What we’ve watched: Sundance 2021 brings world-class cinema to your living room

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Although virtual in execution, this year’s Sundance Film Festival has still managed to uplift the heart, passion and technical excellence of the filmmaker’s creative spirit. Opening strong with much-talked-about premieres such as “Coda,” “Summer of Soul,” “In The Same Breath” and “Censor,” Sundance reminds us that time and time again, art serves as a cathartic salve for many creators around the world. Here’s a list of what we watched:

“The World to Come”

Grade: 4.0/5.0

“I no longer derive comfort from the thought of a better world to come,” Abigail (Katherine Waterston) narrates in Mona Fastvold’s romantic drama “The World to Come.” Life has been harsh for her — as a 19th century farmer’s wife, Abigail has given up on her dreams of getting an education and has resigned herself to fruitless labor alongside her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck). After Abigail and Dyer’s young child dies from diphtheria, their marriage has grown frigid, leaving Abigail desperate for a kindred spirit.

Abigail’s hope for happiness is renewed by the arrival of Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), her new neighbor, who seems to be her polar opposite. Where Abigail is shy and reserved, Tallie is charismatic and openly revolts against her implacable husband Finney’s (Christopher Abbott) attempts to control her. The two women take solace from their loveless marriages in one another, struggling to understand the intimacy growing between them.

Affleck and Abbot deliver fantastically understated supporting turns, and even though they’re the closest thing in the movie to antagonists, they both imbue their characters with dimension. However, it’s Kirby and Waterston’s outstanding on-screen chemistry that truly sets “The World to Come” apart from similar tragic love stories — and, of course, their graceful performances are also bolstered by picturesque cinematography and impeccable period costuming and production design.

— Neil Haeems

“My Name is Pauli Murray”

Grade: 4.5/5.0

Pauli Murray is one of the most important figures in history that consistently gets excluded from the history books. A lawyer, an activist and a voice for queer, nonbinary representation as early as the 1930s, Murray is championed in their documentary for their work in education, politics and women’s rights. 

“My Name is Pauli Murray” examines the challenges Murray faced as a Black academic struggling with their own sexuality and gender expression in the 20th century. The narrative starts as early as Murray’s childhood when their mother allowed Murray to dress like a boy as long as they still wore dresses to church on Sundays. Murray’s story is read through a collection of letters and journal entries that they built throughout 74 years of life, forming a beautiful recounting of their mental health journey as they pioneered “Jane Crow” literature. Many scholars still use she/her pronouns when referring to Murray, but as the documentary suggests, it’s surely time we start recognizing Murray for who they really were.

— Skylar De Paul

“Violation”

Grade: 4.5/5.0

“Violation” is one of those movies where it’s best to know as little as possible before watching. A deconstruction of traditional misogynistic, exploitative revenge films, this debut feature from Canadian writing and directing duo Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer uses a fractured timeline and a careful juxtaposition of extreme close-ups and striking long shots to convey one of the most harrowing retributions ever represented on screen. Sims-Fewer also stars, excelling in an incredibly physically and emotionally demanding role. Like Jennifer Kent’s similar effort, “The Nightingale,” “Violation” pulls absolutely no punches — it’s difficult to watch, but that’s why it’s so impactful.

— Neil Haeems

“Knocking”

Grade: 3.5/5.0

In Swedish psychological thriller “Knocking,” Cecilia Milocco delivers an unnerving performance as Molly, a recently released psychiatric patient who suffered a traumatic loss shortly before the story begins. After moving into a new apartment, Molly begins to hear a persistent, rhythmic knocking through her ceiling. What follows is a steady spiral into paranoia as Molly becomes convinced her neighbors are complicit and tries to find the source of the sound.

Writer Emma Broström and director Frida Kempff tackle the social stigmas around mental illness adeptly, allowing viewers to experience Molly’s sense of claustrophobia and isolation. Yet, unlike “The Babadook,” “Hereditary” and other similar films that deal with mental illness through horror, “Knocking” fails to build to a meaningful conclusion, losing sight of its central dramatic questions. At 78 minutes, “Knocking” just barely reaches feature length, but it still meanders from its interesting core concept far too much. 

— Neil Haeems

“Life in a Day 2020”

Grade: 4.0/5.0

On July 24, 2010, 80,000 people recorded snippets of their day to participate in a full-length, cut-together documentary on what living looked like that summer. This film debuted at Sundance in 2011, and with the creators returning for a 2020 production a full decade later, it’s safe to say that things have changed. 

Both the 2010 and 2020 “Life in a Day” films are directed by the Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald, with Ridley Scott attached as a producer for the 2020 version. Moving from babies’ first breaths to somber funeral scenes, the YouTube Original film does not shy away from honest life under quarantine. It’s a triumph for creative collaboration: With now over 300,000 contributors, so many of the shots are unintentionally and refreshingly mirrored by DIY filmmakers all over the world. “Life in a Day 2020” isn’t just an easy retrospective — it’s an inspiring reflection on one of the most challenging years in modern history.

— Skylar De Paul

“Strawberry Mansion”

Grade: 3.0/5.0

With “Strawberry Mansion,” writing and directing duo Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley craft a story one might expect to see in a multi-million dollar blockbuster from the likes of Christopher Nolan. Set in a hypercolored dystopian future in which dreams are taxed, timid government worker James Preble (Audley) is sent to a mysterious mansion to audit Bella (Penny Fuller), an aging artist. Finding a VHS archive of Bella’s dreams, Preble dives into a lifetime of her memories in order to calculate her back taxes. Soon, Preble finds himself falling for the young Bella recorded in the tapes, who reveals a sinister secret about the nature of their corporate-sponsored dreams.

“Strawberry Mansion” premiered in Sundance’s NEXT category, which shines a spotlight on films with an “innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling,” and true to this criterion, Birney and Audley use their impressive imaginations to build a dazzling, warped world despite the small budget. Rather than finding a cohesive narrative throughline, however, Birney and Audley often use surreal, aesthetically enthralling moments to overcompensate for a thinness of plot. As a result, “Strawberry Mansion” leaves little impact — it’s alluring eye candy with an interesting premise, but not much else.

— Neil Haeems

“Misha and the Wolves”

Grade: 3.5/5.0

“Misha and the Wolves” starts out as a moving documentary, focused on a Holocaust survivor who escaped death by living in the forest when she was only 7 years old. After some head-spinning twists and a sharp departure from reality, the truth becomes blurry. Written and directed by Sam Hobkinson, the account is unique in its suspenseful approach to documentary storytelling, reminiscent of the mind-boggling hit “Don’t F**k With Cats,” but with much less horror and much more confusing legal drama.

Many of the film’s interview subjects believed Misha had an “animal spirit” for how well she bonded with a pack of wolves on her journey, but intense investigative work by Misha’s book publisher and others unearths captivating realizations. “Misha and the Wolves” questions how we should be approaching individual histories and validating or invalidating personal experience — sounds fun, eh?

— Skylar De Paul

“Prime Time”

Grade: 3.5/5.0

Set during the final hours of December 31st, 1999, “Prime Time” is a Polish thriller about a hostage situation in a TV station. It has the sort of premise that immediately hooks viewers: 20-year-old Sebastian storms into a live studio and holds the show up with a gun, demanding only that he be allowed to make a statement on air. Although “Prime Time” touches on interesting themes about the media’s ability to control narratives, director Jakub Piątek’s execution of the material softens many of its best ideas.

Piątek, making his feature film debut, employs his background in documentary filmmaking to give “Prime Time” a journalistic aesthetic. Despite this, every time the tension reaches an apex, it is defused by a needless time jump that screeches the narrative to a halt before slowly winding it back up again. Bartosz Bielenia’s committed performance, though already quite strong, would have also been helped by a more fluid story. Given the single-location constraint, setting “Prime Time” in real-time would have provided some much-needed momentum to carry viewers into its thought-provoking ending — which, true to its morally ambiguous protagonist, manages to be both satisfying and frustrating.

— Neil Haeems

“Cusp”

Grade: 3.0/5.0

“There is no normal in teenage years.” This quote from the documentary “Cusp,” directed by Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill, wholeheartedly captures the film’s entire breathing, adolescent spirit. Three teenage girls in a Texas city are trying to figure out life as young women, but are faced with struggles in femininity, toughness, family and sexuality; they take out these frustrations through stoned late-night fast-food runs and piercing their nipples. 

This film is the epitome of “Don’t be a wuss.” Set to the tune of Lil Peep anthems, it’s sometimes hard to imagine that this is a documentary and not a staged, “based on a true story” movie. The main characters often spend time with older men, yet the young girls consistently end up being the ones explaining consent. It’s an important example of how rape culture is perpetuated in teenage life, yet it feels off to watch some of these real, uncomfortable situations on camera, edging into exploitation. 

“Cusp” confirms the complexity and hardships of being a teenage girl without any patronization — some of it just would’ve been better heard than seen.

— Skylar De Paul

“Mass”

Grade: 4.0/5.0

Like “Prime Time,” Fran Kranz’s “Mass” is set in a single location. However, the two films couldn’t be more different. Take the individual components that compose “Mass” and you’ll have one of the most uncinematic concepts imaginable: four people meet in a church room to have an extended conversation about a past tragedy. And yet, Kranz, in his screenwriting and directorial debut, pulls every element together to craft a thoughtful, sobering excavation of a sensitive and incredibly timely subject.

The beauty of Kranz’s script is in its refusal to make its world’s history or its characters’ backstories obvious. Slowly laying each successive card on the table, Kranz allows audiences to infer subtext and take educated guesses until more information is made available in the natural course of the story. Kranz’s excoriation of gun violence in America is so potent, in great part, due to the excellent main cast, composed of Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton and Reed Birney, who each deliver career-best performances.

— Neil Haeems

“These Days”

Grade: 3.0/5.0

Featured in Sundance’s series collection, “These Days” captures the poignant and humorous parts of living in a modern “plague.” The main character, Mae (Marianne Rendón), is a dancer, struggling with not being able to afford her usual rent or perform due to lockdown orders. This pilot episode follows her on a series of unfortunate virtual dates, revealing how different folks are mishandling or taking advantage of time in quarantine.

Seeing as the story is set in a millennial woman’s urban apartment, many of the scenes feel as though you’re simply FaceTiming a dear friend, especially considering that much of the dialogue is shown through virtual interactions. The narrative explores how sticky and complicated it is to meet someone new through entirely-online interactions, especially when so many are faced with extreme loss and anxiety. The episode is not a downer, though, as it challenges folks feeling cynical or lost to still find peace in community whenever you see it — 7 p.m. cheers or otherwise. 

— Skylar De Paul

“The Pink Cloud”

Grade: 4.0/5.0

“The Pink Cloud” was written in 2017 and shot in 2019, yet the film depicts a world eerily similar to the unprecedented time we live in today. A psychological drama of sorts, the story centers on the appearance of mysterious pink clouds in the sky, able to kill after only 10 seconds of contact. Because of this frightening phenomenon, people are forced to stay inside … for years on end. 

To reflect the characters’ cabin fever, the music paints a gentle portrait of mania. Soft pastel tones wash over the walls of our main couple’s apartment, the only location viewers ever witness due to the mass lockdown. It’s somehow not a suffocating experience for the audience, yet perhaps it’s a sight we are all used to at this point: the same old things. It’s clear people’s lives are disrupted by this tragedy — the pink clouds, that is — and the film provides a bittersweet relatability, addressing declining mental health and yearning for normal life while in forced isolation. C’est la vie

— Skylar De Paul

“Eight For Silver”

Grade: 4.0/5.0

It’s strange to see a werewolf movie alongside artsy dramas such as “The Pink Cloud” and “Passing,” but with “Eight For Silver,” writer-director Sean Ellis finds some new spins on the familiar genre tale. Set in the late 1800s, the film concerns a pathologist who visits a French village beset upon by lycanthropic beasts spawned from a supernatural curse. As the creatures unleash vengeance upon the villagers, it becomes clear that horror is derived from this truth: that the sins of the powerful (in this case, the colonizers) are visited upon all people.

Ellis, who also serves as cinematographer, seeps his imagery in a chilling Gothic atmosphere. With the exception of some cheap jump scares and instances of questionable computer-generated imagery, “Eight For Silver” is largely successful in building and sustaining suspense — in many ways, it feels like a big-budget version of the classic 1960s Hammer creature features. Rather than a healthy dose of camp, however, “Eight For Silver” opts for “The Curse of the Werewolf” by way of Robert Eggers.

— Neil Haeems

“In The Same Breath”

Grade: 4.5/5.0

It isn’t generally clear what exactly was going on behind the scenes of the Chinese government in January 2020. Thanks to director Nanfu Wang’s newest film, “In the Same Breath,” some of our most burning questions regarding the COVID-19 pandemic’s roots have been explored, if not fully answered.

In this bold, revealing documentary, Wang features interviews with people in Wuhan intimately affected by the virus and American nurses fired for trying to protect themselves early on. These accounts are crucial to the current and future understandings of what went wrong, what we should have done and how the spread of misinformation can, as proven, be deadly. The portrait of Chinese media is especially horrifying, with the film running newscast clips simultaneously to reveal the same scripted propaganda consistently relayed from channel to channel. This is a documentary that the world needs to see; Wang’s intense research is not only impressive, but brave.

— Skylar De Paul

“Coming Home in the Dark”

Grade: 3.5/5.0

James Ashcroft’s directorial debut “Coming Home in the Dark” starts off fairly innocuous — in the opening scenes, we meet schoolteacher Hoaggie and his family as they journey through the picturesque New Zealand countryside. Though his teenage sons bicker back-and-forth and the family disagrees over inconsequential issues such as the right snacks to purchase, it’s clear that they’re generally a happy bunch. 

The story changes on a dime, however, when two drifters named Mandrake and Tubs come across the family picnic. Though their exact intent is initially unclear, the tension is immediately palpable, keeping audiences on the edge of their seats as they uncover the secrets that led to this sudden descent into violent chaos. In one of the most memorable, chilling moments, Mandrake calmly informs the family just before the mayhem begins, “When you look back, this will probably be the moment you’ll wish you’d done something.”

Unshakably bleak and grim, “Coming Home in the Dark” is a relentlessly paced thriller that uncovers the self-deception bad people undertake in order to convince themselves they’re actually the good guys.

— Neil Haeems

“Writing With Fire” 

Grade: 4.5/5.0

Meera is a chief reporter with Khabar Lahariya, India’s only female-run news source. She is not only a degreed journalist and a championed mentor for other rising female reporters, however, she is also a mother and a wife balancing work and domestic life in modern India. As shown in Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas’s documentary “Writing With Fire,” Khabar Lahariya’s network of Dalit women — considered the lowest caste in India — is tenacious, intelligent, brave and trailblazing beyond words. In a completely and utterly inspiring story, this film highlights the importance of education, democracy and empowerment for women within traditionally male-dominated spaces. 

It goes without saying that Meera is one of the most admirable women currently walking the earth. When she is undermined by sources, her family members or other people she depends on, her confident, no-nonsense defenses are rousing and impactful. “Writing With Fire” is one of Sundance 2021’s standout documentaries, lending a strong platform to the women who have already built a massive one on their own.

— Skylar De Paul

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

Grade: 4.0/5.0

“To be young, gifted and Black,” Nina Simone sang on the stage of 1969’s unrecounted Harlem Cultural Festival in New York. Just adjacent to the world-famous Woodstock, about 300,000 people then attended what is casually known as “Black Woodstock” at Mount Morris Park. Until director Questlove’s newest documentary, which premiered at Sundance’s opening night, the modern world had never seen the splendor and moving color of this landmark celebration on television. 

The film highlights the vivacity and pizzazz of late 20th century Black joy as well as severely overlooked Black struggle. Aside from historic musical performances and nostalgic interview features, the camera spotlights some of the most energetic festival fashion America has ever seen. Laughter, dancing, timeless music — the Harlem Cultural Festival is praised as a kaleidoscope of culture and powerful social action.

Putting it short, it’s a shame that this footage sat untouched in a basement for five whole decades, but boy are we blessed to finally experience it for ourselves.

— Skylar De Paul

“John and the Hole”

Grade: 3.5/5.0

“John and the Hole,” the directorial debut of Spanish visual artist Pascual Sisto, is a coming-of-age story disguised as an eerie psychological thriller. Penned by “Birdman” screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone, the film follows a 13-year-old boy who, discovering an unfinished bunker in his backyard, holds his parents and sister captive as he lives out his childish notion of an adult’s life.

Charlie Shotwell excels in an enigmatically emotionless performance as the titular John. Detached from reality and desensitized by privilege, John’s quiet adolescent angst subtly underlies every juvenile attempt to circumvent the path to adulthood. Shotwell is just perfectly affectless enough to leave John’s family desperately scrambling for justifications, even as viewers remain tuned in to John’s unsettling state of mind.

Though its climax doesn’t quite capitalize on the strong build up, “John and the Hole” makes up for narrative shortcomings through its icy atmosphere and a deft handling of complex, oft-bungled themes.

— Neil Haeems

“Would You Rather”

Grade: 3.0/5.0

Now in its North American premiere, “Would You Rather” is a French coming-of-age series addressing the uncomfortable, taboo questions floating within teenage consciousness. Each episode of the pilot season hovers around a brief 10-minute mark, while still giving viewers just enough time to cringe, gasp, laugh and reflect with every shocking round of the titular game. 

Centering on a group of working-class Parisian teenagers, the show addresses sexuality, ableism, race, relationships, insecurity and more in sometimes endearing, sometimes excruciating vignettes. Most of the friends’ conversations turn sour and offensive unexpectedly fast — making for often questionable writing intentions — but they ultimately do not shy away from the gritty reality of trying to understand a world bigger than you. 

— Skylar De Paul

“Luzzu”

Grade: 4.0/5.0

The first-ever Maltese film to play at Sundance, “Luzzu” tells the story of Jesmark, a fisherman who joins a black market operation in order to afford the specialized care his infant son requires. Written and directed by Maltese-American filmmaker Alex Camilleri, “Luzzu” carries the torch of Italian neorealism, casting several non-professional actors, including star Jesmark Scicluna — himself a local fisherman — in its focus on the economic difficulties and psychological struggles found in everyday Maltese life, particularly in conditions of poverty, injustice and desperation.

Though its narrative is fairly formulaic, “Luzzu” is set apart by its unique, authentic insight into a Europe that rarely receives screen time. The title refers to Jesmark’s small wooden luzzu boat, passed down through generations in his family — the primary source of sustenance for Jesmark’s father and grandfather before him. Now, faced with the reality that he cannot compete with industrial fishing, Jesmark must reconcile with the fact that his ancestral trade verges on eradication.

— Neil Haeems

“I Was a Simple Man”

Grade: 3.0/5.0

“I Was a Simple Man,” directed by Christopher Makoto Yogi, makes the mundane appear tender and domestic. The script weaves together a beautiful yet petrifying story of aging and retrospection with the gentrification of Hawaii, following Masao Matsuyoshi (Steve Iwamoto) as he battles dementia and the ghosts of his past. 

Tranquil shots of Hawaiian landscapes and a frustrated yet gentle grandson (Kanoa Goo) caring for his ill-fated grandfather bring color to a story otherwise plagued with sickness and preparation for death. Though the timeline can be difficult to follow with so many flashbacks providing context to Masao’s pain, these scenes are foretelling, carefully explaining how one man’s trauma revisits him when he was least — or perhaps most — expecting it.

— Skylar De Paul

The Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 28 to Feb. 3, 2021. Check back on this page for daily updates and the latest reviews of this year’s lineup.

Neil Haeems is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].

Contact Skylar De Paul at [email protected]. Tweet her at @skylardepaul.