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Hidden Gems and Big Surprises from the Sundance 2021 Lineup, from Tearjerkers to ‘WTF Movies’

From boundary-pushing documentaries to an international midnight section, this year's virtual edition has plenty of breakout potential.

A sign outside of the Main Street area welcomes visitors to the 2020 Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

A sign outside of the Main Street area welcomes visitors to the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Arthur Mola/Invision/AP

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival is a slimmer version of itself — fewer films, fewer days, and mostly virtual — but the essential element of discovery remains. With roughly the same volume of submissions as last year, the program reflects Sundance’s progressive interests (it finally achieved gender parity after crawling toward that number in recent years) as well as its signature blend of feel-good narratives, timely subjects, and boundary-pushing formalism. Plus, an Edgar Wright documentary on The Sparks!

Nothing can supplant the adrenaline of absorbing the buzz on Park City’s Main Street or experiencing a standing ovation at the Eccles, but the lack of distraction could help direct more attention to this year’s films. “Artists who were able to make great work still did,” said new Sundance director Tabitha Jackson. On a call with IndieWire, Jackson and director of programming Kim Yutani talked through some of the potential highlights and provided guidance on how to parse a program that — even in its reduced form — has a lot to explore.

Opening-Night Tearjerkers

Sundance eliminated its opening-night slot years ago in favor of screening one movie from each of its sections at the same time, and it will do the same in 2021. The programmers tend to pick lively movies with a good shot at inspiring audiences (previous selections include “Pariah,” “Whiplash,” and “Miss Americana”). This year, it’s “Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” which finds The Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson making his directorial debut with an archive-rich look at the Harlem Cultural Festival that took place the same summer as Woodstock. “The joy in that film, the vibrancy of the colors, the music, the social engagement, is all cinematic rather than a history lesson,” Jackson said. “Watching it during the dark days of the pandemic, it lifted us all.”

The most emotional response among Day 1 selections is likely to come from “CODA” in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. “This is such an incredible crowdpleasing film that made us all cry,” Yutani said. It’s the sophomore effort from “Little America” showrunner Sian Heder, whose “Tallulah” screened at the festival in 2016. The title, which stands for Child of Deaf Adults, speaks to the story of a young woman who’s the only hearing person in her family. Her mother is played by Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin, who helped the filmmaker bring a community of deaf actors into the project and guide their performances using ASL on the set.

“Coda”

Sundance

“It’s one of the few films I’ve seen in recent years where you see deaf actors playing deaf characters,” Yutani said. “It’s a film that I felt would really affect people and just be a strong representation of what’s in our US dramatic competition.”

Then there’s “Flee,” a World Cinema Dramatic Competition title that was originally part of the 2020 Cannes selection. Like “Waltz With Bashir,” the Danish project combines animation with documentary materials to tell the real-life story of a gay refugee from Syria. “It’s a beautifully dimensional film,” Jackson said. “It’s the journey of the refugee and a love story that reaches a surprisingly beautiful culmination, and it was a keeper for us as soon as we saw it.”

Big Names, First-Timers

More than the half the lineup is comprised of first-timers and some efforts may not stand out until audiences discover them. These include the Spanish mother-daughter tragicomedy “El Planeta,” from installation artist Amalia Unman, which is said to have “Grey Gardens” vibes, and Ana Katz’s black-and-white post-apocalyptic character study “The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet,” from Argentina.

But several first-time filmmakers already have strong track records like actress Robin Wright with the Focus-produced two-hander “Land,” in which she also stars. Comedian Jerrod Carmichael’s debut, “On the Count of Three,” is shrouded in mystery, but the starry cast includes Christopher Abbott, Tiffany Haddish, J.B. Smoove, Henry Winkler, and Carmichael himself in the story of two friends who make a pact to end their lives. “It will get people talking,” said an insider who got an early look.

“On the Count of Three”

Sundance

Rebecca Hall’s Competition title “Passing” finds the actress stepping behind the camera entirely for this adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about two light-skinned African American women who live on different sides of the color line in 1929 New York, played by Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. “The way that she has brought this story to life is remarkable,” Jackson said. “It has such a distinctive atmosphere. She’s adapted a book through her own voice. It’s a period piece that speaks to the moment. It’s incredibly resonant as we contemplate our own identities.”

World-Building NEXT Films

Sundance’s NEXT section remains the place for stranger and more adventurous work, including several movies with settings built from the ground up. “They’re each creating their own worlds and experimenting with form,” Yutani said. That includes cartoonist Dash Snow’s follow-up to his animated debut “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea,” as he’s finally completed “Cryptozoo,” the outlandish story of an alien in the ‘60s counterculture. There’s also “Strawberry Mansion,” the second feature from Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney. Their debut, “Silvio,” revolved around the suburban adventures of a gorilla; now they’ve crafted a look at a “dream auditor” who becomes obsessed with a client.

“Cryptozoo”

Sundance

The programmers were especially keen on “Searchers,” from innovative documentarian Pacho Velez, whose prior efforts include this year’s Berlin Wall essay film “The American Sector” and the wondrous “Manakamana.” Here, he explores the world of online dating apps through the language they provide, lacing it together with own experiences. 

“The beginning of the year is going to be filled with hope for many reasons but it’s been so tough, and this film is about love, not trauma,” Jackson said. “And Pacho puts himself into the film in the most delightful manner.” Jackson, who previously ran Sundance’s Art of Nonfiction Lab, added that she wants to find more space for documentary efforts in the section. “One of my ambitions is that the NEXT section continues with its foray into non-fiction,” she said.

Docs Break the Mold

In 2020, Sundance programmers provoked a strong reaction by putting “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” a movie made by actors in a fictional setting, into documentary competition. That kind of risky curation is even more prominent this year. “Considering that we have the former director of our Art of Nonfiction program as our festival director this year, I think a little of that has seeped into our doc programming,” Yutani said.

Of course, the documentary lineup has plenty of headline-grabbing efforts about global issues, including Nanfu Wang’s COVID-centric “In the Same Breath,” set in China and the U.S., and the Danish “President,” which focuses on the recent election in Zimbabwe. But the real programming gambits involve some of the stranger and more experimental efforts on display, including two films that previously went through the Art of Nonfiction Lab.

“All Light Everywhere”

“All Light, Everywhere” marks the sophomore effort from Theo Anthony, whose Baltimore-set “Rat Film” used the city’s rat infestation to explore its history of gentrification. He’s expanded his scope to a sprawling look at how technology in everyday life has turned much of the world into a covert surveillance society. Natalia Almada’s “Users” thinks along similar lines; it’s a tone poem with an original score by Kronos Quartet that follows a mother who wonders how the machinery of the future could impact her children. “These films are really examining form in a way that of course pushes the boundaries of the competition in general,” Yutani said, “but it also makes sure this section is always at the forefront of what’s being made.”

Jackson said some of the documentaries won over the programming team on subject matter alone. “Every year, there are titles that are stranger than fiction,” she said; this year, that’s “Misha and the Wolves,” British director Sam Hobkinson’s look at a woman whose Holocaust memoir turns out to be fake. Already, insiders are comparing the saga to Sundance 2018 breakout “Three Identical Strangers.” Jackson said the weird-but-true aspect “is underscored with cinematic devices.”

The flexible approach to programming documentaries also applies to some narratives. “We are seeing non-fiction work this year is that is transcendently beautiful, and some fiction that has a neorealistic flavor,” she said, pointing to the international Kosovo drama “Hive,” which she said “reads like a non-fiction film, so the porousness is throughout the program. It’s not stunt-slotting.”

Pandemic Films Not Made During the Pandemic

Jackson and Yutani also found a number of films that reflect the madness of 2020 by accident. “These films are made in a certain moment, but received in a different one,” Jackson said. “Some of the meanings of the films — like sticking your family in a hole — have new meaning in a pandemic.”

That would be “John and the Hole,” another Cannes 2020 selection. Pascual Sisto’s long-gestating debut stars Charlie Shotwell (aka the kid from “Captain Fantastic”) about a child who — you guessed it — traps his family in a hole in the ground. The programmers got a look at the movie after the Cannes selection was finalized. “When we saw it over the summer, there was no doubt this was a film we wanted to show, a filmmaker whose artistic vision really impressed us,” Yutani said. “It’s one of the most unique coming-of-age stories I’ve seen in a while.” (For a Sundance programmer, that’s really saying something.)

“John and the Hole”

Sundance

Another intriguing selection likely to be seen in allegorical terms is “The Pink Cloud,” a Brazilian selection about the appearance of a vapor around the world that forces everyone to stay inside. The story focuses on a pair of individuals who develop a relationship during lockdown. “They thought they were making a fantasy film,” Jackson said, “but it turned into a documentary.”

Midnight Goes Global

The Midnight section may also capture the anxiety of these times. It’s often the source of the festival’s wilder offerings, like 2018’s “Mandy,” and the 2021 edition is no exception. “There are so many WTF movies,” Jackson said. “Kim’s got a WTF heart.”

Yutani embraced the weirdness: “The range goes from gross-out John Waters-style humor to a very disturbing revenge story about coming home in the dark,” she said. She singled out the Day 1 choice “Censor,” British director Prano Bailey-Bond’s ’80s-set story of a film censor whose work leads her to uncover new information about her sister’s disappearance. “It totally embraces the ’80s video aesthetic,” she said. “It’s a creative vision like no other, and I hope it’ll be one of the big discoveries out of this festival.”

“A Glitch in the Matrix”

Magnolia

Yutani said she was especially excited to have a lineup dominated by international filmmakers, reflecting the widespread Sundance effort to expand beyond its American roots. Five out of the six Midnight selections come from outside the U.S., and the one American entry is a documentary. That’s Rodney Ascher’s “A Glitch in the Matrix,” which takes a sprawling look at the “simulation theory” embraced by people who believe the world around them is fake. It’s a natural extension of his Sundance 2012 breakout “Room 237,” which explored conspiracy theories about “The Shining.” Yutani said that the eeriness of the new movie, originally set to premiere at last year’s canceled Tribeca Film Festival, “earns its place in the section.”

Yes, There Will Be Surprises

While most audiences may not know much about Sundance movies in advance, many of them develop reputations well in advance of selection. IndieWire’s Sundance wish list reflects how movies can be well known in the industry for a year or more, with production labs and sales agents basically setting the stage for Sundance acclaim. “It’s true that our tracking does the trick year after year,” Yutani said.

Happily, it doesn’t capture everything. “One for the Road,” the Day 1 selection for the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, caught everyone off guard. Produced by Wong Kar Wai, the latest from director Baz Poonpiriya revolves around a lady’s man attempting to help a dying old friend complete his bucket list. “There is this kind of Wong Kar Wai flavor to the film in that it is a kind of nostalgic, beautiful, emotional look at the impermanence of life,” Yutani said. “It really surprised me, and I’d love to see it emerge out of the program.”

Jackson has similar hopes for “Mass,” a first feature from writer-director Fran Kranz, which focuses on two sets of parents who confront the shooter who murdered their children. The cast includes Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton, and Reed Birney.  “I could barely breathe during the film because it was so powerful,” Jackson said. “It has this very simple construct of four people in the room talking about grief and love. I can’t wait for people to see it.”

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