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Sundance 2021 Begins – A Preview

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The Sundance Film Festival has its first films tonight.  But first is their opening night kick off with performances from Red Spirit and Rhiannon Giddens and some welcoming remarks, we presume from founder Robert Redford, and also new festival director Tabitha Jackson.  And what a year for it to be her first.  

With COVID-19 taking the festival to a mostly virtual platform (there are still some in-person viewings in the festival’s hometown of Park City, Utah), Sundance had some challenges to overcome but thankfully enough time to prepare.  Following in the footsteps of the Toronto International Film Festival, which was also virtual this past September, and others, Sundance worked to put together a plan for online viewing.  Their vision evolved over the months of 2020, but Jackson noted in the welcoming press address today, “We knew we had to create a design that had moments of connection.”

Check out our Sundance Film Festival coverage

But with the lack of physical connection these days, also comes opportunity.  I, for one, have never made it to Park City Utah, but from the comfort of my tiny condo’s living room in Toronto I’ll be able, for the first time, to cover the premieres of Sundance.  I am one of many first time critics “attending” this year’s festival.  Sundance also has a group of art house theatres in 24 American states and territories that will screen films, a way to expand, to reach out and reciprocally support one another through what have been devastating times for theatres, and film in general. 

While the festival is reduced this year from 11 days down to 7, and the programmed films therefore down from 118 to 73, Jackson noted that the submission numbers were only slightly reduced this year, but there was a time they weren’t sure what they might get.  “Artists too fell ill, they were dealing with tragedy, they too were on the frontlines of the uprising around racial justice, they too were victims of economic crisis,” Jackson stated.  But artists continued to do what they could do during this pandemic – create.  And thank goodness for that.

One of the most exciting parts about Sundance is not really knowing what to expect.  Unlike covering TIFF, my home town festival, where many movies come already with solid buzz and anticipation, these films are unknown, unscreened and often from voices new to cinema.  So while everyone’s most anticipated list is going to be different based on the tiny murmurs they’ve heard as well as their taste, (I don’t do horror so don’t look for the talked-about Censor in my picks) I’ve selected what I’m looking forward to most during the festival.  They will be amongst the selection of reviews you can catch here in the days to come.  In no particular order:  

CODA

Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Siân Heder‘s follow up to Tallulah (2016) stars Emilia Jones as Ruby, the only hearing member of a 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, played by Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur.  Looking forward to seeing the representation of this family dynamic on screen, and early chatter suggests that this opening night film is a bit of an emotional crowdpleaser, so appropriate for my first film of the festival.

Mass

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ryan Jackson-Healy.

Starring Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, and Reed Birney this film may be one of the toughest at the festival to watch.  Franz Kranz (who acted in the series Dollhouse and the movie Cabin in the Woods) makes his directorial debut with this emotional feature about two sets of parents whose lives are forever changed when their teenaged sons are involved in a school shooting. Years later, the four are trying to talk in an attempt to move forward.

Passing 

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Edu Grau.

The directorial debut of actor Rebecca Hall (soon to be seen in Godzilla vs. Kong) is one of the films to arrive with quite a bit of buzz to go along with its star power.  Starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga the film adapts Nella Larsen’s acclaimed 1929 novel and tells the story of two African American women who can “pass” as white, but each has chosen a different side of the colour line.  This film is described as an “elegant psychological thriller” and with these stars and Hall at the helm it’s the type of film that was bound to be noticed – and perhaps even be some awards bait this season.

Mayday

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Tjaša Kalkan.

The synopsis of writer-director Karen Cinorre‘s Mayday reads as: “After a short circuit at Ana’s (Grace Van Patten) workplace mysteriously transports her to an alternate world, she meets a crew of female soldiers caught in an endless war. Along a strange and rugged coastline, men face the stark truth lurking behind damsels who appear to be in distress. Under the leadership of Marsha (Mia Goth), Ana trains as a sharpshooter and discovers a newfound freedom in this uninhibited sisterhood. She soon senses she may not be the ruthless killer they expect, though, and time is running out for her to find a path home.”  With a description like that and an appearance from Juliette Lewis, this is the type of movie that is going to be amazing or…. not.  But either way, I’m here for it.

On The Count of Three

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Marshall Adams.

Jerrod Carmichael‘s directorial debut is being described as darkly comedic and based on its synopsis that certainly seems to fit the bill.  Carmichael stars alongside Christopher Abbott in a film about two men who make a pact to end it all.  However before they can depart this world, they have some unfinished business to attend to.  The supporting cast includes Tiffany Haddish and Henry Winkler. “Two guns. Two best friends. And a pact to end their lives when the day is done.”  What could go wrong?

How it Ends

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Daryl Wein.

Any fan of disaster movies, or films of one night escapades will likely find a lot to like in this film co-directed by Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones.  Lister-Jones stars as Liza, a woman on a mission to make it across Los Angeles to one last wild gathering before an asteroid is scheduled to destroy the earth.  In a twist, a vision of her younger self (Cailee Spaeny) helps her along the way.  An all-star cast with Helen Hunt, Olivia Wilde, Fred Armisen, Lamorne Morris, and Nick Kroll round out reasons why this movie makes it to my list of most anticipated.

Obviously with 73 features at this year’s festival it’s hard to pick just a few to highlight.  The beauty of Sundance is we don’t know who might come out as the next Get Out, Whiplash or The Farewell.  But we are about to find out.

Keep in mind that if you aren’t in the U.S. and able to view the films, that Sundance is offering a variety of talks and events, including chats with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Rebecca Hall, and Robin Wright amongst others.  These are available for free, globally, so no matter where you are you can join in the conversation.  Head to www.sundance.org for more information.

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