The Sundance Film Festival will still happen in 2021, but its going to look a little bit different. Running from January 28th - February 3rd, Sundance won’t be taking place in Park City, Utah this year. Instead the fest is going virtual, allowing audiences to check out the latest independent features and documentaries from the comfort of their homes. The main slate is smaller, but still has 72 features for audiences to explore, a mass majority of them being World Premiers. Passes and Tickets are still available for many of the movies premiering.
With the festival happening before the Oscars deadline there are two films (at least) trying to gain some momentum opening at Sundance, Robin Wright’s Land and Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah.
Below are some of the movies I’m most interested in checking out during the festival. (Film Summaries Courtesy of Sundance)
Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of a deaf family. At 17, she works mornings before school to help her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant) keep their Gloucester fishing business afloat. But in joining her high school’s choir club, Ruby finds herself drawn to both her duet partner (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and her latent passion for singing. Her enthusiastic, tough-love choirmaster (Eugenio Derbez) hears something special and encourages Ruby to consider music school and a future beyond fishing, leaving her torn between obligation to family and pursuit of her dream.
Why I’m excited: Coda is the official opening night movie of Sundance 2021, in an evening with exceptional movies. CODA itself is an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults and after the exceptional Sound of Metal came out in 2020, I’m interested in movies that are striving not only for accessibility for more audiences, but also movies that bring more attention to the deaf community. A community that is widely underserved despite so many with hearing impairments.
One for the Road
Boss lives a seemingly charmed life as a popular bartender in New York City, with an endless line of female customers after hours. One night, his estranged friend Aood calls from Bangkok with the news that he’s dying and asks Boss to come home. As the two travel down memory lane throughout Thailand, returning items to Aood’s exes, their pasts and reasons for their broken brotherhood are exposed. But Boss doesn’t know the whole story, and when Aood has one last gift to return, it might destroy their relationship forever.
Why I’m excited: The director of One for the Road, directed the critically acclaimed exam-scandal feature Bad Genius (which honestly I’m surprised hasn’t been remade one-hundred times since its release). That would normally be enough for me, but the kicker is that the movie is produced by director Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express). If One for the Road has his seal of approval I’m down.
When Edee’s life is tragically altered, she loses the ability to connect with the world and people she once knew. She retreats to a forest in the Rocky Mountains with a few supplies and leaves her old life behind indefinitely. The beauty of her new surroundings is undeniable yet quickly humbling as she struggles to adjust and prepare for the winter ahead. When Edee is caught on the brink of death, a local hunter and his family miraculously save her, but she alone must find a way to live again.
Why I’m excited: Robin Wright, best known for Princess Bride and House of Cards, has been in this business a long time. She started directing during her run on House of Cards, and now Land is her debut feature film. That would normally be enough to gain my interest, but Wright’s performance has been buzzed about before the premier and there might be some award attention for her performance. What will be interesting is whether this will be more like Into the Wild or The Revenant.
In the not-too-distant future, an all-seeing surveillance state conducts “dream audits” to collect taxes on the unconscious lives of the populace. Mild-mannered government agent James Preble (Kentucker Audley) travels to a remote farmhouse to audit the dreams of Arabella “Bella” Isadora (Penny Fuller), an eccentric, aging artist. Entering Bella’s vast VHS archive, which contains a lifetime of dreams, Preble stumbles upon a secret that offers him a chance at love—and hope for escape. Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney’s playfully surreal romantic fantasy envisions a world not so different from our own: a glitchy digital dystopia where every human experience is monetized—where even our unconscious minds have been colonized by advertising.
Why I’m excited: This one sounds bizarre. Imagine that there is someone who comes to your house to audit your dreams? Featured in the NEXT section at Sundance, you can probably expect something crazy, but hopefully there is a little big more to it than the premise.
A Glitch in the Matrix
Rodney Ascher (Room 237, 2012 Sundance Film Festival) returns to the Festival with this fascinating and visually stimulating documentary examining simulation theory—the idea that this world we live in might not be entirely real. Simulation theory is as old as Plato’s Republic and as current as Elon Musk’s Twitter feed. A Glitch in the Matrix traces the idea's genesis over the years, from philosophical engagements by the ancient Greeks to modern explorations by Philip K. Dick, the Wachowskis, and leading scholars, game theorists, and enthusiasts. Ascher deftly parallels conversations with people who believe we're living in a computer with the purely digital nature of the film itself; all interviews were conducted via Skype, all reenactments were digitally animated, and archives are largely drawn from ’90s-era cyber thrillers and video games.
Why I’m excited: As a huge fan of The Matrix, the idea that we aren’t living a real life has always been fascinating to me. Director Rodney Ascher directed Room 237 which was about The Shining and I expect this feature to be frightening and informative.
Cryptids are creatures whose existence is disputed or unsubstantiated. When Amber and Matt get lost in the woods during a sex date, they stumble upon a high-security fence. On the other side, they find a cryptid—a unicorn—that would change their lives.
Why I’m excited: Director Dash Shaw’s previous film My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea was well received when it launched in 2016 and I was wondering what the director would do next. Cryptozoo sounds even weirder and I can’t wait to see the new feature from an exciting talent in the animation field.
An unusual storm is approaching, and it’s about to change everything for Ana (Grace Van Patten). After a short circuit at her workplace mysteriously transports her to an alternate world, she meets a crew of female soldiers caught in an endless war. Along a strange and rugged coastline, men face the stark truth lurking behind damsels who appear to be in distress. Under the leadership of Marsha (Mia Goth), Ana trains as a sharpshooter and discovers a newfound freedom in this uninhibited sisterhood. She soon senses she may not be the ruthless killer they expect, though, and time is running out for her to find a path home.
Why I’m excited: I’m all about alternate world stories. This is the first feature film from director Karen Cinorre, but this premise has me sold. I honestly don’t know what to expect from this one.
Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), a refined, upper-class 1920s woman, finds breezy refuge from a hot summer day in the grand tearoom of New York City’s Drayton Hotel. Across the room, she spots a blond woman staring her down. Irene wants to steal away, but before she can, Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) rushes over to stop her. It turns out the two were in high school together, and while both are African American women who can “pass” as white, they have chosen to live on opposite sides of the color line. Now, their renewed acquaintance threatens them both.
Why I’m excited: Easily one of the most star-studded premiers at the festival. Not to mention that this topic has been explored a lot in fiction recently with hit bestselling novels like The Vanishing Half. Plus I’m a huge fan of both Thompson and Negga, so I’m all here for this.
Playing with Sharks
Most people aren’t thrilled at the chance to be surrounded by a shiver of sharks, but Valerie Taylor isn’t most people. A fearless diver, marine conservationist, and Australian icon, she dedicated most of her life to exploring the beauty of sharks—forming a sought-after underwater cinematography team with her husband, Ron, and even shooting the real sharks in Jaws. Director Sally Aitken captures Taylor’s enduring passion for these intimidating creatures and her unflinching willingness to connect with them in their element.
Why I’m excited: This documentary gives off similar vibes from Jane, the Jane Goodall documentary. Valerie Taylor is a woman in a field predominately of men, whose efforts lead to fame and immense pressure. Not to mention that the documentary promises to feature stunning footage from her late husband, Ron Taylor, that will bring us face-to-face to these great creatures.
The World To Come
In eighteenth-century upstate New York, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is increasingly defeated by grief and the drudgery of rural life. Her deference and propriety maintain a mundane equilibrium with her husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck), but her narrated diaries offer a picture into a richer internal life. When spring brings newcomers Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) to the otherwise empty landscape, the journal entries frantically anticipate—and then enthusiastically document—an affair with Tallie. As menial machinations are interrupted and patriarchal sovereignty is questioned, both marriages buckle. The wives’ connection is threatened, but Abigail and Tallie’s love for each other is steadfast, both onscreen and in handwritten pages.
Why I’m excited: Kirby and Waterston in a drama together. Seriously that’s it. Both actresses have been doing terrific work over the last few years (Kirby in Pieces of a Woman and Mission: Impossible, Waterston in Alien: Covenant). This premiered out of the Venice Film Festival in 2020, so there have already been some strong reviews from the film. I’m looking forward to finally checking it out.
One of my favorite discoveries the last few years has been the movies by Pedro Almodovar. His unconventional stories are a breath of fresh air. Raquel Stecher wrote about his filmography for TCM. As a bonus, I recommend this podcast from Inkoo Kang and Daniel Schroeder that goes into each of Almodovar’s movies.
It might be 2021, but movies continue to be delayed. If you would like to imagine what it would be like to see those movies, The Ringer has collected a bunch of movie trailers and ranked them. Because that’s what you do.
I’m positive that you are exhausted by the Bernie Sanders meme by this point, but this article by Angela Watercutter for Wired examines why it resonated the way it did.
One of my favorite foreign films of 2020, Vitalina Varela, could always use some more attention. Read this piece from Eric Kohn on the movie and then watch it on the Criterion Channel.
Send links, tips, comments, questions, and more to @mhcovill.