finally caught up with In the Mood For Love, regarded to be one of his best films.  One for the Road definitely has his fingerprints on it.  It’s a surprising, funny, romantic film, with a plot twist halfway through that turns it in a more dramatic direction.

This was everything I wanted my first Sundance film to be.

Day 1 of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

Homeroom–This eye opening documentary focuses on the senior class of an Oakland high school during the 2019-2020 school year.  The students were ahead of the country on issues like race and police brutality.  They were lobbying for police to be removed from their school months before the tragic police shootings of last year.  During the Q&A, former student body president Denilson Garibo said, “Young people are leaders and we want a better world.”

Cryptozoo–If you’re a fan of alternative animation or strange late night Adult Swim cartoons, this hand-drawn animated movie may appeal to you.  I wasn’t a fan but others loved it.  Lake Bell and Michael Cera voice some of the characters.

This movie was acquired by Magnolia and will presumably be released later this year.

John and the Hole–A teenage boy traps his family in a hole in the ground in this thriller.  The thing that was really effective about this film was the music.  An early scene from a drone’s point of view created a creepy atmosphere.  I was ultimately disappointed in the movie.  Several audience members referred to it as Yorgos Lanthimos-lite.  In the words of Hunter S. Thompson, “It never got weird enough for me.”

On the Count of Three–Despite its dark premise (two best friends promise to kill each other at the end of the day), this was one of the funniest and best films at the festival.  I found it cathartic.  This was also one of the best casts I saw in any of the films.  It stars Jerrod Carmichael (who also directed), Christopher Abbott, Tiffany Haddish, JB Smoove, Lavell Crawford, and Henry Winkler.

I’m so excited that Annapurna Pictures purchased this movie and will be releasing it.

Knocking–A woman tries to find the source of a mysterious knocking sound in her new apartment.  This was an effective thriller with a satisfying ending that I recommend.

Day 2 of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

Summer of Soul (..Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)–This was one of the amazing opening night films I was able to catch a second showing of.  Director Ahmir Thompson — better known as Questlove — directed this documentary, featuring footage from 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival (aka Black Woodstock).  It includes performance from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, and more that haven’t been seen for 50 years.

Searchlight Pictures and Hulu acquired this film after the festival.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street–Fans of the Mr. Rogers doc Won’t You Be My Neighbor will eat this one up.  More than just a feel-good documentary about a favorite children’s show (although it’s definitely that too), this movie reveals the cultural and social impact of the show and the amazing story of how it all came together.

Screen Media has acquired the North American rights to this film and will distribute it in theaters and to home media this spring.

It will debut on HBO and HBO Max later in the year.

Mass–In this powerful film, the parents of a school shooter and the parents of one of his victims meet to try to get some closure.  Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney all give powerhouse performances in this intense, heartbreaking film.  If it doesn’t get a slew of Oscar nominations next season, I’ll be disappointed.

Cusp–This documentary follows three teenage girls in Texas who are on the cusp of adulthood.  Although I found it eye-opening, it wasn’t my favorite.  It did win the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award: Emerging Filmmaker.

Censor–This is a decent horror film about a female censor of British extreme horror flicks in the ’80s — which were known as video nasties.  She finds a connection between one of the movies and the disappearance of her sister.  It sends her down a strange rabbit hole.  This is a sort of cousin to David Cronenberg’s Videodrome  that is ultimately less satisfying

Coming June 11 from Magnolia.

R#J–I’m so disappointed this movie hasn’t sold yet.  I’m dying to see it again.  It’s an update of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where the story is told through the characters’ social media accounts.  That may sound gimmicky, but trust me, it’s a lot of fun.  Don’t sleep on this one if/when it finally gets released.

A Glitch in the Matrix–This animated documentary was one of the few films that pre-sold before the festival.  It’s currently available to rent online.  Director Rodney Ascher examines simulation theory–the idea that we are all living in a computer simulation. 

If you’re a fan of The Matrix or just mind-blowing films in general, this is a must-see.  Currently in theaters and on VOD.

Day 3 of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

Strawberry Mansion–This movie is the type of fever dream that Charlie Kaufman might whip up, but with more sweetness than his films typically have.  In the future, the government taxes everyone’s dreams.  A dream auditor goes to investigate an eccentric woman who hasn’t paid her taxes in years.  This was a fun watch with good performances, but didn’t make my favorites list.  This was the first of two back-to-back second showings I was able to catch.

How It EndsA woman tries to find some closure as she makes her way to a party on the last day before the world ends.  This cameo-filled dark comedy was one of the best things I saw at the entire festival.

Marvelous and the Black Hole–This coming of age films stars Rhea Perlman as an eccentric magician who takes a struggling teenager under her wing, and shows her how to channel her difficult emotions into the art of magic.  One of the best feel-good films of the festival.

Together, Together–Ed Helms stars in this comedy about a middle-aged man who wants to be a father.  Patti Harrison plays the surrogate he hires to carry his baby.  Over time, they develop a deeper friendship than either of them expected.  As director Nikole Beckwith pointed out in her introduction, one of the reasons this is an important film is that it explores platonic love and not a lot of movies do that.

This movie was picked up by Bleecker Street ahead of the festival.

First Date–A teenage boy buys a used car so he can take his dream girl out on a date.  Unfortunately, it’s a stolen car which leads to a night full of misadventures.  The film was advertised as “genre-defying.”  From the description I expected something like Adventures in Babysitting or The Goonies.  A mix of comedy and adventure.  Instead, the film just refuses to choose a genre and suffers for it.  There isn’t enough romance, comedy, or well, fun, for the film to be enjoyable.

Day 4 of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

The Sparks Brothers–I was able to sneak in a showing of this Edgar Wright documentary while at work.  At two and a half hours, it’s a long film, (needing Peetimes!) but it goes by quickly.  It follows popular underground band Sparks from their early career to the present.  The movie takes an in-depth look at each of their albums and how their style changed with each one.

If you’re a They Might Be Giants fan, you’ll probably love this.  Focus Features has picked up this film.

Judas and the Black Messiah–This is going to stand out as one of the most powerful films of the year.  Daniel Kaluuya has already been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award and won a Golden Globe for his performance as Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton.  Lakeith Stanfield has not been recognized as such, but gives an equally compelling performance as Bill O’Neal, the man who infiltrated the Panthers and betrayed them.  (If you haven’t seen him in Sorry to Bother You which premiered at Sundance three years ago, you owe yourself a viewing.)

Currently in theaters. RunPee Dana previously reviewed Judas on this blog, and also got Peetimes for you in the RunPee app.

Day 5 of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

Prisoners of the Ghostland–Nicholas Cage has made several wild genre films over the past few years, including Mandy and Color Out of Space.  This post-apocalyptic tale continues in that tradition.  Cage plays a thief who is placed in a leather suit rigged with explosives, tasked with recovering a missing girl within three days.  This blend of sci-fi, samurai films, and westerns (which is how you do genre-defying right) was original, a lot of fun, and less bloody than I expected. 

RJLE Films will be releasing the film in theaters later this year.

Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir–This movie is an in-depth look at the life and creative process of author Amy Tan who wrote the breakout novel The Joy Luck Club.  One of the best parts is when she performs with The Rock Bottom Remainders, a band composed of writers… which also features Stephen King and Dave Barry.

Philly D.A.–I got to see the first two episodes of this documentary series, airing on PBS later this year.  It follows Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner as  he tries to use his office to bring about change and social justice.  I’m eager to see the other six episodes.

Day 6 of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

This was the day when the award-winners all got a third showing.  I was lucky to see all three of my top choices for the day.  All three had previously sold out.

CODA–Marlee Matlin co-stars in this movie about a teenage girl who is torn between helping her deaf family with their fishing business and following her own dreams.  The title stands for Child Of Deaf Adults.  This funny, touching, multiple award-winning film started a bidding war and set a new record, being acquired by Apple for $25 million.

Don’t miss this one when it hits AppleTV+ later this year.

Flee–This will probably be one of the most talked-about documentaries of the year.  It’s animated and has a cool look.  Amin, an immigrant, tells the story of his past for the first time.

Neon acquired the film and will partner with Participant Media on distribution.

Ma Belle, My Beauty–This movie is the mature, nuanced look at polyamory that I had hoped In Corpore would be. Unfortunately, it’s still kind of a downer and moves pretty slowly.

Good Deed Entertainment will be releasing the film in late summer.

All Light Everywhere–The documentary explores the impossibility of objectivity.  Some of the most interesting and disturbing parts are when the film explores body cameras (how they’re made, the built-in bias, how they’re used, etc.)

Super Ltd., a division of Neon, has acquired the rights for this film for release later this year.

Luzzu–This film from Malta shows how a fisherman’s life starts to unravel when his luzzu boat springs a leak, and the hard choices he’s forced to make.  It’s a decent drama but wasn’t one of my favorites.

Night of the Kings–A new prisoner is chosen as the storyteller for the prison, and must make his story last all night to avoid being executed.  The movie doesn’t quite live up to the strong premise.  It does have an interesting style and good performances though.  I just wish the second half was as strong as the first half.

Available on video on demand.

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I was only able to see a fraction of what was available at the festival.  This list is not representative of the entire festival.  But hopefully it’s given you a few films to put on your “must watch” list.  Look for my upcoming reviews of my favorites from the festival. I’ll add links when I post them. 

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