Movies

The Best Movies We Saw At Sundance 2021

The 2021 version of the Sundance Film Festival felt like a triumph. I watched more movies than I ever have before in my 10 years covering this festival, even though the festival was three days shorter than usual. (Yes, without travel times, lines, and altitude sickness, it’s kind of amazing how many more movies can be fit into the schedule.) Look, I am looking forward to returning to Park City in the future. But there was something pretty neat about how the festival was et up this year. I had friends who don’t do this for a living watching Sundance movies because, through the Sundance website and app, they were available to anyone in the United States. Which made the whole endeavor feel like a national event instead of just for people who can get to Utah for a few days.

Speaking of the app, the Apple TV version was pretty amazing. It was basically like having a Netflix app, only it’s just all these brand new Sundance movies. Having the interface of an app made a huge difference (as opposed to only having these movies on a desktop and having to run the HDMI cable of shame to a television) and just gave the whole operation a sense of, “we know what we are doing.” To be fair to earlier festivals, Sundance did have the luxury of seeing what worked and what didn’t, but that didn’t ensure things would still run smoothly. But they pulled it off. It’s the first pandemic-era festival to actually capture some of that festival feeling. To the point that I hope they keep at least some aspects of this. I have no idea how that would work, but the app and the online system they created is too good to just discard completely and return to the way it was done before. People will still go to Park City regardless! I will still go! It’s an event! People like events. The Super Bowl is on television every year, yet people still flock to the city it’s held in. But it would also be nice to be able to tell friends at home, “Hey, fire up the Sundance app and buy this movie because I think you’ll like it.”

Anyway, on to the movies. Here are the thirteen films that fellow Uproxx film writer Vince Mancini and I enjoyed the most from Sundance 2021.

13. Jockey

This was the one that caught me by surprise. One of those last-minute watches before the festival ends. Clifton Collins Jr. plays Jackson, an over-the-hill jockey who is about to competitively ride the horse of his dreams, but only if his body can hold up. Molly Parker plays the horse’s owner, and wants this for Jackson, but also realizes this horse is a once in a lifetime opportunity and needs the best jockey possible. Then a young jockey shows up who may or may not be Jackson’s son. The world of jockeys seems ripe with drama and heartbreak with the mental and physical anguish they put their bodies through to ride these incredible beasts at the lowest weight possible. This is a movie that just kind of takes its time, never gets too overly dramatic, and immerses us in that world.

Mike Ryan

12. Misha and the Wolves

There are few genres of story I enjoy as much as the fake memoir. Sam Hopkinson’s documentary tells the story of Misha and the Wolves, an outlandish memoir of a Belgian woman who fled the Nazis and lived in a forest, which became a brief sensation in the U.S. and a runaway hit in France. It’s amazing to look back at how credulous everyone was, and how Oprah was narrowly saved from recommending yet another fake memoir. The film leaves some open questions and it’s a little utilitarian in some ways, but Misha as a character keeps revealing new dimensions. I’d even buy a ticket for part two.

Vince Mancini

11. Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It

What’s remarkable about Rita Moreno is everyone has their Rita Moreno era. For me, it was The Electric Company and I was pretty tickled that this documentary gives that era its due. While watching, it kind of hit me that I think we take Rita Moreno for granted because she’s always been there. If she had won her Oscar, then eventually walked away from it all, she’d be talked about today with this air of mystery. We are all so very lucky this wasn’t her decision. So, yes, the title of this film is apt.

Mike Ryan

10. Eight For Silver

2020’s crop of “prestigious awards movies” (don’t even get me started) featured a lot of drab cinematography in drab settings, and in that context Sean Ellis’s Eight For Silver immediately stood out, my fave or second fave fiction feature. Narratively it’s relatively simple, sort of a Sleepy Hollow with werewolves, but Ellis’s flair for detail and deftness in maintaining tonal balance is more reminiscent of Robert Eggers (The Witch) or Ari Aster (Midsommar), with a love of well-timed (and mucusy!) gore to rival Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room). At a time of so many “important films,” timely narratives, and glorified stage plays masquerading as cinema, it was nice to see an unabashed movie-movie. Give me all of the hot people, schlock, and special effects.

Vince Mancini

9. Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

Here’s one of the most difficult things I find about the job I have: rewriting a review I already wrote, only to fit into a “Best of” list, without just copying what I said before. So, having said that, here’s a link to my full review of this wonderful film.

Mike Ryan

8. On the Count of Three

I had high expectations for Jerrod Carmichael’s directorial debut and wasn’t disappointed. This suicidal buddy road movie was shot during quarantine, but unlike a lot of other movies I saw its limitations weren’t immediately apparent. It’s a sub-90-minute movie that doesn’t feel slight and has the best comedic use of Papa Roach since Silicon Valley. And that’s not even the funniest needle drop in it.

Vince Mancini

7. Judas and the Black Messiah

It’s been billed as “the film about Fred Hampton,” and that’s true to an extent, but it’s more about how the FBI infiltrated the Black Panthers (Lakeith Stanfield’s William O’Neal is the main character), which led to the murder of Fred Hampton. There’s something that’s very The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford about this movie. In that Hampton is larger than life, who was betrayed by O’Neal, then O’Neal has to live with that fact, until he doesn’t anymore.

Mike Ryan

6. Flee

Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s film is mesmerizing. It takes a couple of seconds to get used to the animation, especially used as it is here in what amounts to a documentary (as a way to protect the identity of its subject). Flee is the story of Amin, a gay man living in Copenhagen who has a harrowing tale of the year and years it took for him to get from Denmark from Afghanistan. The official records of Denmark say he arrived, by himself, as a minor. The film shows us that’s what he was told to say by the human traffickers his family paid to get him there. (If he had told the truth he’d have been sent back.) And his successful attempt wasn’t his first attempt. It’s a harrowing tale of perseverance, coupled with a portrait of what leaving your entire history behind does to the human psyche.

— Mike Ryan

5. In the Same Breath

I’m honestly shocked to be recommending a COVID documentary, considering the pandemic is probably the last thing I want to think about right now. But Nanfu Wang deserves a ton of credit for putting together a documentary that feels like both something that she was uniquely qualified to make and feels like it actually adds insight to the biggest story of 2020. China and the US love to demonize each other to show how we’re better, but as Wang tells it, their similarities in the way they handled this virus are more instructive than their differences. Likewise, Anthony Fauci always seems to be depicted either as an infallible saint in the mainstream media or a horned beast in the CHUD-osphere (he steals your freedom and gives it to the Jews!), so it was refreshing to see someone offer some balance and treat him like a human.

Vince Mancini

4. Pleasure

Swedish writer/director Ninja Thyberg’s chronicle of one Swedish girl’s sojourn through the porn industry in LA starring Sofia Kappel was just one of the many Sundance movies to feature erect penises this year (boners are back, baby!). But this one was worth more than simple shock value. Probably my favorite fiction feature of the fest, not only did it look great with perfect casting and great performances, it’s exceedingly rare to see a story about the porn industry that’s both unsparing yet un-sensational. It fell into neither the corny “porn is exploitative and will ruin your life” narrative nor “porn is feminist empowerment.” Mostly it was a story about power, with great cameos from real porn people including a delightful comedic turn from “best actor in porn” Tommy Pistol.

Vince Mancini

3. CODA

The hit of Sundance! And the new record holder for a sale price. The story of a young woman who is the only hearing person in her family, living with her deaf parents and deaf brother, became the it movie of this year’s Sundance. I always wonder if this actually does hurt a film, expectations wise. But it didn’t hurt last year’s then-record holder Palm Springs. And I’m sure the producers of CODA don’t really care right now as they count their money. What’s surprising about all of this is CODA isn’t what I’d call profound in any way. It’s just a really funny, feel-good movie about nice people doing nice things. And maybe that’s kind of rare these days. But it put me in a good mood, which isn’t easy to do anymore.

Mike Ryan

2. Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Questlove has given us a true gift, presenting never before seen footage that has been locked away for over 50 years of the series of concerts that were performed over the summer in Harlem in 1969. It was known as Black Woodstock, but the actual Woodstock would wind up with a large cultural footprint, overtaking this concert series in the zeitgeist. But Questlove is here to correct that. It’s a glorious thing to behold, with some context added in from a lot of the people who were there, but never too much, never taking away from the music itself. Questlove is deft enough as a director to let the music breathe. And they are sights and sounds to behold and cherish and, frankly, be a little pissed off these have just been sitting there for over 50 years unseen.

Mike Ryan

1. The Sparks Brothers

One of the best music documentaries I’ve seen done on a band in a long time. (And here’s Vince’s rave review.) Instead of trying to explain what makes this film so interesting, I will, instead, direct you to the this interview with Edgar Wright and Sparks, who do a much better job of explaining Sparks legacy than I could even begin to attempt.

Mike Ryan

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