The Sundance Film Festival is my favorite film festival. This year due to the ongoing pandemic, Sundance has decided to go virtual. While I wish I could say that I am as excited about the festival as I was in the years prior, I would be lying if I said I was. Sadly, the virtual festivals can’t capture the feeling of what it is like to be at a film festival in person. There is something extraordinary about that experience. From waiting in line to figuring out your way around town, it is all part of the magic that makes in-person film festivals feel all the more special. Now, I fully understand that it can’t happen this year, and I appreciate how so many festivals have figured out how to create a virtual festival and make it their own.
The one thing that I will say about Sundance is that they really have tried to make this feel like a festival. You had to make a schedule, and you can only view the films you selected to screen. So, just like being there in person, you have to be somewhat strategic in your planning. You have to decide which films you want to see and whether you can squeeze them into one of two windows. I think that aspect of this virtual Sundance makes it unique and feel special. As a cinema lover, I like the idea of knowing that I will be amongst the first to see something and that links haven’t been given out for the majority of these films prior. I get to have a fresh reaction without any bias from early word of mouth. This, to me, has always been what makes Sundance the best festival, and I am glad that still, with their virtual platform, they found a way to keep that.
To keep up with tradition, I have read through the Sundance line-up of 74 feature-length films and selected five films that I have on my radar are my “must-see” picks. Please note that just like in previous years, I know little to nothing about these films. I selected these films based on whether the film sounded interesting or liked a filmmaker or someone in the cast. Sundance is always a festival full of surprises, so maybe one of the best films of this year’s festival will be on this list, and maybe it won’t be. That is all part of the Sundance experience. Now, without further delay, here are my picks:
5. John in the Hole
This film sounds weird, and honestly, that is why I picked it. Sundance always has a handful of films that are more of an acquired taste. Sometimes I like them, i.e., Sorry to Bother You, and sometimes I despise them, i.e., Omniboat: A Fast Boat Fantasia. To me, John in the Hole sounds like it has a24 written all over it. They love coming-of-age films, and to have one with a dark and unusual twist seems right up their alley. I am looking forward to seeing how this “nontraditional” coming-of-age story plays out, but I am intrigued by the premise, which involves a kid who holds his entire family prisoner in a hole. The cast isn’t too shabby either, with Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle, and Taissa Farmiga being highlighted as some of the main people in the film.
I am a Tessa Thompson fan, so when I read the description for this one and saw her name attached, I was immediately sold. Tessa has a good history with Sundance, and as a star, she has been climbing the ropes. She’s a terrific actress, and seeing that she is acting alongside a pretty incredible cast, including Ruth Negga, Alexander Skarsgård, and Bill Camp, only increases my interest in seeing the film. According to the Sundance program, Passing follows two light-skinned African American women in 1929 who decide to live on different sides of the color line. The premise sounds like it should be quite eye-opening, and I am already predicting plenty of conversation afterward about how so much in the film reflects today’s world.
The opening night film at Sundance typically doesn’t usually make a huge splash, minus that one time where Whiplash opened and blew everyone’s freaking mind. That said, this is not a typical year, and I fully expect CODA to be one of the more talked-about films to come out of the festival this year. With Sound of Metal resonating with so many people and with filmmakers putting in the effort to tell stories about underrepresented communities, CODA seems like it’s going to be a powerful little film about the deaf community but one that will make audiences feel alive when it is over. I am a big supporter of films that highlight people with disabilities and do so in a very authentic way. Considering this film is premiering at Sundance, I think it will have an impact and hopefully get some attention, just like Crip Camp did last year.
2. Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street
I adore Jim Henson, and I grew up watching Sesame Street and The Muppets. This documentary seems right up my alley as a life-long fan of all things Jim Henson. I never really thought about Sesame Street’s origins, and while I am not quite sure if this film will be seen as big of a breakthrough as something like a Won’t You Be My Neighbor? But I feel that it will be one of the documentaries that will be picked up and get a fairly wide release. Sesame Street is definitely built into American culture, and I never really researched how it was created, but I am sure that is going to be a story filled with nostalgia and a lot of fascinating facts. I’m very much looking forward to it.
1. How it Ends
What can I say? I am a sucker for end of the world movies. How It Ends also intrigues me because it was written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones. The last film that she had at Sundance was Band-Aid, and it was one of my favorite films out of the festival that year. I also love that Olivia Wilde is in the film because I have always enjoyed her work as an actress and think she is highly underrated. The plot of How it Ends sounds like it will be somewhat quirky but knowing Lister-Jones’ work, and I am going to expect that the ending will be somewhat of a surprise. I can only hope that this is one of the more light-hearted titles at Sundance this year. There have been way too many heavy films lately, and I would love something just fun and entertaining. Those also tend to be highlights of the festival in the past.
Bonus Pick: Judas and The Black Messiah
Spoiler alert, I already saw Judas and The Black Messiah because I had to consider the film for awards voting. I think out of all the films released within the past 13 months that have addressed racism and police brutality, Judas and The Black Messiah isn’t only the most effective but the film that grabbed and kept my attention for the entire runtime. It is well-made, beautifully acted, and features some incredible direction and cinematography. This is one of those films that I think audiences are really going to connect with because it feels more like a narrative film than a play. I can see this one making big waves, not only at Sundance but throughout the remainder of awards season.
Are you attending Sundance? If so, what films are you most looking forward to seeing? Let me know by leaving a comment below