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The best movies we watched at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

International documentaries largely rose above the rest of this year's offerings, and one incredible debut signals an exciting future for its director.
Credit: Courtesy/Sundance Institute

SAN ANTONIO — The ongoing coronavirus threat shut down theaters for most of last year, caused the dates of the movie release calendar to become a deck of constantly reshuffling cards and warped longstanding expectations about how/when/where new films are released...but neither the pandemic, nor a smaller slate of selections, could keep the Sundance Film Festival from bringing a sense of exhilarating discovery to its audience.

Even as the festival adjusted to become a virtual affair for 2021, approximation was countered by ever-evident dedication on the part of festival programmers, staff and Director Tabitha Jackson to offer a diverse array of films through technological means—”attendees” were spared the experience of standing in the Utah cold and snow, but the fact that many critics still stressed about how to squeeze in just one more movie on any given day is a testament to the fact that a smooth online-viewing experience allowed us to do so in the first place, with scant few hiccups.

As for this critic, I managed to catch 28 features over the course of a week – the reviews for several of which you can find here – while getting used to the various pros (no need to rush anywhere!) and cons (wow, do I miss the big screen and my fellow moviegoers!) of the confines of a virtual festival. A beguiling standard was set early by Dash Shaw’s idiosyncratic animated epic “Cryptozoo,” perhaps the most purposeful of the more imaginatively outlandish films at the festival, some of which included werewolves, man-against-woman wars and Nicolas Cage embarking on a dystopian rescue operation. Another early surprise came in the form of Ben Wheatley’s “In the Earth,” a work of tantalizing ecoterror and isolation-induced obsession that signaled both a return to form for the prolific director and (in this critic’s mind) a new high-water mark in COVID-19-adjacent storytelling.

There were lighter, non-pandemic-related projects as well, with spirited perspectives on family and togetherness that rang particularly clear in 2021, for obvious reasons; in this category is Kate Tsang’s buoyant “Marvelous and the Black Hole,” in which 13-year-old Miya Cech gives a confident and caustic turn, and Sian Heder’s “CODA,” a lovely story about the emotional comprises of a musically gifted teen whose parents and brother are deaf (Heder’s film was the “victor” of the festival, winning multiple jury awards and being snagged by Apple for a record-setting $25 million).

Meanwhile, two other historical dramas – one based in fact, the other based in glances of desire on American frontier land – screened for audiences with hopes of becoming rising factors in this year’s prolonged Academy Awards conversation. That will decidedly not be the case for Mona Fastvold’s “The World To Come” despite its many standout qualities—qualities that include the potent chemistry between Vanessa Kirby and Katherine Waterston’s unsatisfied wives of self-important men, and a forebodingly wintry score by Daniel Blumberg. A pair of spectacular, buzzy 2020 trailers for Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah,” however, portended well for the 1960s-based drama about the assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton when he was just 21 years old.

King’s film is largely a triumph, propelled by confident direction, visceral craft, and electric performances by Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield that would rise to the level of star-making if those two particular actors didn’t already feel like they could crush any role that came their way. The movie has capitalized on the early buzz, which will surely only get louder once it releases for the public on Friday, via HBO Max and theaters.

Yet, in a time when so many of us have been cut off from physically engaging with the world around us for the better part of a year, and despite the anticipation of several other narrative projects at the festival – Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut; a romantic Wong Kar-Wai-produced odyssey; the return of Sundance darling Christopher Abbott among them – it’s the documentary slate that I found to be the deepest, most enriching well. That was particularly true for international nonfiction works, including “Captains of Zaatari” and “Playing with Sharks,” two very different movies centered on the pursuit of personal passions with very different means of impressing. If you’re looking for proof that the documentary genre is just as capable of exciting and terrifying you as the latest “WandaVision” revelation, be on the lookout for “Sabaya” – about a small team’s efforts to rescue kidnapped women from an ISIS camp, and perhaps the bravest film I saw at Sundance – and “All Light, Everywhere,” an American production about how the evolution of American surveillance has already wrapped us in our own dystopian story.

Another U.S. documentary, Questlove’s filmmaking bow “Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” also interrogates stateside institutions, but balances it out with incredible heretofore unseen footage of Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, and Stevie Wonder leading the most soul-affirming of musical celebrations at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, attended by hundreds of thousands. “Summer of Soul” emerged as another favorite of the festival, and for good reason: It’s just as successful at making audiences yearn for packed theaters as it is in invigorating them with a sense of communal resilience. It’s a new, vital artifact of history, with equal power to inform and enrapture.

I also found myself enraptured by the approach of Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s unorthodox documentary “Flee,” in which an Afghan refugee shares an intimate history of leaving his home country, bouncing around others – often alone – and potentially approaching a new future while still reckoning with his past. Oh, and it’s animated, a tactic that ensures the anonymity of its subject while also visualizing his anecdotes in swirling hand-drawn illustrations that are at once delicately crafted and poignantly considered. You can expect to hear much about “Flee” in the coming months; it’s been acquired by the talented distributors at Neon, which helped “Parasite” to Oscar-winning success a year ago.

For all the ingenuity of “Flee,” the intrigue of “Sabaya” and the comprehensiveness of “All Light, Everywhere,” it’s the deceptively quaint images of trees on the move in Salomé Jashi’s “Taming the Garden” that have stuck with me the most out of the docs I absorbed at Sundance. A broad-lens views of decades-old Georgian trees (the country, not the state) being uprooted and transported to beautify the estate of a former prime minister, the documentary rewards the viewer’s attentiveness with hypnotizingly elastic shots and compositions that suggest a profundity amid nature. But there’s an emotional urgency to its unspoken inquiries as well, one of which comes to be: How intimate must we be with nature in order to upend it? I’m already looking forward to falling under the strange spell of “Taming the Garden” once again; it’s a documentary worthy of IMAX…

...which makes it ironic that this at-home, solitary festival experience turned out to be perfect for watching the only other film I was more stunned by than “Taming the Garden,” and that’s Jane Schoenbrun’s unsettling and uncategorizable “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair”—a movie that resides in the general vicinity of horror while staring (literally and figuratively) at its audience through a thicket of emotions and sensations. Modest in aesthetic scale but massive in its Internet-age implications, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” is constructed of little more than fictional video diaries, Skype conversations and online clips as teenage Casey (Anna Cobb, in probably the most daring performance I saw at the festival) embarks on an online role-playing endeavor, the consequences and details of which are constantly ambiguous. It’s a movie that places our ease of digitized access front and center before proceeding to send shockwaves through that familiarity in ways that “Black Mirror” could only dream of, and the way Schoenbrun suggests an inevitability of digital mistranslation in the pixel-ized abyss of the Internet feels like no less than a signal flare sent back in time from the most exciting corners of the medium’s future. It’s a wildly good feature debut that sets an incredibly high bar for the rest of 2021.  


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