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Our Take on Sundance 2021

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | February 7th, 2021

Park City’s Main Street at last year’s Sundance Film Festival | photo by Christopher Llewellyn Reed.

This year’s Sundance Film Festival ran (virtually) from January 28 to February 3. Almost two weeks ago, we here at Film Festival Today offered up some of our recommendations of what to watch. Now that the festival is over and its awards distributed, we are back to list five favorites from what we each saw. Critics Melanie Addington and Hannah Tran join me, as they did last time. In addition to this wrap-up, we have a few individual reviews and interviews that have run, or will run soon.

CHRIS REED

I very much enjoyed all five films I listed in our curtain raiser (see link, above), and have already reviewed the following from that list: Judas and the Black Messiah, Passing and Prisoners of the Ghostland. In the interest of variety, here are five different works I also saw.

A still from PHILLY D.A., by Ted Passon, Yoni Brook, and Nicole Salazar, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Yoni Brook.

Philly D.A. (Yoni Brook/Ted Passon/Nicole Salazar): Not a film but an eight-episode docuseries that will begin to air on April 20 on PBS, Philly D.A. follows the 2017 election and early tenure of Philadelphia’s current district attorney, Larry Krasner. A former public defender and defense lawyer, Krasner won a landslide mandate promising progressive reform to the city’s justice system. In the first two hour-long episodes aired at the festival, we watch as Krasner and his team follow through on their commitment to tackle police misconduct, mass incarceration and the overly punitive juvenile courts. It’s not easy, and though Krasner has the support, at least initially, of wide swaths of the city’s population, there is significant pushback from the police union and other quarters. How will it all end? I’m not sure, but I intend to keep watching.

Prime Time (Jakub Piatek): Set in Warsaw, Poland, on New Year’s Eve, 1999, Jakub Piatek’s directorial debut stars Bartosz Bielenia (Corpus Christi) as a disaffected young man struggling to adapt in the post-communist world. 20-year-old Sebastian is one of those left behind in a country doing its utmost to forget the past and launch into a glorious new millennium full of riches. Except that’s not at all how it’s going, save for a select few. Without ever explicitly mentioning much of this subtext, Piatek instead focuses on the small details of Sebastian’s ill-fated attempt to take over a TV station and hold its star presenter hostage until the executives allow him to deliver a live speech to the nation. Nothing goes as planned, but one thing is certain: Bielenia delivers a gripping performance, ably supported by a fine ensemble.

A still from REBEL HEARTS, by Pedro Kos, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Rebel Hearts (Pedro Kos) [adapted from a longer review which ran at Hammer to Nail]: Director Pedro Kos (Bending the Arc) follows a group of nuns, the Los Angeles-based Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, who fought the good fight against the Catholic hierarchy in the 1960s, insisting on their due as fully realized beings in the wake of Vatican II. They won some battles and lost others, and ultimately emerged as women in charge of their own destiny. Using a wealth of archival footage and interviews (many of the primary subjects are now deceased), as well as evocative animations, Kos walks us through that heady time, showcasing the movers, shakers, sheroes and villains, replicating a tumultuous history that speaks very much to our present time, as well.

Superior (Erin Vassilopoulos): Making her feature debut, director Erin Vassilopoulos takes the story begun in her eponymous 2015 short and follows the twin sisters she there introduced, now 6 years later. Alessandra (who also co-wrote the film with Vassilopoulos) and Ali Mesa star as Marian and Vivian, the one a member of a punk band and the other a housewife. When Marian shows up out of the blue one day, after an opener where we see her turn the tables on an abusive partner, Vivian and her husband are less than excited, their comfortable, if boring, life now suddenly disrupted. Soon, the sisters find themselves both involved in Marian’s troubled past, old bonds trumping current grievances. A meditation on sibling love, female agency and existential ennui, all wrapped up in a slow burn of a thriller, Superior charms with its oddball pacing and elliptical editing, the whole given a gritty texture thanks to the 16mm film stock on which it was shot.

A still from WRITING WITH FIRE, by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Gosh, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Black Ticket Films.

Writing with Fire (Sushmit Ghosh/Rintu Thomas): [adapted from a longer review which ran at Hammer to Nail]: India’s rigid caste system categorizes the population along strict socio-ethnic lines. One particular group is deemed so unclean that it exists below the lowest caste, considered “untouchable.” They are the Dalit, and within their midst the women bear the biggest brunt of national scorn. And yet that hasn’t stopped a small collective of Dalit women from organizing and running an increasingly popular newspaper (and now news site, complete with breaking-story videos), Khabar Lahariya, headquartered in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. No amount of discrimination can keep them down, as they investigate issues of local interest, among them organized crime, political corruption and more. Sheroes all, they make make for compelling protagonists in this, the feature-documentary debut of husband-and-wife duo Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas. Watch and see how it’s done.


HANNAH TRAN

All Light, Everywhere (Theo Anthony): Rat Film director Theo Anthony does it again with his latest look into the growing mechanization of surveillance and accountability systems and their relationship to corporate entities and the state. Anthony’s insights are not only smart, they are smartly conveyed. Surprisingly funny and unsurprisingly eye-opening, All Light, Everywhere is made up of a mind-blowing amount of access and a stream of narratives that work in tandem to direct viewers to their own conclusions.

l-r: Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, and Breeda Wool appear in MASS, by Fran Kranz, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ryan Jackson-Healy.

Mass (Fran Kranz): This story of two sets of parents who meet years after a violent shooting in which one of the couple’s sons was the perpetrator and the other couple’s the victim, is a bare-bones but relentlessly tense discussion about one of the most difficult conversations of our time. Mass may occasionally feel technically misguided and narratively unresolved, but it’s a must-see if only for its unique approach and the quartet of incredibly emotional performances by its lead cast.

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (Kristina Lindström/Kristian Petri): This documentary about Swedish actor Björn Andrésen, who at age 15 was declared by director Luchino Visconti to be the very title of the movie, is a thoughtful, complex portrait bout the lasting effects of the objectification of youth. While inevitably heartbreaking and shocking, Lindström and Petri’s film provides a moving glimpse into Andrésen’s life that never defines him by the traumas of his past.

l-r: Christopher Abbott and Jerrod Carmichael appear in ON THE COUNT OF THREE, by Jerrod Carmichael, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Marshall Adams.

On the Count of Three (Jerrod Carmichael): Comedian Jerrod Carmichael’s debut about two friends who decide to live one final day together before agreeing to kill themselves is a perfect balance of shock factor and dark hilarity. Led by a standout performance from Christopher Abbot (Black Bear), this is a brief but thoughtful exploration of friendship, personal responsibility and redemption.

Try Harder! (Debbie Lum): Examining the lives of a group of seniors at a highly competitive high school predominantly made up of Asian American students, the documentary Try Harder! is a refreshing look at the impossibly rigorous lives of the youngest of our nation. Lum presents these students and all of their charm, taking a look at the pressures they face and revealing the complexity of the college admissions process to show that even with affirmative action, discrimination can still exist.


MELANIE ADDINGTON

With Sundance being virtual this year I was lucky to catch so many more films than I could possibly even write about. With a wide range of storytelling, some standouts for me explored our past, our future, and imaginary worlds.

Carlson Young appears in THE BLAZING WORLD, by Carlson Young, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The Blazing World (Carlson Young): A twin who survived birth while the other did not is drawn to an alternate dimension where her sister may still be alive. Such is the premise of The Blazing World, a fiery imaginative Alice in the Wonderland-like tale that takes some creative chances. Directed by Carlson Young, who also stars, this is an adaptation of an earlier short. The film is not for everyone but is imaginative and wild. Bonus of Udo Kier being … well, Udo Kier. 

Judas and the Black Messiah (Shaka King): I’ve long thought Fred Hampton deserved his own biopic and when news of this one came around I was very excited. From Shaka King, the film stars Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as William O’Neal (both of Get Out), as well as Dominique Fishback (Project Power). For those unfamiliar, Hampton was a rising star in the Black Panther Party when the FBI targeted him for fear of his ability to stir people. Using O’Neal as an informant, the FBI destroys Hampton’s life. Fishback stands out as the mother of Hampton’s child and an activist in her own right. We never get beyond the surface story with this film but it can serve as a good introductory piece on Hampton and his fellow Panthers. Judas and the Black Messiah will air on HBO and in theaters later this month. 

l-r: Idella Johnson, Sivan Noam Shimon and Hannah Pepper appear in MA BELLE, MY BEAUTY, by Marion Hill, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Lauren Guiteras.

Ma Belle, My Beauty (Marion Hill): Winner of the audience award in the Next category, Ma Belle, My Beauty is unassuming yet lovely in its approach to polyamorous love. Directed by Marion Hill, the film is set in France and stars Idella Johnson (Bertie), Lucien Guignard (Fred), and Hannah Pepper- Cunningham (Lane). The dynamic between the married couple (Bertie and Fred) is threatened when Lane pops up. The former girlfriend of Bertie while she and Fred were also dating, the marriage dynamic confuses all of them on how to proceed. The performances and setting make it impossible to not immerse yourself fully into the story. No word on its future release yet but I hope audiences get to see this one and on a big screen. 

Passing (Rebecca Hall): This black-and-white film, directed by actress Rebecca Hall (Permission), stars Tessa Thompson (Sylvie’s Love) and Ruth Negga (Loving), two friends reunited after many years apart. A story of colorism that removes all color from the screen, Passing is a complicated tale of friendship, sexuality, race and feminism. Marci Rodgers’ costume design makes the film; there is beautiful nuance everywhere, as if Hall carefully thought of each production department. Netflix is in talks to buy and have Passing out this year.

l-r: Ed Helms and Patti Harrison appear in TOGETHER TOGETHER, by Nikole Beckwith, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Tiffany Roohani.

Together Together (Nikole Beckwith): You can’t make a movie about male and female friendship without discussing some of the horrible ways it’s been done before. In Together Together, Matt (Ed Helms, Vacation) and Anna (Patti Harrison) are having a baby together but not “together together”(hence the title). She is his surrogate, but they break the rules and become friends. Even though Matt is over 20 years older than Anna, if a male had directed this, they’d end up in bed. But because a woman directed, instead, they spend their time making fun of Woody Allen films and eating candy. Refreshing.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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