Best of Sundance 2021

From pandemic-era stories, via portraits of grief, to the serendipitous 1969 trilogy, the Letterboxd crew recaps our favorite films from the first major festival of the year.

Sundance heralds a new season of storytelling, with insights into what’s concerning filmmakers at present, and what artistic innovations may be on the horizon. As with every film festival, there were spooky coincidences and intersecting themes, whether it was a proliferation of pandemic-era stories, or extraordinary portraits of women working through grief (Land, Hive, The World to Come), or the incredible serendipity of the festival’s ‘1969 trilogy’, covering pivotal moments in Black American history: Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), Judas and the Black Messiah and the joyful Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street.

The hybrid model of this year’s Sundance meant more film lovers across the United States—a record number of you, in fact—‘attended’ the prestigious indie showcase. Our Festiville team (Gemma Gracewood, Aaron Yap, Ella Kemp, Selome Hailu, Jack Moulton and Dominic Corry) scanned your Letterboxd reviews and compared them with our notes to arrive at these seventeen feature-length documentary and narrative picks from Sundance 2021. There are plenty more we enjoyed, but these are the films we can’t stop thinking about.


Documentary features

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Directed by Ahmir-Khalib Thompson (AKA Questlove)

One hot summer five decades ago, there was a free concert series at a park in Harlem. It was huge, and it was lovely, and then it was forgotten. The Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 brought together some of the world’s most beloved Black artists to connect with Black audiences. The star power and the size of the crowds alone should have been enough to immortalize the event à la Woodstock—which happened the same summer, the film emphasizes. But no one cared to buy up the footage until Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, better known as Questlove, came along.

It would have been easy to oversimplify such a rich archive by stringing together the performances, seeking out some talking heads, and calling it a day. But Questlove was both careful and ebullient in his approach. “Summer of Soul is a monumental concert documentary and a fantastic piece of reclaimed archived footage. There is perhaps no one better suited to curate this essential footage than Questlove, whose expertise and passion for the music shines through,” writes Matthew on Letterboxd. The film is inventive with its use of present interviews, bringing in both artists and attendees not just to speak on their experiences, but to react to and relive the footage. The director reaches past the festival itself, providing thorough social context that takes in the moon landing, the assassinations of Black political figures, and more. By overlapping different styles of documentary filmmaking, Questlove’s directorial debut embraces the breadth and simultaneity of Black resilience and joy. A deserving winner of both the Grand Jury and Audience awards (and many of our unofficial Letterboxd awards). SH

Flee

Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Flee is the type of discovery Sundance is designed for. Danish documentarian Jonas Poher Rasmussen tells the poignant story of his close friend and former classmate (using the pseudonym ‘Amin Nawabi’) and his daring escape from persecution in 1990s Afghanistan. Rasmussen always approaches tender topics with sensitivity and takes further steps to protect his friend’s identity by illustrating the film almost entirely in immersive animation, following in the footsteps of Waltz With Bashir and Tower. It’s a film aware of its subjectivity, allowing the animated scenes to alternate between the playful joy of nostalgia and the mournful pain of an unforgettable memory. However, these are intercepted by dramatic archive footage that oppressively brings the reality home.

“Remarkably singular, yet that is what makes it so universal,” writes Paul. “So many ugly truths about the immigration experience—the impossible choices forced upon people, and the inability to really be able to explain all of it to people in your new life… You can hear the longing in his voice, the fear in his whisper. Some don’t get the easy path.” Winner of the World Cinema (Documentary) Grand Jury Prize and quickly acquired by Neon, Flee is guaranteed to be a film you’ll hear a lot about for the rest of 2021. JM

Taming the Garden

Directed by Salomé Jashi

There’s always a moment at a film festival when fatigue sets in, when the empathy machine overwhelms, and when I hit that moment in 2021, I took the advice of filmmaker and Sundance veteran Jim Cummings, who told us: “If you’re ever stressed or tired, watch a documentary to reset yourself.” Taming the Garden wasn’t initially on my hit-list, but it’s one of those moments when the ‘close your eyes and point at a random title’ trick paid off. Documentary director Salomé Jashi does the Lorax’s work, documenting the impact and grief caused by billionaire former Georgian PM Bidzina Ivanishvili’s obsession with collecting ancient trees for his private arboretum.

“A movie that is strangely both infuriating and relaxing” writes Todd, of the long, locked-off wide shots showing the intense process of removing large, old trees from their village homes. There’s no narration, instead Jashi eavesdrops on locals as they gossip about Ivanishvili, argue about whether the money is worth it, and a feisty, irritated 90-year-old warns of the impending environmental fallout. “What you get out of it is absolutely proportional to what you put into it,” writes David, who recommends this film get the IMAX treatment. It’s arboriculture as ASMR, the timeline cleanse my Sundance needed. The extraordinary images of treasured trees being barged across the sea will become iconic. GG

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World

Directed by Kristian Petri and Kristina Lindström

Where Taming the Garden succeeds through pure observation, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World relies on the complete participation of its title subject, actor Björn Andrésen, who was thrust into the spotlight as a teenager. Cast by Italian director Lucino Visconti in Death in Venice, a 1971 adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella about obsession and fatal longing, Andrésen spent the 1970s as an object of lust, with a side-gig as a blonde pop star in Japan, inspiring many manga artists along the way.

As we know by now (Alex Winter’s Showbiz Kids is a handy companion to this film), young stardom comes at a price, one that Andrésen was not well-placed to pay even before his fateful audition for Visconti. But he’s still alive, still acting (he’s Dan in Midsommar), and ready to face the mysteries of his past. Like Benjamin Ree’s excellent The Painter and the Thief from last year, this documentary is a constantly unfolding detective story, notable for great archive footage, and a deep kindness towards its reticent yet wide-open subject. GG

All Light, Everywhere

Directed by Theo Anthony

Threading the blind spots between Étienne-Jules Marey’s 19th-century “photographic rifle”, camera-carrying war pigeons and Axon’s body-cam tech, Theo Anthony’s inquisitive, mind-expanding doc about the false promise of the all-seeing eye is absorbing, scary, urgent. It’s the greatest Minority Report origin story you didn’t know you needed.

Augmented by Dan Deacon’s electronic soundscapes and Keaver Brenai’s lullingly robotic narration, All Light, Everywhere proves to be a captivating, intricately balanced experience that Harris describes as “one part Adam Curtis-esque cine-essay”, “one part structural experiment in the vein of Koyaanisqatsi” and “one part accidental character study of two of the most familiar yet strikingly unique evil, conservative capitalists…”. Yes, there’s a tremendous amount to download, but Anthony’s expert weaving, as AC writes, “make its numerous subjects burst with clarity and profundity.” For curious cinephiles, the oldest movie on Letterboxd, Jules Jenssen’s Passage de Vénus (1874), makes a cameo. AY

The Sparks Brothers

Directed by Edgar Wright

Conceived at a Sparks gig in 2017 upon the encouragement of fellow writer-director Phil Lord, Edgar Wright broke his streak of riotous comedies with his first (of many, we hope) rockumentary. While somewhat overstuffed—this is, after all, his longest film by nearly fifteen minutes—The Sparks Brothers speaks only to Wright’s unrestrained passion for his art-pop Gods, exploring all the nooks and crannies of Sparks’ sprawling career, with unprecedented access to brothers and bandmates Ron and Russell Mael.

Nobody else can quite pin them down, so Wright dedicates his time to put every pin in them while he can, building a mythology and breaking it down, while coloring the film with irresistible dives into film history, whimsically animated anecdotes and cheeky captions. “Sparks rules. Edgar Wright rules. There’s no way this wasn’t going to rule”, proclaims Nick, “every Sparks song is its own world, with characters, rules, jokes and layers of narrative irony. What a lovely ode to a creative partnership that was founded on sticking to one’s artistic guns, no matter what may have been fashionable at the time.” JM


Narrative features

The Pink Cloud

Written and directed by Iuli Gerbase

The Pink Cloud is disorienting and full of déjà vu. Brazilian writer-director Iuli Gerbase constructs characters that are damned to have to settle when it comes to human connection. Giovana and Yago’s pleasant one-night stand lasts longer than expected when the titular pink cloud emerges from the sky, full of a mysterious and deadly gas that forces everyone to stay locked where they stand. Sound familiar? Reserve your groans—The Pink Cloud wasn’t churned out to figure out “what it all means” before the pandemic is even over. Gerbase wrote and shot the film prior to the discovery of Covid-19.

It’s “striking in its ability to prophesize a pandemic and a feeling unknown at the time of its conception. What was once science fiction hits so close now,” writes Sam. As uncanny as the quarantine narrative feels, what’s truly harrowing is how well the film predicts and understands interiorities that the pandemic later exacerbated. Above all, Giovana is a woman with unmet needs. She is a good partner, good mother and good person even when she doesn’t want to be. Even those who love her cannot see how their expectations strip her of her personhood, and the film dares to ask what escape there might be when love itself leaves you lonely. SH

Together Together

Written and directed by Nikole Beckwith

Every festival needs at least one indie relationship dramedy, and Together Together filled that role at Sundance 2021 with a healthy degree of subversion. It follows rom-com structure while ostensibly avoiding romance, instead focusing on how cultivating adult friendships can be just hard, if not harder.

Writer-director Nikole Beckwith warmly examines the limits of the platonic, and Patti Harrison and Ed Helms are brilliantly cast as the not-couple: a single soon-to-be father and the surrogate carrying his child. They poke at each other’s boundaries with a subtle desperation to know what makes a friendship appropriate or real. As Jacob writes: “It’s cute and serious, charming without being quirky. It’s a movie that deals with the struggle of being alone in this world, but offers a shimmer of hope that even if you don’t fall in fantastical, romantic, Hollywood love… there are people out there for you.” SH

Hive

Written and directed by Blerta Basholli

Hive, for some, may fall into the “nothing much happens” slice-of-life genre, but Blerta Basholli’s directorial debut holds an ocean of pain in its small tale, asking us to consider the heavy lifting that women must always do in the aftermath of war. As Liz writes, “Hive is not just a story about grief and trauma in a patriarchy-dominated culture, but of perseverance and the bonds created by the survivors who must begin to consider the future without their husbands.”

Yllka Gashi is an understated hero as Fahrjie, a mother-of-two who sets about organizing work for the women of her village, while awaiting news of her missing husband—one of thousands unaccounted for, years after the Kosovo War has ended. The townsmen have many opinions about how women should and shouldn’t mourn, work, socialize, parent, drive cars and, basically, get on with living, but Fahrjie persists, and Basholli sticks close with an unfussy, tender eye. “It felt like I was a fly on the wall, witnessing something that was actually happening,” writes Arthur. Just as in Robin Wright’s Land and Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come, Hive pays off in the rare, beaming smile of its protagonist. GG

On the Count of Three

Directed by Jerrod Carmichael, written by Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch

It starts with an image: two best friends pointing guns at each other’s heads. There’s no anger, there’s no hatred—this is an act of merciful brotherly love. How do you have a bleak, gun-totin’ buddy-comedy in 2021 and be critically embraced without contradicting your gun-control retweets or appearing as though your film is the dying embers of Tarantino-tinged student films?

Comedian Jerrod Carmichael’s acerbic directorial debut On the Count of Three achieves this by calling it out every step of the way. Guns are a tool to give insecure men the illusion of power. They are indeed a tool too terrifying to trust in the hands of untrained citizens. Carmichael also stars, alongside Christopher Abbott, who has never been more hilarious or more tragic, bringing pathos to a cathartic rendition of Papa Roach’s ‘Last Resort’. Above all, Carmichael and Abbott’s shared struggle and bond communicates the millennial malaise: how can you save others if you can’t save yourself? “Here’s what it boils down to: life is fucking hard”, Laura sums up, “and sometimes the most we can hope for is to have a best friend who loves you [and] to be a best friend who loves. It doesn’t make life any easier, but it sure helps.” Sundance 2021 is one for the books when it comes to documentaries, but On the Count of Three stands out in the fiction lineup this year. JM

Censor

Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond, written by Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher

The first of several upcoming films inspired by the ‘video nasty’ moral panic over gory horror in mid-’80s Britain, Prano Bailey-Bond leans heavily into both the period and the genre in telling the story of a film censor (a phenomenal Niamh Algar—vulnerable and steely at the same time) who begins to suspect a banned movie may hold the key to her sister’s childhood disappearance. Often dreamlike, occasionally phantasmagorical and repeatedly traumatic, even if the worst gore presented (as seen in the impressively authentic fictional horrors being appraised) appears via a screen, providing a welcome degree of separation.

Nevertheless, Censor is definitely not for the faint of heart, but old-school horror aficionados will squeal with delight at the aesthetic commitment. “I’m so ecstatic that horror is in the hands of immensely talented women going absolutely batshit in front of and behind the camera.” writes Erik. (Same here!) “A great ode to the video-nasty era and paying tribute to the great horror auteurs of the ’80s such as Argento, De Palma and Cronenberg while also doing something new with the genre. Loved this!” writes John, effectively encapsulating Censor’s unfettered film-nerd appeal. DC

CODA

Written and directed by Siân Heder

A film so earnest it shouldn’t work, with a heart so big it should surely not fit the size of the screen, CODA broke records (the first US dramatic film in Sundance history to win all three top prizes; the 25-million-dollar sale to Apple Studios), and won the world over like no other film. “A unique take on something we’ve seen so much,” writes Amanda, nailing the special appeal of Siân Heder’s coming-of-ager and family portrait. Emilia Jones plays Ruby, the only hearing person in her deaf family, at war between the family business and her passion for singing. While Heder is technically remaking the French film La Famille Bélier, the decision to cast brilliant deaf actors—Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant—makes this feel brand new.

But it’s not just about representation for the sake of it. A sense of authenticity, in humor as much as affection, shines through. With a script that’s 40 per cent ASL, so many of the jokes are visual gags, poking fun at Tinder and rap music, but a lot of the film’s most poignant moments are silent as well. And in Ruby’s own world, too, choir kids will feel seen. “I approve of this very specific alto representation and the brilliant casting of the entire choir,” Laura confirms in her review. Come for the fearless, empathetic family portrait, stay for the High School Musical vibes that actually ring true. EK

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair

Written and directed by Jane Schoenbrun

Perhaps the most singular addition to the recent flurry of Extremely Online cinema—Searching, Spree, Host, et al—Jane Schoenbrun’s feature debut ushers the viewer into a haunted, hypno-drone miasma of delirium-inducing YouTube time-suck, tenebrous creepypasta lore and painfully intimate webcam confessionals. Featuring an extraordinarily unaffected, fearless performance by newcomer Anna Cobb, the film “unpacks the mythology of adolescence in a way that’s so harrowingly familiar and also so otherworldly”, writes Kristen. Not since Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse has there been such an eerily lonely, and at times strangely beautiful, evocation of the liminal spaces between virtual and real worlds.

For members of the trans community, it’s also a work that translates that experience to screen with uncommon authenticity. “What Schoenbrun has accomplished with the form of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is akin to catching a wisp of smoke,” writes Willow, “because the images, mood and aesthetic that they have brought to life is one that is understood completely by trans people as one of familiarity, without also plunging into the obvious melodrama, or liberal back-patting that is usually associated with ‘good’ direct representation.” One of the most original, compelling new voices to emerge from Sundance this year. AY

Judas and the Black Messiah

Directed by Shaka King, written by King, Will Berson, Kenneth Lucas and Keith Lucas

It was always going to take a visionary, uncompromising filmmaker to bring the story of Fred Hampton, the deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party, to life. Shaka King casts Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton, and LaKeith Stanfield as William “Wild Bill” O’Neal, the FBI informant whose betrayal leads to Hampton’s assassination. Both actors have never been better, particularly Kaluuya who Fran Hoepfner calls “entrancing, magnetic, fizzling, romantic, riveting, endlessly watchable.”

Judas and the Black Messiah is an electric, involving watch: not just replaying history by following a certain biopic template. Instead, it’s a film with something to say—on power, on fear, on war and on freedom. “Shaka King’s name better reverberate through the halls of every studio after this,” writes Demi. A talent like this, capable of framing such a revolution, doesn’t come around so often. We’d better listen up. EK

Pleasure

Directed by Ninja Thyberg, written by Thyberg and Peter Modestij

A24’s first purchase of 2021. Ironically titled on multiple levels, Pleasure is a brutal film that you endure more than enjoy. But one thing you can’t do is forget it. Ninja Thyberg’s debut feature follows a young Swedish woman (Sofia Kappel) who arrives in Los Angeles with dreams of porn stardom under the name ‘Bella Cherry’. Although Bella is clear-eyed about the business she’s getting into, Thyberg doesn’t shy away from any of the awfulness she faces in order to succeed in an industry rife with exploitation and abuse. Bella does make allies, and the film isn’t suggesting that porn is only stocked with villains, but the ultimate cost is clear, even if it ends on an ever-so-slightly ambiguous note.

Touching as it does on ambition, friendship and betrayal in the sex business, Pleasure is often oddly reminiscent of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. Or rather, the gritty film Showgirls was claiming to be, as opposed to the camp classic it became. There’s nothing campy here. Kappel is raw and fearless in the lead, but never lets the viewer lose touch with her humanity. Emma puts it well: “Kappel gives the hardest, most provocative and transfixing performance I’ve seen all festival.” “My whole body was physically tense during this,” writes Gillian, while Keegan perhaps speaks for most when she says “Great film, never want to see it again.” DC

Coming Home in the Dark

Directed by James Ashcroft, written by Ashcroft and Eli Kent

A family camping trip amidst some typically stunnin—and casually foreboding— New Zealand scenery is upended by a shocking rug-pull of violence that gives way to sustained terror represented by Daniel Gillies’ disturbingly calm psychopath. The set-up of this thriller initially suggests a spin on the backwoods brutality thriller, but as Coming Home in the Dark progresses and hope dissipates, the motivations reveal themselves to be much more personal in nature, and informed on a thematic level by New Zealand’s colonial crimes against its Indigenous population. It’s a stark and haunting film that remains disorientating and unpredictable throughout, repeatedly daring the viewer to anticipate what will happen next, only to casually stomp on each glimmer of a positive outcome.

It’s so captivatingly bleak that a viewing of it, as Collins Ezeanyim’s eloquent reaction points out, does not lend itself to completing domestic tasks. The film marks an auspicious debut for director and co-writer James Ashcroft. Jacob writes that he “will probably follow James Ashcroft’s career to the gates of Hell after this one”. Justin hits the nail on the head with his description: “Lean and exceptionally brutal road/revenge film … that trades in genre tropes, especially those of Ozploitation and ’70s Italian exploitation, but contextualizes them in the dark history of its country of origin.” DC

The World to Come

Directed by Mona Fastvold, written by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard

Mona Fastvold has not made the first, nor probably the last, period romance about forbidden lesbian love. But The World to Come focuses on a specific pocket in time, a world contained in Jim Shepard’s short story ‘Love & Hydrogen’ from within the collection giving the film its name. Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby are Abigail and Tallie, farming neighbors, stifled by their husbands, who find brief moments of solace, of astonishment and joy, together. What shines here is the script, a verbose, delicate narration that emanates beauty more than pretence. “So beautifully restrained and yet I felt everything,” Iana writes.

And you can feel the fluidity and elegance in the way the film sounds, too: composer Daniel Blumberg’s clarinet theme converses with the dialogue and tells you when your heart can break, when you must pause, when the end is near. “So much heartache. So much hunger. So much longing. Waves of love and grief and love and grief,” writes Claira, capturing the ebb and flow of emotion that keeps The World to Come in your mind long after the screen has gone silent. EK

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