10 Sundance Festival films you should watch for in 2021
Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone brings the house down in the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969.
My digital avatar and I had a grand time at Sundance 2021.
The continuing pandemic forced the annual indie film festival out of the funky theatres of Park City, Utah, and into a mainly online existence. This included the virtual realm of the New Frontier program, where my ghostly alter-ego explored short films and chatted with other cinema-loving avatars, during the fest’s seven-day run that concluded Wednesday.
Being online didn’t mean being out of touch, though. Freed of the necessity of taking shuttle buses and lining up, I was able to see more films than usual at Sundance — close to 30 this year — and I enjoyed most of them.
The films were as good or better than in any year of recent memory.
These included two of the biggest prize winners at Tuesday night’s Sundance awards ceremony, which rocked both juries and audiences: Siân Heder’s quadruple winner “CODA,” a family dramedy in the U.S. Dramatic Competition; and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s double winner “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” a found-footage music doc in the U.S. Documentary Competition.
The Sundance 2021 bounty was such that I found it hard to limit my favourites to a Top 10 list. But here they are, listed in order of preference. Watch for these in the months ahead, via streaming services, in theatres and/or at festivals like Hot Docs and the Toronto International Film Festival:
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s appreciation of music history is as strong as his playing chops as drummer/co-frontman of the Roots hip-hop band. He spectacularly showcases his know-how, and makes his feature directing debut, with this “Black Woodstock” reclaimed treasure: the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, which drew 300,000 people in that Woodstock summer to see electrifying shows by such soul, blues and gospel greats as Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and B.B. King, caught on film that sat ignored for 50 years.
Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s hybrid animation tells the incredible true story of his friend Amin, whose arrival in Copenhagen from Afghanistan as an unaccompanied minor and refugee decades earlier has been shrouded in secrecy. Amin’s reticence was understandable and necessary: he’s a gay man from a country that criminalizes homosexuality and his claim of being an orphan had serious family implications. Amin’s fight for survival and freedom, brilliantly told through animation and archival news footage, illustrates the power of film to inform and elevate.
Misha and the Wolves
A Holocaust survivor’s emotional tale of sheltering with a family of wolves while trekking from Belgium to Germany as a lone child during the Second World War unravels after global acclaim. The most fascinating thing about filmmaker Sam Hobkinson’s documentary thriller is that even knowing going in the basic truth about Misha Defonseca’s deception, which spawned an acclaimed memoir and film, there are so many more twists to the tale — especially after her infuriated publisher turned detective. Truth, memory and motivation are often not the simple verities we desire.
Writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. fired up Sundance 2021 with his feature debut, an Indigenous drama of delayed reckoning for past evil that plays like a classic tragedy. Canada’s Michael Greyeyes is sensational as an Ojibwe man, living an affluent and assimilated life in California, whose violent past as a neglected teen in Wisconsin — and a guilty secret shared with a childhood friend (Chaske Spencer) — return to stalk him. A lean script alert to character and nuance, and Corbine’s taut direction, showcase the range and talent of Greyeyes, whose star rises.
On the Count of Three
You really have to know what you’re doing if you’re going to make a comedy out of a suicide pact between two friends. Comedian Jerrod Carmichael surely does, since he also plays one of the death-minded pals, Val, in his feature directing debut. The other is Kevin (Christopher Abbott), and these two knuckleheads can’t seem to catch a break even on their final day. It’s a bleakly original comic premise for a buddy pic that never flags and also manages to avoid trivializing depression. If the locales look vaguely familiar, it’s because much of it was shot in Ottawa.
Actor and now filmmaker Rebecca Hall calls the 1929 Nella Larsen novel behind her directorial debut a “puzzle box.” So is this mesmerizing movie, which examines identity and desire on multiple levels, from race to class to sex. Filmed in radiant black and white and boxy aspect ratio that moodily conjures 1920s New York, it stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as erstwhile friends who have mastered the era’s social necessity of light-skinned Blacks “passing” for white. Thompson’s Irene chafes at the deception, while Negga’s Clare delights in it — but both are leading false lives.
Judas and the Black Messiah
A rat prowls among the Panthers. “Get Out” alums Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield magnetically reteam for Shaka King’s potent true story from 1969, when the FBI conscripted Black car thief William “Wild Bill” O’Neal (Stanfield) to spy on Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), the charismatic leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. O’Neal begins as an opportunist but begins to regret his betrayal when he sees the Panthers as people instead of FBI scapegoats. It’s a morality tale that includes a love story, with co-star Dominique Fishback another plus.
Rookie Spanish filmmaker Amalia Ulman cites U.S. indie icon Jim Jarmusch as one of her many influences, and a similar deadpan comedy and genuine empathy infuse her bright debut. She and her real-life mom play seaside grifters out to live large while staying one step ahead of the law and landlord, in ragged scenes of observational comedy drawn in part from their past experience of homelessness. The film was shot in black and white not for some grand artistic statement but because it was cheaper than colour. A scattershot charmer that reveals a sharp eye and curious mind.
No surprises but strong hooks in Siân Heder’s sweetly musical Sundance 2021 opener, which swept the main prizes in the fest’s U.S. Dramatic Competition category. It’s a standard coming-of-age dramedy of choosing between devotion and ambition, but with a twist: New England teen Ruby (Emilia Jones, aces) is the sole hearing member of her fishing family and they need her on board their vessel to legally ply their trade. She wants to take her singing muse to college. The crackerjack cast includes Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant as Ruby’s deaf kin who know how to raise a din.
Playing With Sharks
Sally Aitken’s eye-popping doc begins as a tribute to Aussie shark star Valerie Taylor, 85, who along with her late husband, Ron, helped make “Jaws” the terrifying beach-clearer it became. The two later regretted demonizing a marine inhabitant that is now globally endangered by climate change and a black market trade in shark fins. Incredible cinematography includes a scene of the fearless Sally in a chain-mail suit, proving her point that a shark’s jaws bite but don’t crush. The film sounds an urgent call for conservation and states a truth: humans are the real apex predators.
(This story was originally published in the Toronto Star.)