Let it never be said that the pandemic doesn’t have its perks. For the first – and maybe only – time, the Sundance Film Festival was accessible to people all around the world. The festival, which was founded by Robert Redford in 1981, is known as the place to discover new filmmakers and get a sneak peak of the movies we’ll be talking about for the coming year. In other words, catnip for cinephiles.
Its location in Park City, Utah has historically made it inaccessible to everyone but critics, filmmakers, and those with enough cash in pocket to pay the jacked-up hotel costs that Park City inflicts on its temporary residents. but this year, the entire festival went virtual, which meant a treasure trove of titles were available to stream directly to our laptops and televisions. Trust me: There was no better way to spend a blizzard. Here are the best films I saw “at” Sundance this year.
- “Prisoners of the Ghostland”
Movies in which Nicolas Cage goes crazy and kills a bunch of people are becoming a cottage industry, and “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” the first English-language film from Japanese genre master Sion Sono, fits the mold. Set in an alternate-reality Japan, Cage plays a prisoner tasked with rescuing the governor’s daughter from a mysterious land of mutant refugees. As colorful as a bowl of candy, and just as nutritious, “Ghostland” is a gas.
- “The Pink Cloud”
A one-night stand turns into a long-term relationship when a toxic airborne event engulfs Rio de Janeiro in this Brazilian drama. Strangely enough, this was conceived and shot before the Covid pandemic, but its story unfolds in eerily familiar ways. The would-be lovebirds are trapped with each other for months, and eventually years, and the film keeps its focus on their relationship, foregoing questions of politics and economics for an allegory about the way we live – now and then.
Following its premiere on Thursday, this coming-of-age drama about a hearing teenager in an otherwise-deaf family was bought by AppleTV+ for a Sundance-record $25 million. It’s a fair price for a film that’s almost impossible not to love. “Coda,” which stands for Children of Deaf Adults, is rarely-authentic depiction of deaf culture blended with a familiar, sometimes-clichéd storyline, but the actors – including Oscar-winner Marlee Matalin as the girl’s mom – bring the pitch-perfect story to rich life.
- “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair”
It’s billed as a horror film, but this feature from writer-director Jane Schoenbrun is more of a moody meditation on the gamification of the teenaged mind. It concerns an isolated girl who becomes involved in an online horror game that quickly becomes realer than she had imagined. Or is it? Relying on long, static shots – often from the POV of her computer – it’s an exercise in dread without scares. Which might be the scariest thing of all.
Veteran character actor Clifton Collins, Jr. gets the role of a lifetime as an aging jockey in this magic-hour masterpiece. Director and co-writer Clint Bentley takes a lyrical approach to the familiar narrative of an athlete coming to grips with his shelf life. He finds new notes of grace in an old story, capturing the light without – the American southwest has never looked more tranquil – and within.
- “A Glitch in the Matrix”
The surprisingly popular “simulation theory” of our existence, which posits our world is a computer simulation conducted by an unknown higher power, may seem like a goof to many people, but this thoughtful documentary takes it super seriously. Featuring interviews with experts – as well as those who have taken it too far – it’s a cautionary tale for an entire generation of young, mostly White males who live online and have become detached from reality.
The refugee crisis is portrayed with creativity and a rare sensitivity in this mostly-animated documentary. Rashid has been friends with the filmmaker Jonas since high school; now at 40, Rashid wants to come clean about his history. He tells the story of his escape from Afghanistan and separation from his family, while Jonas animates over his friend’s face to protect his identity and re-enacts his story in bold, bright colors to ensure we don’t turn away from its harsh realities.
Okay. This one might not be for everyone, but it was very much for me. Director Dash Shaw has crafted a unique animated film about a sanctuary housing mythical creatures, like unicorns and griffins. With well-designed action scenes and characters worth rooting for, it’s a ripping good yarn, as well as a parable about the compromises of doing good in a capitalistic system. Oh, and Shaw’s wild, hand-drawn animation makes it the most beautiful thing you’ll see all year.
- “On the Count of Three”
Comedian Jarrod Carmichael directs and co-stars in this dark comedy about two friends who hatch a plan to spend one final day together and then enact a mutual suicide pact. The first-time director juggles tones with the confidence of an old master, and he coaxes surprising performances from his entire cast, including Christopher Abbott as the twitchy, mentally ill friend, and Tiffany Haddish, Henry Winkler, and J.B. Smoove in supporting roles. I can’t wait to see what Carmichael’s career has in store for us.
- “All Light Everywhere”
It’s a documentary about seeing. About watching. About police body cameras and early cinema. About pigeons and drones. About state violence and surveillance, and how body cameras lie to us because they fail to obscure the human being they’re strapped to. Theo Anthony pulled a similar trick with his 2016 documentary “Rat Film,” which told the story of his hometown of Baltimore through the history of its rodent residents. He’s a master of contextualization, locating the ancient history of today’s struggles where you least expect it, and making you see them – and the world – anew.