What to Watch at the Reimagined Sundance Film Festival

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday January 30, 2021

What to Watch at the Reimagined Sundance Film Festival

This year's "reimagined" Sundance Film Festival, like most Film Festivals during COVID, will take place both digitally and in person across the country from January 28 through February 3, 2021.

"Togetherness has been an animating principle here at the Sundance Institute as we've worked to reimagine the Festival for 2021, because there is no Sundance without our community," offered Sundance Institute Founder and President Robert Redford.

"Of course, the pandemic year demanded adaptation," said Keri Putnam, Sundance Institute's Executive Director. "On a deeper level, we also recognize the urgency of supporting independent storytellers at a time of great upheaval in the film and media fields."

This year's slate includes 72 feature-length films from 29 countries and boasts 38 first-time feature filmmakers all selected from 14,092 submissions (3,500 of which were feature-length films).

Fest attendees will be able to gather in virtual waiting rooms, take part in live Q&As, and congregate and interact in new and familiar online environments.

Projects are slated in the U.S. and Doc Competitions, the World Cinema Dramatic and Doc Competitions, the NEXT series (distinguishing bold, innovative work), the Premieres, the Midnight selections (those that defy genre classification), the Spotlight films and the Shorts — and that's just some of the categories.

Here are some of the Best of the Fest from what I was able to sample so far:

Land  

"Land"

This was, by far, the best film I viewed so far.

We all know Robin Wright is an extraordinary actor and those of us who were glued to "House of Cards" also know she is a skilled director, but with "Land," she proves to be a visionary. The film is a captivating, deeply affecting cine-poem about the inconsolable agony of loss, set in the harsh American wilderness.

"Why are you helping me?" Wright's character asks of a stranger (an excellent Demián Bichir) who saves her life. "You were in my path," is his response.

"Land" is a film of profound grace and is the perfect Sundance pic, showcasing the beauty, majesty, mystery, and danger of our great western land.

"Mother Schmuckers (Fils de plouc)"

The outrageous feature film debut of writer-director brothers Lenny & Harpo Guit, "Mother Schmuckers (Fils de plouc)," may not be for all tastes, but those who fall for it will probably do so madly. Personally, I loved it and could not get enough. The deranged plot involves two rather dimwitted brothers (Harpo Guit and Maxi Delmelle), their lunatic mother, and their dog during a particularly hair-raising 24 hours. The Guits masterfully keep upping the black comedy ante, fearless in their goal to offend everyone in this hilarious instant cult classic.

Prime Time  

"The Pink Cloud"

The Brasilian sci-fi gem "The Pink Cloud" is a haunting and enveloping film that stayed with me long after the stunning final moment. Talk about timely and disturbing: Writer-director Iuli Gerbase has crafted a seat-squirming, quasi-apocalyptic thriller about a mysterious pink cloud that randomly appears in the sky and kills anyone who happens to be outside in ten seconds. The filmmaker smartly keeps the focus on two people stuck together on lockdown, who have just hooked up. "The Pink Cloud" is a perfectly atmospheric and hair-raising movie that seems less sci-fi in these COVID days. Highly recommended — with a few glasses of vino!

"Prime Time"

Polish director Jakub Piatek delivers an intense, nail-biting thriller with "Prime Time," centering on a desperate young man (Bartosz Bielenia) who takes over a TV studio on the eve of the new millennium. Magdalena Poplawska is perfect as the wonderfully deadpan newscaster taken hostage ("If I were you, I'd already have shot us!") and Bielenia is so committed that he gains our sympathies early on. I only wish Piatek had decided on a more satisfying ending.

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World  

"The Most Beautiful Boy in the World"

In 1971 the revered Italian filmmaker, Luchino Visconti released his landmark film "Death in Venice," based on the Thomas Mann novel. The openly gay director famously set about to find the perfect Tadzio, the boy who would captivate and beguile the ailing protagonist composer played by Dirk Bogarde. Björn Andresen won the role and was dubbed, "the most beautiful boy in the world" by Visconti, a moniker that brought him more heartache than happiness. Co-directors Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri chronicle Andresen's life, then and now, in a thoughtful documentary that hints at inappropriate behavior.

"The World to Come"

Vanessa Kirby is having a banner season. Her performance in "Pieces of a Woman" is a sublime awards contender, and in Mona Fastvold's queer western love story "The World to Come" she commands the screen as the intense, eventual lover to Katherine Waterson's unfulfilled housewife. Set in 1856, the elegiacal film boasts good supporting work by Casey Affleck and Christopher Abbott, and truly comes to blazing life whenever Kirby is onscreen.

Night of the Kings  

"Night of the Kings"

Philippe Lacote's electric and highly theatrical "Night of the Kings" is unlike any prison film I have ever seen (a compliment). It often feels Shakespearian in telling the story of an Ivory Coast prison run by its inmates. Stunningly photographed and superbly acted, "Night" is Ivory Coast's International Film Oscar submission and a riveting and worthy one at that. Koné Bakary stands out as the involuntary "storyteller."

"Eight for Silver"

Sean Ellis' "Eight for Silver" is a visually stunning and truly terrifying horror thriller, set in the late 19th century that involves a curse placed on a greedy landowner and his family (land that he stole from the gypsies). Karma is a bitch, and so is the creature on the attack! Prepare for some major scares in this well-crafted work.

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It  

"Ailey"

Alvin Ailey was a true dance icon whose life-affirming choreography often reflected his own truth about identity and alienation, but also joy. Jamila Wingnot's exuberant doc tries to shed some light on the enigmatic "Ailey" in her portrait of this singular artist struggling with demons who was taken from us far too early.

"Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It"

Highly reminiscent of Harry Mavromichalis' doc "Olympia," about Olympia Dukakis, Mariem Pérez Riera's "Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It" is an honest and highly personal film where we have the actual subject there to tell most of her own story. The incomparable and indefatigable EGOT winner chronicles her own topsy-turvy career with some surprising reveals. Hers is the story of a true trailblazer.

Sons of Monarchs  

"Human Factors"

With "Human Factors," European filmmaker Ronny Trocker has fashioned an enigmatic story about a middle-class family of four and how they are altered by an alleged home break in. Told in a tantalizing non-linear way, the film should have packed a bigger punch, but is definitely worthy of a sit — or two.

"Sons of Monarchs"

"Sons of Monarchs," written and directed by Alexis Gambis, is a contemplative story of a Mexican biologist, now living and working in NYC, who returns to his native land and town, which is located in the majestic monarch butterfly forests. Timely themes of immigration, identity, borders, and belonging are probed, as is the elusive world of butterflies. Tenoch Huerta is touching and heartbreaking in the lead role.

Ma Belle, My Beauty  

"Ma Belle, My Beauty"

In Marion Hill's first feature, "Ma Belle, My Beauty," set in southern France, two former polyamorous lovers (Idella Johnson, Hannah Pepper) are reunited by the former's current husband (Lucien Guignard), and passion is reignited. It's an engaging film that truly comes to life when Johnson sings. Guignard is a stand-out.

"Strawberry Mansion"

Imagine a world where even your dreams are taxed by the government. That is the premise for Albert Birney & Kentucky Audley's simultaneously whimsical and creepy "Strawberry Mansion," a film that strangely reminded me of both "Brazil" and "Naked Lunch." Penny Fuller delivers a rich and wonderful performance in this curious film.

The Blazing World  

"Hive"

Set against the backdrop of the aftermath of the war in Kosovo, Blerta Basholli's absorbing "Hive" focuses on a group of women trying to make ends meet in a strongly stifling patriarchal society, waiting on news of their husband's fates. The ensemble impresses.

"Marvelous and the Black Hole"

As titles go, "Marvelous and the Black Hole" is a mediocre one, but the film itself is an endearing story about the unlikely — but wholly believable — bond that develops between a petulant teen (Miya Cech), mourning the loss of her mother, and a wacky magician (a terrific Rhea Pearlman) with past demons of her own. Writer-director Kate Tsang navigates the terrain with great care.

"The Blazing World"

Carlson Young directed, co-wrote (with Pierce Brown), and stars in "The Blazing World," a mind-bending thriller about an alternate universe where one twin may still be alive and held captive by a demon of sorts (Udo Kier, always a delightful fright). Young the actor is charming. Young the director relies a bit too much on CGI, but creates an enrapturing world.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He is also a proud Dramatists Guild member and a recipient of a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Playwright Award for his play Consent, which was also a 2012 semifinalist for the O'Neill. His play, Vatican Falls, took part in the 2017 Planet Connections Festivity and Frank was nominated for Outstanding Playwriting. Lured was a semifinalist for the 2018 O'Neill and received a 2018 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant. Lured will premiere in 2018 in NYC and 2019 in Rome, Italy. LuredThePlay.com

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