2021 Sundance Film Festival: Dylan Dempsey’s Overview & Top 5 Films
Before we head into next week’s SXSW online edition, I thought I’d circle back to the virtual Sundance 2021. This year, the festival reached its widest audience ever—more than 600,000 views total, a 168% increase from last year’s in-person festival—thanks in part to the festival’s most democratic slate to-date, both in terms of content and access. Not to mention, watching Sundance movies in PJs is pretty luxurious. To be able to pause, prepare a meal or take a nap, all in the comfort of home is a far cry from sprinting through slush with a power bar in your pocket just to stand in a long line and freeze. Is Sundance as we knew it a relic? Unlikely. The in-person theater experience has yet to be replicated in VR, the snow-capped roofs and looming mountains can’t be replaced by a green screen zoom background. But at least for now, pandemic-challenged Sundance has found a worthy replacement.The festival’s magic—the quality of the films, the diversity of the voices, the palpable passion from each Q&A—was still present. Other virtual festivals should follow Sundance’s lead.
Of the twenty films I saw this year, each offered unique pleasure. Edgar Wright’s wryly-funny documentary The Sparks Brothers introduced me to a band I’d never heard of; Jerrod Carmichael’s On the Count of Three, the Sundance Screenwriting Award winner, provided black comedy laughs and an all-time performance from Christopher Abbott; The Guit Brothers’ Mother Shmuckers took grotesque hilarity to new levels; Carey Williams’ R#J reimagined Shakespeare for the digital era; Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland gave Nicholas Cage license to be over-the-top; Carlson Young’s The Blazing World reprocessed trauma by steeping our subconscious in ethereal imagery. N.B. I’ve omitted Philippe Lacôte’s mesmerizing Night of the Kings from this list, an excellent film that premiered at the Venice Film Festival. But you should see that too.
Before I get to my top 5, I have one final honorable mention: Sundance’s New Frontiers section. I’ve visited the “VR lounge” at myriad festivals over the past few years, but Sundance 2021 took it to the next level. Perhaps in part due to the lack of in-person distractions, the virtual virtual reality experience proved to be truly memorable. The Sundance festival hub—normally situated in the Park City Mariott—was digitally recreated as a Space Station where guests could gather virtually between screenings. The results were chaotic, genuinely hilarious, and surprisingly magical: the closest we’ll get to a Sundance afterparty in pandemic times. We mingled, discussed films and even danced, each one of us as a bubble-limbed-avatar. At one point, I wound up eavesdropping on a pair of Asian-American filmmakers at the virtual bar. At a normal festival, I might have joined their conversation—but without VR-stalking, I never would’ve gotten such an intimate perspective. Still unpacking that one morally.
In another instance, I attended a screening in a fairly close re-creation of Park City’s Egyptian Theater on Main. As soon as I entered the room, a gregarious festival volunteer in avatar form waved me over to a seat, just as they would have at the in-person festival. When I asked, the guy even gave me a hug; it sounds corny, but you appreciate being able to do something in VR a whole lot more when you can no longer do it in person. Perhaps that’s a telling glimpse of the future. In the meantime, I’ll definitely hug volunteers at my next in-person festival.
Then came the screening, a series of short films. It was a treat to see movies even in a simulated theater, but the real joy was how the virtual experience waylaid all theater etiquette. Midway into the second short another festival attendee promptly sat on my lap. Others ran laps around the theater, clearly still learning their controls. Two avatars got into virtual fisticuffs over a seat, even though there were hundreds of free spaces. The sense of community was undeniable. And in spite of our digital barriers, I found myself connecting with people over the shared novelty—and haphazard obstacles—of attending a virtual event.
All of this may sound trite to someone who has never experienced full-on immersive reality. And that’s the point: VR is still growing, but those who scoff should pay closer attention. Take it from Indiewire’s Chief Film Critic Eric Kohn, another recent convert: he notes that, in the past year of pandemic, VR has become an unexpected tool for sociopolitical discourse. When future pandemics keep us apart, we will likely find ourselves even more reliant on this breakthrough software. In past years, I’ve always left Sundance wishing I’d seen just a couple more films; this year the festival ended before I was ready to relinquish my VR privileges.
#5. Coda – Sian Heder
A remake of a French-language film from 2014, La Famille Bélier, Sian Heder’s CODA—aka Child of Deaf Adults—is a deft coming-of-age drama with larger than-life characters and life-affirming resolve. Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of her family; her older brother, Leo (Daniel Durant), and parents Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and Frank (Troy Kotsur) have long relied on her as an interpreter. Will Ruby’s dreams of music school get in the way of the family fishing business? Before you guess, please note: this film swept the Sundance awards and went to Apple TV+ for a record-breaking $25 million—but that’s not why it’s in this Top 5 List. Yes, it smacks of melodrama; yes, it’s by-the-numbers; yes, it lives in a movie world where high school sweethearts stay together and heartbreaks have happy endings. But it also brings bring new life to a familiar formula with strong insights into teenage angst and pitch-perfect performances (including Marlee Matlin, known for her performance in Children of a Lesser God, the only deaf performer to have won an Oscar and the youngest winner in the Academy … ever)—plus a cast of usually-marginalized characters who deserve a place on the universal stage. In fact, scratch that: these are universal characters. We’re just so busy with surface, we forget what matters.
#4. Sabaya – Hogir Hirori
Intensely suspenseful and emotionally rousing, Hogir Hirori’s Sabaya is a documentary about Syrian sex slaves—the titular “Sabaya”—and the people who risk their lives to save them. Punished for being born into the Yazidi religion, the Sabaya are being kidnapped at a young age (one of the film’s subjects is only seven) and “married off” to members of ISIS (or Daesh, a pejorative Arabic acronym used by the film). The terrorist group keeps them captive in Al-Hol, a 73,000-person refugee prison camp, using Yazidism as their justification. The film balances this devastating reality with hopeful undercurrents: a grassroots coalition of “Infiltrators” who rescue Yazidi girls from the camp, often resulting in car-chases and shootouts. These locals are true heroes, many of them former Sabaya women, willing to brave the site of their own trauma in hopes of saving others from a similar fate. In sum, Sabaya is a study in contrasts: human atrocities vs. selfless courage. These conflicts may be far away, but they feel deeply personal—in large part thanks to Hirori. His lens is respectful and unobtrusive, and though he never draws attention to himself, we get the sense that he is equally lion-hearted. Everyone should see this film.
#3. Judas and the Black Messiah – Shaka King
Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah isn’t just timely and incendiary, it’s pure entertainment. Recounting the true story of Fred Hampton, the firebrand Illinois Black Panther chairman (Daniel Kaluuya), and William O’Neal, the FBI informant who betrayed him (Lakeith Stanfield)—with Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s fiancée—this 70’s-set drama gives us both masterful performances and powerful present-day commentary. Following a year rife with racial tension, audiences have never been better primed for a dive into fraught history—and King’s film delivers. Rich with moral qualms and suspense worthy of The Departed, Judas keeps its audience on tenterhooks. Beyond finding thrills in a story whose ending is already well known, this film is tender, sweet, elegiac … and a painful reminder of how little has changed over the past 50+ years.
#2. Flee – Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Evocative animation, first-person pain and a strong dose of hope bring Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s fourth documentary feature into unforgettable focus. Flee tracks the 20-year struggle of an Afghani refugee—pseudonym, Amin Nawabi—and, frankly, it’s riveting. Many films shine a lens on the global refugee crisis, but few are as absorbing and personal: here, the director and his subject are friends, close friends; their recorded interviews give the story its spine. Told through a series of flashbacks—each anecdote accompanied by a mix of vivid hand-drawn and rotoscoped graphics, à la Waltz with Bashir (2008)—this film is both sweeping in scope and intensely intimate. Executive Produced by Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (who will voice the English-language dub), Flee seems destined to appeal to international audiences. You can read my full review here.
#1. Try Harder! – Debbie Lum
In an age of mental health crises for our nation’s youths—with COVID lockdowns, Zoom classrooms, climate change, hate crimes and lack of employment among the causes—no film in Sundance 2021 feels more timely or poignant than Try Harder! Doc-director Debbie Lum’s focus is on upperclassmen at Lowell, the top public high school in San Francisco—known for its universally talented students, its overwhelmingly Asian-American population and its notorious pressure-cooker environment. Lum follows a handful of Lowell juniors and seniors, all with a common goal: to achieve more than their peers and earn a shot at their dream school. These five real-life characters—Alvan, Ian, Rachael, Sophia, and Shea—offer compelling close-ups of a universal struggle: the painful balance between self-esteem and an elusive Mecca. We root for these students, we feel their pain, we exorcise our own lingering demons … and we wind up with important reminders: that we’re not just a race or a test score; that self-actualization matters more than fitting a mold; that acceptance isn’t the only thing determining our fate and value. You don’t have to be a student, parent or teacher to find this film compelling; its mix of narrative cliffhangers and emotional truths speak to all viewers. You can read my full review here.