No fuzzy snow boots. No standing in lines that rival the queue for the rollercoasters at Disney World. No sightings of Julianne Moore and Timothee Chalamet on Main Street. Like all the other big fests around the world, the Sundance Film Festival went virtual in 2021 due to the global pandemic. Translation? Instead of slogging through the slush in Park City, Utah, to get to various screenings — totally worth it if you’re seeing Promising Young Woman, Call Me by Your Name, Palm Springs or Eighth Grade; a pain in the ass if it’s Swiss Army Man or Certain Women — festival-goers watched the best of independent cinema from the quiet comfort of their own couches. But that didn’t mean anyone was deprived of the cinematic goods. Here are the Top 10 offerings of from the January 28-February 3 festival. Keep them on your radar now; check them out and put them on your awards scorecard later.
10. On the Count of Three
Suicidal best friends Val (comedian Jarrod Carmichael) and Kevin (Christopher Abbott) make a pact to shoot each other in the head on the count of three. But first they have a few loose ends to tie up: Make amends with family members, engage in a few clumsy, petty crimes, exact bloody revenge, ride dirt bikes, etc. etc. This was fashioned as an audacious and darkly funny buddy film but none of the ride-or-die humor landed for me. (The screenplay is just not nuanced enough to pull it off.) Almost worth it to see Tiffany Haddish and Henry Winkler play against type.
Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga play two childhood friends who meet again in 1920s New York after years apart. Thompson’s Irene lives in Harlem with her African American husband and two sons; Clare (Negga) has been “passing” for white her whole life and married to a man unaware of her heritage. Their time spent together threatens their meticulously crafted realities. Stunningly shot in a crisp black and white and strongly acted, this is a delicate study of racial identity. But . . . it lacks an evocative punch largely due to the poor pacing.
Robin Wright has seemingly done it all in front of the camera since her debut as Princess Buttercup in The Princess Bride back in 1987. Now she’s directed her first feature film, a gritty meditative drama about perseverance. After Edee (Wright) loses her husband and son, she retreats solo to the harsh wilderness. She soon gets a brutal lesson in what Mother Nature has to offer, until a local man (Demian Bichir) helps her heal physically and emotionally. Think a poignant mix of Wild and the sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated Nomadland, complete with breathtaking scenery in the Rockies. (In select theaters Friday, February 12).
7. How It Ends
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and our heroine feels fine-ish. In an all-too-relatable subversive comedy, an L.A. loner (Zoe Lister-Jones, who also writes and co-directs with husband Daryl Wein) hangs out with her younger version of herself (Cailee Spaeny) on her final day on Earth prior to an asteroid strike. She heads out to a party, but not before hashing it out with friends, family members and strangers who cross her path on the quiet streets of L.A. Filmed during COVID quarantine last year, this tale mirrors your own existential crises — except with way more random fun cameos! (Hi to Olivia Wilde, Fred Armisen, Helen Hunt, Bradley Whitford and more.)
6. Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street
It’s time to learn the ABCs of your first favorite TV show. This warm-hug of a documentary chronicles how a few creative visionaries went against the grain to create an educational and entertaining series for the ages. Beyond the nostalgia component, it’s fascinating to learn how much work went into teaching children lessons in everything from inclusivity to the meaning of death. (Warning: Big Bird learning of Mr. Hooper’s passing will still wreck you.) Unexpected highlight: PG-13-rated puppet bloopers.
5. Together Together
It’s always a refreshing relief when an indie film falls on the right side of quirky. This charmer follows the unexpected relationship that unfolds between a caring single guy in his 40s (Ed Helms, never better) and the young, slyly funny introvert (Patti Harrison) he hires to be his surrogate. Their nine-month journey is filled with challenges galore, but humor prevails as their unique connection deepens. A shamelessly breezy and feel-good gem, and not just because the two characters mercifully never hook up.
4. Judas & The Black Messiah
Because of all the release date shuffling this past year, this incendiary drama is already poised to make serious headway on this year’s awards circuit. Based on a tragic (and rather overlooked) true story, it’s a deep dive into how FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) infiltrated the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and helped bring down its influential and dynamic leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). It’s set in 1969 but very well could have taken place today. It also features dazzling performances from Stanfield, Kaluuya and Dominique Fishback as Hampton’s pregnant girlfriend. (In theaters and HBO Max, Friday, Feb. 12)
Powerful performances from Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd and Reed Birney drive a devastating drama. Simply put, it’s about two sets of grieving parents who gather together in a nondescript church basement to weigh the emotional aftermath of a school shooting that occurred six years earlier. (One son was the killer; the other was a victim.) The staging mirrors a one-act play, which is admittedly difficult to pull off in a film medium. But raw and honest dialogue from the quartet of master actors makes this work from writer/director Fran Kranz a compelling watch.
2. Summer of Soul ( . . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be on Television)
No big deal, just a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder joyfully banging on the drums in a rain during a standing-room-only concert extravaganza. That’s how director Ahmir Thompson (i.e., Questlove) opens his celebratory music documentary, and the pulsating rhythm never lets up. He unearths footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, known as the “Black Woodstock” of its era and yet has never received its proper due. Concertgoers and performers add present-day commentary and attempt to provide proper historical and social context. The main event is the soulful musical performances from the likes of Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Sly & the Family Stone and many more.
At first glance, this is your typical sweet and funny coming-of-age Sundance fare: Social-misfit 17-year-old Ruby (Emilia Jones in a star-making performance), a Child of Deaf Adults, must decide between going into the unknown and pursue her love of singing or stay behind with her unconventional family and serve as their interpreter as they begin a new fishing business. Yet this wonderful gem of a film is executed so humanely and insightfully that it feels totally original. Every moment is felt — dare I say it hits every note — and the story culminates in a heart-swelling, tears-streaming triumph. Gosh I wish I could see it again for the first time. Coda to Coda: The film sold to Apple for a record-breaking $25 million.