Movie theaters may be generally out of the cards for the time being, but that’s not stopping Sundance Film Festival from rolling out a 2021 program.
For the first time ever, the festival is taking the virtual route, offering online screenings of all submissions, as well as in-person viewings at select “satellite theaters.” Much like in years past, tickets are available in a number of packages, from all-inclusive festival-wide passes to single-film screenings and just about everything in between.
This year’s slate features a pretty typical smattering of features, shorts, and documentaries, as well as pilot episodes for upcoming series. It is still, of course, a mountain of movies to comb through (even from the comfort of your couch.) So we’ve done a preliminary scan of this year’s festival to dig up some of the marquee titles and hidden gems on the program.
There are cerebral explorations of human perception, archival excavations of monumental, yet somehow unheralded, music festivals, untold histories of household favorites, pandemic-era dating expositions, and so much more.
You can comb through our picks for this year’s virtual edition of the Sundance Film Festival below (along with the trailers, where they’re available.)
All Light, Everywhere
Director: Theo Anthony
According to the “observer effect,” our mere glance can cause some pretty astounding alterations in whatever happens to catch our eyes. In All Light, Everywhere, Theo Anthony explores the relationship between devices we rely on to see the world as it is and how we eventually end up seeing the world, dipping into philosophy, technology, the supernatural, and everything in between.
Summer of Soul
Director: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Questlove is slipping on yet another hat — as if he needed one — making his directorial debut with Summer of Soul, a documentary charting the unheralded legacy and impact of the summer-long Harlem Cultural Festival concert series. The film will feature never-before-seen live footage featuring Stevie Wonder, Sly & The Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, Mavis Staples, and more.
On The Count of Three
Director: Jerrod Carmichael
Comedian Jerrod Carmichael is no stranger to finding knee-buckling hilarity in dark places. On The County of Three, his directorial debut in a feature-length non-stand-up film, Carmichael explores the relationship and existential dread between two suicidal friends who just can’t seem to get it right. Tiffany Haddish, JB Smoove, and Henry Winkler, star alongside Carmichael in the film.
Director: Albert Birney
One of two films scored by Dan Deacon in this year’s program, Strawberry Mansion is a surreal glimpse at a slightly dystopian future in which not even our dreams are free from the surveillance state’s gaze. Billed as a “surreal romantic fantasy,” the film centers on a government agent who falls in love on a routine “dream audit.” It stars Kentucker Audley and Penny Fuller as interdimensional lovers in a film directed by Albert Birney (Sylvio, The Beast Pageant, and Tux and Fanny.)
Director: Jamila Wignot
In the aptly titled documentary, Ailey, director Jamila Wignot taps into interviews and archival footage to etch a portrait and biographical account of the late founder one of the world’s most decorated dance companies.
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street
Director: Marilyn Agrelo
Soon to arrive on HBO Max (with damn-near every other film in 2021,) Street Gang is getting a preliminary run at this year’s Sundance competition. The documentary steps behind-the-scenes of a beloved and iconic children’s television show, demystifying its appeal and unpacking its resonance as a character-building force across generations all around the globe.
Taming The Garden
Director: Salomé Jashi
The tree in the picture above is taller than most residential buildings in New York. And it’s been uprooted from its Georgian home to be replanted and incorporated in a man-made paradise for a person of astonishing wealth and anonymity. In Taming The Garden, director, Salomé Jashi captures this quiet, but direly impactful practice, and all of the tension it invokes between locals in a stunning documentary feature.
Director: Pacho Velez
In what could be one of this year’s sleepers, director Pacho Velez records his interviews with serial swiping singles searching for some form of intimacy in New York during the pandemic, unsure of what he’ll uncover and what he’d even set out to learn in the first place.
Night of The Kings
Director: Philippe Lacôte
Following a run at this year’s Venice International Film Festival, Phillippe Lacôte’s already buzzing sophomore feature, Night of The Kings, is hitting Sundance’s (virtual) screen. Centering on a new inmate at Ivory Coast’s infamous La Maca prison, the film explores the West African griot tradition with an intense allegory, tasking the recent arrival with maintaining the jail’s internal balance by stitching together a tale that will keep the peace on a night known for violent outbursts.
Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma
Director: Topaz Jones
Topaz Jones is pulling out all the stops for his next album. In Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama, the singer splits time between both sides of the lens, directing an accompanying short for the follow-up to his 2016 project, Arcade.
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