The best fiction films we saw at Sundance, from the bizarre to the sublime.
This year’s Sundance Film Festival was like no other. Thanks to the ongoing pandemic, the usual red-carpet premieres were replaced by at-home streaming supplemented by screenings at a handful of small venues and drive-ins around the country.
That’s not the way most attendees preferred to experience the movies, of course. But the festival’s 2021 selections were still true to the spirit of Sundance, which fosters independent cinema and innovative voices: They served up exciting stories from around the world, mostly of the kind that Hollywood often skips over. The fiction films that made it to Sundance in this weird year ranged from thrillers to dramas to heartwarming comedies; soon, many of them will be (or already have been) bought by distributors and streaming services.
So here are a dozen of the best fiction films I saw at Sundance 2021, and how you’ll be able to see them in the days ahead.
CODA (which stands for Children of Deaf Adults) was a huge hit at Sundance, hauling in a record $25 million acquisition deal from Apple TV+ and all four of the top prizes at the festival: the grand jury prize, the audience award, the directing prize for Sian Heder, and a special jury prize for the ensemble cast. And no wonder — it’s a truly heartfelt, music-laced story about a teenager who is the only hearing member of her family. She wants to go to college for music, but her family is struggling to keep their fishing business afloat. Sweet, thoughtful, and unusual in its extensive use of sign language and its casting of deaf actors (including Oscar winner Marlee Matlin), it’s the kind of film you can’t help but love.
How to watch it: CODA will be distributed by Apple TV+. It is awaiting a release date.
The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet
For most of its 73-minute runtime, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet feels like a subtly absurd comedy about life’s little, well, absurdities. We never hear the titular dog, who belongs to mild-mannered Seba (Daniel Katz), make a noise, but his neighbors do. This sets off a chain of events that seem loosely connected, or maybe not connected at all, and for an hour we’re just watching Seba live his life. But then a big moment comes, so close to the end of the film that it’s surprising. Without revealing what happens, I’ll just say that it feels wildly familiar, an instant in which everyone’s lives across the globe change due to something they can’t control. It’s a strange film to watch in a pandemic year. But The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet doesn’t stop with the moment of apocalypse; it imagines a life afterward, which is oddly heartening.
How to watch it: The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet is awaiting distribution.
Amalia Ulman wrote, directed, produced, and stars in El Planeta. Her actual mother plays her on-screen mother, too, in a dark comedy set in a small Spanish village that’s been decimated by the financial crisis. The mother-daughter pair have resorted to grifting to just barely pay the bills, but it seems that everyone around them is grifting too, in one way or another. The film is a little bleak, but also very funny, and a stellar debut for Ulman.
How to watch it: El Planeta is awaiting distribution.
Based on a true story, Hive centers on Fahrije (Yllka Gashi), a Kosovan woman who, like a dozen other women in her town, lost her husband when he went missing during the war years before. Now she’s struggling with the deeply patriarchal town’s contempt for her attempts to feed her family, to learn to drive, and to start a business with the other women. Hive won three major Sundance awards in the World Dramatic competition — the Grand Jury Prize, the Best Director prize for Blerta Basholli, and the Audience Award — and they’re well-earned. The film is stirring, infuriating, and ultimately hopeful.
How to watch it: Hive is awaiting distribution.
A German family of four visits their country home in Belgium. But shortly after they arrive, they hear people in the house — or at least, they think they do. The invasion becomes the inciting incident for Human Factors, about a set of relationships that seem just fine on the outside but are beginning to crack on the inside. Writer and director Ronny Trocker tells a story that doesn’t fit neatly into any categories (though it does recall the devastating work of Michael Haneke), and uses a circular method to do so, returning to the same events from different family members’ perspectives. Part mystery, part drama, it’s both engaging and sobering.
How to watch it: Human Factors is awaiting US distribution.
John and the Hole
John (Charlie Shotwell) is a pretty ordinary 13-year-old boy who lives with his parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) and older sister (Taissa Farmiga). And he feels a little ignored. One day, flying his new drone, he discovers an abandoned bunker in the woods, and the wheels in his head start turning. Directed by visual artist Pascual Sisto and featuring great performances from all of its leads, John and the Hole is a strange and darkly fun little thriller. It’s the extrapolation of a tween fantasy: If you could just get your family out of the way for a day to do whatever you want, what would you do?
How to watch it: John and the Hole is awaiting distribution.
Judas and the Black Messiah
It’s the late 1960s, and William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), arrested on carjacking charges, receives an offer from an FBI agent (Jesse Plemons) for a way out of jail time: He can become an informant. His target: Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. Judas and the Black Messiah is a stunning feature debut from director Shaka King, and it would be worth watching for the performances alone. But it also takes an innovative approach to the story, grounding O’Neal’s true story within a larger archetype of a charismatic leader and a double-minded traitor. And it evokes the texture of its time with exquisite, invigorating detail.
How to watch it: Judas and the Black Messiah debuts February 12 on HBO Max.
Marvelous and the Black Hole
Sammy Ko (Miya Cech) is pissed at the world. Her mother died a year ago; her older sister and her father seem to be trying to move on, but Sammy wants none of it. By chance, she meets a magician named Margot (Rhea Perlman), and somehow the odd pair become friends. The more Sammy digs into Margot’s world, the more appealing it seems. But in the process of learning magic from Margot, Sammy learns a lot more about herself. Marvelous and the Black Hole is quirky and a little punky and a lot of fun, a movie that treats teen girls — even the angry ones — as deserving of respect.
How to watch it: Marvelous and the Black Hole is awaiting distribution.
Mass is absolutely devastating, but don’t let that keep you from watching it. Directed and written by Fran Kranz, it’s a contemplative film that feels more like a play, and earns our attention. Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney play two couples who have agreed to meet at a church to have a conversation. The subject of the conversation unfolds slowly — one couple’s son murdered the other’s in a school shooting years earlier, but that’s not exactly what they’ve gathered to discuss. Mass leaves plenty of breathing room for characters to have authentic moments of emotion and puts a gentle, grace-filled frame around an almost unspeakable tragedy. It’s a showcase for its performers, but it’s also a valuable experience for its audience.
How to watch it: Mass is awaiting distribution.
Rebecca Hall wrote and directed this adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, about two childhood friends who encounter one another again in adulthood. Irene (Tessa Thompson), who goes by Reeny, lives with her doctor husband (André Holland) and children in a stately Harlem house. Claire (Ruth Negga) is married to a racist businessman (Alexander Skarsgård), who has no idea that his wife is not white. The film feels almost dreamlike, evoking a world in which the lines that separate friendship from desire, love from hate, and white from Black are more permeable than you might expect — a world a lot like today’s.
How to watch it: Netflix acquired Passing at Sundance. The film is awaiting a release date.
The Pink Cloud
Onscreen text at the beginning of The Pink Cloud tells us the film was written in 2017 and shot in 2019. The reasons for this announcement become almost immediately clear. In the story, a rosy pink cloud suddenly rolls across Earth, and if you breathe it in, you die. So everyone is instantly quarantined with whomever they happened to be with at the moment the cloud arrived. And the pink cloud hovers over the world for years. This sounds like a nightmare to watch during a pandemic, but The Pink Cloud is haunting and riveting in the best way. It acutely diagnoses a mental state that will feel startlingly familiar.
How to watch it: The Pink Cloud is awaiting distribution.
Matt (Ed Helms) works in tech and wants to have a child. But his relationships haven’t worked out, and now that he’s reached middle age, he feels like time is running out. So, he decides to pursue surrogacy. Anna (Patti Harrison), a 26-year-old barista with a caustic sense of humor, becomes his surrogate. And the two become fast friends. Together Together is a remarkably restrained spin on a “quirky comedy,” celebrating platonic love and the many strange ways that we find family for ourselves — and it’s never quite what you’d expect. (It also boasts comedian Julio Torres in a fabulously scene-stealing supporting role.)
How to watch it: Together Together is awaiting distribution.
Author: Alissa Wilkinson