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Sundance 2021 Recap: Our Favorite Films from the Festival

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RevBlogSundance Film Festival CoverageSundance 2021 Recap: Our Favorite Films from the Festival

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival was markedly different from years past. The festival’s shift to a mostly online format meant that audiences didn’t need to travel all the way to Park City, Utah, or wait in long, freezing lines for a chance to see their most anticipated movie. Instead, attendees from all over the world could participate — and didn’t even need to get out of bed. 

Of course, many of the most important things about Sundance stayed the same. The program featured a robust selection of excellent films — from moving dramas and profound documentaries to audacious genre fare. And the festival highlighted both established directors and exciting new voices. 

Rev had the honor of partnering with the Sundance Institute as the festival’s official captions provider, helping to make this year’s edition the most accessible in Sundance history, and we’re thrilled to have been a part of such a smashing success. A few of the movie lovers here at Rev were also fortunate enough to participate in the festivities (both online and at satellite venues), and they’ve compiled a list of their favorites below. Our picks include an impressive mix of great performances and fantastic directorial debuts. Be sure to keep an eye out for these Sundance highlights as they hit theaters — or more realistically, your favorite streaming platforms — soon.

Picks from Guv Callahan, Rev Content Marketing Manager

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

CODA

CODA” is the breakout sensation of Sundance 2021. 

It opened the festival on Jan. 28 to rave reviews and “standing” ovations all over the internet. Days later, Apple TV+ purchased the film for a record-breaking $25 million. And last night, CODA closed out the festival as the most decorated film in competition, winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the U.S. Dramatic category,  as well as the Directing Award for writer/director Siân Heder and the Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble.

And if we’re being honest, “CODA” deserves all of it. This charming dramedy about a child of deaf adults (the titular CODA) is packed with humor and heart. “CODA” tells the story of Ruby Rossi (a breakout Emilia Jones), a high-school senior who is the only hearing member of her family — Ruby’s mother (Marlee Matlin), father (Troy Kotsur), and older brother (Daniel Durant) are all deaf, and Ruby has acted as an interpreter for the majority of her life.

Ruby helps with her family’s fishing business while balancing the everyday struggles of being a teenager, but she starts to come out of her shell (and consider her future) when she impulsively joins her school choir and discovers she’s a gifted singer. Her passion for music — something that the rest of her family can’t experience — leads to the film’s central conflict, and to two absolutely jaw-dropping scenes (you’ll know when you get to them). 

Heder has an ear for sharp, punchy dialogue, be it verbal or signed, and captures her story’s unique family in a manner that’s wholly relatable. Kotsur is particularly fantastic as Ruby’s world-weary but warmly mischievous father, Frank, who plays a pivotal role in some of the film’s funniest and most moving moments. Heder clearly loves the Rossi family, and by the end of the movie, it’ll be hard for you not to as well.

“CODA” follows in a long lineage of Sundance coming-of-age heartwarmers, and audiences may recognize some familiar story beats. But Heder’s focus on authentically rendered characters from an underrepresented community — and her commitment to using deaf actors to portray her deaf characters — allows her to approach the material from a touching, new perspective that can appeal to anybody. 

“I hope that this opened the door to people getting that audiences want to see these kinds of stories,” Heder said (via Zoom) during the closing night Awards Ceremony  . 

And Matlin agreed. “It doesn’t stop here,” she said, “and it’s okay to tell our story.”

Definitely seek this one out when it hits streaming. And keep a box of tissues handy.

Awards: 

  • U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic
  • Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic – Siân Heder
  • U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award: Ensemble Cast 
  • Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic

Courtesy 0f Sundance Institute

Censor

In 1984, the British government passed the Video Recordings Act, regulating the content of video tapes sold in the UK. In response to moral panic over “video nasties” (low-budget horror flicks like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “The Driller Killer“), films had to be deemed “safe” by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) before they could be consumed by the public. But if violent images supposedly manifest violent acts, what prevents the censors from losing control themselves?

That’s the question at the center of “Censor,” the thrilling, vibey debut from Prano Bailey-Bond. Enid Baines (Niamh Algar), the titular censor, views her work as a higher calling, “protecting” susceptible British citizens from corrupting material. But Enid is harboring a past trauma, and throughout the movie she becomes increasingly unhinged, until we’re not quite sure what’s real and what’s VHS violence.

Bailey-Bond obviously loves the video nasties at the center of her film, recreating their vibrant, lurid style the further Enid descends into madness. As her grasp on reality slowly slips, Enid’s world transforms from the drab greys and browns of Thatcher’s Britain to bright, neon reds and blues straight out of “Suspiria.” And while the movie’s tone is mostly grim, Bailey-Bond doles out bits of dark comedy to keep it from getting oppressive, especially in the surreal and hysterical finale. If you like psychological horror/thrillers and have an affection for 80s splatter-fests, check this one out.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

On the Count of Three

In his now-defunct NBC sitcom, comedian Jerrod Carmichael didn’t shy away from exploring heavy themes in otherwise family-friendly material. But “On the Count of Three,” his first foray into feature directing, is a different weight entirely. The film follows Val (Carmichael) and Kevin (a stunning Christopher Abbott), two severely depressed friends who decide to form a suicide pact.

What unfolds is a shaggy, compassionate buddy comedy about how Val and Kevin choose to spend what could be their last day on Earth. Carmichael never trivializes his characters or their pain — their emotions and traumas are treated respectfully and delicately (in a post-premiere Q&A, Carmichael noted that he consulted with professionals to ensure the material was portrayed responsibly). But he manages to find moments of uproarious humor in the story’s darkness. Kevin will extoll the benefits of gun control one minute, then very apologetically hold up a gas station the next. Carmichael also needle-drops a certain Papa Roach classic to both hilarious and poignant effect.

While imperfect, the movie ultimately succeeds thanks to a tight, casually hilarious screenplay from writers Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, and the undeniable chemistry between its two leads (here’s hoping this is the star-making performance that Abbott deserves). He and Carmichael bring a lived-in exhaustion to their characters — Val and Kevin have been approaching this tragic situation for a long time, and the audience definitely feels it. “On the Count of Three” is bleak, but it finds the humor and hope in a story that could have just been heartbreaking.

Awards:

Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: U.S. Dramatic – Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch

Courtesy Sundance Institute

In the Earth

British director and low-budget horror maestro Ben Wheatley apparently conceived of his latest film, “In the Earth,” on the first day of lockdown (I’m not sure I even brushed my teeth on the first day of lockdown, but go off, Ben). The opening shots of facemasks, nasal swabs, socially distanced conversations, and extensive disinfectant will be all-too-familiar and may make you think you’re in for another “Contagion.” 

Thankfully, “In the Earth” is something much, much weirder. After Wheatley’s recent detours into sci-fi satire and Hitchcock remakes, “In the Earth” is a triumphant return to the mind-bending, psychedelic horror of his early classics “Kill List” and “A Field in England.” Without giving too much away, we follow scientists Martin (Joel Fry) and Alma (Ellora Torchia) into a sprawling, otherworldly forest for what Martin claims is a microorganism study. But, as is so often the case, something (or someone) is out in the woods with them, and things go awry. 

What follows is a hallucinatory, deeply unsettling exploration of zealotry, spirituality, and communication with nature. At least, I think that’s what it’s about — it really gets weird at the end there. Either way, Wheatly back!

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Prisoners of the Ghostland

Prolific Japanese director Sion Sono’s “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is being hyped as the latest entry in the ever-growing pantheon of “wild” Nicolas Cage performances, and it definitely delivers in that department. Cage plays a grizzled former bank-robber named Hero, tasked with saving a warlord’s granddaughter from a nuclear wasteland. Sounds pretty straightforward, in a “Mad Max” sort of way. 

But Sion Sono is not a straightforward filmmaker. Here are a few other things you’ll see over the course of a truly bizarre 100 minutes: 

[takes deep breath]

Cowboys. Ninjas. Phantom convicts drenched in toxic waste. A town full of samurai aptly called… Samurai Town. A battle between those samurai set to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.” A junkyard scavenger literally named Rat-Man. Brainwashed, immobile captives “imprisoned” inside mannequins. Post-apocalyptic refugees playing tug-of-war with the second hand of a clock to “stop time.” 

And that’s certainly not the half of it. Amidst all of this zaniness, there’s also a metaphor for the anxiety of living in the nuclear age (particularly post-Fukushima disaster). So, yeah. Lots to take in. Sono has directed over 50 feature films, and “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is his first in English. According to fans and Sono himself, it’s also one of his more… restrained… offerings. 

Is “Prisoners of the Ghostland” good? I genuinely have no idea. But it plays like it was engineered in a lab to be a cult-classic, so whenever we get back into theaters, midnight movie fans will eat this one up.

Picks from Jourdan Aldredge | Rev Contributor

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Jockey

A follow up to the 2016 SXSW Film Festival standout “Transpecos,” writer and producer Clint Bently’s directorial debut is a continuation of his deep look into the changing nature of Americana. Set on the weathered and beaten tracks of the professional horse riding circuit, “Jockey follows a seasoned horse jockey named Jackson (Clifton Collins Jr.) who is preparing to take a promising new horse for one last shot at making it big. 

However, as you might imagine, it’s not only a movie just about horse racing. In addition to the sports elements, we get a sincere, authentic and intensely emotional narrative about an aging jockey and his past relationships – namely with a bright faced young jockey (played by Moises Arias) who shows up claiming to be Jackson’s long lost son. 

The film does a wonderful job of both exploring themes of fatherhood, masculinity and vulnerability against such a unique and nuanced backdrop. Bentley’s writing and direction is well on point and showcases a talent for character and story that make this movie a heartfelt watch, as well as steers the filmmaker for a greater future.

Awards:

U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award: Best Actor – Clifton Collins Jr.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

El Planeta

At a time when many young adults all across the globe are forced to move back home or are stuck living with older relatives, Amalia Ultman’s “El Planeta is a refreshing look into the fun-loving and precocious nature of a mother-daughter relationship. 

Written and directed by Ulman in her directorial debut, “El Planeta” actually stars Ulman alongside her real life mother in a unique filmmaking style which blends lines between documentary and fictional narrative. The story of the film centers around Leo (Ulman) as a fashion school drop out who returns home to live with her mother in Gijón, Spain in their tiny seaside apartment.

And while Leo’s mother might be on the verge of eviction, the duo circumvent their impending misfortune by scheming a series of foolhardy grifts which sees the pair go on lavish shopping sprees and trips out to fancy restaurants. The film stays true to its lighthearted and humorous premise while both portraying a real and heartfelt relationship as well as offering a glimpse into the vexing economic issues unique to our time.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Prime Time

Taking a page from famous films like Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” and the real life horrors portrayed in Robert Greene’s documentary “Kate Plays Christine,” Jakub Piątek’s “Prime Time is an intense thrill ride that examines how audiences consume – as well as engage with – the news. The film tells a singular, but complex, story of one fateful New Year’s Eve in 1999 as a young man named Sebatian (Corpus Christi ‘s Bartosz Bielenia) hijacks a local television studio by taking the TV host and a security guard hostage.

“Prime Time” is not for the faint of heart as it employs many of the same kinetic and claustrophobic filmmaking techniques which you might find in a Safdie Brother flick like “Uncut Gems” as the gripping story barrels towards a bombastic conclusion. And while Polish filmmaker Jakub Piątek (previously best known for his festival favorite documentary films “Mother” and “One Man Show”) certainly weaves an enthralling narrative, the real star is the lead performance by Bartosz Bielenia who commands the screen as the rogue agent terrorist from start to finish.

As another of the many first time directorial features at Sundance 2021, “Prime Time” is as much a fantastic film as it is a promising look at things to come for this promising director and star duo.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Cusp

A true cinema vérité documentary feature through and through, “Cusp follows the real and unabridged observed moments of a group of teenage girls in a small Texas town. Directors Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt are able to deeply embed themselves with the small group of girls as they open up about the intimate moments of their personal and social lives. And while the film certainly follows plenty of lazy afternoons and never-ending nights, Hill and Bethencourt are also able to explore a world that can be both carefree as well as deeply troubling for the coming of age youths.

Directors Hill and Bethencourt discovered the girls on the tail-end of a road trip from Montana to Austin “on a mission to photograph the American teenage summer.” The trio of girls pulled into the parking lot of a Stripes and the directorial duo decided that the group of girls, barefoot, laughing and blaring music should be the focus of their first directorial feature.

Regardless of whether or not you grew up in a small town or a big city, “Cusp” truly captures unique characters in a formative and fascinating time of their lives that can give audiences an both an endearing reminiscences of their own youthful halcyon days, as well as a much needed glimpse into a world which perhaps they’ve never seen.

Awards:

U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award: Emerging Filmmaker – Parker Hill & Isabel Bethencourt

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Mother Schmuckers

Mother Schmuckers is an absolutely insane film from the degenerate minds of a pair of writing and filmmaking Belgian brothers named Harpo and Lenny Guit. It’s kind of like watching a modern day Three Stooges film, but instead of being three stooges the film follows two imbecile brothers (one of which portrayed by the Guits) who are vying for the affection of their prostitute mother Cashmere. Along the way the duo encounter a hodgepodge of other strange and misfit characters each more outlandish than the last.

The filmmaking itself is also quite unique as the directors appear to not be too far removed from their nincompoop lead characters as the camera moves around in a rambunctious and chaotic manner. Scenes are routinely disrupted by insane crash zooms and uncanny close-ups, which – truth be told – simply adds to the outlandishness of the film all together.

At just a 70 minute runtime, Mother Schmuckers provides all the madcap shenanigans that a viewer could possibly handle. Many of the mini-episodes portrayed are not suitable for anyone with a weak constitution or an aversion to unseemly sex scenes. However, overall it is an oddly refreshing new direction for bizarre comedy as another classic midnight Sundance feature.

More Sundance Film Picks From Our Staff

Mass Movie Premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2021Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Mass

This single-location drama, “Mass,” unravels the tense conversation between both the parents of a victim and the perpetrator of a school mass shooting. The film showcases the directorial debut of Fran Kranz (“The Cabin in the Woods”) as well as some incredible performances by Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney, and Ann Dowd in an intimate reflection of mental health and the unbearable pain left behind from gun violence.

The exchange of dialogue and moments of silence from across the table have a palpable awkwardness that evolves into rising waves of personal guilt and grief that crash against each opposing couple as the film progresses. The performances are raw and emotionally charged, all while the cameras are static, set within a stale church building that makes the weight of it all that much heavier on the spirit.

While the movie may not make a statement in the political conversation, it speaks to the shared grief that each couple feels in losing their son, as well as the depth of their perspective stories and trauma they carry every day. It’s a complex and unsettling story told in a simple way that touches on the importance of human connection in the pursuit of understanding, forgiveness, and healing.

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