The Best Movies We Saw at Sundance 2021
It was a given that this year’s all-virtual, all-living-room-screenings-all-the-time Sundance was going to seem a little strange. Having experienced a few pandemic-corrective festivals already over the past 10 months, a lot of critics and journalists were already familiar with the drill: log on instead of line up, chat with your peers about recommendations via text and Twitter instead of live and in person, stroll to your bathroom between screenings instead of sprinting to catch shuttles. If you were on the east coast, the massive snow-dump helped create a weird Park City facsimile outside your door. There was still chatter about bidding wars, it just wasn’t happening in hotel-lobby bars this time. (Apple set a new record by paying $25 million for CODA, a dramedy about a child of deaf parents who’s an aspiring singer, and which won both the audience and jury awards for Best U.S. Dramatic Feature.) And when the new festival director Tabitha Jackson presented her opening remarks about the importance of storytelling and giving neglected voices a platform, it felt very much like the Sundance’s kick-offs of yore, with the addition of the serious bookshelf envy you experienced after catching a glimpse of her cozy apartment.
But for folks who still clung to their memories of last year’s event — which, along with Berlin, was one of the few 2020 festivals to go off without a hitch before the world shut down — it was hard not to filter the 2021 edition through the lens of the “old normal” and, as with so many other things in our (temporary?) age of “new normal,” feel a sharp pang of longing. Of course it would be different. We knew this. And yet, seeing the familiar Sundance pre-film roll-call credits on your TV as your family or roommates or pets wandered by, the difference between then and now came clearly, painfully into focus. You cheered the fact that Jackson & Co. were able to put together a festival at all. Virtual film-party room or not, you were also keenly aware of everything that was lost by the necessity of making it an isolated experience that was replicating a traditionally communal one.
If the scaling down of the usual competition, premiere and sidebar-programming lineups meant that your chances of finding a movie that you were really passionate about were a little slimmer, however, it was still possible to see the kind of bold, audacious, and bleeding-edge work that’s kept people coming back to the fest over the years. “This would have killed at the Eccles” was a phrase you saw on social media more than once. And it was a strong year for documentaries, especially ones that traded in the usual moon-spoon-June nonfiction format for something more experimental, abstract and unique. These are a dozen films that made our Sundance 2021 worthwhile. We’ll see you in Park City next year. Fingers crossed.
All Light, Everywhere
Theo Anthony’s titillating and almost unspeakably eerie essay film — his first full-length feature since the equally pointed and free-flowing Rat Film (2016), about race and poverty in Anthony’s hometown of Baltimore — is a collage of ideas and images, associative provocations and revelations, that carefully twine the long connection between of image-making and violence. From excursions into the history of war machines and the early history of cameras to a near-surrealistic tour of Axon International, the most prominent producer of police body cams in the country (how does he convince the company’s head to give him so much unmitigated access?), Anthony leaps between settings, and contexts, and periods in time. In a film about blind spots and what we’ve convinced ourselves can be gleaned from images — knowledge that can kill, knowledge that can criminalize — it’s refreshing that the director himself refuses to be one such blind spot. The ending, which gestures toward the movie this one might have been, proves a case in point. KAC
The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet
Borrowing pages — or more accurately, whole chapters — from Luis Buñuel’s playbook, Argentine filmmaker Ana Katz runs a hapless, sometimes hopeless young man named Sebastian (Daniel Katz, the director’s brother) through a series of oddball scenarios: Neighbors harangue him about his noisy dog (who we never hear bark). His bosses won’t tell him whether he still has a job yet insist he keep checking back in. He stops to help push a stalled truck and accidentally becomes a member of a successful produce collective. Things go from comic to tragic to tragicomic. Then a meteor falls from the sky, and the tone of this satire somehow finds room to balance ridiculousness and poignancy in equal measure. A near-perfect barometer reading of life on Earth over the past 10 months — though Ms. Katz’s absurdist vision would hit home even without a worldwide catastrophe. DF
A young boy growing up in Afghanistan in the 1980s watches as his older brother goes AWOL after being forcibly recruited by the Mujahideen to fight the Soviets. Thanks to the efforts of another sibling living abroad, the whole family is able to leave the country and eventually settle in Europe. Years later, this nameless, now-grown protagonist is a successful academic who’s settled down a supportive boyfriend. When the Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen asks him to recount his story for the camera, however, you can see how being uprooted from his home has never quite been resolved. The result is both an intimate exploration of trauma as well as a chronicle of the universal 20th-century refugee experience, in which that word in the title is a constant way of life. The fact that Rasmussen animates this immigrant’s tale somehow makes it even more graceful and gutting; there’s a sequence near the end that earns the sobs it inspires precisely because of how it’s presented. God bless you, Neon and Participant, for picking this one up for co-distribution. It deserves the widest audience possible. DF
I Was a Simple Man
Christopher Makoto Yogi’s second feature is steeped in the free-flowing dangers of time and memory — not unlike the much sparer Sundance offering Wild Indian, it’s a tale about the guilt of non-white men, born of a history of colonialism, whose relationship to the identity is fraught, frazzled, and constantly questioned. Nominally set in the present among Hawaii’s Japanese community, it’s the story of man (the wondeful Steve Iwamoto) who abandoned his children after his young wife (played by Constance Wu) passed away decades ago. Now, in the wake of terminal illness, he’s visited by ghosts — hers and others. This is a movie that invents its own sense of time and narrative, moving with an unnerving clip between grounded reality and pained fantasy, past and present, the rotting natural world and the internal rot of the figure at its center. In the process, entire histories — ethnic, national, familial, political — get teased out with a subtlety and breadth that will take you aback. KAC
In the Earth
Welcome back, Weird-as-fuck Ben Wheatley — we’ve missed you. After his remote, swing-and-a-miss adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the British filmmaker returns to more familiar grounds, following a scientist (Joel Fry) and a park ranger (Ellora Torchia) as they try to find a remote forest outpost that may have found a cure for, yes, a deadly virus that’s ravaging the globe. (Let it not be said that any number of different Sundance titles this year didn’t reflect the world outside our doors in a myriad of ways.) Then a mysterious stranger (Reece Shearsmith) crosses their path, and shit gets properly weird and tres fucked up. Fans of Kill List and A Field in England — the latter’s pagan-lysergic, Old Weird Britannia vibe is an especially big influence on this — will be please to see that Wheatley’s ability to infuse a genre with singularly unnerving, destabilizing touches has not dimmed. It’s an apocalypse-on-the-verge movie that makes you feel as if the film itself is coming apart at the seams. DF
In the Same Breath
The single most impassioned, surprising, and intelligently designed film I saw at Sundance this year was Nanfu Wang’s COVID-19 chronicle, a story very much cut from the same cloth as her essential 2019 documentary One Child Nation. Here, Wang relies on her own bifurcated perspective to tell the story of the pandemic, collecting information posted on Chinese social networks and residents looking for medical care in the earlier-than-you’d-think days of the fast-spreading virus. She employ a small crew of camera people on the ground in Wuhan (a practicality-turned-directorial masterstroke) to capture as much as they could of interactions in apartment complexes and hospital rooms and on the increasingly empty streets — meaning that the footage, though recorded at the behest of this project, is also tangled up in the intentions and attentions of those doing the filming. Wang is not shy about her fear and consternation — what emerges most clearly is a sense that the filmmaker is wrestling with the political power of images deployed by a propaganda machine. And if you think America is let off the hook, definitely think again. Wang scrutinizes history; she scrutinizes the documentation process; and not least of all, she scrutinizes herself. KAC
Judas and the Black Messiah
Shaka King’s tensely complex drama begins and ends with its Judas, William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), talking for the first time in a public interview about his role in helping take down the film’s Messiah: Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the 22-year-old chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers. This isn’t a fully-fledged biopic, and doesn’t attempt to trace the full lives, the rises and falls, of these men from beginning to end. Instead, it tracks the last stretch of the black political icon’s life, leading right up to the brutal FBI raid that the informant’s intel made possible. It’s a film very much alive with conflicts and contrasts, and doesn’t make excuses for its Judas — or even, in a firm or unquestioned way, beg for sympathy. King is too keyed into both the nausea of O’Neal’s choices and the poetry and power of Hampton’s efforts to make the stations of both men seem anything but tragic. KAC
Pacho Velez (Manakamana, The Reagan Show) tackles the lonely predicament of online dating with humor, aplomb, and curiosity. It’s central conceit is brilliant: He interviews array of New Yorkers ranging from straight to genderqueer, early 20s to mid-70s, single to polyamorous, “looking for love” to “looking for a good time.” But the conversations are predicated on their scrolls through Tinder, Grindr, Match.com, a site for older singles, and yet another for sugar babies and their daddies. Instead of hovering over their shoulders or using CGI bubble-text onscreen (the de facto norm for films depicting modern communication), Velez has his subjects face the screen and lets the audience see the swiping right or left, answering inane personality questions, and all the rest, as the profiles rush by in front of both our eyes and theirs. A fascinating host of reflections on vanity, loneliness, on the differences between our manicured digital selves and the disappointments of our flesh-and-blood realities arise. If this is the future of romantic connection, the movie suggests, it’s a future with neither immediate promise nor an utter lack of possibility. KAC
Summer of Soul
Were Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s look back at the series of shows that took place in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park in the summer of ’69 nothing but musical performances, the fruits of his labor-of-love would make for a near-peerless concert film: A 19-year-old Stevie Wonder jumping in front of his keyboard before banging out a manic drum solo. Nina Simone turning “Backlash Blues” into the equivalent of a boxing match. Sly and the Family Stone at their peak, reminding you that funk is both a noun and a verb. Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples together, taking everyone to church. What he has given us instead, however, is far more vital. It’s a contextualized look at a specific moment — in Harlem’s history, in African-American history, in American history — that reminds you just how much the music acted as a salve for state-institutionalized violence, a celebration and a catalyst for change. The mere fact that it’s taken decades for anyone to see this footage is a crime. Thompson’s film is a step towards righting that wrong. It’s a reclamation in more ways than one. DF
Taming the Garden
It’s a tree — clearly it’s a tree, one as a tall as a midtown office building, and with branches stretching wide across its top. What throws you is, well, it’s slowly floating on a barge in the middle of the Black Sea. An Eastern European billionaire has decided he wants that specific tree to call his own. So he pays a crew of men to uproot it from a Georgian forest and transfer it to his own private garden. No film has lingered in my memory longer than Salomé Jashi’s deceptively simple spare look at both the physical process of moving this massive living thing and the conflict it engenders among a village’s locals. Not just because the images, starting with that opening shot of something that immediately feels both beautiful and wrong, are breathtaking. It lays out a complicated argument about ecology, economics, compromise, class, and humanity’s need to conquer and/or “tame” nature without resorting to an attack via polemics. This is a documentary that doubles as a drive-by shooting with silencers. DF
Sight unseen, it’s tempting to write off Natalia Almada’s experimental take on technology and its effect on how the next generations will process the world around them as the parental version of those vintage “world out of balance” time capsules. (Call it Kidyaanisqatsi.) What she does with this highly conceptual premise, however, is truly moving and mindblowing, using her own son’s growing facility with (and reliance upon) on modern society’s metastasizing smart tech to comment on the damage done — to our planet, our species, our families, our cerebral core and connection with our fellow man. Rarther than reducing this to one mother’s fretting for the future, Alamada’s own narration ties together and widens up the argument: From food to empathy, we are outsourcing a lot our existence to all of those tiny silicon chips. We may want to reconsider the ramifications sooner rather than later. DF
The sense of raw potential in Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr.’s debut feature couldn’t be more stark. It features two astonishing performances from Michael Greyeyes (of 1996’s Crazy Horse and, more recently, Woman Walks Ahead) and Chaske Spencer (TV’s Banshee), is already rare for being a film about American indigenous people set in the present — which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have one foot set firmly in the past. Two young boys of the Anishinaabe nation are thrown asunder by a crime, for which one of them pays the price of incarceration. The more unhinged of the two, meanwhile, goes on to live prosperously, even as his spirit rots. The film takes the great risk of exposing violence, specifically masculine violence, within a marginalized community — a tricky feat within a history of representation that so overwhelmingly casts indigenous people as violent, addicted, social outcasts. It’s a story not of the threats posed to white American expansionism and well-being, but as an existential story about a man’s alienation from himself and his identity, and how that destroys a community from inside. In his Sundance Q&A, Corbine claimed that the film was longer pre-quarantine and kept getting whittled down as the months went on. It’s a testament to what’s here that I can’t help but crave to see that longer, fuller version while still being bowled over by the punch the current movie already packs. KAC