Sundance went virtual for its 2021 edition, but that certainly didn’t slow the market down. Within a matter of days, Apple broke the record for dealmaking at the festival by scoring eventual Grand Jury prize-winner “CODA” for a whopping $25 million; Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, “Passing,” landed with Netflix for a reported $15 million deal as the festival came to an end. Meanwhile, a number of highlights from the lineup are enmeshed in bidding wars as sales agents sort through their options, including Questlove’s celebrated documentary “Summer of Soul” and Jerrod Carmichael’s twisted buddy movie “On the Count of Three.”
Since those movies don’t exactly need our help getting on buyers radars, we’re leaving them off our usual memo to distributors in favor of a number of titiles that could really use the boost. The year ahead is certainly going to be an unpredictable one for distribution companies as the future of exhibition remains an open question. But the quality of these movies is not up for debate, nor is their potential to resonate with audiences well beyond Sundance. Buyers: Please take note.
Christian Blauvelt, David Ehrlich, Kate Erbland, Ryan Lattanzio, Tambay Obenson, and Ben Travers contributed to this article.
In artist Amalia Ulman’s charming first feature, the writer-director stars as a young creative who returns from London to post-crisis Spain, helping her broke mother (played by her real mom, Ale Ulman) contend with destitution after her husband’s death. Mostly, they hang around the seaside city of Gijón throughout an ambling black-and-white mother-daughter comedy steeped in the small details from their grifter lifestyle, shrugging off the looming threat of eviction and maybe something worse. Once the predictable comeuppance arrives, it’s practically an afterthought; the appeal of “El Planeta” lies with a pair of women who prefer to live in the moment rather than considering its consequences. Think “Tiny Furniture” by way of “Paper Moon.”
Ulman’s an established young artist with a distinctive voice, but “El Planeta” heralds the arrival of a filmmaker capable of threading vast societal issues into a sweet, intimate kind of storytelling with potential to appeal to a broader audience. The movie could do well on a modest scale, but would be a savvy investment for any buyer looking to support future projects from this rising talent. —EK
Sales Contact: UTA
Mexican-Ethiopian Jessica Beshir’s feature directorial debut revolves around a region of the world that rarely, if ever, receives recognition in western media. Abandoning traditional documentary narrative methods, Beshir uses mysticism and folklore to juxtapose vignettes of life in Harar. The movie is an abstract anthropological portrait that gives audiences a window into a culture few have ever heard about, and will leave them with a desire to learn more. Lingering in its shadowy backdrop is khat — the stimulant leaf that has become a daily chewing ritual among Ethiopians as a means to achieve Merkhana, a term that describes the high one gets from what is effectively a psychoactive drug. With its stunning black-and-white photography and haunting score, “Faya Dayi” is an oddly haunting film that would work wonders on the big screen, which should make it attractive to buyers looking to stock up on movies readymade for the big screen as audiences consider going back to the theater. —TO
Sales Contact: Cinetic
“How It Ends”
As the latest in the growing ranks of pandemic-shot movies that are only kinda about the pandemic, Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones’ “How It Ends” offers the unexpected: Hope. Picking up long after Earth and its inhabitants reckoned with Armageddon, the pair’s latest dramedy opens on the planet’s final day. Liza (Lister-Jones) goes about her time in denial about impending doom, all while in conversation with an imaginary version of her younger self (a winning Cailee Spaeny). She’s eager to get the duo moving to purchase, like, a lot of drugs to get them through the last night on Earth. Lister-Jones has the precise bearing and tone to ground something this wacky and outsized, and she approaches the part with her usual blithe charm. Liza and the YS venture into a mostly empty world, they encounter a bizarre array of people, from Nick Kroll as a drug-hoarding weirdo to Logan Marshall Green as a puppy-toting past paramour who starts drawing out Liza’s well-hidden discomfort. If this is what Armageddon looks like, maybe the end of everything isn’t so bad. Maybe the next go-round will be better, one of Liza’s pals wonders, and “How It Ends” makes the refreshing argument that he’s probably right. With its sunny done in the midst of dark times — a familiar cast of reliably funny faces — “How It Ends” would be a slam dunk for a streamer hoping to give viewers a happier alternative to these dark times. —KE
Sales Contact: Endeavor
“I Was a Simple Man”
Layering the spectral hush of “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” over the elegiac domesticity of a late Ozu film like “An Autumn Afternoon,” Honolulu-born filmmaker Christopher Makoto Yogi’s second feature (after his 2018 debut “August at Akiko’s”) is a singularly Hawaiian story that unfolds like a séance for the stubborn ghosts of a country that has always tried to forget its way forward.
“I Was a Simple Man” exists in and around the personal history of Masao Matsuoshi (Steve Iwamoto), a Japanese-born Oahuan whose final days begin with a visit from his long-dead wife (a frozen-in-time Constance Wu). From there the movie sublimates into a humid fog of memories and flashbacks and parallel lives, as Masao overlaps with his younger selves and confronts the presentness of the past that he’s always denied. The result is haunted and haunting in equal measure — a reckoning pitched at the volume of a whisper. In a festival that took place at a time when it feels like we’ve all become phantoms in each other’s lives, it was extra poignant to see a film that so beautifully explores what it means to be haunted. A savvy distributor would be able to tap into the undeserved Hawaiian audience that will delight at seeing its history and modern experience represented onscreen, while riding critical praise to ensure the movie’s reaches a wider arthouse audience. —DE
Sales Contact: UTA
The list of films shot or produced on location in Malta is a short one, with the island’s shimmery Mediterranean beauty primarily the backdrop for swords-and-sandals epics. A rare locally-produced film that is also about Malta itself, and features actual Maltese people, “Luzzu” marks the debut of director Alex Camilleri with a vérité fishing drama populated by nonprofessional actors. A neorealist telling in the tradition of the Dardenne brothers, who also work with locals on their films, “Luzzu” is beautifully shot in its centering around a man who’s occasionally hard to read. But it boast a true discovery in the casting of Jesmark Scicluna, a real fisherman who plays a version of himself, and here playing a struggling parent trying to eke out a living along the docks. The movie’s effective naturalistic style shows that Camilleri has done his homework on neorealism, and its emotional story makes it accessible to audiences who might not know the backdrop. It also sports a producer credit from Ramin Bahrani, who mentored the director. On top of that, Malta has never been in the Oscar race, and “Luzzu” is at least well-positioned to become the country’s international submission next year. —RL
Sales Contact: Memento
The most knowing and honest commercial film that’s been made about the modern American porn world, Ninja Thyberg’s feature debut isn’t the first brash and vivid Sundance movie to take aim at misogyny in action — last year’s “Promising Young Woman” continues to vibrate in the virtual mountain air — but it’s almost certainly the most naked example of the form. “Pleasure” tells the story of a 19-year-old Swedish girl named “Bella Cherry” (newcomer Sofia Kappel) who comes to Los Angeles with dreams of being the next big starlet only to encounter the same hard truth in a series of different ways: An industry that rewards its female performers for voicing their pleasure is an industry that punishes its female performers for voicing anything else. But Bella isn’t quite as submissive as she appears on camera, and she’s ready to fight against the patriarchy even if she has to fuck her way straight out the other side.
Far less titillating and more clinical than it might sound on paper, “Pleasure” includes some deeply harrowing scenes that blur the line between consent and coercion. But it’s also a brisk and accessible work of pop entertainment set in a world that most people look at without thinking about or think about without looking at. An adventurous distributor could use the movie to catalyze broader conversations about the porn industry and its failings, while positioning Thyberg as a major filmmaking star. —DE
Sales Contact: Versatile
Camilla Nielsson follows “Democrats,” her 2014 look at Zimbabwe’s shaky attempt to launch its constitution, with another troubling look at the country’s efforts to make democracy work. Here, she recounts the efforts by lawyer and activist Nelson Chamisa to challenge the ruling party in a 2018 presidential election in which Chamisa clearly would have won — if the government hadn’t skewed the results. The frantic, infuriating two-plus hours of hectic campaigning and courtroom debates reveal the passion and uncertainty of working to preserve an ideal when the ruling party can discard it at will. If these recent events are new to you, it’s an essential recap of dark times. And while it doesn’t exactly bring new information to the table, as America shakes off the terror of a coup attempt in early 2021, “President” shows that some countries weren’t so lucky. It’s an essential look at the fragility of a free and fair society that deserves an audience keen on understanding more about electoral challenges around the world. A broadcast entity such as CNN, which has done well with eye-opening documentaries in the past, would be the ideal home. —EK
Sales Contact: Submarine
There are many times in Hogir Hirori’s “Sabaya,” an anxiety-filled potboiler of a documentary about the fight to rescue enslaved girls from ISIS, where one might wonder how they pulled it off. That feeling is quickly followed by relief that they did. The daring on display by Hirori, the 40-year-old Swedish filmmaker who left his native Kurdistan in 1999, is matched and (he’d certainly say) exceeded by the bravery of his subjects: the humanitarian rescuers of the Yazidi Home Center in northern Syria. Their mission? To send “infiltrators” into the nearby Al-Hol camp, which is part refugee relocation settlement, part prison. The 73,000-person camp contains both refugees displaced by the incursions of the former Islamic State (known in the film by the Arabic “Daesh”) but includes many members of ISIS itself.
Given the need to keep the identities of these women secret, Hirori focuses his camera largely on Mahmud, a chain-smoking middle-aged leader in the Yazidi Home Center whose calm exterior belies the fact that he’s basically the Kurdish Liam Neeson — except he’s actually risking his life to rescue trafficked women. Syrian documentaries ranging from “For Sama” to “Return to Homs” have done a better job in recent years of shedding light on the country’s crisis than most mainstream media, and “Sabaya” is such an engaging experience that it could even take that potential to greater heights (not to mention an Oscar campaign). —CB
Sales Contact: Dogwoof
Director Pacho Velez returns to the conceit of his acclaimed “Manakamana,” which took place exclusively within a cable car, but this time the cable car is a dating app. The movie’s charming, often poignant device finds the camera sitting within the confines of a screen as a diverse range of subjects scroll their options on many of the most popular apps, while talking through their preferences. The movie gradually accumulates into a shrewd study of the desire to connect through modern-day technology, as the pileup of faces (including Velez’s own) assemble into a chorus of insights into the evolving nature of the dating ritual. One of the few recent documentaries on the internet that doesn’t feel like an eerie, conspiratorial descent, “Searchers” will resonate with anyone who has swiped left and right while thinking about the big picture driving those decisions. In that respect, despite its experimental approach, it actually could work quite well on a bigger streaming platform capable of playing up the mainstream appeal of its subject. —EK
Sales Contact: Submarine
“Seeds of Deceit”
There have been countless movies about dreams, but “Strawberry Mansion” is the only one save for “Inception” that turns them into a hustle. In this visually entrancing and innovative fantasy from co-directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, the government forces citizens to record their nighttime journeys and imposes taxes on the unpredictable ingredients found within. Audley and Birney, who previously made the lo-fi comic odyssey “Sylvio” about a lonely gorilla with an online talk show, excel at grounding outlandish concepts in genuine emotional stakes.
“Sylvio” was just strange and charming enough to show the potential of a silly-poignant balance unique to their combined talent; “Strawberry Mansion” gets there, with a delightful and innovative oddball journey that overcomes its zany twists by taking them seriously. It doesn’t always work, but there’s so much fun in watching the gears turn that it hardly matters. The filmmakers blend their scrappy, intimate aesthetic with handmade special effects on par with the loose, stream-of-consciousness flow of the dreams at the center of the story, resulting in a playful, bittersweet blend that suggests Terry Gilliam on a microbudget. “Strawberry Mansion” looks like some kind of lost ‘80s vision buried in the dustbin of the rental store. In that respect, it could easily become a similar sort of diamond-in-the-rough on a streaming platform, where viewers hungry for something off the beaten path might stumble upon it and sing its praises, much as many Sundance audiences did throughout the festival. —EK
Sales Contact: Submarine
“Tenet” may have tried to make the case that the theatrical experience is worth saving, but “Users” does it much better. The dazzling and ruminative documentary essay from Mexican-American filmmaker Natalia Almada projects a sense of awe and dread about the future of technology and how it could impact the life of her young son. A hypnotic, visually-driven work in the tradition of “Baraka” and “Koyaanisqatsi” (but refurbished for the digital age), the movie benefits from an immersive score by Kronos Quartet and Dolby Atmos sound design, which makes this movie pure candy for the ears and eyes. As Almada ruminates on the impact of today’s global village on the life of her young son, the movie accumulates a soulful purpose out of its euphoric imagery. It doesn’t resolve the problems posed by modern progress, but by making it possible to marvel at technological power, Almada at least seems to imply we’re all that in this together. “Users” may not be a blockbuster in waiting, but when the theatrical experience becomes more viable again, it’s exactly the sort of platform release that could enjoy a long-term ride on the arthouse circuit. —EK
Sales Contact: Endeavor
“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair”
Jane Schoenbrun understands the internet. The filmmaker behind such projects as “A Self-Induced Hallucination” (a 2018 doc “about the internet”), the tech-tinged “Eyeslicer” series, and the dreamy “collective: unconscious” has always found the space to explore the worldwide web with respect, reverence, and a hearty dose of fear. For their narrative feature debut, Schoenbrun expands their obsessions to craft an intimate tale about the impact of modern internet culture. Part coming-of-age story, part horror film, and the greatest argument yet that something as bonkers as “Creepypasta” can inspire something so beautiful, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” is a strong debut for a filmmaker who is nothing if not consistent in their themes.
Schoenbrun and their wonderful star, Anna Cobb (“in her feature film debut,” as Schoenbrun’s credits charmingly remind) bring profound empathy to both the film and Cobb’s Casey, who wastes her days indulging in eerie internet challenges while watching videos of strangers who do the same. Moored between basic teenage ennui and a simmering eagerness for something, Casey’s story is almost certainly a familiar one to many extremely online teens, and the movie is likely to resonate with them if it finds its way to a substantial VOD release. —KE
Sales Contact: CAA
For a full list of acquisitions from this year’s festival, go here.