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Hollywood Insider Sundance Film Festival 2021 Highlights

Photo: Sundance Film Festival 2021

And with that, the 2021 Sundance Film Festival has officially come to an end.

Needless to say, this year things have been different on account of the pandemic. Gone are the usual trappings: the sight of celebrities descending onto wintry Park City, the sponsored after-parties, and so forth. In fact, there were fewer movies than usual—72 feature films compared to last year’s 128. And while in-person screenings were still held in theaters and drive-ins in some parts of the United States, this year’s festival went virtual with streaming movies and filmmaker Q&As.

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And while it’s no substitute for the experience of actually being there in-person, Sundance 2021 went off without a hitch. We still got a solid showcase of promising independent films hoping to follow in the footsteps of (from last year) ‘Palm Springs’, ‘Promising Young Woman’, or ‘The 40-Year-Old Version’. And considering how restrictive access to film festivals tend to be, this year has been fairly egalitarian in terms of access. With tickets starting at $15 for a single film, there was an opportunity for general audiences to at least sample the lineup: we here at Hollywood Insider got to review a couple of the films showcased.

So here are some of the highlights and much-buzzed projects from the Sundance Film Festival 2021, in alphabetical order:

The Blazing World

Probably best known for her work on MTV’s ‘Scream: The TV Series’, actress Carlson Young makes her directorial debut with this fairy tale-esque horror-thriller. Still grieving the death of her twin sister, a self-destructive young woman (played by Young herself) returns to her family home. She soon finds herself transported to an alternate dimension where a mysterious figure (German actor Udo Kier) offers her the chance to save her sister. To quote our review of the film, “There’s something endearing, even inspiring, about Young’s ‘throw everything in and see what sticks’ approach to storytelling”. The film embraces its stylish and surreal vibe—Young absolutely commits to it for better or worse. Whatever narrative flaws aside, the film signals her as a talent worth keeping an eye on.

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CODA

From writer-director Sian Heder, ‘CODA’ is hands-down the breakout hit of this year’s Sundance, having won the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award, the Directing Award for Heder, and an award for its ensemble cast; Apple TV+ has already acquired the film’s distribution rights for a whopping $25 million, beating last year’s $22 million deal for ‘Palm Springs’. A remake of a 2014 French film ‘La Famille Bélier, the film follows a teen girl (Emilia Jones) who’s the only hearing member of a deaf household—the title is short for “Child of Deaf Adults”—who finds herself torn between her familial obligations and pursuing her dreams of being a singer. The general consensus among critics is that while formulaic, the film is a genuine crowd-pleaser. It’s also another showcase for disabled representation, with deaf actors Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, and the great Marlee Matlin playing the family.

Cryptozoo

And here’s another one that we got to review. From writer-director-animator Dash Shaw comes this very adult animated film. Set in a world where cryptids—mythical creatures—are real and are feared and hunted by humans, the film follows a woman (Lake Bell) who works for a cryptid sanctuary as she’s tasked with finding the cryptid Baku, and finds herself competing against hunters for the U.S government who want to capture and weaponize the Baku against counterculture protesters. That admittedly sounds like a lot; the consensus among critics is that it’s style over substance—in our review, we noted how the film buckles under all the weight of its themes (in addition to its political overtones, the film also tackles capitalism). Still, the ambition on display here can’t be denied, as well as the film’s stunning animation.

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Flee

From Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen and executive produced by Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, ‘Flee’ is an intriguing entry in the true-life documentary field, told with a mix of animation (shades of ‘Waltz with Bashir’) and archival footage. In the film, Rasmussen interviews his friend “Amin”—whose real name and identity are kept confidential—and traces his journey as a refugee from Afghanistan to living in Copenhagen. Another aspect of the story is Amin coming to terms with his sexuality and learning to live as an openly gay man. This looks to be a vivid, personal and powerful tale of the plight of refugees and of one man’s self-discovery.

Jockey

It’s always great when a veteran character actor gets his or her time to shine in a rare lead role. And for actor Clifton Collins Jr. (best known for his work in ‘Traffic’, ‘Capote’, ‘Pacific Rim’, and HBO’s ‘Westworld’), ‘Jockey’ does just that. Here he plays an aging jockey at the twilight of his career as a professional horse racer. As he prepares for what might be his final championship with his trainer (Molly Parker) and a new horse, he’s also thrown for a loop when he meets a young jockey (Moises Arias) who claims to be his son and who he takes under his wing. Dramatic yet understated, the film serves as a showcase for the more-than-capable Collins, winning him the Special Jury Award for Best Actor at the festival.

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Judas and the Black Messiah

While not an independent film—it’s released by Warner Bros. and is coming to theaters and HBO Max on the same day as part of their agreement—’Judas and the Black Messiah’ did make its world premiere here at Sundance. The film tells the true story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the charismatic leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and his betrayal at the hands of petty criminal turned FBI informant William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) who infiltrated the Party. Awards buzz has definitely built for Kaluuya’s work, earning him nominations from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards. And we echo their sentiment in our review of the film: the cast is aces (Stanfield is excellent in capturing his character’s internal conflict), with Kaluuya especially as “a force to be reckoned with, employing serene speeches and charming humanism that make him lovable and resplendent as Fred Hampton”. And the themes of Black voices fighting for a revolution—their equal rights—against a system hell-bent on undermining and silencing them still resonates to this day.

Mass

Years after a mass shooting, two grieving couples who each lost a son (one was a victim, the other was the killer) meet face-to-face for a conversation in the hopes of finding closure and catharsis. That about sums up ‘Mass’, written and directed by actor Fran Kranz (best known for his collaborations with Joss Whedon in ‘Dollhouse’ and ‘The Cabin in the Woods’) in his directorial debut. The emphasis here is less on the political and more on the emotional as the parents work through their grief and feelings of guilt. Expect powerhouse performances from actors Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney.

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On the Count of Three

Comedian Jerrod Carmichael makes his directorial debut with this dark comedy-drama from writers Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, the co-creators of ‘Ramy’. The film follows two best friends, played by Carmichael and Christopher Abbott, who have formed a suicide pact and agree to spend their last day helping each other tie up loose ends. Despite the dark subject matter, which also appears to touch on depression and mental health, there are also moments of levity thanks to strong work and great chemistry from Carmichael and Abbott in capturing their characters’ friendship.

Passing

Based on the novel by Nella Larsen, the film also serves as the directing debut of actress Rebecca Hall. ‘Passing’ centers on the reunion of two old friends (Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga) in 1920s New York; the crucial detail here is that despite being Black women, they’re also mixed-race enough that they can “pass” for white—which factors heavily into how they choose to navigate a more prejudiced time. In our review of the film, we praised Thompson’s and Negga’s performances, the visual style (presented in black and white), as well as its thematic depth in tackling the issue of race. Netflix just acquired the film so it shouldn’t be too long before audiences discover it for themselves.

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The Pink Cloud

Eerily prescient: that appears to be a common refrain from critics regarding this Brazilian sci-fi drama. Though written in 2017 and filmed in 2019 by writer-director Iuli Gerbase, the film unwittingly predicted our current pandemic-ridden state of things. Taking place in a world where a sudden global outbreak of a mysterious and deadly pink cloud has forced people to stay indoors, the film follows two strangers (Renata de Lélis and Eduardo Mendonça) after a one night stand who wind up having to quarantine together. As their lockdown stretches to years, we witness the couple’s ever-evolving relationship as they try to navigate their new normal. But the emphasis here appears to be less on the dangers of the world and more about the ensuing monotony and the toll it takes on their lives. Again, eerily prescient.

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It

This one’s self-explanatory: a documentary that traces the life and career of Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno from her early days up to her success in Broadway and Hollywood. As we shared in our review, the film touches on the difficulties Moreno faced in navigating an industry that didn’t know what to do with her and would constantly try to pigeonhole her in stereotypical roles. But through interviews with famous fans like Eva Longoria and Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also executive produced the film), a portrait emerges of a woman determined to succeed on her own terms, as well as of a tireless advocate for social justice.

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Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

We know Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson from The Roots, as well as for being Jimmy Fallon’s bandleader. But with ‘Summer of Soul’ he makes his directorial debut with this, a music documentary which explores a forgotten major cultural event: in 1969, the same summer as Woodstock, nearly 300,000 people converged onto a Harlem park to attend the Harlem Cultural Festival. Known as Black Woodstock, it was a series of concerts celebrating Black music and culture, with performances by Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, and many more. Through interviews and restored concert footage, the film is hailed as an exuberant celebration of the Black experience.

Together Together

A caring forty-year-old single man (Ed Helms) ready to be a father hires a young woman (Patti Harrison) as a surrogate to carry his baby. What follows is an unlikely relationship as she tries to keep things casual between them while he’s determined to make a connection with her. This kind of story would usually be prime fodder for a romantic comedy, but writer-director Nikole Beckwith brings something different here with a story of platonic love. It promises to be a smart and funny feel-good comedy with winning performances from Helms and Harrison.

By Mario Yuwono

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An excerpt from the love letter: Hollywood Insider’s CEO/editor-in-chief Pritan Ambroase affirms, “Hollywood Insider fully supports the much-needed Black Lives Matter movement. We are actively, physically and digitally a part of this global movement. We will continue reporting on this major issue of police brutality and legal murders of Black people to hold the system accountable. We will continue reporting on this major issue with kindness and respect to all Black people, as each and every one of them are seen and heard. Just a reminder, that the Black Lives Matter movement is about more than just police brutality and extends into banking, housing, education, medical, infrastructure, etc. We have the space and time for all your stories. We believe in peaceful/non-violent protests and I would like to request the rest of media to focus on 95% of the protests that are peaceful and working effectively with positive changes happening daily. Media has a responsibility to better the world and Hollywood Insider will continue to do so.”

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Author

  • Mario Yuwono is from Indonesia, but was born in Italy and attended school in Jakarta, Moscow, Berlin and Los Angeles. He has been obsessed with films ever since he saw his first movie at the age of five, and would go on to spend his younger years reading film encyclopedias and movie guides. Combined with a global upbringing rooted in greater social awareness, this drives him to be more observant of values promoted in films. He believes in cinema’s potential to enable greater empathy and meaningfully expand people’s horizons, in line with Hollywood Insider’s goal. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Screenwriting from California State University in Northridge. Aside from reporting on film, TV and culture, Mario also aspires to write for film and television, and is a strong believer in social change, equality and inclusion.

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