For decades, Sundance Film Festival has been based in Park City, Utah. However, as with everything lately, Sundance Film Festival 2021 shifted to a virtual festival. From January 28 through February 3, the festival films were available to stream via Sundance's digital platform.
The 2021 Sundance Film Festival included 72 feature films from 29 countries (the majority were world premieres) and 50 short films. Half of the feature films were directed by women or non-binary individuals. Of the combined 122 film slate, 51% were directed by one or more filmmakers of color and 15% by one or more people who identify as LGBTQ+.
As much as traipsing around Park City would have been a blast, I was able to screen so many more films from the comfort and warmth of my own ski chalet in Vermont. Here are reviews of the movies I saw as part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Must-See Movies from Sundance Film Festival 2021
Heder's Coda is a remake inspired by the 2014 French film The Bélier Family. I'm almost always leary of remakes, especially by Americans, but I wasn't disappointed in Heder's vision.
Coda is an endearing family drama about a child who is the youngest child and only hearing member of deaf family at a crossroads in her life, conflicted between her obligation to her family and her passion for music. Ruby has always been an outlier—she's the only person in her immediate family who can hear and speak. While her friends are off being normal high schoolers, Ruby is helping her family's business by pulling up fishing nets at 3 a.m. and usually acts as the family interpreter, as well. Even in school, Ruby struggles with being an awkward teen as she is the most talented in her choir, yet still uncomfortable around her peers.
Emilia Jones as Ruby does a fantastic job as Ruby. You may have seen Joneson Netflix's “Locke & Key” in 2020. Eugenio Derbez as a supporting actor offers a beautiful catalyst as her choir teacher. If you think you've seen him before, you probably have. He's Hawthorne in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, in the remake of Overboard, and also in Dora the Explorer. He also voices Dr. Arturo Santiago in “The Casagrandes.”
Overall, Coda was brilliant, beautiful, and sweet coming-of-age-story for a coastal-Massachusetts teen. It was a poignant family drama rooted in love for family vs. passion. At times the plot depends too heavily on the idealization of forcing Ruby to be the family's live-in interpreter and imagining what life would be like without Ruby. Spoiler alert: it would be incredibly difficult, so obviously their choices seem pretty selfish. However, while the script lends itself to empathize with Ruby's family, they do recognize that Ruby is growing up and has dreams of her own, but the heavy emphasis on the plot of love for family vs. love passion takes away from some of what could have been an even stronger movie about a hearing child in a family with deaf parents.
Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of a deaf family. At 17, she works mornings before school to help her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant) keep their Gloucester fishing business afloat. But in joining her high school’s choir club, Ruby finds herself drawn to both her duet partner (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and her latent passion for singing. Her enthusiastic, tough-love choirmaster (Eugenio Derbez) hears something special and encourages Ruby to consider music school and a future beyond fishing, leaving her torn between obligation to family and pursuit of her dream.
Siân Heder’s heartwarming, exuberant follow-up to Tallulah (2016 Sundance Film Festival) brings us inside the idiosyncratic rhythms and emotions of a deaf family—something we’ve rarely seen on screen. In developing CODA, which stands for Child of Deaf Adults, Heder was determined to tell the story authentically with deaf actors. Her writing and direction—layered, naturalistic, frank, and funny—finds perfect expression in richly drawn characters and a uniformly outstanding cast, led by Jones in a fantastic breakout performance.
Runtime: 111 minutes
Director/Screenwriter: Siân Heder
Country: United States
Release: Apple TV+, TBD
Judas and the Black Messiah
The Black Panthers are the single greatest threat to our national security. Our counterintelligence program must prevent the rise of a Black messiah from among their midst. –FBI director J. Edgar Hoover
Judas and the Black Messiah opens in 1968 with this quote from Hoover (portrayed by Martin Sheen).
This crime-thriller-meets civil-rights-historical-drama, Judas and the Black Messiah, tells the story of the rise of the Black Panther Party’s deputy chairman—Fred Hampton—and Bill O'Neal, the informant who helped the FBI orchestrate Hampton's assassination. This film highlights the legacy of COINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgram, 1956–unknown) of repressing Black freedom movements. As much as this is a movie is a historical drama about O'Neal, the Black Panther Party, and the assassination of Hampton nearly a half-century ago, its very much a movie of the moment given that the effects are still very much alive today in regard to both the Black Lives Matter Movement and the disparities by law enforcement today.
Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton and car thief/FBI informant LaKeith Stanfield were phenomenal in their roles. While Kaluuya and Stanfield worked together on the 2017 film Get Out, the pair portray a relationship as though they truly have the friendship and closeness Hampton and O'Neal would have had.
King's masterful storytelling is a tale of a magnetic leader that doesn't fit with the government's narrative on racism who in essence pays the price for being vocal about what he believes in, a theme that is as relatable as it is relevant.
About Judas and the Black Messiah
Fred Hampton’s cathartic words “I am a revolutionary” became a rallying call in 1969. As chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Hampton demanded all power to the people and inspired a growing movement of solidarity, prompting the FBI to consider him a threat and to plant informant William O’Neal to infiltrate the party. Judas and the Black Messiah not only recounts Hampton’s legacy and the FBI’s conspiring but also gives equal footing to the man who became infamous for his betrayal—highlighting the systems of inequality and oppression that fed both of their roles.
Director Shaka King returns to the Sundance Film Festival with an incredible cast of Sundance alums led by Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield. Kaluuya channels Hampton’s ability to energize and unite communities, while Stanfield taps into the anguish of a man with conflicting allegiances. Dominique Fishback also stands out in her reserved yet confronting performance as Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s life partner. King’s magnetic film carries themes that continue to resonate today and serves as a reminder of the potent power of the people.
Runtime: 126 mins.
Director: Shaka King
Release date: February 12 (HBO Max & in theaters)
It wasn't Robin Wright's intention to also star in her directorial debut Land. However, as we all know, things don't always go as planned. Budget constraints forced Wright to portray Edee, a woman who moves to a log cabin in an attempt to move past a tragic event in her life.
Edee leaves her life behind in Chicago and sets out on a journey of self-healing, discovery, and isolation in the Rocky Mountains. She quickly realizes she's in over her head as far as her survival skills go but is seemingly is okay with it. With about 30 minutes of the opening with nearly no dialogue, we get a glimpse of Edee's past and mindset to understand the grief she has experienced.
Land is a beautiful, intimate movie highlighting the beauty of the world and the wild and dangers that lurk within that beauty.
A story about healing and the transcendent power of human kindness, Land follows the journey of a woman searching for a new way to live in the wake of a life-altering loss. Edee Holzer (Robin Wright) removes herself from society to embark on a solitary existence in the remote mountain wilderness of Wyoming. Living off the grid without any prior wilderness experience, Edee is buffeted by the elements and unprepared for nature’s formidable realities. She struggles mightily against odds that grow steeper by the day, but a timely encounter with a local man, Miguel Borras (Demián Bichir), opens the door to a deeper understanding of nature as he teaches her the skills she needs to survive. An unexpected friendship develops between two wounded souls and a bond that confers healing and grace.
Acclaimed actress Robin Wright returns to the Sundance Film Festival with her directorial debut, set in the picturesque but unforgiving wilds of nature. Wright stands out in her performance as Edee, a woman lost in grief, while Demián Bichir's subdued and charming presence depicts an unexpected and reflective companion who questions Edee’s abrupt choices. Land is a quiet yet masterful journey into the complex desire for solitude as a woman searches for meaning in the vast and harsh American wilderness.
Runtime: 89 mins.
Director: Robin Wright
Release: February 12
World to Come
“With little pride and less hope, we begin the new year.” These are the words from Abigails' diary at the opening of World to Come. The 18th-century romance between two women in rural New York most assuredly depicts the anxiety, bitterness, and tumult Abigail experiences as she has resigned herself to a life of unhappiness on the homestead: grief from the loss of a child and a discontent marriage with her abusive husband. New neighbors move in, and Abigail befriends the wife, Tallie. Tallie is nothing like Abigail; she's confident and worldly, and their friendship swiftly turns into a physical one. At one point, Tallie asks Abigail what she thinks about the two of them together, and Abigail responds that she does not, “know how to put it into words.” While the subject of their relationship was taboo for the time period, Fastvold delicately handles the relationship as a component of the isolation these women face and how they rely on one another as they are each trapped within their own bleak lives.
About World to Come
In eighteenth-century upstate New York, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is increasingly defeated by grief and the drudgery of rural life. Her deference and propriety maintain a mundane equilibrium with her husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck), but her narrated diaries offer a picture of a richer internal life. When spring brings newcomers Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) to the otherwise empty landscape, the journal entries frantically anticipate—and then enthusiastically document—an affair with Tallie. As menial machinations are interrupted and patriarchal sovereignty is questioned both marriages buckle. The wives’ connection is threatened, but Abigail and Tallie’s love for each other is steadfast, both onscreen and in handwritten pages.
Fastvold exquisitely captures the oppression of settler life while adopting a devoutly literary approach to portray her protagonist’s internal life, striking a transportive balance between warmth and chill.
Runtime: 98 mins.
Director: Mona Fastvold
Release date: February 12 (in theaters), March 2 (VOD)
In the Same Breath
At the heart of the ongoing pandemic, we have disinformation and lies—from both the Chinese and the American Governments. Wang’s first-person account of the coronavirus outbreak delivers a sobering message about the dangers of disinformation and the damage they cause.
Her documentary begins with lavish 2020 Chinese New Year celebrations—the last time she was in China—just weeks before the country would go into lockdown and her husband and child narrowly avoided the first wave. Through a montage of home videos and news reports, Wang weaves a picture of the human cost of the pandemic Wang’s family escaped the first wave. The more terrifying part is that the wave had been around them for months, long before Chinese media acknowledged the virus.
But the US Government also gets blasted. The assumption that our democracy operates with any greater level of transparency than an autocracy like China is clearly mistaken. And as Wang says in her documentary, “In both systems, ordinary people become casualties of their leaders’ pursuit of power.”
You could argue that it's easier to see in the day-to-day in China or another country where the government doesn't even pretend to hide its intent. However, 45 telling us masks and social distancing are unnecessary and the COVID will just disappear are similar tactics to the Chinese media all delivering the exact same message.
In the Same Breath is a great watch if you want a better understanding of the timeline and missteps and/or intention disinformation from the leaders in charge of two of the countries with the earliest and largest outbreaks of the coronavirus.
About In the Same Breath
Acclaimed filmmaker Nanfu Wang navigates the origin and spread of COVID-19 from Wuhan to the United States through a lens both personal and geopolitical in scale. The result is a wrenching, wide-reaching documentary that contextualizes the trauma experienced by health-care workers and the families of loved ones lost. At the same time, the documentary probes President Xi Jinping’s and President Donald Trump’s eerily similar responses to the pandemic: Both men spread disinformation and sowed mass confusion during the most critical moments of the pandemic.
By detailing scores of firsthand Chinese and American interviews, Wang methodically builds a devastating indictment of leadership’s response to the pandemic, pointing to an unprecedented level of deception and ineptitude from the highest levels of government. The result is a tragedy born out of a rapid domino effect of cover-ups, mismanagement, and lies. Despite the infuriating revelations, this film lays bare, its lasting power rests in the stories of individuals who risked everything for others—and for the truth.
Runtime: 95 mins.
Director: Nanfu Wang
Release date: TBD (HBO Max)