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Sundance 2021: The 15 Best Movies of This Year’s Festival

Culled from over 14,000 submissions, this year's lineup was filled with memorable cinematic achievements that are likely to remain relevant throughout 2021 and beyond.

best of sundance 2021

Clockwise from left: “Passing,” “I Was a Simple Man,” “Flee,” “Rita Moreno,” “Judas and the Black Messiah”

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival has wrapped a most unconventional edition, as audiences tuned into the virtual program from around the world, but one aspect of the experience felt somewhat normal: The 74 features delivered a wide range of exciting and memorable movies, many of which will continue to make waves in the year ahead. Culled from over 14,000 submissions, Sundance’s program was a hodgepodge of ambitious formalism, daring subject matter, and a lot of crowdpleasers. Here are the biggest highlights. Explore all of IndieWire’s Sundance 2021 coverage here.

Christian Blauvelt, Jude Dry, David Ehrlich, Tambay Obenson, and Zack Sharf contributed to this article. 

“At the Ready”

Kids at Texas’ Horizon High School train to be the next generation of police in “At the Ready”

“At the Ready” is a riveting piece of journalism — its director, Maisie Crow, is the editor of a weekly newspaper in west Texas — and one of the most eye-opening accounts of teen life that’s been put onscreen in years. Three high schoolers in Horizon, Texas participate in their school’s Criminal Justice Club, where they train on fake guns and learn proper procedure for disarming an active shooter, conducting a drug raid, and how to deal with a hostage situation. It’s basically training for jobs in law enforcement that will be waiting for them after high school because they’ve been participating in the club. Tightly edited in a direct cinema style that avoids talking heads, Crow delivers a commentary on how policing in America is more than just a career path — it’s a culture. And that’s exactly why it will be so hard to reform. —CB

CODA

"Coda"

“CODA”

Sundance

On its face, there’s little surprising about director Sian Heder’s second feature film, the big winner of this year’s festival (it scored the Grand Jury Prize in addition to Best Director and the Audience Award, a Sundance rarity). It’s a family drama and a coming-of-age tale that combines familiar beats about finding yourself, breaking free of your family, and making plenty of mistakes along the way into one tear-jerking package. Yet that seeming familiarity is one of its greatest assets, slipping neatly into a pre-set genre a major achievement: it’s a film that focuses on a deaf family and treats their problems as being just as worthy — and relatable — as innumerable other stories that, at least, initially feel just like it. In fitting so neatly inside expectations, Heder makes a sterling argument for more films like it — which is to say, movies that focus on under-served characters and performers (all of Heder’s deaf characters are played by deaf actors, the film is subtitled) that still contain massive appeal for everyone.

While the concept of “crowdpleasing” is a tough one to value in a virtual setting like this year’s Sundance, there’s little doubt that Heder’s film played the online version of “like gangbusters” when it opened Sundance this year. Social media was flooded with effusive, tear-stained praise, and while it might be easy to dismiss notions like “this is the movie we need now!,” anyone who sees the film would be hard-pressed to deny that we do indeed need it, mostly because it feels so damn good. It felt pretty good to Apple, too, as the streamer snapped up the film for a cool, record-breaking $25 million just days after its premiere, ensuring that plenty of audience members are about to feel just as good as their Sundance brethren. —KE

“Cryptozoo”

Cryptozoo

“Cryptozoo”

Sundance

Cartoonist Dash Shaw’s dazzling follow-up to his 2016 debut “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” is a colorful, imaginative blend of fantasy concepts, storybook imagery, and ’60s counterculture. The animated tale of activist heroine Laura Gray (voiced by Lake Bell), a Lara Croftian adventurer devoted to saving mythological beings called “cryptids” from persecution, “Cryptozoo” careens through a dynamic epic as visually exciting and inventive as the creatures at its center. Laura hopes to gather cryptids at the titular zoo as a kind of wildlife refuge, but some of them worry about being ostracized, providing a keen metaphor for conversations surrounding Otherness in general.

But the movie’s true appeal lies in Shaw’s rapid-fire, psychedelic animation style, a shimmering symphony of lines and colors that suggests “Yellow Submarine” with bite. The winner of Sundance’s NEXT section, “Cryptozoo” was picked up by Magnolia Pictures, which is well-positioned to excite fans of Shaw’s illustration talents while bringing him a whole new range of fans. It’s too early to say what the year in animated features will look like, but it’s already scored one of its most memorable entries. —EK

“El Planeta”

Ale Ulman and Amalia Ulman appear in El Planeta by Amalia Ulman, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Carlos Rigo Bellver.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“El Planeta”

Sundance

“El Planeta” builds its conflict around a single problem, but holds off on revealing it until the very end. 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.”

In a tender and playful riff on the art-imitating-life conceit, Ulman acts opposite her real-life mother, Ale Ulman, an acting novice who nevertheless gives a fun and zany performance as a diva in denial. The pair apparently did endure a bout of homelessness in their time together, and Ulman truly went to London for school. No matter how much the movie departs from the specifics of their experiences — and the way things work out, it’s pretty clear that it does — the real-life bond between the women helps cement the movie in genuine chemistry even as it zigs and zags through a leisurely plot. More than anything else, the appeal of “El Planeta” comes down to people who realize they’ve exhausted every option, and decide they may as well go down in style. —EK

“Faya Dayi”

Faya Dayi - Sundance 2021

“Faya Dayi”

Merkhana Films

“Faya Dayi” is Mexican-Ethiopian Jessica Beshir’s feature directorial debut. Much of her previous short film work comprises of portraits of the Ethiopian town Harar, where she grew up. It’s a region of the world that rarely, if ever, receives recognition in western media — certainly not executed in Beshir’s bold style. Abandoning traditional documentary narrative methods, Beshir uses mysticism and folklore to juxtapose vignettes of life in Harar. It was clearly important that she give voice to its youth, by placing a spotlight on the predicaments that many of them have long endured, against the backdrop of deadly conflict between opposing political parties.

Overall, 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 not all that different from Cannabis. There are a dozen of films about Africans longing for better lives overseas that Beshir could have leaned on, but she mostly shuns them, blending her film’s listlessness, its stunning black-and-white photography, and haunting score to produce an oddly hypnotic film like nothing else out there. —TO

“Flee”

"Flee"

“Flee”

Sundance

Sundance 2021 opened on a high note with the world premiere of Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee,” which Neon picked up the following morning in a seven-figure deal. The movie, which was named an official selection of Cannes last year, centers around an interview Rasmussen recorded with his friend, identified by a pseudonym, Amin Nawabi. The man recounts his harrowing life story, including how his family fled Afghanistan for Russia and how he struggled to come out as a gay man, all of which Rasmussen brings to life through striking, evocative animation. The result is a riveting survival story that blurs the line between documentary and narrative filmmaking styles to exhilarating effect.

By relying on animation, Rasmussen is able to adapt portions of Amin’s interview into narrative sequences so vivid they allow the film to embody the horror of Amin’s darkest moments and the unrelenting joy of his personal triumphs. IndieWire chief critic Eric Kohn awarded “Flee” a perfect “A” grade in his review out of Sundance, writing, “The film becomes a cinematic catharsis, as Amin recounts his journey in fits and starts, while the animation turns his memories into a bracing adventure that doubles as modern history.” With the backing of Neon, “Flee” is bound to go down as one of the best films of 2021. —ZS

“I Was a Simple Man”

“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. —DE

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

Judas

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

Glen Wilson

One part Fred Hampton biopic, one part unnerving portion of all-too-recent American history, Shaka King’s drama is a nuanced portrait of a people, a place, and a betrayal that has never before received such a full telling. Bolstered by major performances by Daniel Kaluuya (as Hampton, the visionary chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late ’60s) and Lakeith Stanfield (as O’Neal, an FBI informant who infiltrated the BPP and Hampton’s inner circle), “Judas and the Black Messiah” makes the Hampton saga feel as urgent — and tragic — as ever.

King, directing only his second feature film, deftly handles the complex script he co-wrote with Will Berson from a story by the Lucas brothers, while also crafting a richly imagined late-‘60s Chicago for it all to play out within. The history never gets in the way of deep character work, and at every turn, “Judas and the Black Messiah” doesn’t just allow the space to consider the motivations of both its primary characters, but actively seeks out those shades of gray. Both Kaluuya and Stanfield deliver, turning in their best performances yet as deeply complicated men. While the Warner Bros. awards contender didn’t need a Sundance slot to rocket to the top of any list, the programming cements it as a major achievement for King, himself a Sundance alumnus more than deserving of a homecoming welcome. —KE

“On the Count of Three”

"On The Count of Three"

“On The Count of Three”

Sundance

Jerrod Carmichael’s directorial debut channels the provocation of his standup comedy (and his apparent love for the Safdie brothers) into a buddy comedy that doesn’t “go there” so much as it starts there. “On the Count of Three” begins with longtime friends Val (Carmichael) and Kevin (a tortured but uncharacteristically hilarious Christopher Abbott) pointing handguns at each other’s heads as part of a suicide pact. But this isn’t a short, and so Kevin offers a suggestion at the last second: What if these best buds postponed their plan for 24 hours and spent their last day on Earth enjoying some borrowed time together? But what the boys might envision as some kind of ultra-nihilistic riff on “The Bucket List” soon blossoms into a low-key screwball misadventure that plays more like an emotionally liberated game of “Grand Theft Auto” than anything else.

From that glib-sounding premise, Carmichael spins a sweet, dangerous, and ultimately moving story that manages to have fun with subjects like suicide and depression without ever feeling the least bit glib about them. It’s a tonal juggling act that few have the courage to try, and even fewer the talent to pull off. Sundance is often a place where filmmakers come to find their voice, but “On the Count of Three” finds that Carmichael is already figuring out how to expand his into a symphony. —DE

Passing

Passing

“Passing”

Sundance Institute

For her first film, newly minted filmmaker Rebecca Hall took on an audacious feat, delivering a complex examination of race and sexuality set against the backdrop of’20s-era Harlem that was inspired by author Nella Larsen’s own life. Based on Larsen’s novel of the same name, Hall’s formidable feature directing debut is as beautiful and bruising and knotty as the book that inspired it. Like Larsen, Hall hails from a mixed background, and her own experiences with racial presentation and expectation help root a complicated story that resists any and all hammy or heavy-handed twists.

Armed with both lived experience and a pair of major stars in the form of Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson, Hall turns Larsen’s calling-card work into a vibrant big screen adaptation. “Passing” follows a pair of childhood friends, played as adults by Thompson and 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. The concept might sound salacious, but in Hall’s hands, it’s as delicate and considered as the book on which it was based. —KE

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It”

Rita Moreno

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It”

Sundance

After seven decades in show business, the indefatigable “West Side Story” legend Rita Moreno has a lot of stories to tell, and she does it with utmost flair. Taking its title from a t-shirt that struck her fancy, “Rite Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided to Go For It” is a highly entertaining and poignant ride through Moreno’s improbable life and career. The first Latina to win an Oscar, Moreno experienced (and played) some of Hollywood’s ugliest racist stereotypes and lived to tell the tale. When she refused to play the blushing island girl any longer, the work dried up. Relegated to kids’ TV, she came out on top with a playful turn opposite Morgan Freeman in “The Electric Company,” her warbling “Hey You Guys!” catchphrase becoming almost as iconic as Anita. By the time the movie gets to her dramatic turn in “Oz,” it’s clear that the breadth and depth of Moreno’s career is truly one of a kind.

Sharp-witted and grounded, Moreno is a lively and open subject throughout, revealing a volatile relationship with Marlon Brando and a surprisingly candid ambivalence about her late husband. The praise flows lovingly from every Latinx creative interviewed in the film, from Lin Manuel Miranda to Hector Elizondo to Eva Longoria. Their genuine adoration, and collective talent and success, is moving evidence of Moreno’s immense influence on many generations. —JD

“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair”

Anna Cobb appears in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair by Jane Schoenbrun, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Daniel Patrick Carbone.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair”

Sundance

Jane Schoenbrun’s exploration of internet culture, told through a chilling coming-of-age story, is an auspicious, wildly smart narrative feature debut. Centered around, of all things, an online role-playing game, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” is a thoroughly modern examination of age-old loneliness. Both 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. We first meet Casey alone in her attic room, as she stares headlong into a computer screen in which Schoenbrun has tucked their camera. She is looking at us as much as we are looking at her, and as she practices an introduction to a video she’s about to film — shades of “Eighth Grade” — we get an early glimpse of her vulnerability.

Today, Casey is taking the World’s Fair Challenge. For an internet wonk, that’s a big deal, and one she hopes might loop her into a wider internet role-playing world. It’s no wonder Casey would go looking for connection and expression online, there’s certainly not much of it to be found in either her suburban sprawl hometown or her unhappy home. What follows is part coming-of-age story, part horror film, and the greatest argument yet that something as bonkers as “Creepypasta” can inspire something beautiful. You don’t need to be an internet geek like Casey to vibe to “World’s Fair,” you just need to be human. —KE

“Pleasure”

“Pleasure”

Almost by default 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. It may have felt slightly out of place at a Sundance that was more attuned towards stories about the lack of contact between people, but “Pleasure” should continue to find an audience long after quarantine lifts — it’s one of the only movies from this year’s fest that’s guaranteed to be relevant until people stop watching porn or the sun completely engulfs the Earth, whichever comes first. —DE

Summer of Soul (…or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”

Summer Of Soul (Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

“Summer Of Soul (Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Making the jump from drummer extraordinaire to first-time feature film director, Amir “Questlove” Thompson found a way to condense 45 hours of previously unseen 50-year-old footage, mid-pandemic, into a cohesive, jubilant and culturally relevant, two-hour celebration of Black music’s role in the social revolution of the late 1960s. Winning both the documentary Audience Prize and the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary, “Summer of Soul” was almost as beloved as the event at its center. In telling the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival, Thompson could have easily just produced “Summer of Soul” as a straightforward concert film, and it still would have satisfied audiences in awe of remarkable unseen footage from the landmark concert series that featured dazzling performances from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King, the Staples Singers, 5th Dimension, and many more hitmakers of the day. But the Harlem Cultural Festival was about a lot more than music.

Thompson digs into history to reveal something important about each musician or group, fluidly editing relevant anecdotes into their stage performances. And against the backdrop of police brutality, the Vietnam War and political unrest — including the assassinations of Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy — the festival was refuge for Black people from all walks of life, illustrating the healing power of music. It was a chance to nurse physical and psychological wounds, and a way to instill hope and underscore the need for Black pride and unity — all purposes that “Summer of Soul” could also readily serve in the present. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?,” Nina Simone pointedly asks in the documentary. By making this film, Thompson proves that he understands this all too well. —TO

“Users”

"Users"

“Users”

Sundance

There are many stunning images flowing through “Users,” the dazzling and ruminative documentary essay from Mexican-American filmmaker Natalia Almada — which scored a directing prize at the festival — but the one that resonates above them all is actually quite mundane: a grimy internet fiberoptic cable buried deep in the ocean that keeps the modern world connected. “Soon enough,” Almada intones in voiceover, “we will forget it’s even there.”

That underlying sense of awe and dread percolates throughout the duration of Almada’s audacious fourth feature. A far cry from the more conventional non-fiction portraits of Mexican life in “The Night Watchmen” and “The General,” Almada has crafted a hypnotic, visually-driven work in the tradition of “Baraka” and “Koyaanisqatsi” for the digital age, replete with an immersive score by Kronos Quartet and Dolby Atmos sound design. 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. —EK

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