Like most things the world over, the Sundance Film Festival looked a little different this year. Instead of bundling up amidst a sea of Canada Goose parkas and knit beanies, we enjoyed the festival's offerings from the coziest place on Earth: our couch.
Despite the game-changing shift to virtual, the festival delivered. I saw movies, on movies, on movies (23 of them — mentally, I'm becoming a movie), watched Q&As that nourished my inner (and OK, outer) film nerd, and even explored the strange digital space the festival set up to discuss premieres with other viewers and filmmakers.
Here are the 8 films that stood out among the 2021 offerings.
Ruby is the only hearing member of the Rossi family, and as such she's fallen into the implicit role of deckhand and translator for the family business. But what happens when Ruby decides to fly the coop? We hit all the same narrative beats of your typical coming-of-age story: they-just-don't-understand-style teenage angst, first love, a defining mentorship … But CODA skirts YA purgatory with a script that's so intentional, endearing and hilarious, and star-making performances (three of which are from deaf actors) that are destined to drum up some awards buzz.
Immediately after its premiere, CODA became subject to a bidding war. Apple walked away the victor, securing the film for a record-breaking $25 million.
Patti Harrison and Ed Helms star in a rom-com that trades the "rom" for a relationship we rarely see play out on screen. Matt (Helms) is a straight, single, 40-year-old man who yearns for a child. Anna (Harrison) is a 26-year-old barista who yearns for the means to pursue higher education. Together, they can give each other something they desperately want. And, refreshingly, that's it. There's no pre-natal footsy or sonogram-bonding that parlays itself into a night of tender passion. Matt and Anna do fall in love, but it's not the romantic love that decades of bantering star-crossed onscreen paramours have conditioned us to expect. Together Together is a smart, funny, feel-good spin on a mainstream norm.
One for the Road
This sprawling Thai drama bites off a lot. It's a road trip movie, a meditation on grief and loss, a story of class division, an exploration of betrayal … and forgiveness … and friendship … and love … But, somehow, One for the Road earns its melodrama. It should feel overwrought, but the depth of beauty in this film (both visual and emotional) complements its epic nature.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It
Rita Moreno isn't just an icon of the stage and screen — she's a trailblazer, and one of the few remaining vestiges of an old (and bleak) Hollywood. In this candid and intimate documentary, Moreno, 89, opens up about the abuses she's faced in the industry, details her most personal relationships (Marlon Brando, husband Leonard Gordon), and gives viewers a much-needed infusion of her energetic no-bullshit Rita-ness.
Actress Rebecca Halls makes her directorial debut with this quiet and affecting adaptation of Nella Larsen's 1929 novel of the same name. Viscerally, the black-and-white film is stunning — the costumes, sets, and score transport you to the New York of nearly a century ago. Ruth Negga is incandescent as Clare, a light-skinned Black woman who intentionally passes as white and has married a wealthy (and unabashedly racist) white man. Tessa Thompson stars as Irene, Clare's childhood friend with whom she reconnects unexpectedly. Living in Harlem with her doctor husband Brian (Andre Holland) and two sons, Irene is both a foil and complement to Clare — a window into the life she could have led, and vice-versa. Dripping with subtext, Passing is a thoughtful and beautifully crafted ode to the novel it's based on.
Simply put, this film is an 110-minute masterclass in acting. Two couples (played by Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs, and Ann Dowd and Reed Birney) whose respective sons were killed in a mass shooting (one as a victim, the other as the perpetrator) meet face-to-face for an emotionally debilitating conversation in a conference room at a local church. Few films are able to pull off the single-setting conceit — there's a reason so many projects rely heavily on flashbacks — but first-time writer-director Fran Kranz and his accomplished cast make it look easy.
On the Count of Three
Jerrod Carmichael's directorial debut is probably one of the most unique films I saw throughout the festival. It's not easy to make a story about two suicidal best friends funny, but Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch's screenplay (which won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award) deftly maneuvers between dark comedy and moments of heartwrenching hopelessness.
Judas and the Black Messiah
This tragic and attentive look at the months leading up to the assassination of Illinois Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton deserves all the praise its premiere has garnered. Daniel Kaluuya (as Hampton) turns in a masterful performance, as does LaKeith Stanfield, who plays William O'Neal, the FBI informant whose betrayal ultimately led to Hampton's death. No matter your familiarity with this period in history, Shaka King's debut feature will leave you enraptured.
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