The Best Movies from Sundance 2021
The Best Films from the Sundance Film Festival
This year marks the fifth year in a row our team has covered the Sundance Film Festival and once again, the festival did not disappoint offering plenty of great movies to recommend in the coming months. Here are the nine best films we watched at Sundance 2021.
Coda is the type of story that the movies have been telling for nearly 100 years, and it embraces all sorts of things that are well-worn formulas and cliches. But it executes that formula so well that I didn’t mind any of it.
The film, directed by Sian Heder and the remake of a French drama, is the story of a young woman (Emilia Jones) in a fishing town in Massachusetts, the only hearing member of a family in which her parents and brother are deaf. She also harbors dreams of becoming a singer, which drives a wedge between her and her parents for more than one reason.
Coda, which features several dramatic moments that will come across as cheesy to some while activating the tear ducts of others, won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize, U.S. Dramatic Audience Award, and a Special Jury Ensemble Cast Award, and was picked up by Apple for a record price of $25 million. Bit Sundance acquisitions often don’t make a cultural dent, but I feel like this one will. (Stephen Silver)
One of the most awe-inspiring films at Sundance this year was Dash Shaw’s animated odyssey Cryptozoo. The days of major hand-drawn animated movies being a major force in film are long behind us, but it still exists at the margins, and Shaw’s sophomore feature is a shining example of how lovely and entrancing the medium can be. Its phantasmagorical display of mythical creatures and abundant color makes it a significant step up from his debut, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea.
The Cryptozoo of the title is half exotic animal shelter and half Disneyland but filled with mythical creatures. All of the creatures in the movie are based on real myths, and the attention to detail will thrill anyone who studied Greek mythology in school. Lake Bell voices Lauren Gray, a conservationist obsessed with tracking down cryptids. She’s also joined on her missions by Phoebe (Yorgos Lanthimos regular Angeliki Papoulia), a Medusa-like Gorgon who wants to save other cryptids.
The vocal talent is uniformly strong, with poignant performances from Michael Cera and Papoulia. However, it’s the visuals that are the most entrancing aspect of Cryptozoo. The film is suffused with color in ways that make it easy to stare and lose track of the plot. Seeing is part of the pleasure with images as beautiful as these. Shaw still has plenty of room to improve, but if he makes something this beautiful it will always be worth watching. (Brian Marks)
Portraying the refugee experience through wonderful animation made necessary to maintain anonymity, Flee is a powerful glance at one Afghan refugee’s story as he attempts to find a place to call home. Along the journey, director Jonas Poher Rasmussen taps into the heart of its subject’s tale and uncovers the secrets sometimes kept in order to stay safe. Heartbreaking moments aplenty, Flee tells an intimate account of one experience that taps into the horrifying reality that sometimes fear becomes embedded in every decision you make.
Evading the boundaries of documentary storytelling, Rasmussen roots himself into the film as he interviews Amin – a refugee from Afghanistan now living in Copenhagen, Denmark. Coincidentally, the two have known each other for over 25 years, and Rasmussen finally got Amin to open up about his life story. To ensure his identity is kept under wraps, Amin’s story is told through animation with the occasional moments of archive footage spliced throughout. Amin recounts his story from when he was a child in Afghanistan and the eventual pressures that led him and his family to flee after their father’s disappearance. As their home of Kubal threatens to become part of the battleground for a Civil War, the family heads to Moscow and eventually find themselves struggling to make a life for themselves with the potential of being sent back to Afghanistan looming over them.
Rasmussen does a fantastic job delivering Amin’s story without losing the scope of the grander picture: that this isn’t just Amin’s experience. In his feature film debut, Searching For Bill, Rasmussen found someone subject to a lesser quality of living and told a story about his quest for answers in a sea of people suffering in many similar ways. His knack for taking one person’s life and extrapolating it to find the many others in similar circumstances is what makes Flee an impressive feat. Amin’s story is filled with ups and downs, but it also showcases the need to cling to hope even when all seems hopeless. (Christopher Cross)
In The Earth
Ben Wheatley returns to his horror roots with incredible results in his latest film, In The Earth – a folk horror film devised and created during the COVID-19 era. Though his film does not specifically reference the pandemic, it builds a world wrestling with similar bouts of paranoia and fear of infection. That initial set up eventually leads into a film that feels like an older Wheatley script that’s just been dusted off and updated. Which is to say that In The Earth is an incredible return to form for those who were worried the writer/director may have lost his edge working on bigger Hollywood films. Deftly blending science fiction and various subgenres of horror, Wheatley is firing on all cylinders in this paranoid vision of an entire world struggling to find meaning and purpose in dire circumstances.
The small cast (six people, two of which only appear casually) and the setting of In The Earth could easily be dictated by when this film was shot and produced – it is one of the first COVID-19 productions in the United Kingdom. However, it goes beyond that to even the way people interact with one another. In buildings, they wear masks; there’s a distance between people at almost all times; there’s even a point when one character says not to leave an area because it’ll be a hassle to have to disinfect them. The film utilizes space and restrictions to meld into the narrative, and even more specifically, the horror. It has a very Annihilation tone to it in the way that the forest plays such a huge role in the terrors of the film.
In The Earth is a huge step back to basics for the director that captures the zeitgeist of the COVID-19 era through a mind-melting, stripped back genre exercise. A psychedelic feast that feels reminiscent of his older works and reminds audiences of how effective Wheatley can be as a director. (Christopher Cross)
Judas and the Black Messiah
The film, directed by Shaka King, is set in Chicago in 1969, when Hampton – just 21 years old at the time – was the leader of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, and also a significant figure in the national organization. The film argues, as documents released over the years have begun to support more and more, that Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) was essentially murdered on the direct orders of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of how it happened, mostly involving William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a low-level criminal who became an FBI informant and helped them “neutralize” Hampton and the Panthers.
Yes, it’s a film highly sympathetic to Black radical politics, the kind of thing that even liberal Hollywood had little interest in making films about until very recently. And it stars the leading men of Get Out (Kaluuya) and Sorry to Bother You (Stanfield), two other major members of the “this movie couldn’t have been made until now” club. The performances are so strong that I was willing to let slide that both actors are about a decade too old for the parts they’re playing. (Stephen Silver)
Few movies this year were as brutal yet thrilling as Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure. In her debut feature, the Swedish writer and director give viewers an unvarnished glimpse into the workings of the American pornography industry. Pleasure is informed by Thyberg’s extensive and intimate knowledge of the porn business, acquired from months of interviewing performers, filmmakers, agents, and others involved in making the kind of content everyone consumes but few people want to talk about.
Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), a Swedish transplant, signals her determination to rise in the adult industry from the first scene as she goes through customs at LAX and declares she’s there for “pleasure,” not business. Thyberg often imbues her scenes with a documentary feel that’s enhanced by copious real-life porn stars, yet one of Pleasure’s greatest coup is Kappel’s casting as Bella. It’s her first film performance ever, which is hard to square with how naturalistic she appears on screen. Whether she’s slathered with makeup on a porn set or wearing her natural face at home, she fits in completely with the professionals.
Many of the scenes on porn sets were inspired by stories Thyberg heard while interviewing porn stars, and they paint a picture of the varied ways in which productions approach consent and the rights of their performers. It would be easy to take Pleasure’s most disturbing scenes as evidence of Thyberg’s porn-shaming attitude, or general sex-negativity, but she’s fair in her approach. The horrible things that Bella experiences are similar to things plenty of actresses have dealt with, but the director doesn’t try to tar every aspect of the adult film industry. Pleasure is a fascinating drama that heralds an ambitious rising filmmaker. (Brian Marks)
In 2017, Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe was ousted from power and tendered his resignation after a military coup led by his Vice President, E.D. Mnangagwa. President details the following year’s election process as Nelson Chamisa leads the opposition party and attempts to defeat Mnangagwa in a free and fair election. Camilla Nielsson’s documentary is exhaustive and thorough in its approach, portraying the 2018 Zimbabwean election in a way that resonates with other countries that have faced similar election rigging and corruption. Infuriating and tense, President bares it all to show the lengths those in power will go to maintain control.
President ends up a difficult watch as reality does not reflect what is happening behind-the-scenes. Instead, the film demonstrates how powerful men maintain that power within a system that is supposed to prevent that kind of abuse. More interestingly is the realization that someone who has served under a President for so long who uses violence as a suppression technique, would ultimately subscribe to the same tactics to ensure control. There are so many fascinating ideas explored from the emptiness of being President when you weren’t elected, to the way elections can easily avoid scrutiny if the right mental gymnastics are done to nullify factual evidence.
There’s very little left to the imagination by the time Nielsson’s President concludes, as every piece of evidence of corruption is elaborated upon and casually thrown aside as inconclusive by the leading party. Party platforms are not even discussed much, nor the candidates as people – instead, it’s the system itself put under scrutiny. While it can occasionally drag in spots, that can be attributed to how much the film needs to hammer home that what is happening is not only unjust, but also illegal. Even in its most repetitive moments, President feels vital and presents itself as such by merely documenting a process so often mired in secrecy. (Christopher Cross)
Summer of Soul: The Revolution That Could Not Be Televised
The directorial debut of longtime Roots drummer and all-around musical celebrity Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, is many great things, all at once. It’s a first-rate concert film, it’s an impressive excavation of never-before-seen footage, and it’s woven together with a heaping of the political context.
Presented under the official title Summer of Soul, Or: The Revolution That Could Not Be Televised, the film chronicles The Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts that were held at a park in Harlem on a series of weekends in the summer of 1969. The event featured a who’s-who of important Black musical artists from various genres, from Mavis Staples to Nina Simone to Stevie Wonder to Sly and the Family Stone to B.B. King. (Stephen Silver)
The World to Come
One of the most unabashedly emotional films this year was Mona Fastvold’s romantic drama The World to Come. The movie is a lesbian romance that’s likely to draw comparisons to other period romances like Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Ammonite, but Fastvold has made a moving and distinctive film that stands out on its own merits. The film boasts an elegantly minimalist screenplay and crisp cinematography, but it’s the uniformly stellar performances from its quartet of lead actors that give it such an emotional gut punch.
Katherine Waterston stars as Abigail, who runs a small farm in the wilds of the American Northeast sometime in the 19th century with her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck, who also produces). The love has left their marriage following the tragic death of their daughter, but they’re still bound together by circumstances. When a new woman, Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) moves in nearby with her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott), Abigail is overjoyed to finally have someone she can confide in. Yet their relationship turns out to be far more than a friendship, which will strain their marriages, with disastrous consequences for one of them.
Waterston and Kirby are wonders, and Waterston in particular is an expert at conveying emotions through the slightest of gestures and facial expressions. It’s a shame that the male actors don’t have as much screen time, as Affleck and Abbott are among the greatest actors working today, but Waterston and Kirby are more than able to carry the film. The World to Come is often slow, and its romance is more chaste than some viewers will want, but it’s a stunning actors’ showcase that shouldn’t be missed. (Brian Marks)