My 2021 Virtual Sundance Favorites

I have something a little different for you this month. I “attended” virtual Sundance at the turn of January into February. The festival’s tribute and commitment to Native American culture is fitting to last month’s musings on Native American Culture In FilmSundance has been fostering the talent of Native Peoples since 1994, when it formally started its Indigenous Program. And, at the head of every single screening, there was a beautifully crafted video honoring Native Tribes and their Homeland.

There were 73 features and 50 shorts at the festival this year—out of 14,000 submissions. I watched 22 Features and 35 Shorts—my 2021 virtual Sundance Favorites are as follows. 

The included summaries are straight from the festival program, and the titles link to the film’s detail page, where you can read a short director’s bio, watch a short “Meet The Artist” video, and view additional credits. If a film won an award, it is noted at the head of the summary.

Dramatic Features

Fire In The Mountains – Chandra and her husband, Dharam, run the Switzerland Homestay, an inn that hovers high above the only road in a small Himalayan village. The terrain poses a problem for the family, who must transport their son Prakash down the mountain in his wheelchair to go to the doctor and school. Though Chandra believes Prakash needs more medical attention, Dharam isn’t as keen on the idea. He’d rather put the money toward a shamanic ritual he believes will rid them of a deity’s curse, the cause of Prakash’s affliction. Tensions increase as their worldviews collide and slowly erode their familial ties.

The debut feature from writer-director Ajitpal Singh, Fire in the Mountains is a searing portrait of the power dynamics at play between tradition and modernity in one family’s foundation. With handheld camerawork and seamless tracking shots, Singh vividly captures the beauty and hardship of their daily lives. Fire in the Mountains is bolstered by Vinamrata Rai’s commanding performance as Chandra, a woman unafraid to stand her ground and find ways forward for her family and village.

Directed and Written by Ajitpal Singh
Produced by Ajay Rai, Alan McAlex

Knocking – What. Is. That. Noise. When Molly hears knocking coming from the ceiling in her new apartment, she naturally searches for the source. The upstairs neighbors don’t know what she’s talking about and dismiss her with cool indifference. Is this all in her mind? After all, she’s still processing a traumatic event that left her mentally unwell, and the unprecedented heat wave isn’t helping her think clearly. As the knocking intensifies and gives way to a woman’s cries, Molly becomes consumed with finding out the truth. Could it be Morse code? Is someone trapped? And more importantly, why doesn’t anyone care?

Knocking is a sharp indictment of the gaslight culture and social stigma that work against those experiencing mental illness. Director Frida Kempff’s stunning visuals induce a dissonant sensation of physical disembodiment and feverish claustrophobia that mimics Molly’s deteriorating mental state. Cecilia Milocco exudes Molly’s vulnerability and strength in equal measures, spiraling in one moment before standing her ground the next. Knocking leaves you, just like Molly, questioning yourself until the very end. 

Directed by Frida Kempff
Written by Emma Broström
Produced by Erik Andersson

Ma Belle, My Beauty – Audience Award for the NEXT program – Newlywed musicians Bertie and Fred are adjusting to their new life in the beautiful countryside of France. It’s an easy transition for Fred, the son of French and Spanish parents, but New Orleans native Bertie grapples with a nagging depression that is affecting her singing. Lane—the quirky ex who disappeared from their three-way relationship years ago—suddenly shows up for a surprise visit, bringing new energy and baggage of her own.

First-time feature filmmaker Marion Hill takes us on a tipsy, moody dive into polyamory that holds all of the gravity and complexity of sexual fluidity and triangulation, while maintaining the buoyant atmosphere of a hot summer adventure through the fields of Europe. Levitated by an intoxicating acoustic guitar soundtrack by Mahmoud Chouki, Ma Belle, My Beauty is a breezy and meaningful journey through wine-drenched candlelit dinners, firelit vineyard parties, farmers’ markets, and sunny hikes alongside the creek, as Fred, Bertie, and Lane grapple with how to get what they want inside the soup of their desires, passions, and life ambitions.

Written and Directed by Marion Hill
Produced by Ben Matheny, Kelsey Scult, Marion Hill

Land – When Edee’s life is tragically altered, she loses the ability to connect with the world and people she once knew. She retreats to a forest in the Rocky Mountains with a few supplies and leaves her old life behind indefinitely. The beauty of her new surroundings is undeniable yet quickly humbling as she struggles to adjust and prepare for the winter ahead. When Edee is caught on the brink of death, a local hunter and his family miraculously save her, but she alone must find a way to live again.

Acclaimed actress Robin Wright returns to the Sundance Film Festival with her directorial debut, set in the picturesque but unforgiving wilds of nature. Wright stands out in her performance as Edee, a woman lost in grief, while Demián Bichir’s subdued and charming presence depicts an unexpected and reflective companion who questions Edee’s abrupt choices. Land is a quiet yet masterful journey into the complex desire for solitude as a woman searches for meaning in the vast and harsh American wilderness.

Directed by Robin Wright
Written by Jesse Chatham, Erin Dignam
Produced by Allyn Stewart, Lora Kennedy, Leah Holzer, Peter Saraf

Night of the Kings – Philippe Lacôte’s gripping second feature, Night of the Kings, has won acclaim at major festivals since premiering at the Venice International Film Festival.

A new arrival at Ivory Coast’s infamous MACA prison is quickly anointed the institution’s “Roman”—a griot instructed to tell stories for the population at the command of reigning inmate king, the ailing Blackbeard. Roman must ascertain his place in the prison’s dangerously shifting inmate politics, embrace his inner Scheherazade, and weave a tale that will get them all through the night and stave off impending chaos.

Night of the Kings is a bold, imaginative ode to the power of storytelling and a layered, compelling portrait of the complexities of life within the prison walls. Roman’s desperately woven tales cleverly embody the turmoil surrounding him, and Lacôte enhances their fantastical and dramatic effect by interjecting glorious cinematic depictions of the boy’s imaginings. The horde of listening prisoners transforms into a makeshift chorus, translating the tales into song and dance, intensifying the film’s enthralling effect.

Written and Directed by Philippe Lacôte
Produced by Delphine Jaquet, Yanick Létourneau, Ernest Konan, Yoro Mbaye

Judas And The Black Messiah – Fred Hampton’s cathartic words “I am a revolutionary” became a rallying call in 1969. As chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Hampton demanded all power to the people and inspired a growing movement of solidarity, prompting the FBI to consider him a threat and to plant informant William O’Neal to infiltrate the party. Judas and the Black Messiah not only recounts Hampton’s legacy and the FBI’s conspiring but also gives equal footing to the man who became infamous for his betrayal—highlighting the systems of inequality and oppression that fed both of their roles.

Director Shaka King returns to the Sundance Film Festival with an incredible cast of Sundance alums led by Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield. Kaluuya channels Hampton’s ability to energize and unite communities, while Stanfield taps into the anguish of a man with conflicting allegiances. Dominique Fishback also stands out in her reserved yet confronting performance as Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s life partner. King’s magnetic film carries themes that continue to resonate today and serves as a reminder of the potent power of the people.

Directed by Shaka King
Written by Will Berson, Shaka King
Produced by Ryan Coogler p.g.a., Charles D. King p.g.a., Shaka King p.g.a.

Coda – U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Feature, Directing Award for U.S. Dramatic Feature, U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast, Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic Feature. 

Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of a deaf family. At 17, she works mornings before school to help her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant) keep their Gloucester fishing business afloat. But in joining her high school’s choir club, Ruby finds herself drawn to both her duet partner (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and her latent passion for singing. Her enthusiastic, tough-love choirmaster (Eugenio Derbez) hears something special and encourages Ruby to consider music school and a future beyond fishing, leaving her torn between obligation to family and pursuit of her dream.

Siân Heder’s heartwarming, exuberant follow-up to Tallulah (2016 Sundance Film Festival) brings us inside the idiosyncratic rhythms and emotions of a deaf family—something we’ve rarely seen on screen. In developing Coda, which stands for Child of Deaf Adults, Heder was determined to tell the story authentically with deaf actors. Her writing and direction—layered, naturalistic, frank, and funny—finds perfect expression in richly drawn characters and a uniformly outstanding cast, led by Jones in a fantastic breakout performance.

Written and Directed by Siân Heder
Produced by Philippe Rousselet, Fabrice Gianfermi, Patrick Wachsberger

Documentary Features

Flee – World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary — An Afghan refugee agrees to tell a remarkable personal narrative of persecution and escape on the condition that his identity not be revealed. As a means of fulfilling that wish, his filmmaker friend uses striking animation to not only protect this young man but also enhance his tale, bending time and memory to recount a visceral, poetic, and death-defying journey dictated by deception, loneliness, and a relentless will to survive.

The result is Flee, a film unbound by documentary constraints and swept up in an astonishing array of archive footage, ’80s pop music, and hand-drawn craft that brings audiences directly into the experience of a teen fleeing multiple countries—and the psychological impact on how he loves, trusts, and understands his burgeoning identity. Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s film is a triumph of storytelling and filmmaking ingenuity, but its greatest asset is the empathy and trust Rasmussen forms with the film’s protagonist, whose clarity and vulnerability grant us access to a unique refugee tale.

Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Produced by Monica Hellström, Signe Byrge Sørensen

Taming The Garden – The opening shot of filmmaker Salomé Jashi’s striking environmental tale captures a tree as tall as a 15-story building floating on a barge across the vast Black Sea. Its destination lies within a garden countless miles away, privately owned by a wealthy and anonymous man whose passion resides in the removal, and subsequent replanting, of foreign trees into his own man-made Eden.

With astonishing cinematic style, Taming the Garden tracks the surreal uprooting of ancient trees from their Georgian locales. With each removal, tensions flare between workers and villagers. Some see financial incentives—new roads, handsome fees—while others angrily mourn the loss of what was assumed an immovable monolith of their town’s collective history and memory. With a steady and shrewdly observant eye, Jashi documents a single man’s power over Earth’s natural gardens: how majestic living artifacts of a country’s identity can so effortlessly become uprooted by individuals with no connection to the nature they now claim as their own.

Written and Directed by Salomé Jashi
Produced by Vadim Jendreyko, Erik Winker, Martin Roelly, Salomé Jashi

Dramatic Shorts

Bj’s Mobile Gift Shop – A young Korean American hustler runs throughout the city of Chicago making sales out of his “mobile gift shop.”

Written and Directed by Jason Park
Produced by Julianna Imel and Jason Park

Bruiser – After his father gets into a fight at a bowling alley, Darious begins to investigate the limitations of his own manhood.

Directed by Miles Warren
Written by Miles Warren and Ben Medina
Produced by Gustavo René, Albert Tholen, Lauren Goetzman

Bambirak – Short Film Jury Award for International Fiction – When Kati stows away in her father’s truck, Faruk must juggle his responsibilities as a single dad while holding down his first job in a new country. As their relationship deepens, a brush with covert racism tests their bond.

Written and Directed by Zamarin Wahdat
Produced by Joy Jorgensen

Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma – Short Film Jury Award for Non-Fiction – In 1970, Black educators in Chicago developed alphabet flash cards to provide Black-centered teaching materials to the vastly white educational landscape, and the Black ABCs were born. Fifty years later, 26 scenes provide an update to their meanings.

Written and Directed by Topaz Jones, Rubberband.
Produced by Luigi Rossi, Jason Sondock, Simon Davis, Eric McNeal, Kevin Storey

Lata – a 23-year-old domestic worker, navigates her way through an upper-class home in South Mumbai. Doors consistently open and close, giving Lata selective access to the various contending realities that occupy this space.

Directed by Alisha Tejpal
Written by Alisha Tejpal, Mireya Martinez
Produced by Mireya Martinez

Raspberry – Undertakers wait on a family’s final farewells as one son struggles to say goodbye to his dead father.

Written and Directed by Julian Doan
Produced by Turner Munch, Brianna Murphy

Unliveable – In Brazil, where a trans person is murdered every three days, Marilene searches for her daughter, Roberta, a trans woman who is missing. Running out of time, she discovers one hope for the future.

Written, Directed, and Produced by – Matheus Farias, Enock Carvalho

The Longest Dream I remember – As Tania leaves her hometown, she must confront what her absence will mean in the search for her disappeared father.

Directed by Carlos Lenin
Written by Carlos Lenin, Isa Mora Vera
Produced by Paloma Petra, Laura Carreto, Andrés Luna Ruiz

We’re Not Animals – His ex, Marie, became an Instagram star (thanks to an activist group focused on the female orgasm). Depressed, Igor believes this is a deliberate campaign to prevent him from finding someone else.

Written and Directed by Noé Debré
Produced by Benjamin Elalouf

Lizard – Short Film Grand Jury Prize – Juwon, an eight-year-old girl with an ability to sense danger, gets ejected from Sunday school service. She unwittingly witnesses the underbelly in and around a megachurch in Lagos.

Directed by Akinola Davies Jr.
Written by The Davies Brothers
Produced by Rachel Dargavel, Wale Davies

Like The Ones I Used To Know – December 24, 1983, 10:50 p.m.: Julie and her cousins ate too much sugar, and Santa Claus is late. Denis, alone in his car, is anxious about setting foot in his former in-laws’ house to pick up his children.

Written and Directed by Annie St-Pierre
Produced by Fanny Drew, Sarah Mannering

The Unseen River – Stories told along the river: a woman reunites with her ex-lover at a hydroelectric plant; meanwhile, a young man travels downstream to a temple in search of a cure for his insomnia.

Written and Directed by Phạm Ngọc Lân
Executive Producers Gabriel Shaya Kuperman, Alex Curran-Cardarelli

The Criminals – Short Film Special Jury Award for Screenwriting – In a town in Turkey, a young couple looks for some privacy. They are rejected from the hotels because they do not have a marriage certificate. When they think they have found a way, the situation gets out of hand.

Written and Directed by Serhat Karaaslan
Produced by Laure Dahout
Co-Produced by Laura Musat

Documentary Shorts

This Is The Way We Rise – An exploration into the creative process, following native Hawaiian slam poet Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio as her art is reinvigorated by her calling to protect sacred sites atop Mauna Kea, Hawai’i.

Directed by Ciara Lacy

Tears Teacher – Yoshida is a self-proclaimed “tears teacher.” A firm believer that regular crying promotes healthier living, he’s made it his mission to make more people weep.

Directed by Noémie Nakai

Snowy – a four-inch-long pet turtle, has lived an isolated life in the family basement. With help from a team of experts and his caretaker, Uncle Larry, we ask: Can Snowy be happy, and what would it take?

Directed by Kaitlyn Schwalje, Alex Wolf Lewis
Written by Kaitlyn Schwalje
Produced by Rebecca Stern, Justin Levy

Related

January Musings – Native American culture in film and more
December Musings – Child Prodigies and Renaissance Men
November Musings – Understanding racial division through cinema, literature, and more

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