Stills courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

The ongoing pandemic meant that 2021 was the first year in which I had the opportunity to attend the Sundance Film Festival. Well, virtually attend. As with the Buffalo, Toronto, New York, Chicago, and AFI festivals, Sundance shifted to a mix of virtual and in-person screenings. The results were extraordinary, with more than 500,000 views of the film program. 

In terms of quality, I’m happy to say I found the festival a mostly stellar experience. I feel fortunate to have had the chance to discover so many unique small-scale and independent films — as well as one Nicolas Cage-starring Mad Max-esque Western (!). 

Here are my 2021 Sundance rankings.

Flee: A-

From my review for The Film Stage: Flee “ranks as one of the most uniquely memorable animated films of the last decade. It is remarkably successful as a study of the refugee experience, as a coming-of-age drama set against a backdrop of fear and danger, and as a tribute to one individual’s ability to survive and even flourish. More than deserving of its selection as Grand Jury Prize winner in Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Competition, Flee is an extraordinary achievement. ”

The Sparks Brothers: A-

Before watching Edgar Wright’s documentary about the band Sparks, I was aware of the Mael brothers, but only by appearance. This hugely entertaining career study made me appreciate the band’s music in a major way. It is the type of film you may want to watch again seconds after it ends. Yes, it’s that strong. (Cue up “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” right now.)

Passing: A-

Rebecca Hall’s feature directorial debut, an adaptation of the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, is a fascinating and moving study of identity and race. The performances of Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are revelatory, and Hall excels at crafting moments that are subtle but hard-hitting.

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet: A-

This offbeat, black-and-white Argentinian drama snuck up on me. It’s a bit coming-of-age drama, a tad satire, a pinch political. In final analysis, The Dog is altogether beautiful, strange, and unforgettable. 

Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised): A-

Roots drummer Questlove’s directorial debut is a joyous documentary featuring footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Considered lost for years, this archival footage is jaw-dropping. There won’t be a better music doc released in 2021. 

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World: A-

A documentary about Björn Andrésen, the iconic young star of Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, Boy seems to have hit me harder than some Sundance attendees. To me, Andrésen’s tale is wildly compelling, and this look at his sudden thrust into teenage fame and descent into a difficult and sad adulthood was extremely moving.  

Censor: B+

From my review for The Film Stage: “It is hard to think of a recent horror film in which the main character is tasked with a job as original and ingenious as Enid Baines, the protagonist of Prano Bailey-Bond’s riveting Censor. She is, yes, the titular censor. It is 1980s England, the time of ‘video nasties’ that drew parental consternation and tabloid outrage. These were the low-budget, ultra-violent VHS cassettes that earned their own category in the collective consciousness. Not all were UK productions. In Censor, however, the nasties are homegrown, in more ways than one.”

On the Count of Three: B+

Comedian Jerrod Carmichael stars in and directs one of the festival’s most pleasant surprises, a sharp, funny, somber buddy film featuring another great performance from Christopher Abbott. Annapurna picked this one up, and I expect it will draw some well-deserved attention upon release. 

Judas and the Black Messiah: B+

It has been fascinating to read some of the mixed reviews that have accompanied Shaka King’s film about the Black Panther Party and its chairman, Fred Hampton. Some great points have been made, especially this from Angelica Jade Bastién, but I found the film powerful and involving. Daniel Kaluuya is riveting as Hampton. 

In the Same Breath: B+

One Child Nation director Nanfu Wang’s documentary is a first-hand account of the early days of COVID-19 in China. While it does not quite have the impact of 76 Days, this is a profound and unmissable film. It will air soon on HBO.

Cusp: B

An involving documentary about Texas teenagers, Cusp is breathtakingly intimate. Let’s hope for a follow-up centered around these same teens in a few years.

Pleasure: B

Perhaps the most controversial film of Sundance 2021, Pleasure is an explicit drama set in the L.A. porn scene. There has been some cogent analysis of Ninja Thyberg’s debut feature (especially Orla Smith’s review for Seventh Row), and reading these has definitely impacted my opinion of the film. It is hard to watch but unquestionably important, and star Sofia Kappel gives a simply stunning performance. 

Prisoners of the Ghostland: B

Sion Sono’s ultra-violent, dystopian Western starring Nicolas Cage hit me just right. Wild, adrenalized, and often very funny, Prisoners is one of Cage’s finest (and strangest) action films. It would be a blast to see it in a packed cinema. 

Misha and the Wolves: B

From my review for The Film Stage of the twisty documentary Misha and the Wolves: “The story of Misha Defonseca checks a number of boxes on the documentary checklist. Serious surprises? Juicy legal proceedings? Jaw-dropping historical details? Check, check, check. And there is one more box to check: Stories that were too good to be true.”

Mass: B

Actor Fran Kranz wrote and directed this searing drama about the aftermath of a school shooting. It is undeniably powerful, but too stagey to have a lasting impact. Still, there is plenty to savor in this one, especially the performances from its main cast — Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney.

Coda: B

There is no question that Sian Heder’s story of a teenager living with her deaf parents and brother was the big winner at Sundance. It’s a sweet, heartwarming, and very funny film — but others found it far more impressive than I did. Still, it’s a winner, and Apple audiences will adore it. 

Cryptozoo: B-

There has never been an animated film quite like Cryptozoo, and while I found it moderately satisfying, it drew some raves at Sundance. Director Dash Shaw’s world of fantastic creatures is dark, violent, and utterly unique. 

Jockey: B

While the script for Clint Bentley’s likable film about an aging jockey often feels rote, there is no denying the award-worthy performance from Collins. He is simply unforgettable. 

All Light Everywhere: B

This documentary exploring shared histories — centered around police body cameras — was the festival’s most mentally challenging entry. It will likely benefit from a second viewing. 

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair: B

One of the negatives of a virtual film festival — or in-person, really — is that the sheer number of entries means one does not always focus properly. I wish I’d spent more time pondering this bold study of online role-playing and loneliness; I look forward to seeing World’s Fair again one day, and expect that when I do, it will rise even more in my mind. Even so, it is a film I would certainly recommend.

The World to Come: B-

World boasts two powerhouse performances, from Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby, and has a strong premise. Ultimately, however, the drama feels a bit underwhelming. It is certainly worth a watch for Waterston and Kirby.

One for the Road: C+

This Wong-kar Wai production looks positively wonderful and has some nice moments, but overall it’s a disappointment. A ho-hum road movie set in New York City and Thailand, Road may play better outside of the festival setting.

Land: C+

Robin Wright stars in and directs this tale of a woman who decides to leave society and move into a cabin in the woods. She gives a fine performance and shows some real promise as a filmmaker, but the premise simply never feels fresh.

Mayday: C

Ambitious, visually enticing, and a bit dull, Karen Cinorre’s unique debut feels like it would’ve made a fantastic short. As a feature-length film, this fantasy drama felt lacking. 

Hive: C

Of all the films I saw at Sundance, Hive might be the most forgettable. That’s a shame, since this well-intentioned drama about a woman in Kosovo who starts a small business is based on the true story of a very admirable individual. 

A Glitch in the Matrix: C

Room 237 director Rodney Ascher’s latest documentary explores a mind-bending topic: simulation theory. Yet it never coalesces into anything memorable. I was never bored, but never felt very engaged, either. 

The Blazing World: C-

Despite some memorable visuals, Carlson Young’s horror film saddles a nice cast — Udo Kier, Dermot Mulroney, Vinessa Shaw — with a substandard story. Still, director/star Young shows some promise. 

In the Earth: D+

From my review for The Film Stage: “Creating a new film is not the worst way to spend some forced COVID-19 downtime. It is, however, no excuse for making one as tiresome and disappointing as In the Earth. There are no new insights into pandemic mania, and despite strong performances from four well-cast actors, some sharp humor, and a few go-for-broke moments that engage, the majority of director Ben Wheatley’s horror film is an utter slog.”

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Exploring Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, a history of folk horror, and a raucous pregnancy comedy

Pictured, clockwise from top left: NinjababyWoodlands Dark and Days BewitchedTom Petty: Somewhere We Feel FreeVioletClerk, and The Fallout
Stills courtesy of South by Southwest

Just a few weeks after the Sundance Film Fest came the opportunity to attend another virtual festival, South by Southwest. The annual Austin, Texas collection of films, concerts, conversations, and more moved online for 2021. And while it did not offer the pleasures of Sundance, it was nevertheless a unique opportunity to experience new cinema. 

I ended up seeing two truly great films, a couple very good ones, and then lots that I would categorize as so-so (or worse). Here are my 2021 SXSW rankings.

Ninjababy: A-

From my review for The Film Stage: “The title of 2021 Berlinale and SXSW selection Ninjababy might conjure thoughts of wacky superhero adventures; ‘Ninjababy’ could be Astro Boy or Turbo Kid’s infant cousin. Director Yngvild Sve Flikke’s film, based on Inga H Sætre’s graphic novel, is no superhero adventure, although it is a bit wacky. Rather, Ninjababy is a delightfully unruly, genuinely moving portrait of a young woman stuck in a situation with no easy way out. Smartly plotted and downright hilarious, it features a star-making performance from lead Kristine Kujath Thorp.”

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A-

The most unique, compelling, and enjoyably upsetting film of SXSW was Kier-La Janisse’s three-hour (!) exploration of folk horror, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched. This stunning deep-dive into the history and art of this genre includes oodles of film clips and commentary from a fascinating group of historians, authors, and filmmakers. While I found the first two hours a bit more enthralling than the third — I was especially interested in the sections exploring U.K. folk horror, like the iconic horror film The Wicker Man — Woodlands is so strong, and so deep, that one finishes wanting even more. This is a truly stunning film. 

Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free: B+

From my review for The Film Stage: “The Tom Petty in this documentary is both joyful and devastated, powerful and wounded. This dichotomy exists in many of Petty’s greatest songs, and as Somewhere shows, it is essential to understanding how the Wildflowers album came to be. The ability to see all of this for ourselves is what makes the film more than a standard making-of doc. As Petty says on-screen, ‘I had no control over what I wrote this time. I didn’t edit myself.’ In Somewhere You Feel Free, we have a very rare––and very welcome––opportunity to see that truth for ourselves.”

The Fallout: B+

There have been a number of films centered on the aftermath of school shootings at recent festivals, and The Fallout might be the best yet. While there is nothing new here, exactly, Megan Park’s film stands out due to the performance of Jenni Ortega. The former Disney Channel star finds just the right mix of sadness and hope as the emotionally devastated survivor of a California shooting.

Alien On Stage: B

From my review for The Film Stage: “The documentary is the rather delightful story of a group of bus drivers and crew in Dorset, England, who stage an amateur performance for charity each year. Most years, that meant family-friendly pantomimes around Christmastime. But those days are over. Recently, the Dorset thespians brought Ridley Scott’s Alien to the stage. The film is a sweet treat for Alien fans, cinephiles, and anyone who gets goosebumps at the sight of let’s-put-on-a-show enthusiasm.”

See You Then: B

This conversation-heavy drama about the reunion of two exes is beautifully acted by stars Pooya Mohseni and Lynn Chen, and features piercing dialogue from writer-director Mari Walker.

Here Before: B

A psychological drama set in Belfast, this story of a wife and mother dealing with the death of a child is remarkably acted by Andrea Riseborough. While the story is not ultimately satisfying, Riseborough’s standout performance is a reason to watch. Her pain and fear is palpable. 

Clerk: B-

Kevin Smith fans will be delighted by this documentary tracing his career from convenience store employee in New Jersey to breakout writer-director with films like Clerks and Chasing Amy. Smith is an ever-gregarious storyteller, but interest flags after the section documenting the controversial Dogma. Still, even though the stories here have been told before, it’s an enjoyable watch.

Gaia: B-

Haunting and unsettling, this eco-horror film is not an easy watch. But viewers who have the stomach to stick with this tale of a woman who comes upon a man and his son deep in the forest is certainly memorable and always unpredictable.

Our Father: B-

The first film from writer-director Bradley Grant Smith is an often funny but rather dreary look at two sisters brought back together after their father’s suicide. There is much to savor here, most notably the performance from star Allison Torem. 

Violet: B-

As Justine Bateman’s film came to a close, I found myself a bit conflicted about this look at a film executive whose inner voice may have been steering her wrong. Yet even when the “voice” element feels rote, there is Olivia Munn. She gives a remarkably layered performance here — one of the festival’s finest. 

The Feast: B-

A shockingly bloody horror entry set in rural Wales, The Feast is a strange, sometimes hard to follow film about a dinner party you do *not* want to attend. 

How it Ends: C+

I might be in the minority with this one, but as much I respected the tone of star/writer/co-director (with Daryl Wein) Zoe Lister-Jones’ film about the last day on earth, the story left me bored. This one could be a cult classic in the making, and I could see myself finding more to enjoy on a second viewing. There is no question that Jones is the real deal. 

Broadcast Signal Intrusion: C

Creepy conspiracies and grainy VHS nightmares are great on paper, but Jacob Gentry’s film never adds up to anything truly compelling. Still, there is style to spare; Gentry is a filmmaker to watch, for sure. 

Potato Dreams of America: C-

Wes Hurley’s autobiographical film about his closeted childhood in the U.S.S.R. has an admirable go-for-broke energy, but also feels like an amateurish production. I look forward to seeing what’s next from Hurley, but Potato Dreams did not work for me. 

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