In years past, the Sundance Film Festival has been the place for many independent filmmakers, from Ari Aster to Darren Aronofsky to Quentin Tarantino, to launch their careers.
Needless to say, the event looked different this year, but the (virtual) 2021 Sundance Film Festival nevertheless managed to showcase the immense talent and uncompromising vision of some of the best independent filmmakers working today. Here are six of this year’s best productions.
Director: Sian Heder
Starring: Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur
“CODA” entered Sundance with huge media hype, a $25 million acquisition by Apple and a befitting primetime opening-night slot. With such high expectations, you’d be forgiven for thinking the film couldn’t live up to them, but Heder’s coming-of-age dramedy does that and then some. “CODA” follows the story of Ruby (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of an otherwise deaf fishing family, as she navigates her responsibility of interpreting for her family and her burgeoning passion for music. Equal parts hilarious and poignant, “CODA” deserves special praise for the way disabled characters are placed front and center in its narrative, even if the production never strays too far from the familiar tropes of teen coming-of-age, comfort-food movies. The sheer amount of heart “CODA” contains, however, secures its spot as a triumph, and one we’re sure to hear more about as next year’s award season rolls around.
“On the Count of Three”
Director: Jerrod Carmichael
Starring: Jerrod Carmichael, Christopher Abbott
The directorial debut of stand-up comedian Carmichael, “On the Count of Three” follows two best friends who make a pact to kill each other at the end of the day as a means of committing suicide. What begins as an absurd (and dark) premise soon devolves into a series of misadventures, as Carmichael’s Val and Christopher Plummer’s Kevin engage in a sharply written and entertainingly chaotic romp through their hometown. “On the Count of Three” manages to be both wickedly funny and emotionally authentic, tackling topics of depression, trauma and masculinity with just as much grace as humor. The film’s ability to find the humor in these topics without ever minimizing their importance is perhaps its greatest asset and one that cements Carmichael as a director with a deftness and maturity far greater than a typical debut filmmaker.
Director: Rebecca Hall
Starring: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland
Based on Nella Larsen’s novel of the same name, Hall’s “Passing” follows two Black women in 1920s New York who live on opposite sides of the color line; Clare (Negga) passes as white and has married a white man, while Irene (Thompson) lives in Harlem and has married a Black man. What follows is a powerful and nuanced exploration of identity, race, class and sexuality, one that refuses to sanitize the tangled relationships and emotional weight of its novel namesake and is all the better for it. Gorgeously shot and wonderfully acted by Thompson and Negga, “Passing,” despite being set a century ago, feels especially relevant today, where the “two Americas” of racial injustice are plainer to see ever before.
Director: Fran Kranz
Starring: Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney, Ann Dowd
Set almost entirely in a single room inside a small church, “Mass” centers around the meeting of two grieving couples on the opposite sides of an unthinkable tragedy: Gail (Plimpton) and Jay (Isaacs), who have lost their son in a school shooting, and Richard (Birney) and Linda (Dowd), whose son was the shooter. The subject matter is all too familiar for far too many Americans, and “Mass” is every bit as gut-wrenchingly raw as you’d expect, with Kranz’s minimalistic direction and unflinching camera highlighting each and every devastating word of his actors’ performances. Yet there’s a surprising amount of tenderness here too — there’s tragedy, yes, but the film never fails to keep our faith in the human spirit. The production is often an utterly painful watch, but also one that feels utterly necessary.
Director: Clint Bentley
Starring: Clifton Collins Jr, Moisés Arias, Molly Parker
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The aging former star athlete comes out of retirement for one ride, while the child he never knew he had comes out of the woodwork. Yes, the premise of “Jockey” is about as well-worn as an old pair of racing stirrups. While the film may seem like a simple sports movie at first glance, director Bentley’s exquisite cinematography and Collins Jr’s virtuoso performance as the past-his-prime jockey trying to win just one last time elevates the story. Told in the soft glow of its racetracks’ sunrises and sunsets, “Jockey” isn’t overly ambitious with its subject matter, but its fantastic performances make the film far more than the sum of its parts and more than worth a watch.
“Judas and the Black Messiah”
Director: Shaka King
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons
Brimming with urgency, conviction and societal relevance, “Judas and the Black Messiah” tells the story of Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), the leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther, and his eventual betrayal by FBI informant William O’Neil (Stanfield). Kaluuya, of “Get Out” and “Queen & Slim” fame, is undoubtedly the main attraction here: His performance is just as charismatic, confident and complicated as the real-life man he depicts. Stanfield’s more understated O’Neil provides a nice contrast as well as he struggles with his role as the man whose work with the FBI will cut Hampton’s life far too short. The biggest achievement of “Judas and the Black Messiah,” however, is the way the story unflinchingly examines the role of our institutions in upholding white supremacy by any means necessary. In the age of Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements, this story about the past still holds many lessons for the present.