Sundance is going through some big changes in 2021 under the new leadership of Festival Director Tabitha Jackson. For one thing, it’s going virtual on a custom-built digital platform launching at its debut festival. That’s an impressive yet necessary step as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact how we watch movies safely, but for all the questions of format and logistics, the programming slate of 72 movies (down from 2020’s 128) still tantalizes with its intimidating promises of quantity and quality. Movies are still king here, regardless of if they’re seen on a laptop screen or at one of the arthouse theaters or drive-ins partnering with the film festival around the U.S. The week running from January 28 to February 3 is going to be the most accessible Sundance yet and is still full of the kinds of films that make it an event for cinephiles everywhere.
Paste will have review coverage coming from the festival as well as reports on how the new platform worked out, but with the full schedule recently announced, we gathered up the ten films that have us most excited based on their synopses, talent, or even title. Those looking for the full list of announced films can find it on the official Sundance site here.
Documentarian Maisie Crow is staying in West Texas for her next feature, one of the most fertile landscapes for metaphor-heavy microcosms of the American condition—even if nothing really grows out there in El Paso. At the Ready observes Horizon High School students that are part of “criminal justice club,” an extracurricular activity positively brimming with contradictions waiting to be uncovered by the young residents living ten miles from the Mexican border. As someone that went to high school in Texas, the amount of people that grew up with aspirations of becoming police or Border Patrol was staggering. Add the additional geographic proximity and community connection complicating the worldviews of the club’s Latinx members and you have the potential to engage with a nuanced and often contradictory slice of life.
Fresh off a killer Raised By Wolves performance, Niamh Algar is leading writer/director Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut feature and it looks to be a doozy. Co-written with Anthony Fletcher, the tight sub-90 minute horror movie follows a film censor’s unraveling as she finds a movie with a mysterious link to her sister’s disappearance amidst the gore and goop of her day-to-day fare. All about video nasties, ‘80s horror, and the line between obsession and occupation, Censor looks to transport us back to a world paranoid about what art was doing to the young, unsuspecting population.
The latest animated effort from Dash Shaw (My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea), Cryptozoo is another hyper-colored and painterly bit of weirdness from the director. Conflicting stances towards mythological cryptids (whether they should be shown to the world in a zoo or allowed to retain their legendary status unfettered by humanity) collide—and with an all-star voice cast including Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Angeliki Papoulia, Zoe Kazan, Peter Stormare and Grace Zabriskie. It sounds a little like Gravity Falls, a little like The X-Files and a lot like a metaphor for how we view the magical parts of the world when we grow up.
The debut documentary feature from Jessica Beshir, Faya Dayi digs into the fascinating tradition and economics of khat, the stimulant that just happens to be the biggest cash crop of Ethiopia. Tying the plant to spirituality, family, and the roots of community (for good and for ill), the film is more than an interesting piece on international farming. Rather, its connection to people (through khat) aims to convey an understanding of those so closely tied to a single commodity—with style enough to mimic khat’s own effects.
Filled with nonactors and tackling an incredibly specific plot, writer/director Alex Camilleri’s Luzzu is poised to make a big splash for Maltese cinema. Focused on a fisherman who takes a tempting step into the world of illicit black market fishing in order to provide for his girlfriend and newborn, the colorful film (just look at that boat) is cast with actual members of the Maltese fishing world. Like other movies on this list, it’s interested in the place tradition has in our ever-evolving world and finds a blue collar canvas on which to explore this question.
The directorial debut of the multitalented Jerrod Carmichael, On the Count of Three offers up plenty to be excited about. First is Carmichael himself: The comedian-first multi-hyphenate has been a force in the industry since creating/starring in The Carmichael Show and getting him on both sides of the camera here is a boon. Second is his cast of co-stars: Christopher Abbott, Tiffany Haddish, J.B. Smoove, Lavell Crawford, Henry Winkler. Abbott is perhaps the biggest draw here (I know, I know—everyone is awesome on that list) because of his impressive recent indie efforts and his involvement in the plot, which is focused on two best friends and a suicide pact. Third, it’s written by Ramy co-creators Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch. Seriously, this thing has bonafides for days.
The latest from prolific documentarian Camilla Nielsson, President is just what we need in early 2021: A look at a presidential election. Don’t worry, though, it’s about the contest between Nelson Chamisa and Emmerson Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe. Coming hot on the heels of a year that pushed even the most inactive to learn a little more about the democratic process, this doc digs into familiar territory for Nielsson—her Democrats looked into a similar political battle for Zimbabwe back in 2014. Corruption, freedom, violence: These compose the universal language of democracy and are worth exploring in all their international facets.
The last time my beloved Nicolas Cage premiered a film at Sundance it was Mandy, his best film in years. Now he’s got another, directed by absolute oddball Sion Sono in his English language debut. It contains “extreme violence and gore,” and looks to combine basically every awesome genre under the sun as it tells the story of a criminal (and supernatural) underworld. If ever there was a time to blindly put your faith in Cage-sanctioned madness, it’s now.
Produced by cinema-on-the-screen pioneer Timur Bekmambetov (he helped make films like Searching and Unfriended), R#J is the Instagram version of Romeo + Juliet. Filmmaker Carey Williams is giving Shakespeare’s most enduring love story yet another coat of fresh paint, this time in a formal evolution onto some of the most familiar social media. These kinds of things can toe the line of feeling immediately dated since internet culture moves on from memes, trends, and entire modes of communication at light speed, but with the right approach and talent it has the potential for greatness. A young diverse cast is certainly already a point in R#J’s favor.
Another feature debut, writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s Wild Indian looks to be an ambitious crime story spanning a lifetime as it focuses on a man who murdered a classmate and covered it up as a boy. Now he and his childhood friend, who grew up along different paths, have to deal with the fallout. The prospect of Michael Greyeyes leading the film is already pretty awesome, as Greyeyes has been a familiar guest star popping up all over the place in winning performances (like in last year’s Blood Quantum)—and his supporting cast members aren’t slouches either: Chaske Spencer, Jesse Eisenberg, Kate Bosworth, Phoenix Wilson and Julian Gopal round out the performers. The dark drama looks to be a compelling entry into the modern Indigenous cinema canon.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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