The Sundance Film Festival kicks off today. Last year, it was one of the few major gatherings—and the only big film festival—that managed to occur before everything shut down in March due to COVID. This year, the festival has gone remote. Beyond the inherent strangeness of a remote festival, this is also a slightly strange Sundance as the fest continues to try to redefine itself and draw back the Hollywood presence (though it is still the site of blockbuster acquisition deals, like last year’s record-breaking Palm Springs sale). They’ve been trying to de-glamour Sundance for the last few years, and nothing will kill glamour faster than a pandemic. This is probably one of those, “We didn’t mean it like THIS!” moments for the fest organizers. Still, there are many films premiering over the next ten days, and some of them actually look good, like Judas and the Black Messiah, which I am only not listing because it was meant to open in 2020 and was already on the radar before it got pushed due to the pandemic. Sundance is a good place to premiere it, though, since director Shaka King and producer Ryan Coogler first met at Sundance nearly a decade ago. Here is a list of ten films to keep an eye on in the Sundance class of 2021.
Siân Heder’s latest film stars Emilia Jones as Ruby, a child of deaf adults. As the only hearing member of her family, Ruby is torn between her dream of becoming a musician and helping with her family’s fishing business when it is threatened. Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur, both deaf actors, star as Ruby’s parents. Between this, Sound of Metal, and deaf superheroes arriving in the MCU, we’re reaching an unprecedented though wildly overdue level of deaf representation in pop culture.
Eight for Silver
A werewolf movie starring Boyd Holbrook, Eight for Silver has to overcome the recent but extremely long shadow cast by The Wolf of Snow Hollow, the best werewolf movie in recent memory. Director Sean Ellis has a knack for eerie, character-driven horror, though, so maybe he can carve a little sunlight in Snow Hollow’s shadow. Mostly I’m here for Holbrook, one of those performers I will watch do anything, and for Kelly Reilly, a criminally underappreciated actress.
How It Ends
Co-written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, How It Ends is an end-of-the-world comedy, which feels fitting for the times. The cast is headlined by Olivia Wilde and Helen Hunt, and it’s about a woman going to her last party on her last night on Earth. This is the kind of film that can sweep away a half-crazed festival audience, only to flounder later when unleashed on the wider world. I’m SO curious to see how films like this play in a virtual environment, and if it leads to more or less hype during the festival.
A Swedish horror film from Frida Kempff, Knocking stars Cecilia Milocco as Molly, a woman plagued by a noise in her apartment which no one else can hear. Thanks to the pandemic and self-isolation, there is now a sub-genre of film I call “accidental pandemic flick”, which are movies not made during or about the pandemic that nonetheless reflect our pandemic times (prime example: Palm Springs). Knocking sounds like one such movie, being about isolation, undisclosed trauma recovery, and the weird things we hear, see, and do when locked up alone with ourselves for too long.
Robin Wright makes her directorial debut with Land, in which she also stars as a woman recovering from a near death experience. It looks appropriately cold and harshly beautiful, with bonus points for giving Demian Bichir something to do on screen. I am worried about that dog, though. Survivalist movies always make me nervous for the dog. I am also worried that the car accident that killed Demian Bichir’s family will also turn out to have killed Robin Wright’s family, too, which would make me want to hurl myself into the sun. Here’s hoping Land isn’t that maudlin and basic, and that Robin Wright does something interesting with her directorial debut.
Whedonverse alum Fran Kranz is also making his directorial debut with Mass, which he also wrote, a film about super sad people being super sad. Seriously, it’s about parents of a dead child confronting the parents of their child’s murderer, so prepare the tissues in advance. The cast includes Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd, and Martha Plimpton and the film was inspired by the Parkland shooting. Mass sounds like equal parts Rabbit Hole and We Need to Talk About Kevin and if it’s even halfway decent will be incredibly hard to watch. If you ever wonder why I recommend kooky genre films, it’s because I also have to watch films like Mass and need a f-cking break.
On the Count of Three
Here’s a film that could go either way. Jerrod Carmichael’s feature film directorial debut, On the Count of Three is about two best friends, played by Carmichael and Christopher Abbott rocking a Good Time look, who are in a suicide pact on the supposed last day of their lives. The cast is stacked with comedians, including Tiffany Haddish, JB Smoove, and Lavell Crawford—plus Henry Winkler—but the subject matter is heavy and the film is categorized as a drama. The Carmichael Show was excellent, if underappreciated, so I think he CAN do it, but this is quite a tonal tightrope to walk, and I am super curious to see how Carmichael does it.
It’s a year of directorial debuts, as Rebecca Hall is ALSO making her directorial debut with Passing. Adapted by Hall from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as Black women living on opposite sides of the color line in the 1920s, since one of the women is “passing” for white. This is sure to be one of the buzziest titles of the entire festival, and as it does not yet have distribution, will likely be one of the fest’s big acquisitions.
Prisoners of Ghostland
Oh look, a kooky genre film just when everyone needs a break. Japanese director Sion Sono and Nicolas Cage team up for a crime thriller involving kidnapping and evil curses. Three years ago, Sundance gave us Mandy, one of the best and wildest Nic Cage movies of all time, so here’s hoping for a repeat with Prisoners of Ghostland (though nothing will probably ever top Mandy and its blood-soaked, cocaine-fueled climax). If it’s at least a third as good as Mandy, we’re in for something strange for sure.
Patti Harrison is everywhere this year, from comedy specials to family films to Sundance. Let this be the year of Patti Harrison! She stars alongside Ed Helms in Together Together, a film from Nikole Beckwith about a 40-something single guy who hires a woman to be his surrogate when he decides to start a family on his own. It’s being billed as a “non-romance”, probably to emphasize that though it stars a guy and a girl and a pregnancy plot, this is not a rom-com. Tig Notaro and Julio Torres co-star, two people always worth watching. This is actually a pre-fest purchase by Bleecker Street, and it will be interesting to see if they decide to go ahead and roll this film out on demand in the next few months, or hold it for theatrical audiences later this year (or next year). It’s going to be so hard to judge these things with no live audience to react to the films this year. Together Together sounds great, I hope it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.