Ailey Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jack Mitchell

This year the 2021 Sundance Film Festival was virtual, and its offerings trimmed down from previous years. It included 73 feature films, 50 short films, four Indie Series, 23 talks and events, and 14 New Frontier multimedia projects. We watched 38 of the 73 films, including most of the award winners. Here are some sneak peaks of our favorites to look for in the year to come.

Some things are excruciatingly difficult to articulate in words, and can only be expressed in an abstract manner such as dance. Things such as the lonely success of Alvin Ailey, a gay man born in the depression in 1931 who, against all odds, was able to realize his dream. Choreographer, former Ailey company member, and friend George Faison reflects on their groundbreaking work that was rooted in Black liberation: “We didn’t have to go out to the street and protest, our protest was on the stage.” Director Jamilla Wignot’s film gives voice to the silent protest in Ailey’s heart that did not have an audience. —S.F.

At the Ready
Seemingly existing in an alternate reality where school shootings don’t exist, some students in Texas are free to run mock raids in the halls of their high school with the Law Enforcement Club that trains them to become police officers and border control agents—one of the few lucrative jobs in the area open to young Latinx graduates. This disquieting film illustrates that the path to upward mobility comes at a heart-wrenching cost: placing a career on a direct collision course with far more liberal identities. —S.F.

Captains of Za’atari
With beautiful cinematography and a gorgeous score, Captains of Za’atari follows two friends, Fawzi and Mahmoud, living in the largest Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. Their love of soccer unites them, providing an escape from life in the camp both figuratively and later literally when their team travels to Qatar to compete. Director Ali El Arabi crafts a film of deep humanity, providing an exposé of the struggles and tragedies of refugee life, as well as the hope these talented young men possess in the face of nearly insurmountable odds. When provided a platform to share their dreams, they hope for a world where refugees can get opportunities for education, medical treatment, and sports, instead of pity, summed up with one of the final quotes, “Dreams cannot be imprisoned or confined.” —J.F.

Eight for Silver
In a foggy 19th-century village, a wild animal is ripping people apart. But we know it’s not a wolf, like everyone suspects. Eight for Silver deliciously revives and enhances the werewolf genre with Boyd Holbrook (Pierce in Logan) as the Van Helsing-like hunter-come-to-town to avenge the death of his wife and son and rid the countryside of a pervasive evil. Director Sean Ellis succeeds in crafting the mood and setting needed for solid suspenseful horror, and his new take on the lycanthrope myth is both fresh and gross, in a good way. —J.F.

Faya Dayi
Opening with a haunting black-and-white shot of a naked child running across a field, the viewer is unsure if the child is running from or to something. Director Jessica Beshir’s melancholy documentary gently cradles the ambiguity that defines the essence of the lives of Ethiopian Khat traders, especially the young men who face the painful choice of traveling abroad alone for a slim hope at a better future, or ending up like nearly everyone else in the community: self-medicating their despair by incessantly chewing the highly addictive, ritual leaf. —S.F.

Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen met Amin, the subject of his film Flee, when both were 15 years old. It wasn’t until both men were adults that Amin shared his secret harrowing story of fleeing the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan and arriving alone in Denmark by way of Russia. Today, as Amin prepares to get married to his boyfriend, his story, shared publicly for the first time, reveals secrets he had been hiding for 20 years about his family and his traumatic journey to freedom from war-torn Afghanistan to Russia and finally to Denmark. Beautifully animated to protect the identity of the main subject, Rasmussen’s film examines the lengths we will go to in order to survive and protect those we love. Winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary. —J.F.

The class of 2020 at Oakland High School had a turbulent year, captured with immediacy and intimacy in Peter Nicks’s documentary Homeroom. As the only school in their district with its own police force, students, families, and the school board clashed after seeing numerous online videos and firsthand experiences of violence against students by security. As COVID empties out the school and the BLM marches start, many students journey from working with the school establishment to leading protests for social change. The role of social media for students, like the world at large, moves from a distraction to a means of revolution, uniting youth in the fight for equality and autonomy. Winner of the Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award: U.S. Documentary to editors Kristina Motwani and Rebecca Adorno. —J.F.

<i>In the Same Breath</i>
In the Same BreathCredit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

In the Same Breath
On New Year’s Eve 2019, thousands of colorful balloons float through the sky haphazardly, a terrifying harbinger of the cost to come for the Wuhan government jailing eight people for “spreading rumors about a fake pneumonia.” Outstanding director Nanfu Wang was prescient enough to send a covert team of cameras into hospitals, homes, and morgues to capture the truth and anguish, then follow the virus—and the bungling cover-up—across the sea to America. Have your tissues nearby. —S.F.

John and the Hole
You know you’re in uncharted territory when Michael C. Hall, the star of the murderous hit series Dexter, is the least terrifying thing in a film. This dark fable is a breakout role for Charlie Shotwell, who plays John, the too-quiet son who holds his family captive in a hole in the ground. Director Pascual Sisto’s gaze drifts languidly across the scenery, building the slow, quiet terror of the dreaded certainty of an awful situation. —S.F.

Taking two pairs of seasoned stage and film actors and putting them in a room for two hours to hash out a shared trauma sounds like the making of a great Tennessee Williams play, but it is instead a riveting and unforgettable feature by writer-director Fran Kranz. Mass was initially intended to be set on stage, Kranz said in the Q&A after the Sundance premiere. The film instead allowed this actor-turned-director to put forth a powerful directorial debut about two couples coming together years after a school shooting; one couple lost their son, the other couple’s son perpetrated the mass murder. Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, Reed Birney, and Ann Dowd deliver award-worthy performances as parents coming to terms with the once unthinkable that has sadly become more of a shared experience. —J.F.

Marvelous and the Black Hole
A delightful update in the tradition of 80s films like Uncle Buck, where a crotchety adult befriends a teen with a bad attitude and wise-cracks them out of depression. A wonderfully infuriating, surly, and grief-stricken Sammy (Miya Cech) is no match for the charms and take-no-prisoners attitude of Margot, played by Rhea Perlman in a welcome return to the screen. Funny without being forced, and sincere without being schlocky, Marvelous is guaranteed to warm the hearts of wannabe baby goths everywhere. —S.F.

A curious magical realism metaphor for feminist despair, Ana (Grace Van Patten) is crushed by the patriarchy, and her essence is fractured into a merry band of sirens, representing different emotions that the real world does not hold space for, like timid fear and unchecked rage. The themes are applied with a light and jolly touch, creating a film that is quirky, bracing, and refreshing—in the manner of the first breath of air after nearly drowning. —S.F.

My Name is Pauli Murray
Possibly the most unsung and influential thought maker in legal Civil Rights history, Ruth Bader Ginsburg cites Pauli Murray as the inspiration for her own substantial career. Best friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, Murray was a staunch feminist and warrior against “Jane Crow.” Ever a trailblazer, Murray was notoriously private, and identified as nonbinary before the language was in the public consciousness. “I lived to see my lost causes found,” says Murray, and Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s film cements Murray’s legacy. —S.F.

Night of the Kings
Truly one of the most inventive films at Sundance, Night of the Kings is a gritty Scheherazade night of endless storytelling set in La Maca, a prison off of the Ivory Coast. Director Phillipe Lacôte balances despair and levity, humanizing the forgotten through a potent blend of African fables, improvisation, and hope—however fleeting. —S.F.

If you don’t expect the film to do any heavy lifting on race analysis, Passing is a solid directorial debut by Rebecca Hall, who recently made a discovery about her own heritage. Beautifully shot in black and white, in this “tragic mulatto” morality tale, Ruth Negga plays Clare, a light-skinned Black woman in the 1920s who “passes” as a white woman and takes advantage of the privileges—and poisons—that come with the facade. She reconnects with old friend Irene (Tessa Thompson) and inadvertently forces her to reconsider her own relationship with class and Blackness. —S.F.

Philly D.A.
The role of District Attorney is one of the most powerful and misunderstood roles in the criminal justice system, and the film’s creators realize that affable DA Larry Krasner makes for perfect real-life Law & Order TV viewing. Entertaining and accidentally educational, the show might not answer the question as to whether or not anyone working within the criminal justice system can be truly “progressive,” but it immediately illuminates the cost of lives lost by lack of trying. —S.F.

PleasureCredit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Swedish hopeful Bella Cherry arrives in Los Angeles hoping to be the next top porn star. Pleasure takes the viewer on an explicit journey into the business of adult films from the perspective of an enthusiastic but naïve woman learning the ins and outs of the male-dominated world of porn. Cherry traverses the opportunistic competition and rapacious executives, enduring violence on set, all to fuel an industry that increasingly caters to the expanding, disturbing tastes of Internet fetishes. Writer-director Ninja Thyberg explores questions of complicity and consent in the face of fierce coercion. She expanded her Sundance short of the same name into a brave and at times painfully cringe-worthy feature on how women attempt to assert power as they erect their reputations in the adult entertainment industry. —J.F.

Rebel Hearts
A fascinating look at how independent, non-marriage-minded women in the 1940s-60s joined religious orders to escape patriarchal society at large, only to find themselves in another patriarchal society—and then how some became a bunch of kick-ass nuns. Rebel Hearts is the illuminating story of the trailblazing women of The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who, in 1960s Los Angeles, not only took on the dogmatic church doctrine, but also fought for civil rights, their jobs, and their autonomy against the powerful Cardinal McIntyre who tried to keep them under his thumb. Anita Caspary, Helen Kelley, Pat Reif, and Corita Kent, among others, redefined rules for nuns. An eye-opening look at an oft-overlooked group of women who have changed what it means to selflessly serve others while also fighting for yourself. —J.F.

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It
A compelling and revealing portrait of an American legend with the ebullience of a teenager. Director Mariem Pérez Riera opens a door to Moreno’s unstoppable ascent to stardom as a teenage actor with an MGM contract, struggling as the industry relegated her to racist “dusky maiden” roles while in a torrid love affair with Marlon Brando. Riera mercifully doesn’t wallow in West Side Story, and instead shares Moreno’s power as an activist and an EGOT-winning performer who continues to break barriers as an 87-year-old with a hit TV show, One Day at a Time. —S.F.

Sweden had a strong showing at Sundance in 2021 and Sabaya might be their best offering. Director Hogir Hirori has made an emotionally haunting film about real-life super heroes in Mahmud, Ziyad, and their group who, with just a gun and a cell phone, evade ISIS to rescue Yazidi women and girls being held hostage as sabaya (sex slaves). Hirori astonishingly documents actual rescues, dodging real bullets, with these brave men and women who risk their lives venturing into the most dangerous refugee camp in the Middle East, Al-Hol in Syria. Tense moments sneaking into the camps searching amidst hundreds of tents, the women covered in burqas, are balanced with serene moments outside captivity where the rescued women can remove their coverings and taste freedom. Hirori won the Directing Award: World Cinema Documentary. —J.F.

<i>Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street</i>
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame StreetCredit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Luke Geissbühler

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street
A nostalgic yet informative look at the most successful children’s television show in history. When it was created, Sesame Street was groundbreaking not only in its idea of providing honest, quality children’s programming without trying to sell kids products or speak down to them, but in assembling a team of educators, teachers, experts, even children to help inform their exhaustive approach. The film shines a spotlight on well-known players, like Jim Henson, but also on founders Joan Ganz Cooney, Lloyd Morrisett, composer Joe Raposo, and many of the lesser-known actors and characters. Several of the important moments in Sesame Street and television history are featured, including the memorable discussion of death after the loss of “Mr. Hooper,” a script taken from the real-life death of actor Will Lee who played the beloved character. —J.F.

Summer of Soul (. . . Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
In 1969 a “Black Woodstock” festival was held in Harlem with more than 300,000 people in attendance, then forgotten by history. Questlove revives this electric, never-before-seen, deftly edited footage of Black joy and community, along with interviews of participants. Highlight performances include Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, a show-stopping duet with Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson, and tiny blink-and-miss-them cameos of Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx. Winner of both the U.S. Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award: Documentary. —S.F.

Try Harder!
Welcome to Lowell High School, the top school in the San Francisco area with a majority of Asian American students, or what one student calls “tiger mom central.” These young overachievers face immense pressure to succeed from themselves, their peers, and their parents in order to get into the top colleges, pinning their whole lives on a single test or acceptance letter. Most teachers, but sadly only a few parents, try to instill a greater purpose in these kids’ lives than going to Stanford. An interesting film about how kids pursue things without knowing why, at its best when occasionally digging deeper into issues of race, stereotypes, and privilege. —J.F.

Writing With Fire
A triumphant and well-deserved spotlight on the journalists of Khabar Lahariya, India’s only newspaper run by Dalit women—the lowest rung of the caste system. With steely tenacity and persistence, these women place themselves into terrifying situations to interrogate corrupt police officers and potentially violent Hindu Nationalists, with a deft and skill not seen by many top network reporters. Often armed only with a dying cell phone and the truth, they successfully gain justice for forgotten victims. Directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh won the Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary and World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award: Impact for Change. —S.F.   v