Many of my fondest film viewing memories have taken place at the Sundance Film Festival, and while nothing could ever compare to the energy and excitement generated by “festing” in person, the Sundance team deserves kudos for so brilliantly moving the festival to a virtual platform this year because of the pandemic restrictions.
In addition to the ease in which I was able to purchase tickets, there was the comfort of watching from my home (standing in movie lines in Park City blizzard conditions can test even the hardiest of souls!)
Thankfully, most of the films screened at Sundance will find distribution in theaters or on streaming platforms. Here are the films I viewed for your future consideration. Along with a synopsis from the Sundance program guide, I have included a brief comment on each film.
“CODA” (English and American Sign Language with English subtitles): As a CODA – Child of Deaf Adults – Ruby is the only hearing person in her deaf family. When the family’s fishing business is threatened, Ruby finds herself torn between pursuing her love of music and her fear of abandoning her parents. Director: Siân Heder
The family dynamic explored in this film was both powerful and enlightening. The performances are nuanced and the struggle many children feel between their loyalty to family and their desire to achieve their own dreams is one many of us can relate to. The story was based on the French film, “La Famille Belier,” which I am sure would be a delight to watch.
U.S. Dramatic Competition: Grand Jury Prize, Audience Award, Directing Award, and Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble.
“CODA” was acquired by Apple TV for $25 million.
“Passing”: Two African American women who can “pass” as white choose to live on opposite sides of the color line in 1929 New York in this exploration of racial and gender identity, performance, obsession, and repression. Based on the novella by Nella Larsen. Director: Rebecca Hall
“Passing” took my breath away. The relationship between these two women was incredibly complex and volatile. The director’s decision to shoot in black and white gave it an otherworldly feel, and its haunting ending will resonate with me long after I have forgotten the details of the film.
“Together Together”: When young loner Anna is hired as the gestational surrogate for Matt, a single man in his 40s, the two strangers come to realize this unexpected relationship will quickly challenge their perceptions of connection, boundaries, and the particulars of love. Director: Nikole Beckwith
I was excited to see Ed Helms in a role that is outside his usual acting box. This charming and tender film would be the perfect balm in these challenging times. Bleecker Street picked up “Together Together,” so you will be able to stream it, or perhaps (cross my fingers), see it in a theater.
“Try Harder!” (English and Mandarin with English subtitles): In a universe where cool kids are nerds, the orchestra is world class, and being Asian American is the norm at Lowell High School, where seniors compete for the top prize: Admission to the college of their dreams. Director: Debbie Lum
As a retired high school teacher (I taught English for 34 years), I was fascinated by this look at Lowell High School and its students and teachers. I spent years working with my juniors as they prepared their college applications, so this documentary moved me on a personal level. If you are even the slightest bit interested in education you will want to see this charismatic film.
“Fire in the Mountains” (India – Hindi with English subtitles): A mother toils to save money to build a road in a Himalayan village to take her disabled son who uses a wheelchair for physiotherapy, but her husband, who believes that an expensive religious ritual is the remedy, steals her savings. Director: Ajitpal Singh
I have a special place in my heart for Indian films, but while I liked this film, I did not love it. It is filled with exquisite cinematography, strong performances by many first-time actors, and a compelling story. I watched it at the end of a long day of film viewing, so I might have been a bit too tired to fully appreciate it. I would still recommend watching out for it to stream.
“Writing With Fire” (India – Hindi with English subtitles): Out of a cluttered news landscape dominated by men emerges India’s only newspaper run by Dalit women. Armed with smartphones, chief reporter Meera and her journalists break traditions on the frontlines of India’s biggest issues and within the confines of their own homes, redefining what it means to be powerful. Directors: Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh
This remarkable film speaks to the power of women giving support to other women. This is a common theme in this year’s festival (the award-winning film “Hive” develops similar themes around female empowerment.) This was one of my favorite films of the festival; as always, I am humbled by the resilience and courageousness of individuals working to improve the world in situations fraught with immense hardships.
World Cinema Documentary Competition: Audience Award and Special Jury Award for Impact for Change.
“How It Ends”: On the last day on Earth, one woman goes on a journey through Los Angeles to make it to her last party before the world ends — running into an eclectic cast of characters along the way. Directors: Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones
“How It Ends” was kooky and charismatic. While utter zaniness prevailed throughout most of the film, its ending left me pondering some serious “end of the world” ideas.
“Land”: In the aftermath of an unfathomable event, “Land” chronicles the poignant story of one woman’s search for meaning in the vast and harsh American wilderness. Director: Robin Wright
This magnificently composed film (it was shot on location in Alberta, Canada) offers a many-layered performance by Wright that is riveting, intimate, and tender. This is a must-see film with a performance that should generate Oscar buzz for Wright. Focus Films will be the distributor.
“Marvelous and The Black Hole”: A teenage delinquent befriends a surly magician who helps her navigate her inner demons and dysfunctional family with sleight-of-hand magic, in a coming-of-age comedy that touches on unlikely friendships, grief, and finding hope in the darkest moments. Director: Kate Tsang
Tsang wanted to give a voice to Asian-American teens struggling with the angst of growing up. Rhea Perlman is perfect as the magician with issues of her own. This is light and easy viewing that will likely stream within the year.
“Cryptozoo”: As cryptozookeepers struggle to capture a baku (a legendary dream-eating hybrid creature), they begin to wonder if they should display these rare beasts in the confines of a cryptozoo, or if these mythical creatures should remain hidden and unknown. Director: Dash Shaw
I must offer a disclaimer: I am not an avid fan of animation, but this hand-drawn film in the NEXT Competition caught my attention. I have mixed feelings about it, but am pleased I chose to see it. If you are a fan of animated films, this departure from the traditional fare should not be missed. Keep in mind it contains adult content; it is not a film for the kids.
NEXT Competition: Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski received the NEXT Innovator Award.
“Hive” (Kosovo/Switzerland/Macedonia/Albania — Albanian with English subtitles): Fahrije’s husband has been missing since the war in Kosovo. She sets up her own small business to provide for her children, but as she fights against a patriarchal society that does not support her, she faces a crucial decision: To wait for his return, or to continue to persevere. Based on an inspirational true story. Director: Blerta Basholli
As I mentioned in my remarks about “Writing With Fire,” this is a film about women supporting other women under extremely difficult circumstances. During the Q&A, director Blerta Basholli shared the screen with the real-life Fahrije. The film was 10 years in the making and adheres carefully to the true story of these amazing women.
World Dramatic Competition: Grand Jury Prize, Audience Award, and Directing Award.
“Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”: During the same summer as Woodstock, more than 300,000 people attended the Harlem Cultural Festival, celebrating African American music and culture, and promoting Black pride and unity. The footage from the festival sat in a basement, unseen for over 50 years, keeping this incredible event in America’s history lost — until now. Director: Questlove (Ahmir-Khalib Thompson)
This celebration of African American music and culture is not to be missed! Make sure there is space in your TV room for a dance party!
U.S. Documentary Competition: Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award.
“Ma Belle, My Beauty” (English and French with English subtitles): A surprise reunion in southern France reignites passions and jealousies between two women who were formerly polyamorous lovers. Contains sexual context and nudity. Director: Marion Hill
Bertie, Lane, and Fred once functioned happily in a triangulated relationship, but then Lane disappeared and Bertie and Fred got married. Lane has returned to visit Bertie and Fred at their charming home in the French countryside. Passion and resentment bubble between Lane and Bertie, and this unorthodox romantic drama fortunately doesn’t pretend to be a fairy tale.
NEXT Competition: Audience Award
“Son of Monarchs” (English and Spanish with English subtitles): After his grandmother’s death, a Mexican biologist living in New York returns to his hometown nestled in the majestic monarch butterfly forests of Michoacán. The journey forces him to confront past traumas and reflect on his hybrid identity. Director: Alexis Gambis
In the film’s Q&A, director Alexis Gambis shared that this story comes from a very personal place in his history. As both a research scientist (he studies fruit flies) and now a filmmaker, Gambis shared that science and spirituality do not necessarily work in opposition to one another. This is a gorgeous film and a poignant story that I hope will make its way to theaters or a streaming platform.
NEXT Competition: Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize
2021 Sundance Film Festival Award Winners
U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION
Grand Jury Prize: “CODA”
Audience Award: “CODA”
Directing: Siân Heder, “CODA”
Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, “On the Count of Three”
Special Jury Award for Best Actor: Clifton Collins Jr., “Jockey”
Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble: The cast of “CODA” (Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Daniel Durant, and Marlee Matlin)
U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
Grand Jury Prize: “Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”
Audience Award: “Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”
Directing: Natalia Almada, “Users”
Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award: Kristina Motwani and Rebecca Adorno, “Homeroom”
Special Jury Award for Emerging Filmmaker: Parker Hill, Isabel Bethencourt, “Cusp”
Special Jury Award for Nonfiction Experimentation: Theo Anthony, “All Light, Everywhere”
WORLD CINEMA DRAMATIC COMPETITION
Grand Jury Prize: “Hive”
Audience Award: “Hive”
Directing Award: Blerta Basholli, “Hive”
Special Jury Award for Acting: Jesmark Scicluna, “Luzzu”
Special Jury Award for Creative Vision: “One for the Road,” Baz Poonpiriya
WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
Grand Jury Prize: “Flee”
Audience Award: “Writing With Fire”
Directing Award: Hogir Hirori, “Sabaya”
Special Jury Award for Vérité Filmmaking: Camilla Nielsson, “President”
Special Jury Award for Impact for Change: Rintu Thomas, Sushmit Ghosh, “Writing With Fire”
NEXT Audience Award: Marion Hill, “My Belle, My Beauty”
NEXT Innovator Award: Dash Shaw (director), Jane Samborski (animation director), “Cryptozoo”
Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize: Alexis Gambis, “Son of Monarchs”
Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award for Narrative Features: Natalie Qasabian, “Run”
Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award for Documentary Features: Nicole Salazar, “Philly D.A.”
Sundance Institute NHK Award: Meryam Joobeur, “Motherhood”
Sundance Institute/Adobe Mentorship Award for Editing Nonfiction: Juli Vizza,