And That’s a Wrap! — Sundance Film Festival 2021

Whew, the Sundance Film Festival 2021 was quite the whirlwind! Attending Sundance (I’ve always been a huge fan of Robert Redford and what’s he’s done with this festival) has been a goal of mine ever since high school and to finally attend — and to do so as an accredited member of the press, no less — is a dream come true (even if it was only virtual this year)! I was absolutely blown away by the production value put into the online festival (I hate that I wasn’t close to a satellite screening, I would’ve love to catch a film at a drive-in right about now) and the selection of the films/shorts/series/VR content that was presented. I saw so much creative, thought-provoking, eye-opening, tear-jerking and mind-bending work. The festival programming team and the filmmakers and their teams presented some pretty inventive and fun options to interact and really try and give the virtual festival the “in-person” feeling.

A screenshot from “Strawberry Mansion”‘s virtual after party

I tried to catch as many panels and 3rd party events as I could, but my screening schedule was jammed packed as I tried to take in as much as possible for review for WLE and Musings. It was also pretty cool that some of my fellow members of the press started a WhatsApp group to chat and network and really build that sense of community at the festival. But when all was told, over the 7 days of the festival, I watched 41 (out of 73) feature films, 25 (out of 50) shorts and 1 series (French teen series “Would You Rather”) — which, although it was fun, boy was it exhausting — I had several days when I didn’t finish up until 2:30/3am 😰 (but I totally understand this is a first-world problem so I can’t really complain).

Screenshot of the cast/director of “R#J” from the Q&A panel after the screening

I’m not usually a fan of ranking films because its super hard when you’re comparing essentially apples and oranges. No one film was like the other…so its hard to compare a documentary against a comedy or a sci-fi drama. But I definitely have to give the programming team some serious props because I saw a lot of great work from first-time feature writer/directors — there were a lot of fresh voices and I appreciated the diversity! There was animated surrealism…documentaries that made you want to dance and sing along while opening your eyes to history that had been relegated to the margins…innovative use of social media in filmmaking…queer stories…revenge stories…quarantine stories…female empowerment stories…a peek behind the scenes of the porn industry…coming of age stories…social commentary and so much more! But with that said, I did try and rank the features and shorts — but it was really just based on how the film made me feel and whether it left a lasting impression. So here goes…

Sundance 2021 Features Ranked

Sundance 2021 Shorts Ranked

You can head over to Letterboxd to see any initial impressions or notes on all of the films I saw. Also, head over to We Live Entertainment to check out my reviews for “Luzzu,” (I even got the chance to interview the writer/director of “Luzzu”) “Ma Belle, My Beauty,” “On the Count of Three,” “Passing” and “The Pink Cloud.” And stay tuned for some more in-depth reviews of individual films here in the upcoming weeks.

Although Sundance was the first festival to do the virtual/hybrid thing because of the pandemic, I must say they did a mighty fine job of pulling this together. I was thoroughly impressed with the execution, caliber of works and the panels and Q&As. This year’s “grand experiment” also pulled in some pretty big numbers as its been reported that the festival resulted in a total audience views of 600,000 — 2.7 times more than in 2020. Participants/viewers came from more than 120 countries and territories around the world making the festival more inclusive and accessible than in years pasts (hopefully this is something they can keep up in the future — although I would love to experience Sundance live and in the flesh, but I really appreciate the fact that more people can access the fest and these great filmmakers works virtually!) There were also so big deals hashed out at Sundance this year:

  • A24 bought Dir. Ninja Thyberg‘s “Pleasure” from the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. — This film really stuck with me…it gives you an up-close look behind the scenes of the porn industry and the power imbalances that exist within that field.
  • Netflix bought Dir. Rebecca Hall’s “Passing” (for $15million) which was based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella about passing/colorism/race/class issues, etc. This film was a beautifully filmed true to form adaptation.
  • Magnolia bought Dir./animator Dash Shaw‘s “Cryptozoo” from the NEXT section. This film was a mind-blowing psychedelic trip with social message about environmental issues. Never been a huge fan of animation, but this year’s festival has really helped to change my mind about the art form. Didn’t think that I would like this one going, but surprisingly, I thoroughly enjoyed this one.
  • Neon bought the documentary “Ailey” about the visionary choreographer.
  • Sony Pictures Classics bought “Jockey” from the U.S. Dramatic Competition. This horse-racing drama starred Clifton Collins, Jr. who gave a standout performance.
  • Apple bought the family drama “CODA” from the U.S. Dramatic Competition. This film actually opened the festival and from jump, I knew I was in for some good stuff…this was a strong opener…it made me laugh and cry…#allthefeels. And I love the fact that it gave voice and representation to the deaf community. And it had a female director (Sian Heder)! This one was soooo good!
  • Neon also bought the animated documentary “Flee” from the World Documentary Competition. This film, directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, was the moving story of Afghan refugee’s extraordinary journey to Denmark.
  • RJLE Films bought “Prisoners of the Ghostland” by Japanese director Sion Sono. Starring Nicolas Cage, this was my first exposure to Sono and this mash-up of Western, samurai and post-apocalyptic thriller was absolutely bananas.
  • Magnolia Pictures bought “A Glitch in the Matrix” a trippy documentary that explores the question of whether our reality is actually a mere simulation.
  • Bleeker Street bought “Together Together” which a cute little story about surrogacy and relationships, starring Ed Helms and Patti Harrison.
  • Shudder bought “Violation” from the Midnight section. This rape-revenge thriller definitely sticks with you and gives you a lot to process.

There were a couple of other films that were sold so far, but they were ones that I missed so I can’t vouch for them (not that my opinion matters all that much lol).

So in the end, this was an experience that I am so grateful for! I met some cool new people, saw some great films, interviewed some cool filmmakers…and even got an awesome Oculus Quest VR headset (courtesy of Sundance, Facebook and Amazon Studios)! I can’t wait until next year’s festival!!!

Which films are you most looking forward to seeing? Did you catch any films at the festival? If so, drop a line in the comments and let us know!