Culture / Entertainment

This Year’s Most Exciting Sundance Film Festival Movies — Intriguing Flicks Worth Virtually Streaming

No Snow, Lines, or Traffic

BY // 01.25.21

The Sundance Film Festival, the nation’s largest and most prestigious independent film exhibition founded by Robert Redford more than 40 years ago as a showcase for independent filmmakers, is kicking off this Thursday, January 28. But like every other cultural and entertainment event in this pandemic era, it will take what Sundance characterizes as a “reimagined form,” which means mostly virtual.

Typically held for 11 days in the snowy mountain town of Park City, Utah, the festival serves as a harbinger of the cinematic themes of the year.  For those of us intrepid movie reviewers who cover each year’s festival, it is the buzziest place on earth. For a movie fanatic, nothing compares with the thrill of you and an audience discovering a new filmmaker, film or actor — think the cast of Sex Lies & Videotape, Whiplash or Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone.

Of course when you cram 30,000 film festival attendees into a town of 8,000 there is the hassle factor of waiting for hours packed in buses and holding tents like sardines (unthinkable in the COVID-19 realities of today), often in freezing temperatures. The 2020 Sundance Film Festival was one of the last major international events held in person before the coronavirus shutdowns. Of course, everything is changing in 2021.

This year’s truncated festival will be held over seven days instead of 11, and will feature 73 films, down from 118 in 2020. More than half of the films feature first time directors. Aside from its virtual nature, this year’s festival is reminiscent of Sundance’s early days when it was all about films — no bling, no movie studios, no social influencers who threaten to disrupt the festival’s original vibe.

It will be mostly virtual, but with a “Satellite Screens” program in which 30 art houses throughout the country will present specifically curated programs and socially distanced screenings. Houston, Dallas and Austin will benefit from this program.

Five of the Festival’s most anticipated films will premiere at Moonstruck Drive-in Cinema at East River on January 31, February 1 and 2nd. And of course there will be the Q&A after each film. The Texas Theatre in Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood also made the cut and will screen 13 of the Festival’s 70 featured films. Capacity in the theater will be limited to 100 people for each screening.

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For those of you who have always wanted to experience Sundance, but dreaded the slog factor, this may be your year. The Sundance Festival platform will allow anyone to participate in the film fest virtually, with options available for access to the entire festival ($350), a day, or a single film ($15). There are still tickets to be had at the Sundance online ticket office.

At first glance, the schedule of films seem darker and more somber than in prior years. Perhaps, because we have been living in a very visibly dark, anxiety ridden year, I have been yearning for films that provide an escape. Indeed, a search of this year’s program for comedies returns only a handful of choices.

Although Sundance has never been comedy central, it can take credit for last year’s hit Palm Springs and the Oscar winner Little Miss Sunshine. A repeat is not likely this year.

Notwithstanding my initial indifference, a deeper examination of the schedule revealed a number of potentially interesting films worth examining.

Here are some Sundance breakout movie candidates:

In the Same Breath

In The Same Breath, which holds the highly coveted honor of being the opening night film, traces the origin and spread of COVID-19 from Wuhan to the United States.  Filmmaker Nanfu Wang, who directed 2019 Grand Jury Prize Winner, One Child Nation, tells the story through both a personal and geopolitical perspective. The film exposes disinformation and confusion by both the United States and China and highlights the heroes who risked everything to help their country and fellow man.  Although some would question wanting to see a movie about living in a pandemic while still living in a pandemic, many are seeking to gain understanding of how this tragedy unfolded.

Women Power

Half of the filmmakers at Sundance this year are women. It is only fitting that two of the festival’s most anticipated documentaries chronicle the life of two strong women and their journeys.

Literary icon Amy Tan reflects on her childhood, culture, multi-generational trauma and issues of disparity and representation in the wide ranging biopic, Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir.  James Redford, (son of Robert Redford) the beloved director of the film, died shortly after it was completed.

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is, as the title suggests, a look at Moreno a Puerto Rican, who at age 90 is still working and is one of a handful of performers who have won an EGOT (an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.)

The Sundance Film Fest’s Sweet Music

Sundance is rightfully known for its musical documentaries. Indeed two of its musical documentaries in past years, Twenty Feet From Stardom and Searching for Sugar Man, stories of backup singers and the little known musician Rodriguez, won the Oscars for best documentaries in 2013 and 2014. This year’s most buzzy offering (one that I predict will generate Oscar buzz) is Summer of Soul  from Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the musical director of The Tonight Show and a four time Grammy winner.

Summer Of Soul (Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
A still from Summer Of Soul (Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Mass Distraction Media.
All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

In 1969, 300,000 people attended a concert known as the Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place not far from the fabled Woodstock. The concert was filmed, but the film was not discovered until 50 years later. Included in the film are a young — a very young — Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and Mavis Staples. Equally important, the film promises a look at the interplay of music, culture and Black history. In many ways, Summer of Soul is about the healing power of music.

Author’s Note: Jane Howze is managing director of The Alexander Group, a Houston headquartered national search firm. This is her 12th year covering the Sundance Film Festival. 

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