Sundance Film Festival 2021 wrap up: Reflecting from a distance

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Sundance Film Festival 2021 (Photo: Sundance Film Festival)

SALT LAKE CITY (KUTV) — It feels premature, nonetheless, the curtain has dropped on the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. The awards have been given, the venues ... well, the venues were already empty and the volunteers never arrived en masse.

Somewhere Ian Curtis is singing,

“Staying in the same place, just staying out the time

Touching from a distance, further all the time”

We all now understand the disconnect.

Due to other obligations, my Sundance Film Festival was forced to fit within the evenings of Thursday and Friday and the waking hours of Saturday and Sunday. During that period, I was able to view 17 films from the relative comfort of my bed. Looking back, sorting through the ideas and emotions feels like a personal “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” A strange journey filled with odd sounds and bizarre visions. Such is the power of film.

Somehow, and this has become a yearly tradition, I didn’t see most of the award winners. I suppose the silver lining is that I have films like “Coda,” “Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” and “Writing with Fire” in the not-so-distant future.


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I did see “Flee,” the fantastic animated documentary about Amin, an Afghanistan refugee who came to Denmark as a teen. It had me thinking of “Waltz with Bashir,” another phenomenal documentary that used animation to tell its story. “Flee” is a little more playful. It’s still a weighty story about identity and the secrets that we keep. “Flee” explores the idea of being an outsider who has to conceal who they really are to avoid retribution. It is both a refugee and a LGBTQ+ narrative tangled together in one incredible story.

On the documentary front, I also saw “In the Same Breath,” “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” “At the Ready” and “A Glitch in the Matrix.”

In the Same Breath” is an incredibly frustrating, infuriating and absolutely essential documentary about how China essentially ignored the COVID-19 outbreak and then transformed the crisis into a triumphant victory for the country (while never addressing that it was complacent in causing the crisis in the first place). The film also looks at America’s response. Nanfu Wang’s film is both personal and universal.

At the Ready” was also an incredibly interesting watch as it takes us into a classroom in El Paso’s Horizon High School where students take part in Border Patrol training. The deeper you go into the film, the more conflicted the students become as their personal beliefs run opposite to current political ideology.

"Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street” was a disappointment. I grew up on “Sesame Street,” but this documentary is more like sitting through a marketing meeting than an a behind-the-scenes visit to the set.

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A Glitch in the Matrix” is my least favorite film of the festival. I liked director Rodney Ascher’s 2012 offering “Room 237.” That film that explores some of the more outlandish theories behind the imagery in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” The world has radically changed in the past 8 years. I have far less patience when it comes to listening to bedroom academics hidden by avatars pontificate on anything. Don’t even get me started on the choice to give a convicted murder the opportunity to describe his killings in graphic detail. No thanks.


I’m of two minds when it comes to “How it Ends.” Part of me thinks it makes complete sense that writers/directors Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein would pack their end-of-the-world comedy with cameos from famous friends. The other part of me thinks it’s just distracting. The scene between Lister-Jones and Olivia Wilde is on fire. The rest just simmers.

Robin Wright’s debut feature “Land” sees her starring as Edee, a woman suffering from a traumatic experience, abandon her city life to live in a remote Wyoming cabin. What starts out as an exploration of grief and isolation evolves into a story of friendship and healing. Simply a beautiful film with fantastic performances from Wright and Demi├ín Bichir.

Marvelous and the Black Hole” was a pleasant surprise. I knew that I liked the idea of Rhea Perlman playing a magician who takes an angst-driven teenager under her wing. I didn’t know that I would absolutely love her in the role. I love the small elements of magic realism that director Kate Tsang works into the story. Miya Cech is also fantastic as the film’s disgruntled teen (the character has a good reason to be frustrated by life).

Mass” is the debut feature from writer/director Fran Kranz. The film sees two couples meeting to bring a sense of closure in the aftermath of a tragedy. The nature of the tragedy isn’t instantly revealed. I’m not about to spoil it. The film feels like a variation on Yasmina Reza’s stageplay “God of Carnage,” which was later adapted for the screen simply as “Carnage.” I vastly prefer the stage version and can’t help but wonder if “Mass,” which is solid, would be something better experienced live. Cast includes Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton and Reed Birney.

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My opinion of “Mayday” is in flux and it won’t be resolved until I have the chance to sit down and watch the film again. The story sees Ana (Grace Van Patten) wash ashore on an island where she is taken in by a small group of women led by Marsha (Mia Goth) who live in an abandoned U-boat. The group use the submarine’s radio to send out fake mayday messages to lure men into doomed rescue missions. The narrative is more complicated than you might expect. I think its fair to say that I have a crush on the film and I’m just trying to figure out if there is something more there. Considering the film, that might be a terrible analogy.

One for the Road” sees Boss (Thanapob Leeratanakajorn) leaving his high-end bar in New York City to travel back to Thailand to accompany his friend Aood (Natara Nopparatayapon), who is in the final stages of terminal cancer, on a road trip to visit Aood’s ex-girlfriend. Produced by Wong Kar-Wai, “One for the Road” is a messy romantic drama that starts in one direction and then changes course just when you think the film is reaching its conclusion. I like aspects of the storytelling, but the narrative feels crammed together. Maybe it would work better as a limited series. I wonder what is on the editing room floor.


Inspired by the 1666 novel by Margaret Cavendish, “The Blazing World” was co-written, directed by and stars Carlson Young. It’s a strange phantasmagoria that is often as visually resplendent as Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak” (there are some wonky special effects that simply don’t work) but once you get beyond the art design there isn’t much there. The performances are rigid, and the ideas aren’t fully formed. The movie works best when it exists in its alternate reality. It stumbles in the real world where the art design isn’t there to distract audiences from the dialogue and performances.

Inspired by the Video Nasties of the 1980s, “Censor” is a solid horror film about a British film censor (Niamh Algar) who unravels after seeing a film with an actress who could pass for her long-lost sister. The film is partly a satire and while it falters a bit in the final act, Algar’s performance and director Prano Bailey-Bond’s love for the material makes it recommendable to horror fans.

Eight for Silver” is a period werewolf drama with gothic flourishes (imagine Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow” without the campiness). Director/writer Sean Ellis does a fantastic job of setting the stage, puts all the pieces in place, offers a truly terrifying moments (think “The Thing” or “Annihilation”) and then rushes through the ending. It’s still recommendable to those predisposed to enjoying a twist on werewolf folklore.

Writer/director Ben Wheatley’s “In the Earth” is a hallucinatory tribute to 1970s and 1980s horror. Set in a world upended by a deadly virus, a pair of scientists venture into the forest in hopes of finding a missing colleague. I found the experience to be exhilarating. Quite possibly my favorite film of the festival.

Knocking” is a Swedish film that sees a woman placed in an apartment following her release from a psychiatric ward. The hope is that she’ll slowly reintegrate into society. The heat and a belief that the knocking coming from the apartment above her is actually a woman’s desperate plea for help makes that transition difficult. Solid from top to bottom. Cecilia Milocco is great. Make sure you’re paying close attention to the ending.

It seems fitting that I’ll end this year’s roundup with “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” a film that is best described as a post-apocalyptic western with samurai swordfights. It also features Nicolas Cage in a leather jumpsuit that has been fitted with bombs located at his neck, elbows and testicles. It’s gonzo and bizarre. Is it any good? You’ll never be bored.

Sundance 2021, you were nice. Let's do this in person next year. not do this long-distance relationship next year.

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