Sundance 2021: 10 Most Anticipated Films at This Year's Virtual Fest
by Alex Billington
January 27, 2021
Back to Sundance we go for another year of discovery and amazing films. What's on the line-up this year? Even though Sundance is operating as a smaller festival mostly with virtual screenings (and satellite venues around the US) this year, due to the ongoing pandemic keeping things shut down and unsafe, they're ready to premiere a whole batch of new films anyway. Out of the 74+ films showing at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, I've picked 10 films that I'm looking forward to seeing the most. To keep things well balanced, I've chosen 5 feature films and 5 documentaries from the line-up. I'm still looking forward to so many of these and I don't think there's anything to worry about this year - the festival is featuring some fantastic films to discover. As usual with Sundance, you never can really tell what'll good or bad, but here's my picks anyway.
For the full line-up of films playing at Sundance 2021, click here. Follow my fest reviews on Letterboxd. This is my 15th year in a row covering Sundance, starting back in 2007 then ever since. I'm still excited to be watching new Sundance films, even from afar, and I'm hoping there's some excellent discoveries despite the preceding pandemic year. It's about to begin soon, so here's my Top 10 most anticipated films to see there.
Alex's Most Anticipated ~Sundance 2021~ Feature Films:
This one is going to be wacky and it reminds me of The Science of Sleep, one of my other favorite funky indie films. The only photo doesn't show much besides a little red house, but the description sets up something else unique. And the directors, Albert Birney & Kentucker Audley, are indie regulars who already know what they're doing. The strange sci-fi film is set in a future where the government records dreams and taxes them, and is about a dream auditor who gets caught up in the dreams of an aging eccentric. Sounds cool, right? Sundance says it's a "playfully surreal romantic fantasy" set in a "glitchy digital dystopia where every human experience is monetized—where even our unconscious minds have been colonized by advertising. With its wildly expressive color schemes and inventive dreamscapes, Strawberry Mansion also conjures an optimistic future through a retreat to our analog past." I just have to see this to find out how they pull it off.
The Pink Cloud
Directed by Iuli Gerbase
One of only a handful of sci-fi films playing at Sundance this year! (The other key one being How It Ends.) The Pink Cloud from director Iuli Gerbase is a peculiar little Brazilian indie drama involving, yes, a pink cloud - when a deadly cloud mysteriously takes over their city, two recent strangers who had met at a party are forced to seek shelter with only each other for company. As months pass and the planet settles into an extended quarantine, their world shrinks, and they are forced to come to terms with an accelerated timeline for their relationship. It's not only just a relationship parable, the film supposedly gets into a lot more than just that as any smart film does. And honestly I'm sold purely on that pink cloud concept alone, even while living in our extended quarantine in real life. All the images from the film and the poster look great, too - I'm glad there's a subtle pink glow in every shot, that's exactly what I'd expect. Looking forward to watching.
Directed by Frida Kempff
Who the heck is knocking?! I just have an odd feeling that this film could become something awesome. Or maybe not, could go either way. It's another crazy fun Sundance-y idea - a woman starts to hear knocking from above in a new apartment. She tries to investigate, but no one has heard anything. As the knocking intensifies and gives way to a woman's cries, she becomes consumed with finding out the truth. Could it be Morse code? Is someone trapped? And more importantly, why doesn’t anyone care? How's that for a twisted and intriguing opening premise? I love Sundance because I love these kind of films where you just have to find out what kind of clever script was written entirely around knocking, and where does it go? How crazy does it get?! The film stars Cecilia Milocco and it's one of my most anticipated, hoping for something wild.
Directed by Rebecca Hall
Passing marks the feature directorial debut of actress Rebecca Hall, who doesn't appear in the film. She also wrote the screenplay, based on a novella by Nella Larsen, which is set in the 1920s in New York. The story follows two women who cross paths one day. It turns out the two were in high school together, and while both are African American women who can “pass” as white, they have chosen to live on opposite sides of the color line. Now, their renewed acquaintance threatens them both. The film is presented in "creamy, mesmerizing black-and-white" and co-stars Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson as the two leading ladies, which instantly makes this an exciting premiere to catch. Sundance describes it as "an elegant psychological thriller about obsession, repression, and the lies people tell themselves and others to protect their carefully constructed realities." Yeah I need to see this, definitely don't want to miss the premiere. Keep an eye on it.
Directed by Karen Cinorre
Well, what do we have here? Another ambitious concept and mysterious cinematic creation, or so it sounds. Sundance introduces it: "After a short circuit at her workplace mysteriously transports her to an alternate world, she meets a crew of female soldiers caught in an endless war. Along a strange and rugged coastline, men face the stark truth lurking behind damsels who appear to be in distress. Under the leadership of Marsha (Mia Goth), Ana trains as a sharpshooter and discovers a newfound freedom in this uninhibited sisterhood. She soon senses she may not be the ruthless killer they expect, though, and time is running out for her to find a path home." That sounds great, doesn't it? I really love watching films at Sundance where I have absolutely no idea what I'm in for, watching completely fresh for the first time. Can't wait for this one.
More Feature Films I'm Looking Forward To Seeing: Manuel Crosby & Darren Knapp's First Date, Ben Wheatley's In the Earth, Pascual Sisto's John and the Hole, Marion Hill's Ma Belle My Beauty, Jerrod Carmichael's On the Count of Three, Nattawut Poonpiriya's One for the Road, Kate Tsang's Marvelous and the Black Hole, Zoe Lister-Jones & Daryl Wein's How It Ends, and Sion Sono's Prisoners of the Ghostland.
Alex's Most Anticipated ~Sundance 2021~ Documentaries:
Summer of Soul
Directed by Questlove
The full title is Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). That longer title alone sells me! Just want to groove to this one. Sundance is known for finding some of the best docs about great moments in history, and the people behind them, and this seems like it'll be another festival centerpiece doc about a great moment. Here's what this doc is all about: In 1969, during the same summer as Woodstock, a different music festival took place 100 miles away. More than 300,000 people attended the summer concert series known as the Harlem Cultural Festival. It was filmed, but after that summer, the footage sat in a basement for 50 years. It has never been seen. Until now. How could anyone not want to see this footage?! Sounds like a musical experience unlike any other. Sundance adds: "Summer Of Soul shines a light on the importance of history to our spiritual well-being and stands as a testament to the healing power of music."
Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street
Directed by Marilyn Agrelo
A few years back, Morgan Neville brought THE definitive Mr. Rogers documentary - the outstanding Won't You Be My Neighbor? - to the festival. Now it's time for THE definitive Sesame Street documentary to get its time in the spotlight and premiere at Sundance. Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street is directed by Marilyn Agrelo, of the award-winning Mad Hot Ballroom, and she digs into the archives to tell us the real story of how they made this show. Street Gang explores how creator Joan Ganz Cooney, original series director Jon Stone, and legendary Muppets creator Jim Henson—among other key talents—joined forces to create a children's television show that would become a groundbreaking cultural phenomenon. And if that's not enough, the doc film "goes beyond the considerable nostalgic appeal of Sesame Street to tap into the enduring emotional resonance of the program's core message of affirmation and inclusion—and the promise of preparing the next generation to imagine a better world for us all." Sounds like a wonderful film already.
Playing With Sharks
Directed by Sally Aitken
Who doesn't love a good shark movie?! But this is a very unique shark movie, about a person not just sharks. The longer title for this documentary is Playing with Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story. As the title states, it tells the story of pioneering scuba diver Valerie Taylor. "A fearless diver, marine conservationist, and Australian icon, she dedicated most of her life to exploring the beauty of sharks—forming a sought-after underwater cinematography team with her husband, Ron, and even shooting the real sharks in [Spielberg's] Jaws. Director Sally Aitken captures Taylor’s enduring passion for these intimidating creatures and her unflinching willingness to connect with them in their element." The film also catches up with Taylor now in her 80s, as she "reflects on her lifelong journey with the sea while sumptuous, remastered 16mm footage transports us to the mysterious deep and testifies to the richness of the ocean as it once was." I'm so there.
The Sparks Brothers
Directed by Edgar Wright
All the while working on his new feature film, Last Night in Soho, filmmaker Edgar Wright has also been working on a new documentary. This music doc is about the band known as Sparks. As Sundance explains in their intro: "Whether or not you're aware of it, Sparks likely had a hand in something you're fond of. This is a band that has been in the background of almost every art form across the last 50 years. Growing up in the '60s, Los Angeles brothers Ron and Russell got by on a heavy diet of popcorn matinees and pop music until the spotlight of school talent shows illuminated their way on a musical journey that has so far spawned 25 studio albums." Every knows that Edgar Wright is a serious music fan and knows his bands better than most. I'm sure he's cooked up something great for us to enjoy - even if you haven't heard of them, this is still worth watching. "With tongue planted firmly in cheek, this charming love letter to innovation, music, and two rebel artists just might make this the biggest year yet for the brothers named Sparks." Rock on, Edgar.
Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen
More than anything, I'm curious about this because it looks and sounds so unique and I love ambitiously creative filmmaking. The immigration doc is designed to bring "audiences directly into the experience of a teen fleeing multiple countries—and the psychological impact on how he loves, trusts, and understands his burgeoning identity." Mixing all kinds of different techniques and footage to tell his story. But who exactly is he? That's a secret. "An Afghan refugee agrees to tell a remarkable personal narrative of persecution and escape on the condition that his identity not be revealed. As a means of fulfilling that wish, his filmmaker friend uses striking animation to not only protect this young man but also enhance his tale, bending time and memory to recount a visceral, poetic, and death-defying journey dictated by deception, loneliness, and a relentless will to survive." I'm hoping this doc is as powerful and unforgettable as it sounds like it might be.
More Doc Films I'm Looking Forward To Seeing: Sam Hobkinson's Misha and the Wolves, Michelle Latimer's Inconvenient Indian, Sushmit Ghosh & Rintu Thomas' Writing With Fire, Isabel Bethencourt & Parker Hill's Cusp, Salomé Jashi's Taming the Garden, Hogir Hirori's Sabaya, Camilla Nielsson's President, Yoni Brook & Ted Passon's Philly D.A., Peter Nicks' Homeroom, and also Ali El Arabi's Captains of Zaatari.
For all of Alex's Sundance 2021 reviews and updates: Follow @firstshowing
For more Sundance 2021 previews around the web, highlighting early picks and potential breakouts, see: The Film Stage's 15 Most-Anticipated Premieres, Indiewire's 15 Must-See Festival Films You Can Stream at Home, RogerEbert.com's 12 Films We Can't Wait to See, + Nerdist's What We’re Looking Forward To. You never know what might be a big hit, and it's vital to have a pulse on the early buzz – even before the festival starts. It still looks like a very promising and impressive line-up of new films to discover this (virtual) year.
You can follow our Sundance 2021 coverage and updates in this category. The festival kicks off on January 28th and runs until February 3rd, with films premiering online + locally. Hoping the festival still runs well.