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2021 Sundance: Dylan Dempsey’s Top 5 Most Anticipated

2021 Sundance: Dylan Dempsey’s Top 5 Most Anticipated

Before COVID, we had pre-existing conditions: closing theaters, last-resort blockbusters and evolving formats. Now, in the midst of this long winter that some call ‘peak’ COVID, we have the explosion of subscription services. These changes aren’t bad news; they’re a bellwether for the industry’s long-term realignment. But what role will the virtual film festival play? In this latest chapter, Sundance has created an accessible—and perhaps more democratic—digital platform for indie artists: a way for an even wider audience to join the collective conscience after a year of dread and isolation. In past years, both onscreen and off, film festivals have been a microcosm of the world at large: shared encounters, shared cultures, shared emotions, all up close and personal. But now, we’re like the kids who can no longer have playdates: remote learning is the rule. The electricity of in-person exchanges has been replaced by living room chats, zooms and memes. How will this isolation affect us? Only time will tell. Mental health and cultural and artistic development are at stake—and all of it hinges on shared experiences. The flipside is, there will always be cultural buzz, and if we’re lucky, good content. This year’s Sundance—after 2020’s incumbent-filled program—promises a tighter, riskier, less profit-driven selection of not-yet-known artists. Of the 72 feature films in this year’s slate, 38 are first-time directors. And, based on the synopses alone, many of these projects sound completely bonkers … even by Sundance standards. (Look up John and the Hole and Mother Shmuckers.) Meaning a host of fresh and original voices will get the chance to shine. James Baldwin once described the raison d’être of artists as “To Disturb the Peace.” Here are five features in this year’s selection that I hope will do exactly that.

Graphic novelist/animator Dash Shaw makes his Sundance debut with Cryptozoo, an animated feature about mythical beast-zookeepers chasing after the dream-eating Baku of Japanese folklore. If you were lucky enough to catch Shaw’s absurdly hilarious My Entire High School is Sinking Into The Sea (2016), you have an idea what to expect: the unexpected. Shaw’s style is rife with trippy comedy and throwaway gags, but—even in its most surreal moments—it comes from a place of honesty. Shaw’s talented wife and animator, Jane Samborski, is once again part of the team, painting “cryptids” and directing animation. That, plus a cast primed for dry humor—including Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Angeliki Papoulia, Zoe Kazan and Peter Stormare—seems like a recipe for one of this year’s most imaginative films.

Sundance shorts alum and award-winner Carey Williams (Emergency) presents his first feature, R#J: a gen-Z spin on Romeo & Juliet told entirely via smart-phone screens. Think Searching meets Shakespeare by way of Hamilton’s hip revisionist history (writer/director Williams and his primary cast are all POCs). What happens when you couple the anachronistic morality of Verona streets with social media shade? Cultural commentary confirmed. Also worth noting: technology is such a given, it has become the structural foundation for an increasing number of films in recent memory (Sundance 2020’s Spree). This means gimmicks are a given too; but with Williams at the helm, hopefully R#J will transcend. I’ll be waiting for Mercutio to shout out, “A plague on both your collab houses!”

Try Harder!
“In a world where cool kids are nerds.” If the tagline isn’t enough to hook you on this documentary, how about the director Debbie Lum? She won awards at multiple fests for her doc debut Seeking Asian Female (including Best of Fest at Silverdocs and Outstanding Director at LAAPFF). Try Harder! follows seniors in the throes of their college application process at Lowell, the top public high school in San Francisco. The student populace is universally talented, and overwhelmingly Asian-American; the stakes are high and stress levels are higher. Imagine the emotional warzone of teen academia mixed with the rigor of Olympic-level athletes. And it’s even timely: Try Harder! promises to confront race, class, education and mental health issues at a critical time when all students’ futures are put into question.

One for the Road
Baz Poonpiriya’s One for the Road seems like a surefire Sundance hit: an existential road-trip movie between two best friends, one of whom is terminally ill. This may sound similar to past Sundance favorites—like a mad-lib mix of Me, Earl and the Dying Girl and Hearts Beat Loud—but the film takes place in Thailand and comes from a fresh perspective. With just two films under his belt, Thai writer/director Baz Poonpiriya has made a name for himself throughout Asia. His debut Countdown (2012) was Thailand’s Oscar entry; his follow-up Bad Genius (2017) was a box office-smash and swept Thailand’s national film awards; an English-language remake is currently in development. Will this third film cement his reputation in the West? Most tantalizing of all, One for the Road has been blessed by revered Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai: he produced it. Hopefully, this promises a nuanced rendering of the buddy-dramedy genre that Sundance audiences have come to know and love.

Judas and the Black Messiah
It may seem antithetical to include such a high-profile entry on this list, but Judas and the Black Messiah has the potential to be as incendiary as its subject matter. Recounting the true story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the firebrand Illinois Black Panther chairman, and William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), the FBI informant who betrayed him, this 70’s-set drama carries powerful present-day commentary. Following a year rife with racial tension (and progress), audiences have never been better primed for such a dive into fraught history. It also calls to mind the statistic released by NPR this past week: over the past five years, 135 Black men and women have been fatally shot by police. This alone should help throw the Black Panther’s fate into sharp relief, even for younger viewers. Writer/Director Shaka King—already a three-time Sundance alum for two shorts and one feature, Newlyweeds (2013)—has also flexed his muscles on TV shows like High Maintenance and Random Acts of Flyness … and, as if that’s not enough, Ryan Coogler produced. Warner Bros will release Judas and the Black Messiah on February 12th.

Dylan Kai Dempsey is a New York-based writer/filmmaker. His reviews have been published in Vanity Fair, Variety, No Film School, and He’s also developing a graphic novel as well as his own award-winning pilot script, #Likes4Lucas. He began as a development intern at Bonafide Productions in L.A. and Rainmark Productions in London.

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