Selections from Sundance make the movie landscape look sunny again

Brad Keefe
"CODA"

Finding silver linings in a pandemic is tough, but I have to admit the ability to attend the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in my pajamas has been a highlight.

In lieu of the usual American film pilgrimage to Park City, Utah, this year’s festival took place at 20 satellite screens across the country, including Columbus’ own Gateway Film Center, and, in my case, streaming to your own damn home. And in an impressive feat, the fest’s organizers found a way to recreate some of the scramble and excitement of in-person Sundance.

Via my press pass, I was able to view 10 films total, with each film appearing for a 24-hour window after its premiere. I felt an odd pressure in choosing my films, especially after missing the window on one of my top picks, the Questlove-directed documentary “Summer Of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” which took home both grand jury and audience prizes as best documentary.

Interesting sidebar: In the documentary directing category, the winner was Natalia Almada, recipient of the Wexner Center for the Arts’ Artist Residency Awards for 2019–20, for her film “Users.”

But I have few complaints about the films I was able to screen. Here are some quick thoughts on several movies to keep on your radar this year, presented in the order I screened them.

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“CODA”

The big winner on every level this year was “CODA,” virtually sweeping the awards and sparking a bidding war that ended with Apple TV+ landing rights for a record $25 million.

Short for “Child of Deaf Adults,” director Sian Heder spins a tale of a teenager who is the only hearing member in her family, torn between helping with the family fishing business and pursuing her passion for singing.

No release date yet, but this one is an absolute crowd-pleaser in the very best sense. People are absolutely going to love this one.

“Censor”

Prano Bailey-Bond’s stylish throwback horror flick was part of Sundance’s Midnight slate and another one that’s going to be surrounded by buzz.

Centered around a British film censor (Niamh Algar) in the “video nasties” era of VHS extreme gore, it’s also a sharp commentary on screen and real violence with an unforgettable ending.

“On the Count of Three”

Comedian Jerrod Carmichael’s directorial debut has him co-starring with the wonderful Christopher Abbott in a dramedy about two friends who make a suicide pact.

It’s sweet, funny, heartbreaking and has an honest insight about the subject of despair.

“Cryptozoo"

Animated films that are truly for adults are too rare, and “Cryptozoo” has few peers as a hand-drawn film that’s every bit as out-there as “Fantastic Planet.”

Set around a zoo that houses not-actually-mythical creatures, it’s a wild trip. What can you really say about a movie that has a hippie (voiced by Michael Cera) get gored to death by a unicorn in the opening scene?

“John and the Hole”

Director Pascual Sisto, pulling clear influence from filmmakers like Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos, delivers, well... imagine a dark version of “Home Alone.”

This story of a 13-year-old boy who drugs his parents and older sister and puts them in an unfinished bunker is challenging and open-ended with stellar camerawork.

“A Glitch in the Matrix”

After his look at night terrors (“The Nightmare”) and wild fan theories around “The Shining” (“Room 237”), documentary filmmaker Rodney Ascher returns with an exploration of simulation theory.

Visually and intellectually compelling, this may be Ascher’s best work yet. It’s a wild rabbit hole to go down.

“The Sparks Brothers”

Director Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) makes his first documentary feature, and simply put, it’s one of the great music documentaries ever.

Documenting the decades-long career of the brothers who make up the enigmatic and influential band Sparks, it’s a clear labor of love, and I loved every minute.

“Prisoners of the Ghostland”

The first English-language film by Japanese director Sion Sono comes with built-in cult status; Nicolas Cage called it the “wildest” film he’s ever done.

That’s a tough competition, and this one is nothing if not memorable and stylish, and it doesn’t get caught up in “making sense.”

“Together Together”

Director Nikole Beckwith makes a sweet and unexpected comedy around a 40-something single man (Ed Helms) who finds a 20-something woman (Patti Harrison) to be the surrogate mother to his child.

The chemistry between the leads and a refreshing take on a variety of topics make for a solid chance that this will get a wide release.

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

Finally, the Sundance premiere with the fastest window to you being able to actually see it.

Director Shaka King’s telling of the story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and FBI informant William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) comes to theaters and HBO Max next Friday.

Full review then, but I’ll say it will stay near the top of the best films of 2021 long into the year.