Screen Crusades: The Best of Sundance 2021

Posted by Nicolás Delgadillo in Screen Crusades on February 8, 2021

This year’s lineup of films breached a wide range of ideas and themes. Here’s the 10 that most stood-out.

This year’s Sundance Film Festival was a truly unique one. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the fest took everything online this year to create a fully virtual experience. Films were premiered with a live chat and Q&A with the filmmakers and casts, an awards ceremony with Patton Oswalt as host was held, and you could even create an avatar and mingle with others in chat rooms. The big screens were sorely missed, but that sense of community and excitement was still there and as strong as ever. 

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This year’s lineup of films breached a wide range of ideas and themes. From an emotionally exhausting drama dealing with two sets of parents in the wake of a school shooting, to an animated fantasy and action adventure for adults, to an unapologetic biopic of a revolutionary, there was certainly something for everyone, no matter how niche. Some of these films may go on to be classics, so to jump ahead the curve, here’s our picks for the top ones of the festival. This list is in no particular order.

‘Wild Indian’

Wild Indian is the story of two Native American boys growing up on a disenfranchised reservation. One of the boys, named Makwa (Phoenix Wilson), is the son of abusive parents and the inheritor of generations of trauma and violence. Things boil over when Makwa commits a horrible crime, and guilts his friend and cousin Teddo (Julian Gopal) into helping him cover it up. The film then picks up years later with the two as adults. Makwa has abandoned the reservation and left most of his heritage behind, going instead by the name of Michael. He lives a standard middle class life with a wife and child, whereas a heavily tattooed Teddo is shown just getting out of a recent stint in prison. 

A story of how a single traumatic event changes people in different ways, combined with deeper themes of the results of centuries of white colonization and feelings of self-loathing make Wild Indian one dark and angry film. It’s one hell of a strong debut for its writer and director, Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr., and features career-best performances from Michael Greyeyes and Chaske Spencer, who play the adult Makwa and Teddo, respectively. 

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‘On the Count of Three’

Jerrod Carmichael is best known for his stand-up comedy and NBC sitcom The Carmichael Show, and made his directorial debut at this year’s Sundance with the darkly hilarious On the Count of Three. The film follows best friends Kevin (Christopher Abbott) and Val (Carmichael) who have grown increasingly sick of living, so the suicidal pair make a plan to take each other’s life at the same time. 

That’s definitely a morbid concept, but the film is actually a kind of twisted buddy comedy, one that delivers laughs while also having plenty to say about the complexities of depression. The pair get themselves into more and more absurd situations as they try to make their last day on Earth count, and it leads to outrageous car chases, shootouts, and what is likely the best possible use of Papa Roach of all time.

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‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

Judas and the Black Messiah is a biographical film that details the life of Fred Hampton, an often unsung figure of the civil rights movement. Hampton was chairman of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, and when his activism led to the formation of the Rainbow Coalition – which joined various street gangs together to end violence and work for social change – he was assassinated by the FBI. He was only 21 years old.

Daniel Kaluuya turns in a phenomenal performance as Hampton, as does Lakeith Stanfield who plays the titular Judas, William O’Neal. O’Neal was coerced by the FBI into spying on Hampton, leaking the party’s secrets and eventually providing the vital intel that would lead to the chairman’s death. The film is every bit a war movie as it is a historical drama, and director Shaka King boldly refuses to shy away from Hampton’s revolutionary politics or the heinous methods of law enforcement that brought him down – methods that are still used today. To say that this movie is timely or topical would be extremely redundant. It’s an exceptionally important watch for any moment in time.

‘CODA’

Before the weekend was even over, Apple snatched up the rights to this Sundance drama for a record-setting $25 million. It’s easy to see why. CODA, or Child of Death Adults, is exactly the kind of crowd-pleasing movie that almost everyone enjoys, one that brings laughter just as much as tears.

The film follows a culturally deaf family as they struggle to maintain their fishing business. Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only member of the family who can hear, and acts as a vital interpreter for the business. But when she joins her school choir and discovers a love for music, her newfound passion begins to pull her away from her family duties.

Emilia Jones as Ruby in CODA hanging on to a boat rope and wearing a sweatshirt and orange fisherman pants

‘Cryptozoo’

Animation for adults has usually always been geared towards stoner or gross-out comedy hijinks, and Cryptozoo isn’t exactly devoid of that – the film opens with two naked hippies doing drugs and banging in the woods – but its ambitions prove to be much, much higher. Writer and director Dash Shaw airs out his grievances with late capitalism and neoliberalism with a colorful globe-trotting adventure set in a world full of mystical and magical creatures known as cryptids. Everything from unicorns to Sasquatch to dragons are here, with many of them living in a supposed sanctuary known as the Cryptozoo.

The film stars Lake Bell as Lauren Gray, an adventurer somewhere between Lara Croft and Indiana Jones who has dedicated her life to the rescue and protection of cryptids. They’re routinely captured and sold on black markets, and once the U.S. government gets their hands on a particularly powerful one, it’s up to Lauren and a gorgon named Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia) to stop them. Cryptozoo features some astounding feats of hand drawn animation, and rather pointed commentary on commercialization versus conservation. It was picked up by Magnolia Pictures shortly after its Sundance premiere.

‘Passing’

Passing is an adaptation of the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, but its ideas and themes are still very relevant today. Set in that 20s time period, it’s the story of two black women, Irene and Clare, childhood friends who reunite years later at an upscale, whites-only restaurant. Both women are able to pass as white, which affords them privileges that would otherwise be unobtainable for them. But whereas Irene (played by Tessa Thompson) still lives her life predominantly as a black woman and is married to a black man, Clare (Ruth Negga) has built her entire identity around her ability to pass. Nobody knows that she’s actually black, especially not her racist husband (Alexander Skarsgård).

Directed and written by Rebecca Hall, who herself is mixed-race but has passed for white most of her life, Passing is a quiet and subtle drama that ends up being about far more than just race. The film deals with themes of class, sexuality, exoticism, women’s rights, the realities we construct for ourselves. Poignantly shot in black-and-white, it’s an expertly and confidently crafted film that miraculously manages to give weight to every topic it touches. Netflix picked it up after the festival and will likely release it later this year.

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‘Mass’

Mass takes place in a single room for the entirety of its nearly 2 hour running time, and writer and director Fran Kranz (perhaps best known as the stoner from The Cabin in the Woods) wants to ensure you feel every second of it. That’s not a complaint, on the contrary, the obvious goal of the film is to force a conversation that is long overdue to be had. Its small cast, which consists of Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney, is phenomenal.

In the years following a school shooting, two sets of parents affected by the tragedy in different ways agree to meet. Jay and Gail lost their child, while Linda and Richard’s son was the perpetrator. Their conversation plays out in real time as the four of them seek answers, confirmations, and perhaps even some form of closure. Mass is undoubtedly a difficult watch, and it’s legitimately emotionally exhausting, but it often feels like it’s necessary. By focusing on the personal rather than the political, Kranz brings back some humanity to an issue that lost it long ago. 

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‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’

So many movies have attempted to naturally weave the internet into their stories to varying degrees of success. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair just might be the only one to get it right. Inspired by the worlds or creepypastas and internet rabbit holes, the film is an extremely unnerving and effective bit of horror that feeds on the anxieties of modern life, loneliness, and dysphoria. 

A young teenage girl named Casey (Anna Cobb) spends her nights alone in her dimly lit room, scrolling through the internet and becoming intrigued by an online role-playing game called the “World’s Fair Challenge”. Those who take the challenge claim to go through bizarre and inexplicable changes, and once Casey joins in, she believes it’s happening to her too. Taking notes from the Paranormal Activity films, World’s Fair is told predominately through Casey’s webcam, making the scares more intimate and leaving you unable to look away. It’s certainly a creepy film, but also one that’s strangely beautiful in the way it captures the desolate feelings of adolescence. 

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‘Censor’

Censor is inspired by the video nasty era of the UK, which saw a wave of absurdly violent and gory exploitation films flood the video cassette market. Naturally, this brought a harsh crackdown on what kind of content films should be allowed to show, and strict censorship laws swiftly followed. 

The film follows Enid (Niamh Algar), one of the members of the censorship board who considers her work to be an essential public service. As she pores over countless hours of graphic violence, she believes she’s protecting people from things no one should have to see. But when she views a film that brings back memories of a childhood incident, her entire world comes crashing down. Censor is an exceptionally smart horror film, one that tackles several social topics at once while still supplying plenty of bloody scares. 

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‘Pleasure’

Pleasure is easily the most provocative film out of the Sundance lineup for good reason. It’s a brutally honest story of one woman’s journey navigating the cutthroat business of the porn industry, and it never holds back. There’s little doubt that this baby will get an NC-17 rating slapped on it. 

Bella (an absolutely fearless Sofia Kappel) leaves her home in Sweden to move to LA and break into porn. She finds herself in a world of misogyny, constantly shifting power dynamics, and fierce competition. The film lures you in with its explicitness and keeps you hooked with its moving and fascinating story of a scrappy young woman who controls her own destiny despite all obstacles. It should be a game-changer.

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