From Jan. 28 to Feb. 3, the 2021 Sundance Film Festival was held online for the first time ever. Usually held in Utah, the digital form meant that anyone in the U.S. could attend this festival with relative ease. My friends and I counted down the seconds until tickets went on sale and quickly snatched up any movie that sounded interesting, ending with around 27 movies to watch in seven days.
This is the first real film festival I’ve ever attended. I got to see a few movies at smaller festivals last year, but nothing to the scale of Sundance: it’s one of the big five festivals, along with the Cannes Film Festival, Venice International Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. A lot of the movies I saw at last year’s festivals premiered at one of the big five, which is how I knew they’d be good. Going directly to Sundance, though, means that no one has seen these films yet, and viewers can only hope that the pieces will be good since they’re premiering for the first time. While many of the films were extremely good, others fell a little flat.
So I’m going to give an alternating list of my top three favorites and least favorites for this article––basically a “what to look out for” when these movies actually come out. Like with any art, these movies have been getting pretty polarizing reviews, so keep in mind that even if I put something low on my rating, there’s still a chance that you may enjoy it.
Bottom 3 – “Cusp”
The backstory behind “Cusp” is much more interesting than the documentary itself. Directors Isabel Bethancourt and Parker Hill ran into three teenage girls, Aaloni, Autumn and Brittney, at a gas station in Texas and ended up talking to them all night. Through this process, they decided to film a documentary about the girls’ lives. Although this sounds like an interesting concept, the film ends up falling flat upon execution.
Like many other viewers, I found that “Cusp” seems a bit exploitative in its nature. For 92 minutes, you watch these teenagers do clearly illegal activities and make poor decisions. Though their actions aren’t too different from a lot of teenagers, the way it’s shown just seems strange. Teenagers drinking alcohol, while illegal, doesn’t necessarily feel too wrong because of how desensitized we are to seeing it in art and media. However, when the girls suddenly pull out what looks like cocaine, the experience just gets so much more intense. I could barely focus on the film without worrying that these girls would get in trouble for being filmed doing these things.
In terms of poor decisions, one of the girls begins dating a boy who I’m pretty sure is too old for her. She mentions that they started dating when she was 15, and he would constantly say “Oh it’s too bad you’re only 15.” Even beyond the questionable age gap, the boy’s bedroom is full of patched holes in his wall, and their relationship doesn’t seem like a good one. Obviously it’s not the filmmaker’s job to make sure the girls stay safe, but watching underage teens do things that you know will hurt them later while an adult stands by gives off a weird feeling.
Top 3 (TIE) – “Strawberry Mansion” and “CODA”
Is this cheating? I don’t really care––because so many movies were so good at Sundance that I want to include as many as I can. “Strawberry Mansion,” a film about a futuristic “dream auditor,” and “CODA,” a film about a hearing girl in a deaf family, are definitely different from each other, but I love them both so much.
“Strawberry Mansion” is what I would consider to be the first amazing movie I saw at Sundance. The experience was probably heightened by the fact that I had just watched “John and the Hole” beforehand, which turned out to be a big let down. I went into this with zero expectations and was completely blown away. I don’t even want to say too much about what happens, because it’s definitely something that’s better to go into blind. Basically, all you need to know is that there are frogs with saxophones, sailor rats and blue demons with chains, and it’s a grand ol’ time. Clearly a labor of love, directors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley created an immersive, fun world that I can’t wait to revisit when it officially comes out.
The consensus seems to be that “CODA” is the heart of Sundance this year, as it won the festival’s Grand Jury prize, and I have to say that I agree. I already love coming-of-age movies, so this was a no brainer for me to enjoy. It’s cheesy, but not so much that it alienates viewers, and it’s surprisingly dirty, with a few hilarious sex jokes tastefully sprinkled in. This film deserved its best ensemble award so much––every actor is amazing and I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple, which acquired the film’s distribution rights, aims for an Oscar campaign whenever the film becomes available for streaming. It’s a wonderfully crafted movie from start to finish and I can’t wait to see what director Sian Heder does in the future.
Bottom 2 – “Eight for Silver”
“Eight for Silver” is about white colonizers murdering a village of Romani people and getting cursed by the village, causing some members of their group to turn into werewolves and ravage their own town.
I was already skeptical going into this viewing, because the description mentions the townsfolk “slaughtering” a bunch of Romani people. And, to no one’s surprise, a movie about white people murdering and getting cursed by Romani people feels really dated and bad! The Romani people literally have one scene before their village is burnt down and everyone within it is killed in a long, unbreaking shot. Although the film establishes that the werewolves are there to get revenge and kill Seamus, the leader of the colonizers, the entire runtime, the werewolves go after random children and maids who had nothing to do with the murders. The movie is less than two hours long, but feels so much longer, because none of the characters have any characterization, they all look the same, and they all wake up from the exact same jump scare inducing nightmare every 15 minutes.
I attended the Q&A afterwards, and saw that a lot of user submitted questions were asking director Sean Ellis if he consulted any Romani people when making this movie. He answered that “there were a lot of Romanian people on the cast,” which is absolutely not the same thing. He also said that he wanted Seamus––the man who slaughtered the entire village of Romani people––to feel sympathetic because “he’s a family man” and “thought the land is his.” That comment alone placed “Eight for Silver” as one of the worst of Sundance, in my mind. There’s also no reason to check this film out even if you like monster movies, because the werewolf designs are pretty bad as well.
Top 2 – “Prisoners of the Ghostland”
Wow, I don’t even know where to begin with this. Director Sion Sono originally wanted to film this movie in Mexico, but was unable to after he suffered a heart attack. Instead, the crew shot the film in Japan, where Sono lived. Personally, I can’t imagine having a heart attack and still creating something this insanely good.
The film follows Nicolas Cage’s character, Hero, who has been sent on a journey to rescue Bernice, the granddaughter of The Governor. What follows is an out-of-this-world samurai story involving exploding testicles, zombies and gumballs. Similar to “Strawberry Mansion,” I don’t want to say a lot about this movie because it’s best to go into this experience without any knowledge. I definitely recommend watching with friends, though––watching this in sync with my friends and messaging them as the movie played really enhanced my enjoyment.
Bottom 1 – “A Glitch in the Matrix”
“A Glitch in the Matrix” is a documentary that attempts to answer the question: what if we’re living in a simulation? Instead of actually doing that, it supplies many stories of coincidence and drawn-out tales of stupidity. I’m fairly positive that the director found all of his interviewees from Reddit, especially because the movie shows footage from subreddits and Elon Musk interviews many, many times. One story that an interviewee tells to prove the world is a simulation involves a 10-minute-long story that is basically, “I got into a drunk car accident in Mexico and didn’t get arrested by the corrupt police because someone else showed up and saved me, which means the simulation was giving me a freebie.” Another interview involves a man saying that he was so obsessed with “The Matrix” that he murdered his parents. Does that have anything to do with living in a simulation? No. No it doesn’t. The man literally says he doesn’t believe he’s living in a simulation. Oh, and every person they interviewed has one of those Zoom filters on top that makes them look like a CGI dragon or robot.
Even though this documentary is just horrendous, texting my friends while watching this at 1 a.m. and just making fun of how silly it was greatly improved the experience. I would honestly recommend watching it with friends for mocking purposes.
Top 1 – “On the Count of Three”
Trigger Warning: suicide, abuse
I almost didn’t get to see this because the tickets kept selling out, but on the day of the secondary screening, the tickets were randomly restocked––and I am so glad that they were.
“On the Count of Three” follows Val and Kevin, two bestfriends who decide that they are going to commit suicide together, but not before they murder a doctor that abused Kevin as a child. This sounds like a really intense movie, and it is, but it’s also surprisingly funny and witty. With the best screenplay, by far, of any movie shown at Sundance this year, this movie takes a really dark and uncomfortable topic and creates something amusing and captivating. Out of every movie I saw at Sundance, this is the one that I wish I could rewatch the most. It’s just a completely innovative and captivating story that I believe everyone should see when it comes out.
Besides the movies I got to see, one of my favorite parts of Sundance was going to a Zoom networking event that Sundance set up for 18-25 year olds. The event consisted of the organizers giving us a question to discuss, and then putting us in breakout rooms. I thought it was going to be really awkward, but it was actually really fun and reminded me of what it was like going to the theater and talking to people afterward. They even set up a spreadsheet for people to put their contact information in so we could talk to each other after and I’ve connected with a few people I met there since then.
Another great part of Sundance were the Q&As afterwards. I wasn’t able to attend all of them for the movies I saw, but the ones I did see were insightful and made me appreciate the movie I just watched even more. A few highlights featured in the Q&A were asking the “Eight for Silver,” director, “Why didn’t you make the werewolves hot?” and watching older actors struggle with Zoom. I hope Sundance makes the videos public at some point, because I would love to see the ones that I missed and I think people who see the movies when they actually come out would be interested in seeing them, too.
So, after 27 movies and a lot of late nights, my time at Sundance ended. It was a really fun experience, even if not all the movies were amazing. It was still interesting to see things that were mostly premieres, which meant that I had no one else influencing my opinion before I saw the movie. I can’t wait to attend more festivals in the future, and hopefully to attend Sundance again in person.