It’s a familiar refrain these days: this year’s Sundance Film Festival will look a fair bit different than years past (a streamlined line-up, a slimmed down schedule, and the majority of it playing out through a new virtual platform, in addition to select in-person events around the country), but the same depth of filmmaking talent appears to still be on offer. And now, for the first time ever, film fans can stream all of the festival’s slate in the safety and comfort of their own homes.
This year’s robust lineup features plenty of familiar names and faces, including Edgar Wright, Lucy Walker, Robin Wright, Betsy West and Julie Cohen, Siân Heder, Sion Sono, Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones, Ana Katz, Kevin Macdonald, and many more. More than half the lineup is first-time filmmakers, and they range from established names like Rebecca Hall and Jerrod Carmichael to newcomers like Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. and Carlson Young.
From the slate, we’ve selected 15 of the films we’re most excited to see at this year’s Sundance, from first-time filmmakers to perennial favorites, narratives to documentaries, and at least one film that Nicolas Cage has already termed the “wildest” of his career (in short: wow).
Curious about how to re-create the magic of Sundance at home? Public tickets and passes are on sale now, and our handy guide as to how to buy them (and which ones will suit your needs) is available right here. The festival kicks off next week and runs January 28 through February 3, 2021.
Eric Kohn, Anne Thompson, David Ehrlich, Ryan Lattanzio, and Jude Dry contributed to this article.
“The Blazing World”
Disney-starlet-turned-MTV’s-“Scream”-queen Carlson Young makes her feature directing debut, lifting from a short of her own making, with “The Blazing World,” which sounds to be one of the zanier titles of this year’s NEXT section (and that’s saying something). The film also features one of its most uncanny casts, led by cult film icon Udo Kier, Dermot Mulroney, Vinessa Shaw, and singer/songwriter/actress Soko, with Young also starring in the film. In it, she plays a young woman haunted since childhood by the long-ago accidental drowning of her twin sister. When her self-destructive path winds her back to her family home, she’s drawing into an alternate dimension where her sister may still be alive, and that could actually be within the corridors of her twisted imagination. —RL
“Bring Your Own Brigade”
Lucy Walker has debuted some ten non-fiction films over the years at Sundance, including Oscar-nominated feature “Waste Land” (2010) and short “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom” (2011). This time, the British transplant digs into the causes of wildfires, taking her film crew into dangerous disaster zones to talk to firefighters and the residents of such ravaged sites as Paradise, California. She not only uncovers some surprising insights about why so many fires are raging around the world, but many useful steps to address the situation, she told Sundance, should anyone opt to pursue them. —AT
This coming-of-age story from Siân Heder (“Little America”) makes its world premiere on Day One. Heder broke out in 2006 with award-winning short “Mother” and has since made her name as a writer for “Orange Is the New Black,” among other things. To play the role of a Child of Deaf Adults who is torn between helping her parents, whose fishing business is threatened, and her musical ambitions, British actress Emilia Jones (“Brimstone”) had to learn how to sign, sing, and helm a fishing trawler. Oscar winner Marlee Matlin “Children of a Lesser God”) co-stars. —AT
Cartoonist Dash Shaw’s follow-up to 2016’s “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” is an animated psychedelic action-fantasy like nothing else out there. Shaw’s vivid, hand-drawn 2-D style doesn’t take its trippy allure for granted, and applies it to a story that’s just as innovative and strange. Set against the backdrop of late ‘60s counterculture, “Cryptozoo” revolves around the efforts of a daring activist (voiced by Lake Bell) who rescues mythological beings from persecution in the hopes of welcoming them into a palatial wildlife refuge. In the process, she encounters dangerous smugglers and two-bit criminals trying to exploit the poor creatures. Her main quest finds her searching for an elephantine creature capable of consuming dreams before the government gets to it first. Think “Indiana Jones” by way of “Yellow Submarine” and you might be halfway there, because Shaw’s work exists in a class of its own. —EK
“Eight for Silver”
Nearly a decade after unveiling his Dickensian heist drama “Metro Manila” at Sundance, where it won the World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award, British filmmaker Sean Ellis returns to the festival with “Eight for Silver.” With Ellis doing triple duty as director, screenwriter, and as his own director of photography, “Eight for Silver” is a new entry in the evolving contemporary period horror canon. As you might’ve guessed from the title, it’s a modern spin on the werewolf — but also a gothic portrait of a community grappling with horrors it can’t explain following a land baron’s slaughter of a Roma clan. The event unleashes a curse on his family, and a sinister presence. Alistair Petrie, Boyd Holdbrook, and Kelly Reilly star. —RL
One of a few Sundance titles originally tapped for the Cannes 2020 selection, director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary has been gathering buzz for some time. The movie tracks the experiences of a gay refugee from the Middle East who attempts to rebuild his life in Denmark. Like Ari Folman’s seminal “Waltz with Bashir,” Rasmussen blends a colorful, hyper-real style with personal recollections as its subject struggles to reconcile his troubling past with a stable present. The drama extends across decades, following its evolving character from a war-torn childhood through the many changes that follow. “Flee” promises an intimate perspective that could spark new conversations about the European immigration crisis. —EK
“How It Ends”
Sundance regulars Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein return to the festival with a star-packed comedic rumination on nothing less than the end of the world. Timely, no? The partners in work and love wrote and directed the feature together, with Lister-Jones starring alongside a cast of names like Olivia Wilde, Fred Armisen, Helen Hunt, Lamorne Morris, and her own “Craft” star Cailee Spaeny. Set on the “the last day on Earth” (casual! fun!), the film follows “one woman [who] goes on a journey through LA to make it to her last party before the world ends, running into an eclectic cast of characters along the way.” Sounds like the kind of Armageddon-themed offering that actually sounds, of all things, amusing? —KE
“In the Same Breath”
With “One Child Nation,” Nanfu Wang solidified her talent for merging vast global issues with her own deeply personal connections to them. With “In the Same Breath,” she continues that journey, blending a complex look at China and America in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic with her own experiences in both countries. There have been a string pandemic documentaries cranked out over the past year, but Wang’s own entry finds a unique hook: the spread of disinformation surrounding the severity of the disease.
Starting with her own experiences in China during the very different world of January 1, 2020, “In the Same Breath” tracks the failure of the healthcare system to adapt in real time to the spread of the virus and the punitive actions taken by hospital staff who attempted to speak out. In the process, the movie broadens its lens to explore a problem that may outlast this particular challenge, and singles out autocratic tendencies — in China and the U.S. alike — that threaten the future of the modern world. It’s a must-see for this pandemic-inflicted festival season. —EK
“In the Earth”
Always creatively restless and likely driven stir-crazy during quarantine, “Kill List” filmmaker Ben Wheatley looks to rebound from his flat Netflix adaptation of “Rebecca” with a COVID-inspired quickie set in a virus-afflicted world. “Game of Thrones” alum Joel Fry stars as a park scout who joins a scientist on a walk into the woods on a terrible night like any other, only for this pair to find themselves in a fight for their lives. The exact nature of the threat is still a mystery at this point, but Wheatley has a well-established knack for squeezing madness out of molehills (see: “A Field in England”). At a festival that’s arguably lighter on established filmmakers than it has been at any other time in its history, “Into the Earth” is poised to remind us why Wheatley has become one of indie cinema’s most feral and resilient voices. —DE
In the early days of quarantine, the noises started late at night: one floor up, just over our bedroom, a discordant knocking noise that would unfurl from midnight onward, occasionally stopping, only to kick back up again, louder than ever. Were the neighbors… dancing? moving furniture? bouncing a small ball for an even smaller dog? I still don’t know, but it was enough to drive me to utter madness at the most inopportune of times. Thankfully, our bad neighbors moved out over the summer, but whoever is inflicting the same level of unknowable insanity on leading lady Cecilia Milocco in Frida Kempff’s “Knocking,” well, it doesn’t seem like they’re going anywhere.
Per its festival synopsis, the Swedish feature starts much like my own horrible spring misadventure: “When Molly hears knocking coming from the ceiling in her new apartment, she naturally searches for the source. The upstairs neighbors don’t know what she’s talking about and dismiss her with cool indifference. Is this all in her mind?” The film promises maddening thrills and chills, a generous dose of gaslight drama, and probably a few terrible flashbacks for at least this one audience member. —KE
“My Name Is Pauli Murray”
A trailblazing civil rights lawyer and architect of the women’s movement, Pauli Murray has only recently begun receiving the recognition long enjoyed by so many of their contemporaries. The first African-American to receive a JSD from Yale Law School and coiner of the term “Jane Crow,” Murray’s work influenced landmark civil rights cases such as Brown v. Board of Education and Reed v. Reed. As renewed interest in Murray has brought more research and writings to light, scholars widely agree that Murray was transgender, though avenues to pursuing formal transition were not open to Murray at the time. Oscar-nominated filmmakers Julie West and Betsy Cohen (“RBG”) will use Murray’s personal writings, photographs, and audio recordings, along with newly discovered footage and interviews to tell the story of the civil rights pioneer. —JD
“On the Count of Three”
Comedian Jerrod Carmichael makes his directorial debut with a movie that may catch fans of his previous work off-guard. Carmichael stars alongside Sundance regular Christopher Abbott, Henry Winkler, Tiffany Haddish, and more in the mysterious story of two friends who make a pact to end each other’s lives at the end of a very long day. With a score by Owen Pallett and a script by “Ramy” co-creators Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, the movie promises a darkly comic look at companionship that will certainly get people talking, and usher in a new stage of Carmichael’s career. Sundance has hosted countless comedians-turned-filmmakers over the years, from Bobcat Goldthwait to Jordan Peele, so fingers crossed that Carmichael keeps that tradition alive in style. —EK
Lauded actress Rebecca Hall makes her first move behind the camera with a fascinating story that many might not immediately realize is rooted in her own experience: the daughter of beloved American opera singer Maria Ewing and British director Sir Peter Hall, Hall’s family tree is rich and varied, and includes not only British blood, but also Dutch, Native American, Scottish, and African American ancestry. For her first film, Hall tackles a fittingly complex story of birthright, bloodlines, and the ways in which people are judged by the color of their skin.
Based on Nella Larsen’s compelling novel of the same name (Hall also adapted the script), “Passing” follows a pair of childhood friends, played as adults by Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, who are reintroduced later in life and become freshly obsessed with each other’s lives. The crux of that obsession: both Clare (Negga) and Irene (Thompson) are light-skinned enough to “pass” as white women, and one of them has chosen to do exactly that. —KE
“Prisoners of the Ghostland”
Renegade Japanese auteur Sion Sono is responsible for some — many, in fact — of the most demented movies of the last 25 years, but how do you raise the bar after making a four-hour epic about upskirt photography, an ultra-anarchic rap opera about Tokyo gang wars, a romantic epic about a turtle who grows into a kaiju after being flushed down the toilet, and about two dozen more? That’s not a rhetorical question. There’s a correct answer, and that answer is Nicolas Cage.
Cage — who once said this “might be the wildest movie I’ve ever made” — stars as a notorious criminal named Hero who’s tasked with venturing into a post-nuclear desert known as the Ghostland in order to rescue the governor’s granddaughter from the curse that’s trapped her there. In order to ensure that Hero gets the job done without any distractions, he’s outfitted with a suit that will detonate if he tries any funny business; the premise might owe a bit to “Escape from L.A.,” but John Carpenter never thought of rigging explosives to each one of Kurt Russell’s testicles (and yes, this movie does feature a scene where Cage stretches the word “testicle” until it’s 10 syllables long). A woozy and fascinating mash-up of East and West that finds Sono working in English without losing an ounce of his signature insanity, “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is a truly gonzo meeting of the minds. —DE
“Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”
Multi-hyphenate drummer, producer, and DJ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson makes his filmmaking debut with a documentary chronicling the Harlem Cultural Festival, long known as “Black Woodstock.” The festival drew 300,000 attendees and featured performances from Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, the Staple Singers, B.B. King, and more. This little-known gem of music history took place the same summer as Woodstock, but enjoyed far less recognition at the time or notoriety since.
Archival footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival had been sitting in a basement until recently, and much of it will be seen for the first time in “Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”. On its own, unseen concert footage of any one of these legendary artists would be enough to whet any music lover’s appetite, but knowing it will be edited and framed with Questlove’s unique spin on the events make it a very exciting prospect indeed. —JD