Sundance 2021: Alex's Top 10 Favorite Films - Best of the 2021 Festival
by Alex Billington
February 11, 2021
The 2021 Sundance Film Festival wrapped up last week after a series of virtual premieres and localized "satellite" screenings around the country. Now it's time to present our Best of the Fest list. I was able to catch a total of 44 films this year, watching online from home (to stay safe and sound). But I couldn't catch everything and missed a few films getting tons of good buzz (as is always the case). Nevertheless, I saw a great deal of outstanding, high quality features this year. I am presenting one big list of my 10 favorite films - a mix of docs and features. All of these below are worth watching, and I highly recommend seeking them out. I'm glad Sundance continues to program some of the best films all year, as well as more innovative, unique, challenging, experimental, and totally wild & crazy features from all around the world. Below are my favorites, the films that connected with me and have remained on my mind all the way through the festival.
I watched all of my Sundance 2021 films at home this year, sitting on my couch, viewing non-stop all day for one week straight (plus a few extra screeners before/after as provided by publicists). The big relief this year is that Sundance still programmed an incredibly strong set of films in the 2021 line-up, despite the isolation of the pandemic year before, and the virtual screening system, and other limitations recently. And almost everything I watched, even films I didn't care for, still had a top notch quality to them. Cinema at its very best. Even the films I didn't like I appreciated their voice and their ambition, what they were trying to do, and I glad they connected with some other viewers. This is what Sundance is really all about, highlighting talented artists and remarkable filmmakers who are putting everything into telling stories that challenge our way of thinking and allows us to see different perspectives. And this is exactly why I love film fests so much.
While I saw many films that I enjoyed (my full list of 44 here), there were quite a few I missed even though I heard good things about them. But these are my favorite films from this year's festival that I did get to see.
Alex's Top 10 Favorite ~Sundance 2021~ Films:
Directed by Sian Heder
This is unquestionably my #1 favorite of the festival - I felt such a rush of joy and happiness and love and compassion watching this film during Opening Night. And I watched it a second time at the end to confirm - and it was just as wonderful as my first viewing. CODA (which is actually an acronym that stands for Child of Deaf Adults) is a sensational film about a Deaf family with a singer daughter that is a complete revolution for Deaf cinema. I LOVE the father – played by Troy Kotsur – he is one of my favorite characters in any film this year so far. CODA has all these perfectly crafted scenes in it built on compassion & understanding, and it just goes from beautiful moment to moment with such confidence and ease. Each time we get to these beautiful scenes they're so breathtaking and wholesome. Sian Heder so wonderfully gets great performances from her cast in each scene and knows how to perfectly setup and play out all the moments. It's just magic.
One for the Road
Directed by Baz Poonpiriya
Wowwww! Totally swept off my feet by this exquisite film from Thailand that was another Opening Day film at Sundance just like CODA. What a marvelously grand story of life and love and the places it takes us. It's brimming with style and humility and complexity and warmth. Makes me love life so much, which is what really stands out. It offers an appreciation for the complexities and the dynamics and the mistakes of life, but with the support of friendship and understanding. The big reveal and the way it deals with the "who are we?" aspects of a person is refreshingly nuanced in peeling back various layers of good and bad that define someone. Baz Poonpiriya is also the same filmmaker who made the cheating students thriller Bad Genius a few years back. I just really dig his flashy style and energy and the vibe of his films. They're a bit cheesy but in exactly the way I like. And this one is my kind of cheesy in the best way, to a point where they even lean into that and make fun of it in a few scenes. It's also one of the finest cinematic love letters to cocktails.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Directed by Shaka King
Now this is a phenomenal film. Right from the start, within a few minutes, I knew this would be something special. The way Shaka King handles the camera, the shots, the way it brings us intimately into these two men's lives, the passionate Black storytelling. Along with the music choices, the script choices, everything just shouts out with confidence. The two lead performances are extraordinary and not just because they're authentic, they're nuanced and vibrant and carefully constructed. Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as Bill O'Neal drive this film right into the heavens as an instant all-timer. It's worth comparing to Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford because it's almost that same story set in the 1960s, and about two Black men. I loved everything about this film and although it was a last minute addition, it certainly deserves to play at Sundance as much as everything else.
John and the Hole
Directed by Pascual Sisto
I love a good fuck-with-the-audience film. Wait, that's not true… I don't always love them. But this one I do love. John and the Hole is a fascinating slowburn mindfuck thriller in addition to the crazy concept of a kid throwing his family into a hole and doing fuck all. Very slick and unsettling filmmaking. It's one of these films that is going to be divisive just because it's so ambiguous and creepy. It's not easy to figure out what the whole point is, and what it's trying to say. Is it a metaphor for this, or for that? The best kind of film to discuss for hours after. I love that kind of unsettling concept when it's done well - and this is a case where the film is so intriguing and mysterious. The cinematography by DP Paul Ozgur is especially outstanding - some of my favorite shots in any film at Sundance 2021. Perfectly framed in the 4:3 ratio. I loved every off-angle shot from the hole up looking at the kid above. And the eerie electro score by Caterina Barbieri is so sumptuous and moody and exquisite. I just want to listen to it on repeat already. A seriously wicked film.
Directed by Ninja Thyberg
Holy smokes this left me in shock. I don't know what I was expecting before watching this, but I'm glad I finally watched it because it really is some of the most ambitious and courageous bleeding-edge filmmaking this year. It's not easy to pull this off. Pleasure is Swedish filmmaker Ninja Thyberg's journey into the depths of the porn industry in California, and how fucked up it all is. Sofia Kappel plays the young woman who wants nothing more than fame and glory as she navigates the abuse and harassment in the industry attempting to reach the top as fast as she can. The film acts as a metaphor for so many different non-explicit jobs and personalities. It's not just about sex, it's about everything, so many people end up like she does, caught up in a lust for attention without realizing she's becoming her own worst nightmare. And the most brilliant part is that to tell this story, to make us see what's really going on, Thyberg uses literally the most explicit industry that exists to shock us and make sure we're left with our eyes open wider than ever before.
This is my favorite quirky, weird cinema discover of Sundance 2021. Writers/directors Kentucker Audley & Albert Birney channel Michel Gondry to tell this lo-fi, wacky fable about how amazing love can be. This wins the award for best title card at Sundance. I just loved everything about it. Strawberry Mansion is the best Michel Gondry film not made by Michel Gondry. The whole film I kept getting more and more excited as it kept getting weirder and wackier and yet the core of it, the love story, keeps it all together. So many unforgettable lines. "So I turned myself into a caterpillar." Now I want to lick the ice cream cone, too. You probably won't understand what that means until you see it, but when you do it will ALL make sense. The film is similar to The Science of Sleep (one of my personal all-timers) - strange creations galore, dreamy visuals, weird FX, all with an anti-capitalist edge. It played right to me in every way and I totally fell for it.
Summer of Soul
Directed by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson
Oh my lorddddd this is marvelous. What an outstandingly groovy music + history doc sensation. Questlove's Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is more than just a concert doc, it contextualizes everything teaching us lessons about American history and civil rights along the way. The "Aquarius"/"Let the Sunshine In" performance is gloriously mind blowing. And "My Girl!!" Every last performance is glorious. What a treat that we all finally get to enjoy this iconic concert after so many years of it being lost. Questlove does wonders with all this footage they found and adds in much more than just a presentation of the performances. His extra touches and edits are impressive for filmmaker's feature debut making a profoundly historic doc like this. And I also love a good concert doc that just lets the songs play so we can enjoy them without cutting away too early. It's the perfect film to dance to non-stop while watching.
Playing with Sharks
Directed by Sally Aitken
Sharks! Everyone loves sharks! "Don't tell me they don't have personalities. They do." But there was a time when everyone hated sharks, and there was also a time when no one knew anything about sharks to begin with. Sally Aitken's superbly entertaining Playing with Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story is the definitive documentary about humanity's connection with sharks - including a huge section on Jaws, of course. This really is similar to the other doc Jane, but about the intrepid diver Valerie Taylor from Australia. I am in awe at her story - going all the way from "no one had ever taken video of a Great White Shark in the water before" all the way to saving Great White Sharks through conservation programs. Sharks are just the best. This film would make a great double feature with My Octopus Teacher. It's a wonderful documentary and I especially enjoyed hearing her wisdom on the ocean: "I was never a part of that world, I was just a visitor."
Captains of Zaatari
Directed by Ali El Arabi
This is a really warm-hearted, uplifting film. For all that we read about the news and struggles in "far away" places like the Middle East, it's hard to truly grasp the scope and scale of what's really happening on this planet with billions of people. But this is an exceptional film that perfectly captures and shares with all of us the heartwarming humanity of young people who just happen to be Syrian refugees. It's a whole new take on refugees in cinema. And we get to understand them and see just how much they're all exactly like us - people with hopes and dreams and distinct personalities and desires and lives they want to live. And for all the refugee stories being told, this film refreshingly goes against the grain by showing us a story of hope and joy and happiness, in opposition to all the sadness and pain. Which is just so moving. I can't help but feel awash with a feeling of goodness and positivity after watching this, and I think that's some of the highest praise I can offer to a film telling a depressing story like this. "All a refugee needs is an opportunity, not your pity."
Directed by Karen Cinorre
Still one of my favorites even though it doesn't seem many other critics enjoyed it as much as I did. This film is just awesome. Yeah the fighting-the-patriarchy concept is especially obvious but I dig it, I really dig it anyway. Karen Cinorre visualizes "smash the patriarchy" by following a young woman into a world where a small group of ladies are literally fighting a war with men. It has just the right amount of grittiness and brutal honesty. I really believe this version of the "fight" is important to rile people up, give them something to think about. The film has an air of confidence that gives is an iconic feel - the main submarine set piece and the minimalism of the rest of the location where they're at. The performances are slick and believable. It's the kind of provocative film that will be too edgy for some, but is my kind of radical. I don't even care that it hits all the obvious beats making its point - this film is gnarly awesome and I'm just so glad it exists.
To find all of Alex's Sundance 2021 reviews and updates: Follow @firstshowing
I also recorded a podcast chat about Sundance films with Aaron & David on the Out Now Podcast - listen to that episode here. And here's a list of my Top 20 favorite films on my Letterboxd page. Thanks for following.
For other Sundance 2021 best of the fest lists mentioning more films we didn't see or didn't include here, check out: The Film Stage's The Best Films of Sundance Film Festival 2021, Mashable's 7 films to know from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, AV Club's The best films of Sundance 2021, Film School Reject's The Best Movies We Saw at Sundance 2021, SlashFilm's The Best Films of Sundance 2021 podcast discussion, Vox's 12 movies that everyone will be talking about this year and 15 documentaries to look for this year from Sundance, The Guardian's From raw drama to foot trauma: the best of Sundance 2021, Rolling Stone's The Best Movies We Saw at Sundance 2021, and Indiewire's annual Critics Survey of the Best Movies. Our list isn't the only list of favorites from Sundance! There are many other great films from this year that deserve your time & attention whenever they show up in your neighborhood. Keep an eye out for all of these films.
You can find all our Sundance 2021 coverage and reviews in this category. This wraps up our coverage of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, my 15th year in a row attending it. We'll be back again next year. You can also find my thoughts on every film I saw posted on my Letterboxd. Always love to discover new filmmakers.