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.
Holy smokes what a film. Swedish filmmaker Ninja Thyberg brought her feature directorial debut to the Sundance Film Festival this year and it unquestionably made a splash. The film was originally chosen for the 2020 Cannes Film Festival but never premiered because it was cancelled. If it would've premiered at Cannes last year, the whole town would've lost their shit over this film. For sure. It would've been THE hot ticket of the festival. It also became THE hot ticket of Sundance this year, and I'm lucky I had the chance to catch it. Pleasure is an extremely explicit journey deep in the pornography industry in Los Angeles. But it's much more than just that, and when you start to pull it apart and examine what's really going on in the film, it becomes a metaphorical reference for all industries and all kinds of different pursuits in life. We follow this woman who wants to be the biggest pornstar in the world, but realizes that's not as glamorous as it seems.
What would you do if you knew that the world was ending? Liza, played by Zoe Lister-Jones, sleeps in late, then eats the tallest stack of pancakes possible. For her last day on Earth, she decides to participate in her friend's farewell party. But first, Liza has a few tough conversations lying ahead. Lister-Jones, also the co-writer and co-director of How It Ends, perfectly captures Los Angeles' panorama while teaching us about the significance of loving yourself and dealing with past regrets. If you're asking about Liza, there's one weird, most incredible thing about her. No, it's not the fact that she invented an app and now lives in a large, modern house. It's that she is constantly in the presence of her younger self. Younger Liza, played by Cailee Spaeny, is a personification of conscience for the older Liza. She's there to listen to her and advise her. She's usually invisible, but the last day on Earth is exceptional because everyone can finally see her.
Mayday, mayday! It's time to fight the patriarchy! One of my favorite premieres from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival is this gritty war film Mayday, written & directed by filmmaker Karen Cinorre making her feature directorial debut. There are many, many films being made these days about fighting the patriarchy and the power of modern feminism. There are also plenty of films telling stories about women fighting back against abusive men and pushing back against oppressive societies. But few films, few conversations ever, dare to wade into the discussion on toxic feminism. But this film finally does. Mayday is a compelling sci-fi fantasy thriller set in "another place" where a group of women are fighting a never-ending war against men. All men. Soldiers and others that randomly appear in their paradise are swiftly & mercilessly killed. But this film isn't really glorifying violence, it's examining how feminists fight back (literally) against the patriarchy.
The official awards for the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, usually held in Park City, Utah every January, were announced this evening at a fun virtual ceremony live online and hosted by Patton Oswalt. It has been a different year for Sundance-at-home, with plenty of exciting world premieres and a new virtual screening system. But there's still been a wealth of impressive films and unique cinema creations to enjoy, which is quite a relief as we never truly know if there will be good films. But the Sundance 2021 line-up has still been considerably strong despite the tough times. The big winners of the festival this year are first two films that premiered on Opening Night: CODA, directed by Sian Heder, a film about a Deaf family; and Summer of Soul, the documentary by Questlove taking us back to a groovy NYC concert in 1969. All the winners below.
For as long as I've been attending the Sundance Film Festival (since 2007), coming-of-age films have been regular part of their line-up. Year after year, indie coming-of-age flicks premiere at the festival and most of them are quite good… but not always. The coming-of-age concept is always enjoyable and a good setup for new filmmakers, for many reasons, but often because it allows the filmmaker to express their authenticity and their creativity in order to make their particular story unique. The worst kind of coming-of-age films are the formulaic ones with nothing new to add or say. But the ones that risks, and are crafted with originality and ingenuity, always stand out. Kate Tsang's Marvelous and The Black Hole is one of the newest teen coming-of-age films from Sundance that really stands out, and I'm delighted to discover it this year. It's a very lightweight, easy-to-enjoy film about an angsty teen who finds some inspiration thanks to a new friend.
Before blood-dripping horror movies became an integral part of our pop culture, there were "video nasties." The term was born in the UK and referred to the gory, violent films, mostly C-level creations, distributed on VHS tapes and heavily criticized by the press, government, and society. While some people basked in said horrors, at the time the UK government feared for children's safety and the effects that these films could have on individuals. In the Sundance premiere Censor, directed by Prano Bailey-Bond, Enid (played by Niamh Algar) has an unusual job. Depending on the amount of violence in each film, her assignment is to determine whether the horror film passes or is rejected. Her days are saturated with scenes of blood, gore, and oftentimes rape. But she believes thoroughly in her work. Enid prevents people from seeing too much, continuously thinking about their mental health and psyche. She is the titular censor, and she thrives on it.
Hole-y sh*t, indeed. (Let's just get that pun out of the way.) John and the Hole is, in my opinion, one of the finest films premiering at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It's divisive in the best of ways. The film is based around a seriously messed up concept that is meant to be provocative and unsettling, and yet still be compelling in a very cinematic way. It's not at all what I expected (an indie Home Alone re-imagination) instead it's a very dark parable that acts as a metaphor for about 100 different things in society. My theory as to what it means is only what first came to my mind watching, and others will find more connections and references in it. Which is the mark of something brilliant - not only is it oddly alluring to watch, even though you hate what's going on, but in the search for meaning I found so much nuance buried within the frames.
Nothing can compare to that experience of watching a film premiere for its first time, knowing that from this point on it will reshape the industry. That's the case with CODA (which stands for Child of Deaf Adults) - one of the Opening Night films at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Despite all the hardship and challenges over the last pandemic year, there's still some extraordinary films being made just waiting for their chance to shine (and one day play in the cinema again). CODA is one of the best Sundance openers since Whiplash. It is a genuine revolution for Deaf cinema. And I really mean that - it has the power and potential to change everything, from opening the doors to the Deaf community in filmmaking, to changing the way we work with and interact with Deaf individuals all over the world. And it's a wonderful crowd-pleaser to enjoy anyway.
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.
Nothing can stop cinema! Every new year brings us another Sundance Film Festival and with less than two months until Sundance 2021 kicks off on January 28th, it's time to find out what's playing this year. Sundance has revealed their 2021 selection of ALL of their official feature films in the selection this year, including 74 films playing across 9 different categories (including their usual four Competition categories), ranging from thrilling documentaries to bold comedies, provocative dramas, and everything else good. Due to the ongoing pandemic, Sundance is not encouraging anyone to go to Utah, and has chosen a smaller set of films this year (usually it's around ~120). The festival will also be hosting special local "satellite" screening events around America, as well as online screenings, to keep things active. See their entire selection below.