2021 Sundance Film Festival: Best and Worst Films

  • Publish Date: February 3, 2021
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The winners

The U.S. dramatic jury prizes were selected by a smaller-than-normal body composed of director Julie Dash, actress Cynthia Erivo, and novelist Hanya Yanagihara. Other prizes were selected by additional juries.

U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic)
U.S. Audience Award (Dramatic)

Drama | USA | Directed by Siân Heder
Acquired by Apple for $25 million

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Previous Grand Jury Prize winners:
2020: Minari 87
2019: Clemency 77
2018: The Miseducation of Cameron Post 69
2017: I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore 75
2016: The Birth of a Nation 69

Previous Audience Award winners:
2020: Minari 87
2019: Brittany Runs a Marathon 72
2018: Burden 63
2017: Crown Heights 64
2016: The Birth of a Nation 69

Despite the lack of actual crowds at this year’s festival, the phrase used most often to describe writer-director Siân Heder's (Tallulah) remake of the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier was “crowd-pleaser.” (Among those pleased was Apple, which picked up the film for a Sundance-record $25 million after a bidding war.) Emilia Jones stars as Ruby, the sole hearing member of a deaf Gloucester fishing family. As the family business comes under threat, she explores her love of singing despite the disapproval of her mother, played by Marlee Matlin. Writing for The Guardian, Benjamin Lee finds it “a little too formulaic at times, a tad too comfortable sticking to a dog-eared playbook,” but THR's Jon Frosch writes, “If you're going to make a film that sticks to the playbook, or playbooks, this is how to do it: CODA is a radiant, deeply satisfying heartwarmer that more than embraces formula; it locates the pleasure and pureness in it, reminding us of the comforting, even cathartic, gratifications of a feel-good story well told.”

CODA followed in the footsteps of Minari at last year's festival by sweeping the two top awards. But it didn't stop there: Heder also won the directing award from the jury, which also awarded the film a special jury award for its ensemble cast.

U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Documentary)
U.S. Audience Award (Documentary)
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Documentary/Music | USA | Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

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Previous Grand Jury doc winners:
2020: Boys State 84
2019: One Child Nation 85
2018: Kailash 66
2017: Dina 75
2016: Weiner 84

Previous Audience Award doc winners:
2020: Crip Camp 86
2019: Knock Down the House 80
2018: The Sentence 69
2017: Chasing Coral 86
2016: Jim: The James Foley Story 73

In his superb debut feature as director, which, like CODA, swept the jury and audience awards, Amir “Questlove” Thompson brings the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969—which featured a loaded lineup led by Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Nina Simone, and Sly and the Family Stone—back to life. After footage of the concert series sat in a basement for 50 years, Questlove has created a historical record, a documentary Variety's Owen Gleiberman describes as “like no other, because while it’s a joyful, cataclysmic, and soulfully seductive concert movie, what it’s really about is a key turning point in Black life in America.” In his review for Screen Daily Tim Grierson agrees, writing, “The performances are often revelatory, but the sense of history coming alive — of the past speaking to the present — is even more riveting.” And in the last lines of her review, THR's Sheri Linden prepares viewers for what they will see, “Get ready, music and movie lovers: For two spellbinding hours, the communion between performers and a summer crowd leaps off the screen and across the years.”

Other winning films include:

Audience Award: NEXT: Ma Belle, My Beauty

World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic: Hive

Audience Award: World Cinema Dramatic: Hive

World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary: Flee

Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary: Writing With Fire

Best of the festival

Below are additional titles generating the most positive buzz at this year's festival. That's followed by a list of the remaining notable festival debuts, and then by a recap of this year's Sundance duds. Note that any Sundance films which previously debuted at other festivals are excluded.

Animation | USA | Directed by Dash Shaw
Acquired by Magnolia Pictures for an unspecified amount

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Writer-director Dash Shaw’s follow-up to My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea imagines a world where mythical creatures or cryptids have been rescued and housed in a zoo. Lauren (voiced by Lake Bell) has dedicated her life to sheltering them, but when she crosses paths with Amber, she begins to question her vision. Five years in the making, the animated Cryptozoo is a “work of boundless imagination allied to a vibrant, kaleidoscope of rainbow-coloured imagery,” according to Allan Hunter of Screen Daily. Working with his wife, animation director Jane Sambrorski, Shaw is “even more assured as both a storyteller and as a crafter of images, be they outrageous or gorgeous, haunting or hilarious” this time out, producing what TheWrap's Alonso Duralde calls a “dazzling and provocative delight” and Juan Barquin of The Film Stage declares "one of the most gorgeous works of American animation in ages.” Magnolia will release the film sometime in 2021.

El Planeta
Comedy | USA/Spain | Directed by Amalia Ulman

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In her feature directorial debut, writer-director Amalia Ulman stars as a London fashion student who returns to her coastal hometown of Gijón, Spain to be with her mom (played by Ale Ulman, Amalia’s actual mom) after her father dies. In this comedy about eviction, the two survive by a succession of grifts, a tale made more appealing thanks to the “real-life bond between the women” which “helps cement the movie in genuine chemistry even as it zigs and zags through a leisurely plot,” according to IndieWire's Eric Kohn. In her review for Paste, Natalia Keogan agrees: “El Planeta finds charm and levity despite the encroaching anxiety of crumbling finances, a fact that has everything to do with the Ulmans’ beautiful on-screen chemistry and the strength of Amalia’s scriptwriting.” And Andrew Bundy of The Playlist calls El Planeta a “profound debut film – the announcement of a major comedic talent with an ear and eye for artistic ideas that are truly meaningful not just creatively fetishistic.”

Animation/Documentary | Denmark/France/Sweden/Norway | Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Acquired by Neon for $1 million

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An Afghan refugee, Amin Nawabi (not his real name), shares his story of persecution, confinement, escape, and freedom with his friend, filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen, on the condition that he remains anonymous. Rasmussen uses animation to achieve that anonymity, resulting in what THR's David Rooney praises as a “powerful and poetic memoir of personal struggle and self-discovery that expands the definition of documentary.” “It’s activism, therapy, and great cinema all at once,” writes Eric Kohn of IndieWire, and in his review for The Playlist , Gregory Ellwood agrees: “To say it’s a stellar feat of cinema is something of an understatement.” Neon purchased the film just before it collected the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary at the conclusion of the fest, so look for it later this year.

Judas and the Black Messiah
Drama | USA | Directed by Shaka King
Opens in theaters and streams on HBO Max on February 12

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Daniel Kaluuya plays Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton, and LaKeith Stanfield is William O’Neal, the informant who paved the way for Hampton’s demise, in this potent and timely dramatization of a dark chapter in American law enforcement by director Shaka King (Newlyweeds). The two widely praised leads are ably supported by Jesse Plemons as an oily FBI man, and Dominique Fishback as Hampton’s partner. Writing for The Playlist, Robert Daniels believes the film “comes so close to rendering Hampton’s life and legacy anew” thanks to its “eloquent crafts and the audacious performances from a deep ensemble,” but “doesn’t fully encapsulate either its Judas or its messiah.” More positive, Variety's Peter Debruge finds the film “intense, infuriating and indisputably timely.” And in his review for THR, David Rooney writes, “This is boldly assured, issues-based filmmaking with real heart, and above all with a saddened sense of how the past maintains its hold on the present.” Note that the well-reviewed film will be eligible for Oscar nominations next month thanks to its release next week and the Academy’s extended deadline.

Drama | USA | Directed by Rebecca Hall

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Actress Rebecca Hall makes her directorial debut with this adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel. Shot in black and white and starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as high school friends who happen to meet on a hot day in 1920s New York City, the film explores how, even though both can “pass” as white, only one of them chooses to do so. THR's David Rooney praises both the “exquisite performances” from the two leads and Hall’s screenplay, which “impresses in its ability to reflect, without didacticism, on the elastic borders of identity and the mutable dualities between Black and white, man and woman, gay and straight.” Writing for TheWrap, Carlos Aguilar agrees with Rooney’s assessment of the two lead performances, noting that they “strike a delicate balance of emotional nuance and period-specific affectations.” And in her review for Variety, Jessica Kiang claims “Hall’s touch is unerring, deceptively delicate, quiet and immaculate.”

The Sparks Brothers
Documentary/Music | UK | Directed by Edgar Wright

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Thanks to a year-long delay, Edgar Wright's next narrative feature won't be seen by anyone until the fall. Instead, his follow-up to Baby Driver is his first-ever documentary: a portrait of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, better known as the art-pop act Sparks. The respected duo had never been profiled on film before despite churning out over two dozen records (and alt-rock hits like "Cool Places" and "Angst in My Pants") from the late 1960s to the present day, with their most recent LP arriving last summer. But unabashed Sparks fan Wright does them justice with his comprehensive, 140-minute, mixed-media rockumentary, according to reviewers. Though THR's Frank Scheck thinks the "exhaustive" film is more for longtime fans than those "merely seeking an introduction to the band," The Guardian's Jordan Hoffman writes, "Only someone with a biological revulsion to catchy pop or grand rock theatrics will dislike the film." And Film Threat's Lorry Kikta, who was not a devoted fan of the band prior to the screening, praises Sparks Brothers as "a benchmark by which all future music documentaries will be judged."

Fans of film and of Sparks will have another 2021 release to look forward to: a collaborative musical from the Mael brothers and director Leos Carax called Annette.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street
Documentary | USA | Directed by Marilyn Agrelo

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What's not to like about a documentary chronicling the early history of America's (if not the world's) most enduring, influential, and popular children's television program, Sesame Street? Don't worry: A few minor quibbles aside, critics had much praise for the film, adapted by Mad Hot Ballroom director Marilyn Agrelo from Michael Davis' book. (In fact, we couldn't find a single grouch.) Variety's Chris Willman deems the result "highly satisfying," while at The Playlist, Jason Bailey finds Gang to be "filled with fascinating yet long-forgotten anecdotes." Hollywood Reporter critic Dan Fienberg does warn that with so much material to explore, a single film can't address it all ("You have to anticipate and accept that for every one of your questions that gets answered here ... there are at least twice as many questions that go unexplored and characters whose arcs go untraced."), but says that viewers will nevertheless leave "satisfied." (And The Wrap's Steve Pond adds, "Let’s face it, blooper reels in which Muppets blow their lines and curse will always be priceless.") Street Gang should reach theaters (virtually or otherwise) this spring before airing on HBO (and HBO Max) later in the year.

Other notable debuts (neither great nor terrible)

Horror | UK | Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond

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Set in 1985, director Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut feature follows Enid (Niamh Algar), a seemingly stable film censor tasked with watching violent exploitation movies until one triggers disturbing memories of her long-lost sister. A.A. Dowd of the AV Club warns, “Look and vibe . . . is about all Censor has to offer,” and Variety's Jessica Kiang is disappointed the film “can’t quite live up — or perhaps down — to” its strong premise. But Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian is more positive, finding Censor to be a “very elegant and disquieting debut.” And writing for The Playlist, Charles Barfield claims it’s an “impressive, visually-stunning, deeply disturbing debut from Bailey-Bond and a showcase for Algar, who gives a truly spectacular performance.”

The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet
Comedy/Drama | Argentina | Directed by Ana Katz

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Shot over several years with five cinematographers, Ana Katz’s black-and-white fable follows Sebastian, played by the director’s brother Daniel, as he floats through life—losing his job (thanks to the dog of the title), finding work, falling in love, becoming a father, and surviving a pandemic. The Playlist's Christian Gallichio calls it a “visually stunning, but oftentimes opaque experiment,” but in her review for Variety, Jessica Kiang raves about this “tiny, monochrome miracle of a movie that gives you years of life and change and mystery in 73 calm minutes.”

A Glitch in the Matrix
Documentary | USA | Directed by Rodney Ascher
Opens in theaters (and on VOD) on February 5

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Director Rodney Ascher's best-known film is his 2012 documentary Room 237, which examined the hidden meanings discovered by obsessive fans in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. His newest film appears to dive into a similar rabbit hole of fan theories trigged by another well-known film, 1999's The Matrix, though it goes beyond that movie to explore the history of "simulation theory"—the belief that we are living in a computer-generated illusion—and talk to four devoted adherents to that belief. And many critics appear willing to swallow Ascher's latest red pill (at least as a form of entertainment). THR's John DeFore thinks Glitch "makes for engrossing, sometimes unsettling viewing," while Screen's Wendy Ide deems the "ambitious" film to be "fascinating" and "mind-expanding" on one hand, but also "infuriating and bewildering." Slashfilm's Ben Pearson, however, thinks the film both superficial and disturbing, adding, "I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that this just does not feel like the right time for a movie like this."

Drama | Kosovo/Switzerland/North Macedonia/Albania | Directed by Blerta Basholli

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Based on the true story of Fahrije Hoti, who challenged cultural norms and empowered a community of women by starting her own business, writer-director Blerta Basholli’s debut feature swept the jury and audience awards in the World Cinema (Dramatic) competition and also won that category’s directing award. Set in the small village of Krusha in Kosovo and starring Yllka Gashi as Fahrije, this uplifting and authentic film is a “tribute to a woman who quietly changed lives, without ever becoming a hagiography. In that balance it truly honors her,” writes Richard Whittaker of The Austin Chronicle. Less enthusiastic is Orla Smith of The Film Stage, who feels, despite “Gashi’s strong, stoic performance,” the film is “more interested in inspiring its audience than it is in gleaning insight into Fahrije’s psychology.” On the side of the Sundance Jury, Screen Daily's Allan Hunter believes, “Blerta Basholli’s calmly composed handling of an emotionally-charged true story makes for an outstanding debut feature.”

In the Same Breath
Documentary | USA | Directed by Nanfu Wang

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The latest documentary from Nanfu Wang (Hooligan Sparrow, I Am Another You, One Child Nation) looks at the spread of COVID-19, first from a personal level, as she tries to get her family to safety, and then on a national level, investigating the mismanagement and misinformation at the heart of the Chinese and American responses to the pandemic. Writing for The Guardian, Charles Bramesco finds the film “shocking and heartrending,” and IndieWire's Eric Kohn believes it’s a “sturdy and illuminating essay film that doesn’t exactly break news, but delivers a sobering message about the way the dangers of disinformation spread across the planet just in time to do serious damage.”

Drama | USA | Directed by Clint Bentley
Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for an unspecified amount

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Writer-director Clint Bentley makes his feature debut with this story of an aging horse jockey (Clifton Collins Jr., winner of a Special Jury Award for his performance) confronting an uncertain future and the knowledge of a possible son he never knew he had. Also starring Molly Parker and co-written by Greg Kwedar (Transpecos), Jockey earns its authenticity—Bentley is the son of a jockey and he shot the film on a working race track with real jockeys and trainers filling out the cast. According to Andrew Crump of The Playlist, “the film’s lived-in craftsmanship provides structure in an unstable world. Collins’ superb performance gives it soul.” Screen Daily's Tim Grierson praises Collins’ “gentle” performance and Bentley’s ability to stay “true to his worn-down characters, imbuing the picture with a graceful weariness that avoids big emotional set pieces for quiet reflections and bitter wisdom.”

John and the Hole
Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by Pascual Sisto

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There's acting out and then there's acting out. The debut film from director Pascual Sisto centers on the titular 13-year-old boy (that would be John, not The Hole), played by Captain Fantastic's Charlie Shotwell, who discovers a hidden unfinished bunker near his house. Like any teenager would then do, he decides to drug his parents (Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle) and older sister (Taissa Farmiga) and keep them captive inside the pit while he gets to enjoy the family home all to himself. The psychological thriller was originally supposed to debut at last year's canceled Cannes and was written by an Oscar winner (Birdman's Nicolás Giacobone, adapting his own short story) but doesn't appear to be in line for any future awards, though a few critics liked it. Slashfilm's Hoai-Tran Bui generally appreciates the "claustrophobic" vibe but finds John's motivations "a little to opaque to make sense." And, at the A.V. Club, A.A. Dowd compares Sisto's "eerie allegory" to the chilly, darkly comedic, and ambiguous work of auteurs like Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos, though The Guardian's Benjamin Lee says that Hole lacks the "thought or intellect" that the latter two directors bring to their films. Like several critics, Film Threat's Matthew Passantino thinks Sisto's "visual flair would have been better served with a stronger story," while CoS critic Joe Lipsett finds the premise too thin when stretched to feature length, concluding, "John and the Hole is too weird for mainstream audiences and not weird enough to become a cult favorite."

Drama | USA | Directed by Robin Wright
Opens in theaters on February 12

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Robin Wright directs and stars in this story of a woman’s attempt to deal with grief by retreating to an isolated cabin in the Rockies. Wright’s feature debut as director (after helming episodes of House of Cards) also stars Demián Bichir, and Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com believes the film “works best as a performance piece for two excellent actors.” In his review for The Guardian , Benjamin Lee finds the story far too familiar, and Wright’s direction “conventional” and “competent,” but THR's Sheri Linden believes Wright “poses some of life's starkest questions with a simple, elemental force, and with deep wells of compassion.”

Drama | USA | Directed by Fran Kranz

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Actor Fran Kranz makes his debut as a writer-director with this look at the aftermath of a school shooting through a conversation between two couples—Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton), whose son was killed by Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda's (Ann Dowd) son. Set mostly in a sparse room in an Episcopal church, it’s an “impressively bracing debut devoid of sentimentality, a film of difficult questions that avoids easy answers,” according to Benjamin Lee of The Guardian. EW's Leah Greenblatt praises the “raw power” of the script and the “remarkable talents" of the cast, and Owen Gleiberman of Variety agrees, adding, “It’s like a slow-burn group confession that’s also a debate, and it invites us to take a journey into the souls of all four of these people.”

Misha and the Wolves
Documentary | UK/Belgium | Directed by Sam Hobkinson
Acquired by Netflix prior to the festival (streaming date tbd)

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This surprising but not necessarily penetrating documentary by Sam Hobkinson tries to get to the truth surrounding author Misha Defonseca’s Holocaust survivor tale. Built like a detective story, the film tells quite an entertaining story, but several critics found it too slick for its own good. THR's Daniel Fienberg believes it’s “fun, and told in a playful way, each talking head introduced like they're a specialist in a heist movie,” but can’t shake the feeling that it’s "clever and glib when smart and substantive was required.” However, Owen Gleiberman of Variety thinks the films has more to offer than a “tricky good yarn,” adding that it also “taps into the soul of an era when fake reality is threatening to dislodge actual reality.”

On the Count of Three
Drama/Comedy | USA | Directed by Jerrod Carmichael

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Comedian Jerrod Carmichael, working from a script from the fest's Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award winners Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, makes his feature directorial debut with this story about best friends, played by Carmichael and Christopher Abbot, who try to settle some unfinished business before following through on a suicide pact. With cameos by Henry Winkler, Tiffany Haddish, and JB Smoove, “On the Count of Three is a trifle, but an original one: an existential buddy comedy of despair,” writes Variety's Owen Gleiberman. Jordan Raup of The Film Stage thinks the “last act doesn’t succeed as intended,” but still believes it’s a “sharp, entertaining directorial debut.” In his A- review of the film, David Ehrlich of IndieWire writes, “A small film that takes some big swings with its eyes wide open and never dares to be prescriptive, On the Count of Three finds humor in despair, reason in futility, pathos in the music of Papa Roach, and — most shocking of all — an all-timer of a comic performance in Christopher Abbott.”

Philly D.A.
TV/Documentary | USA | Directed by Ted Passon and Yoni Brook
Miniseries airs on PBS beginning April 20 in most cities

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After three decades as an outspoken civil rights attorney in Philadelphia, Larry Krasner launched an underdog campaign for district attorney in 2017—and won, pledging to reform a system that had resulted in one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. Could he actually change the system from the inside? That's what PBS's upcoming docuseries aims to find out. Critics screened the first two episodes of Philly D.A. at Sundance, and had mostly positive things to say about them. Variety's Kiko Martinez calls the series "eye-opening" and "compelling," while The Playlist's Kevin Jagernauth admires a balanced filmmaking approach that offers a "rich tapestry of perspectives" rather than hagiography. But IndieWire's Christian Blauvelt warns that the series quickly "becomes fuzzier and fuzzier" as a result of scattered focus and "strange structural choices."

Drama | Sweden/Netherlands/France | Directed by Ninja Thyberg

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Writer-director Ninja Thyberg expands on her Cannes-wining short film of the same name with this examination of the Los Angeles porn industry through the experiences of Bella Cherry (née Linnéa), a newly arrived Swedish transplant played by Sofia Kappel. “Thyberg’s keen eye for the small acts and details of “the business” – makes Pleasure a far more interesting, gripping and refreshing film than its subject matter might suggest,” writes Adrian Horton of The Guardian. Gregory Elwood agrees in The Playlist, noting “how Thyberg’s gaze provides Bella’s story much-needed context by embracing the mundane aspects of this particular world,” and he also praises Kappel, who is “so captivating the porn trappings are secondary. You simply want to see what she does on screen next.” Seconding that opinion, Variety's Owen Gleiberman believes that in this “coldly artful and explicit piece of anthropological voyeurism,” Kappel has a “quality of mystery that holds the camera.”

Strawberry Mansion
Sci-fi/Fantasy/Drama/Comedy | USA | Directed by Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley

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The latest from Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley, the filmmaking team behind 2017’s Sylvio, is another wildly original vision that places viewers in a future where the government records and taxes everyone’s dreams. Audley plays a dream auditor who gets lost in the dreams of an aging eccentric played by Penny Fuller. Scored by Dan Deacon and “flowing with imagination and splashes of the surreal throughout, Strawberry Mansion is a humorous, dark, and touching reverie conveyed with rich colors and directed with a kaleidoscopic vision,” according to Jordan Raup of The Film Stage. And in his rave for Film Threat, Norman Gidney calls the film “a romantic, circuitous love letter to the absurd.”

Together Together
Comedy | USA | Directed by Nikole Beckwith
Acquired by Bleecker Street prior to the festival

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Six years after her debut feature Stockholm, Pennsylvania played at Sundance, Nikole Beckwith returned with a much lighter story about the relationship between middle-aged Matt (Ed Helms) and his gestational surrogate, 26-year-old Anna (Patti Harrison). THR's David Rooney believes the “squandering of assets here is considerable” for this “featherweight comedy,” and Jude Dry of IndieWire finds the film “too far up in the clouds of gimmicky plot to say anything meaningful,” though “Harrison is the brightest point.” TheWrap's Alonso Duralde agrees that the film “absolutely belongs to Harrison, giving the kind of star-making performance that puts an actor on the map,” but he also thinks the film overall is a success: “bright and witty and packed with laughs.”

We're All Going to the World's Fair
Drama/Horror | USA | Directed by Jane Schoenbrun

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Writer-director Jane Schoenbrun’s narrative feature debut follows Casey (Anna Cobb, impressive in her feature debut), a teenager who becomes immersed in an online role-playing horror game called the World’s Fair Challenge. Exploring themes of identity, communication, and isolation, “the movie defies easy categorization,” writes Slashfilm's Ben Pearson, “focusing its attention on ideas about change.” Writing for Paste, Andrew Crump describes the film as “confidently weird and deeply sad.” And for A.A. Dowd of the AV Club, it’s his favorite film of the festival, “Strangely, there aren’t that many films that genuinely grapple with the way that the internet has fundamentally reshaped communication and maybe our relationship to reality, too. This is a sad, transfixing, and ultimately perceptive movie on the topic.”

Wild Indian
Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.

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Writer-director Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr.’s debut feature explores the traumatic effects of murder, both personal and historical, on two Native American men. Variety's Peter Debruge finds Indian “more ambitious than it is successful,” and IndieWire's David Ehrlich believes the film “lacks the oxygen to breathe life into more complicated readings.” However, over at /Film, Chris Evangelista declares it a “singular achievement; a film so raw and centered that it dares you to look away from scenes that simmer and burn.” And in his review for THR, Frank Scheck calls it an “auspicious feature debut,” representing “indie cinema at its most stark and elemental.”

The disappointments

Eight for Silver
Horror | USA/France | Directed by Sean Ellis

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Writer-director Sean Ellis's gothic werewolf horror film is set (mostly) in 19th century France, where a visiting pathologist (Boyd Holbrook) comes to the aid of a town plagued by wild animal attacks—or, perhaps, a sinister curse. Unfortunately, the Silver itself appears to be plagued by an ineffective screenplay, among other woes, though Screen's Fionnuala Halligan does find the film to be "highly enjoyable" and Slashfilm's Ben Pearson calls it "haunting, harrowing, and hypnotic." In The Film Stage, Jake Kring-Schreifels admires the production design but cautions, "The loose spiritual ends don’t stitch together to produce the kind of scares that stick with you after their initial jolt." THR critic David Rooney similarly admires Ellis's eye (he served as his own DP) but thinks "the storytelling grows steadily less incisive" as the film progresses, concluding, "Ultimately, it doesn't quite deliver." At Paste, Natalia Keogan even raises issues with some of the visuals, deeming the CGI effects "jarring"—a sentiment echoed by The Playlist's Jason Bailey, who calls the too-contemporary monster design "a miscalculation."

First Date
Comedy/Thriller | USA | Directed by Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp

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Written and directed by Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp, this coming-of-age crime comedy follows Mike (Tyson Brown) as he scores a date with his crush, Kelsey (Shelby Ducois), buys a used car, and gets continually sidetracked on the way to pick her up. Mixed reviews from critics indicate desire for the two charming and sympathetic leads got to spend more time together. THR's John DeFore believes “the writer-directors would've done well to concentrate more on them — prioritizing chemistry over introducing an increasingly quirky populace of characters whose antics keep them apart.” And, writing for Slashfilm, Ben Pearson bemoans the fact that “the movie is less interested in exploring that central relationship and more amused with its zany cast of idiotic supporting characters.”

How It Ends
Comedy/Sci-fi | USA | Directed by Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones

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Husband-and-wife team Daryl Wein (White Rabbit) and Zoe Lister-Jones (Band Aid) might have made the breeziest of pandemic movies with this comedy about how Liza (Lister-Jones) spends her final day on Earth (an asteroid is about to make a Deep Impact). Liza is joined by her younger self (Cailee Spaeny of Lister-Jones’ The Craft: Legacy), and for many critics the rapport between the two actors is the bright spot of the film. TheWrap's Steve Pond believes it’s an “endearing Sundance bonbon: quirky but not annoying, charming but not cloying, slight but in a good way.” On the other hand, Jessica Kiang reveals on The Playlist that she is decidedly “#teammeteor,” while The Film Stage's Jake Kring-Schreifels thinks Ends lacks the urgency it needs. Swinging back to the positive, IndieWire's Kate Erbland writes, “Wein and Lister-Jones’ winsome spin on a well-trod concept is as fresh and funny as anything inspired by the last few wretched months.”

In the Earth
Horror | UK/USA | Directed by Ben Wheatley

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Ben Wheatley has “followed his lifeless Netflix adaptation of Rebecca with a return to form that gets so lost in the woods that no one else could ever hope to retrace its steps,” writes IndieWire's David Ehrlich. Earning mixed reviews overall, the film, which was both filmed during the pandemic and set during a deadly viral outbreak, is a terrifying and trippy walk in the woods as it follows a doctor searching for a research site. David Rooney of THR believes it “becomes progressively less interesting after its intriguing start,” but in his review for The Guardian, Benjamin Lee claims Earth is a “flawed yet fierce return to form ... a phantasmagoric treat ... an ambitious, atmospheric little woodland horror.”

Prisoners of the Ghostland
Action/Thriller | USA | Directed by Sion Sono
Acquired by RJLE Films for an unspecified amount

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Anticipation was high for this collaboration between Nicolas Cage and gonzo Japanese director Sion Sono (Love Exposure, Why Don't You Play in Hell, Tokyo Tribe, Antiporno), here making his English-language debut. But for most critics the result was anti-climactic—despite Cage’s exploding testicle. Cage plays Hero, a bank robber strapped into an explosive-loaded suit by The Governor, who offers him freedom if he can find a runaway (Sofia Boutella) and bring her back within five days. Off into the apocalyptic Ghostland our Hero goes, leaving viewers to guess how many body parts he will lose before he returns. THR's John DeFore believes the film is “destined to be quickly forgotten,” and A.A. Dowd of the AV Club concurs, calling it a “half-convincing impression of a wild time,” and “more entertaining to describe than it is to actually watch.”

Among the fans of the film, IGN's Siddhant Adlakha writes, “With crowds and fight scenes imbued with the energy of genre musicals, Prisoners of the Ghostland makes for a particularly surreal tribute to the Western, the Samurai film, and the Mad Max post-apocalypse.” And after an opening paragraph with one period, Jessica Kiang’s review for The Playlist might sum up the feelings of supporters best, “It’s not very good except sometimes when it’s fantastic.”

Drama | USA | Directed by Carey Williams

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Director Carey Williams uses Screenlife technology to adapt Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to contemporary times. Mixing the play’s original text with text messages and all forms of social media, it “certainly looks new,” according to Kate Erbland of IndieWire, “but flashy graphics can’t detract from the problems that lurk inside its structure and its script.” Similarly mixed on the film, Screen Daily's Tim Grierson believes it “has its superficial pleasures as a riff on our media-soaked moment, but the novelty of the approach is hard to sustain, and a fresh-faced cast fails to capitalise on the play’s enduring appeal.”


All photos above courtesy of Sundance Institute.



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