The Road to Sundance 2021
Our staff is once again covering the Sundance Film Festival, only this year we will be splitting our coverage here on Tilt Magazine as well as our sister site, Goomba Stomp. What follows is a list of our nine most anticipated films.
Prisoners of the Ghostland
With Nicolas Cage starring and himself describing the screenplay as “the wildest thing I’ve ever read” one might say he’s hyping Prisoners of the Ghostland up a bit too much. It’s the fact that the film is directed by Japanese auteur Sion Sono that things start adding up. Known for making delirious mash-ups of genres to dizzying effect, Sono has consistently proven himself as one of the greatest Japanese directors working today – sharing that company alongside fellow madman Takashi Miike. For his first English language film, Sono is pulling out all the stops by bringing in a fantastic cast that includes Sofia Boutella, Ed Skrein, Nick Cassavetes (who starred alongside cage in John Woo’s Face/Off), prolific horror actor Bill Moseley, frequent Sono collaborator Tak Sakaguchi, and of course, the one and only Cage.
As for what we know about the movie, it sounds like a horror/western take on Escape From New York. Cage plays a bank robber forced to go across state lines and rescue The Governor’s granddaughter. Failing to do so in under five days, he will be executed. The kicker? His journey will be met by all sorts of trademark Sono weirdness from a desert cult to ghosts, all set against a Western backdrop. There are few director and actor combinations that show as much promise as Cage and Sono – and while Cage has found his niche to thrive inside, the potential for Sion Sono to become a bigger name outside of film festival circles is too appealing to ignore. (Christopher Cross)
In The Same Breath
There have already been and likely will continue to be many documentaries centered around COVID-19. Most will probably examine the ways in which places like the United States fumbled throughout the pandemic, and others might take a look at the success stories in places like New Zealand. While the subject is maybe a bit too recent for a lot of audiences to want to wrestle with, In The Same Breath looks to be the most promising as it focuses on the ways in which China and the United States’ leaders employed similar tactics of spreading disinformation to create an illusion that everything was fine. To do so, the film explores testimonies from frontline workers and the recently bereaved to illustrate a failure of leadership during a pandemic and draw parallels between the two countries.
Of course, the main reason In The Same Breath seems to be so promising is that Nanfu Wang has proven herself time and again that she is more than capable of laying bare a corrupt system that hides its darkest secrets from those who need to know. From One Child Nation to Hooligan Sparrow, she returns to Sundance with her most timely film yet and one that seems like it could bring her the most exposure. Testimonies of those who have seen the effects of COVID-19 first hand and revealing the ineptitude of leaders will no doubt spark anger and plenty of discussion, potentially making this one of the biggest documentaries premiering at Sundance. (Christopher Cross)
The Blazing World
Carlson Young’s debut feature is an adaptation of her short film of the same name which premiered at Sundance in 2018. The Blazing World was a tantalizing short film that envisioned a dark, sinister world on the fringes of a teenage girl’s (played by Young) imagination. While brief, it contained a multitude of haunting imagery and an eerie atmosphere that at any point felt like it could fall into a Hellish nightmare. However, working within a short time frame of 12 minutes, the short film focused more on atmosphere than it did pay off. Enter Young’s feature-length adaptation, co-written by her and Pierce Brown that sounds like the kind of expansion on a chilling concept that genre fans will immediately love.
Young reprises her role as Margaret who is haunted by the memory of her sister’s death. As she finds that memory inching her closer to self-destruction, she goes on a journey through her imagination, attempting to rid herself of the demons that haunt her. Fantasy and horror mix so well together, making The Blazing World immediately enrapturing on paper as Young’s film looks to wrestle with the lingering effects of a traumatic incident and how our own thoughts can even scare ourselves. Young herself has emerged as a promising talent as an actress as well from her role on MTV’s Scream series. But it’s the imagination contained in the short film this is based on that makes The Blazing World one of the most exciting prospects out of this year’s Sundance lineup. Add to that its positioning in Sundance’s NEXT program, which features many of the most promising emerging talents and you’ve got yourself a must-watch for horror fans. (Christopher Cross)
One of the best animated films of the past few years was Dash Shaw’s accurately titled debut feature My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea. The film pushed back against the current trend toward overly slick computerized animation, whether 2D or 3D, with its rough hand-drawn images that might have populated a high school notebook. Pixar films have become the dominant animation signifier for many viewers, but its movies have begun to take on a soulless look even as they have increased in technical sophistication. Shaw, who’s best known for his graphic novels, is able to create animation that feels as if it was completely made by human beings, even when computers play into the process.
His newest film, Cryptozoo, appears to lean into the fantastical elements that made High School so weird and charming. A group of cryptozookeepers, who keep watch over mythical beasts, are trying to capture a Baku, a Japanese creature that eats dreams and is a chimerical hodgepodge with an elephant’s trunk and elements of tiger, rhinoceros, and ox. Amid their attempts to capture the creature, the cryptozookeepers debate if they should continue to put the fantasy creatures on display or if they should help them stay hidden.
Cryptozoo features an impressive voice cast including Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Zoe Kazan, Fargo’s Peter Stormare, Twin Peaks’ Grace Zabriskie, and Yorgos Lanthimos regular Angeliki Papoulia. If the film is anything like Shaw’s first feature, it’s likely to be packed with playful images and a refreshing sense of irreverence that will be worth seeking out. (Brian Marks)
A Glitch in the Matrix
The director Rodney Ascher has shifted between a variety of narrative film shorts in his more than 20-year film career. But it’s only recently that the filmmaker has seemed to find his niche with his two boundary-pushing documentaries, Room 237 (2012) and The Nightmare (2015). Both films are filled with a sense of unease and privilege the subjective over any sense of objective truth. In Room 237, Ascher interviews a number of people with pet theories about the meaning behind Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), with their interpretations ranging from innocent and oddball to downright deranged. His follow-up, The Nightmare, profiles multiple people who suffer from sleep paralysis in the liminal stages of waking or falling asleep.
In his newest film, A Glitch in the Matrix, Ascher confronts the popular idea that we’re all living within some kind of digital simulation and that everything we experience is just the results of countless ones and zeroes. The film is clearly inspired by The Matrix, as evidenced by the title, but A Glitch also plays to Ascher’s strength in finding something compelling from the opinions of people who would otherwise be dismissed as crackpots. Inspired by a speech delivered by Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly author Philip K. Dick, the film investigates the possibility that nothing of our world is real, in which case we exist on some other plane, or we’re merely pawns in a game run by a greater intelligence. Ascher’s last two features had plenty of uneasy moments thanks to his excellent use of pre-existing footage and ingenious reenactments, and hopefully, A Glitch in the Matrix will be no different. (Brian Marks)
One for the Road
One for the Road, from the rising Thai director Nattawut “Baz” Poonpiriya, is among the buzzier entries at Sundance this year, but that’s not necessarily because of the director or the movie’s premise. The film is produced by the acclaimed Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, who directed one enduring world cinema classic after another throughout the 1990s and 200s, including Chungking Express (1994), Happy Together (1997), and his most popular film, 2000’s In The Mood for Love.
Poonpiriya’s film concerns two longtime friends, Boss and Aood. Boss is a pleasure-seeking womanizer living in New York City, where he owns a bar, but when he learns that his estranged friend is suffering from a terminal case of cancer and has returned home to Thailand, he also travels there to help him complete his bucket list. But both men have secrets that threaten to complicate their final days together.
“My mission as a director for this film is to drive myself down the memory lane because some of the characters are loosely based on my experience,” Poonpiriya said in a video about the film recorded for Sundance. “With the help of produce Mr. Wong Kar-wai, the movie has turned out to be my most personal film to date.”
Poonpiriya has already shown himself to be a capable genre craftsman with his thriller Countdown (2012) and the academic heist film Bad Genius (2017), but the promise of Wong’s style melding with the younger director’s skills makes One for the Road worth watching for. (Brian Marks)
– Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
This documentary, the directorial debut of longtime movie industry luminary Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, focuses on the unheralded series of concerts known as the Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place in 1969, the same year as Woodstock. The event is said to have attracted 300,000 people to Harlem, when the concerts were held on a series of Sundays throughout that summer, between June and August.
The festival was filmed, but unlike Woodstock, which was made into a famous documentary of the same name, the Harlem festival film remained on the shelf for nearly five decades. Summer of Soul represents the long-awaited reveal of that footage.
The Summer of Soul film, described in its description as “part concert film, part historical record,” will feature such musical highlights as a drum solo by Stevie Wonder and a duet between Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples. Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, and the Pips, B.B. King, and Mobs Mabley were among the festival’s well-known performers.
Summer of Soul will be the first premiere on January 28, Sundance’s first night, although Sundance is not using terms like “opening” and “closing.” It’s unclear when the film will have a post-Sundance release. (Stephen Silver)
One of the buzzier films heading into Sundance is Strawberry Mansion, a fantasy film directed by Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley.
The film, which premieres on January 21, depicts a future where a surveillance state conducts audits of people’s dreams. Audley, the co-director, plays one of the auditors, and he’s sent to check on the dreams of an artist named Bella (Penny Fuller.)
The Sundance description calls the film “a playfully surreal romantic fantasy,” one with decidedly Black Mirror vibes, taking a premiere of modern technology to a sci-fi degree, this time in dealing with the surveillance state.
Strawberry Mansion, which also features Grace Glowicki, Reed Birney, Linas Phillips, and Constance Shulman, debuts February 29, as part of the “Next” session. It’s not known yet when it will have a release date. (Stephen Silver)
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street
Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street was an acclaimed nonfiction book, published in 2008, about the creation of Sesame Street and the group of people who put it together, led by the late Jim Henson and series creator Joan Ganz Cooney.
Now, there’s a documentary adaptation of the book, called Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street. The film, directed by Marilyn Agrelo (Mad Hot Ballroom), goes through the history and legacy of the famous television show, which grew out of the 1960s counterculture and became a staple of American childhoods for five decades.
The film features interviews with the surviving members of the “Gang,” and certainly plenty of footage of famous moments from the show’s history. Street Gang seems destined to join a pantheon that includes such past documentaries as I Am Big Bird, Being Elmo, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Be warned, however: The Street Gang book opened with a description of the Jim Henson memorial service in 1990, the one in which the Muppet performers appeared in character and sang, so if you’re worried about crying, be prepared to see that footage again- and probably the Mr. Hooper scene, too.
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street debuts January 30. It will air on HBO and HBO Max sometime this year, following a spring VOD release. (Stephen Silver)
The first-ever “virtual” Sundance Film Festival begins on January 29. Check back for our daily coverage.