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Critics Survey: Sundance 2021’s Best Movies According to 376 Critics

A record number of critics voted in this year's survey, showcasing some of the buzziest titles out of the festival.

sundance critics survey 2021

“CODA,” Shaka King directing “Judas and. the Black Messiah,” and “Summer of Soul”

Sundance/WB/Leah Lu

With Sundance going virtual this year, the festival’s organizers predicted that its program would reach more audiences than ever before. IndieWire’s annual Sundance critics survey, presented by AMC+, was a beneficiary of the unusual format. As critics tuned into the festival from around the world, a record 376 accredited journalists voted in this year’s survey to determine the best movies of the festival, a nearly 100 percent increase from last year’s record high. The volume of critics this year illustrates how much the buzz for several movies from the festival is likely to translate into critical support for a handful of movies, starting with the highest-profile opening night selections.

CODA,” the crowdpleaser that opened U.S. Dramatic Competition and scored four awards at the festival, won Best Film in the survey. “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” the music documentary directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, topped the survey’s Best Documentary category. The other category winners went to similarly buzzy films, Shaka King scoring Best Director for “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “Passing” winning Best First Film.

Nothing at Sundance generated more enthusiasm than “CODA,” as its win here continues that dramatic ride. The movie stars Emilia Jones as the teenage child of deaf parents (Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin and Troy Kostur). Based off the 2015 French comedy-drama “La Famille Bélier,” director Sian Heder’s coming-of-age story took the concept of a Sundance sensation to new heights by scoring the Grand Jury prize in the U.S. Dramatic competition along with Best Director and the Audience prize; it also snagged a historic $25 million deal with Apple for distribution. However, its Best Film win in the IndieWire survey was the only category where it came out on top.

For the second year in a row, the Best Film and Best Director categories showed a split between the two categories. (Last year, “Minari” won Best Film, while “Dick Johnson Is Dead” filmmaker Kirsten Johnson won Best Director.) King, who last came to Sundance with the dramedy “Newlyweeds” in 2013, returned to the festival with a last-minute addition. The Warner Bros.-produced “Judas and the Black Messiah” stars Daniel Kaluuya as ill-fated Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as William O’Neal, the FBI informant who infiltrated the group. The movie premiered on the penultimate night of the festival ahead of its day-and-date release in theaters and on HBO Max on February 12, quickly becoming the latest entry in this year’s Oscar season.

As for Questlove’s debut, “Summer of Soul” ended the festival without distribution, though major streamers were engaged in a fierce bidding war for the rights — and Thursday night, Searchlight and Hulu officially picked it up. The movie, which chronicles the powerful performances of the 1968 Harlem Cultural Festival through newly unearthed footage, won both the Grand Jury prize and the Audience prize in the U.S. Documentary section and — like “CODA” — launched on opening night to much critical enthusiasm. Expect that to continue.

Over the weekend, “Passing” was the big story of the festival. Premiering on Saturday night, actor-turned-director Rebecca Hall’s debut adapts Nella Larsen’s novel about mixed-race childhood friends Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) who reunite as young adults and begin to question each other’s lives. Irene, who lives in Harlem, grows frustrated with Clare’s decision to pass as white and live with a racist man. Shot in delicate black-and-white and with engrossing period details, the movie became one of the most celebrated narrative debuts of the festival. That didn’t translate into festival prizes, where “Passing” was shut out. However, the movie landed a reported $16 million deal with Netflix at the festival’s end, suggesting that the streamer will be putting its awards machine to work on the movie in the year ahead.

As usual, Sundance’s highlights stretched well beyond the winners in a handful of categories. In the documentary category, highlights such as “Flee” and “The Sparks Brothers” scored highly among critics, while lower-profile titles like “Pleasure” and “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” cracked the top 10 in Best Film. Check out the full list of finalists below, and browse all of IndieWire’s 2021 Sundance coverage here.

Best Film

1. “CODA”

2. “Judas and the Black Messiah”

3. “Mass”

4. “Passing”

5. “Flee”

6. “On the Count of Three”

7. “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”

8. “Pleasure”

9. TIE: “Censor”/”Together Together”

10. “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair”

Best Documentary

1. “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”

2. “Flee”

3. “The Sparks Brothers”

4. “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It”

5. “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”

Best Director

1. “Judas and the Black Messiah”

2. “Passing”

3. “CODA”

4. “Mass”

5. “Flee”

Best Screenplay

1. “Judas and the Black Messiah”

2. “Mass”

3. “CODA”

4. “On the Count of Three”

5. “Passing”

Best First Film

1. “Passing”

2. “Mass”

3. “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”

4. “On the Count of Three”

5. “Pleasure”

Editor’s note: The 2021 IndieWire Sundance Critics Survey is presented by AMC+. View past Sundance winners and festival favorite directly via AMC+.

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