Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
LaKeith Stanfield in Judas And The Black Messiah

The best films of Sundance 2021

LaKeith Stanfield in Judas And The Black Messiah
Photo: Warner Bros.

Sundance 2021 wrapped up last night, though the exact time the screening system went dark depended on when you started your last movie: So long as you clicked play before midnight Mountain Time, you could keep the festival going for at least a little while longer. Having dutifully caught up with a couple of thoughtful, acclaimed documentaries earlier in the evening, I decided my brain could use a rest and went with what looked like some un-taxing fun for the waning, witching hours of the festival. I wish I better liked the film, Eight For Silver, a gloomy supernatural thriller about a small French village—and aristocratic family—paying for its sins via a rampaging monster. There are pleasures here, including inventively gnarly gore (an incredible autopsy scene almost tilted my take into a reluctant recommendation) and some foggy, gothic atmosphere that recalls the old-school aura of a Hammer picture. But the movie’s also poky and dour, with stiffly proper characters whose fate remained of little concern to me; I neither feared for their fragile lives nor relished their bloody end as the body count sloooooooowly ticked up.

No one would confuse this Sundance for one of the absolute great ones. But set aside all the social-cultural intangibles lost with the necessary leap to an online format and there was plenty to admire about the festival, including its sincere attempts to make the remote experience worthwhile, from the pre-recorded introductions/Q&As to the blessedly unbuggy streaming off the website. Naturally, I’m hoping for a return to Park City proper this time next year (I need my Wasatch Bagel fix), but it’s hardly a bad thing that you didn’t need a plane ticket or an Airbnb reservation to be part of the excitement this year. And I’m willing to bet some interesting films got the proverbial big-stage treatment in 2021 because they weren’t competing with the more polished, star-powered ones that feel like indies only in relative budget and which sat out this less glamorous edition of America’s most prominent film festival.

Below are my five favorites of the 20 films I caught over the last week. With any luck, they’ll make the transition to a less temporary streaming or digital platform sometime over the next year—or maybe even to theaters, though it might well be Sundance time again before it’s truly safe to “see a movie,” in the hopeful pre-pandemic sense of that expression.

1. We’re All Going To The World’s Fair

A lonely teenage girl living in some industrial corner of small-town America is slowly sucked into the vortex of her online obsession. But is she really losing herself or just expertly playing a role in the creepypasta game that’s become her one connection to the outside world? Jane Schoenbrun’s spooky micro-budget debut totally immerses the audience in the daily routines and browsing habits of its main character (remarkable newcomer Anna Cobb), communicating without judgment the way some kids get swallowed by the black hole of the internet, even as it keeps us guessing about her actual psychological state. The film played especially well at this online Sundance, mirroring the isolation of its audience, hunched over our own laptops in the dark. At the same time, We’re All Going To The World’s Fair is the type of movie you hope to discover every year at the festival: an original vanguard vision untouched by the corrupting notes of financiers or any blatant bids for an eight-figure acquisition.

2. Summer Of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

For his feature debut, Questlove gets up from the kit to sit instead at an editing bay, where he sifts through some serious buried treasure: a long-abandoned but pristinely preserved stockpile of footage chronicling a widely forgotten summer concert series in Harlem circa 1969. The result is among the most exuberantly satisfying of concert films. The lineup alone—Stevie Wonder! Nina Simone! Mavis Staples!—puts any Coachella poster to shame. But Summer Of Love also uses its incredible performance clips as the load-bearing pillars of a deeper examination into this particular historical moment, with the festival as a beacon of communal joy at the end of a tragic, chaotic decade. The film won multiple Sundance prizes yesterday; it earns them and more.

3. Flee

This year’s other deeply deserving festival winner is a gripping and intimate documentary. Amin, an Afghan refugee now living in America, recounts every step of his family’s pursuit of sanctuary—a voyage that spanned years, countries, and traumas—from behind a cartoon avatar, adopted to conceal his identity. Necessity becomes the mother of invention, as the film’s variety of animation styles expresses the emotional turmoil of Amin’s experiences better than mere words or, conversely, live-action re-creations ever could. By the end, I felt like I almost knew this resilient man, through the candor of his moving recollections and the wealth of detail about his life they illustrate.

4. Judas And The Black Messiah

One side effect of cramming a bunch of festival titles into a single week is that the films start talking to each other. Easily the most high-profile, anticipated movie to make its premiere at Sundance in 2021, this propulsive biodrama about the life, death, and impact of murdered Black Panthers chairman Fred Hampton takes place partially over the same window of time as Summer Of Soul, enriching that film’s digressions into the battles of the civil rights era with a dramatization of one of its most intense chapters. The performances are knockouts—especially LaKeith Stanfield’s turn as the desperate, scrambling FBI informant William O’Neal. His depiction of a man torn between self-preservation and growing guilt lends the project the sweaty urgency of a spy thriller, simmering around the edges of a historical survey.

5. John And The Hole

Another story of unknowable teenage pathology and alienation, this first feature from director Pascual Sisto got widely dinged as an empty exercise in Euro-flavored viewer antagonism. But there’s a real philosophy here about the mysteries of growing up—a thesis of sorts lurking behind the ambiguously allegorical story of a blank-faced 13-year-old who finds a rather novel way to live out his adolescent fantasies of adulthood. To the right sensibility, it’s occasionally quite funny, too, albeit in a very bone-dry way.