Eight Memorable Movies from the First Four Days of Sundance Film Festival 2021

The reimagined Sundance Film Festival of 2021 allows anyone in the world to watch groundbreaking cinema virtually. In the first four days, I have logged 18 films. Two and a half days remain and who knows what surprises still await. Below are eight memorable films that blew my mind for different reasons. Keep in mind, I haven't seen all the movies at the festival (although I wish that were possible). Here are the ones that especially impressed me. 

Girl in orange overalls sits under fishing dock
Emilia Jones as Ruby Rossi in CODA


CODA
, directed by Sian Heder

Coda kicked off my festival experience with a sweet, coming-of-age story about a hearing girl in an all-deaf family. The family rely on Ruby to help them navigate conversations with the hearing world about everything from the fishing business to their medical visits, but Ruby has her own dreams of being a singer. When she gets the opportunity to attend a music conservatory, Ruby feels torn between her desires and her obligations to the family. The movie is packed with situational humor which arises because of the family's disability. The tender displays of fierce love and affection between Ruby and each of her family members will break your heart. The father, Frank (Troy Kotsur) is the MVP in this celebration of music, finding your voice, and family. 

Note: Apple TV+ has purchased the distribution rights for Coda. 

Two men, one black and one white, point guns at each other's heads
[L-R] Christopher Abbott as Kevin and Jerrod Carmichael as Val in ON THE COUNT OF THREE


On the Count of Three
, directed by Jerrod Carmichael

Sometimes, the strangest films can surprise you. This film was not on my radar until the low murmur began on Twitter after it's premiere, and I knew I had to make time. Two friends with the will to end their own lives decide to go out together in a double suicide, but before they pull the trigger, they decide to "enjoy" one last day, settling unfinished business. As the day unfolds, we learn more about each of them, their friendship, and the things that drive them. This darkly humorous buddy comedy is surprisingly funny and also serves as a cautionary tale to those who fail to practice empathy or exercise caution when they operate in places of power. This film is a perfect example of what I always expected Sundance to deliver: innovative and surprising storytelling. Great use of Papa Roach's "Last Resort" in the soundtrack and the screenplay.

Native American man looks down
Michael Grayeyes as Makwa in WILD INDIAN


Wild Indian
, directed and written by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. 

The impact of one event and how it manifests in two different Indigenous boys' lives is the subject matter here. The story starts in a predictable way, with the familiar images of Indigenous characters we have seen play out numerous times before,  but 20 minutes in, the needle drops. This process repeats multiple times, subverting our expectations of who these characters are and what they will become.  The story had the feel and structure of some of my favorite films like Derek Cianfrance's Place Beyond the Pines or Marc Forster's The Kite Runner, with multiple timelines, large chronological jumps, and showing the impacts of family sins through generations. The Biblical story of Cain and Abel sets a theme that runs through the whole tale. Both Michael Grayeyes as Makwa and Chaske Spencer as Teddo give wonderful and nuanced performance. Jesse Eisenberg has fun playing a white metaphor for middle-class upwardly mobile career-driven men. 

A man and two women stands in basement of church. Woman holds flowers.
[L-R] Jason Isaacs as Jay, Martha Plimpton as Gail, and Breeda Wool as Judy in MASS


Mass
, directed by Fran Kranz

Mass centers on a tense meeting between four parents connected by a tragic event involving both of their children. The meeting happens in a church, and the room in which they meet operates like a fifth character. The walls are covered with Christian symbols of torture, resurrection, and forgiveness. The windows gleam with handmade artwork created by children. Stacked chairs and a "second best" piano fill the walls. It's the kind of room that can host a reception, a class, or an AA meeting. Or in this case, a difficult conversation that needs to happen, yet it's the kind of thing no one wants to do. The script could be converted into a stage play, and perhaps it will be one day, although it will be a mighty feat to equal the performances of our main quartet here. The tension brews thick, and you may find yourself wanting to scream at each of the group at one point or another. The last half an hour pushes the film from great to excellent. 

A man and woman look at each other doctor office
Ed Helms as Matt and Patti Harrison as Anna in TOGETHER TOGETHER

Together Together, directed by Nikole Beckwith

In this offbeat and unorthodox romcom, a man who decides to pursue fatherhood as a single man contracts a surrogate to carry the baby to term. Although their connection never becomes romantic, the two create an authentic bond somewhere between friendship and family. Patti Harrison and Ed Helms have true on-screen chemistry, and their cackle-worthy conversations are relatable and charming. It's nice to see a portrait of a man with a biological clock ticking. 


Two men holding assault weapons
[L-R] Nick Cassevetes as Psycho and Nic Cage as Hero in PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND

Prisoners of the Ghostland, directed by Sion Sono

Enjoy this fun rollercoaster ride with plenty of style and a finely sifted blend of Eastern-Western cinematic sensibilities. Hero (Nic Cage) is released from a prison by the Governor, who wants Hero to rescue his missing niece. Cage is given a deadline and a special suit. He has his mission and parameters; now all he has to do his find the girl. Nic Cage gives a somewhat controlled performance on the Cage scale, allowing for his more "tender" side to come out. The production design and set decoration allow for glossy, color saturated scenes that could have been taken from a comic book. Operatic fight choreography, inspired music choices, apocalyptic worldbuilding, and a large cast of international characters blend and make Prisoners a cinematic treat. 

Man in street clothes holds man in security guard outfit hostage with gun
[L-R] Bartosz Bielenia as Sebastian and Andrzej as Ochroniarz in PRIME TIME

Prime Time, directed by Jakub Piatek

I came to Prime Time for one reason: the white hot lightning energy of Bartosz Bielenia, who blew me away in Corpus Christi. From the very first shot, you know the filmmaker knows what they are doing. It's New Year's Eve, 1999. Everyone fears something cataclysmic will happen at the turn of the clock. Sebastian takes advantage of the moment to take two people hostage. All he wants is to go live to deliver a message. The studio heads are leery of complying with his wishes for fear of how his speech will impact audiences. Hostage negotiators are called to the scene. They believe they can easily diffuse a situation involving one gunman and only two hostages. This tense thriller will have you highly anticipating the moment you get to hear the message on Sebastian's paper. 

Woman in wig with piercing eyes looks at camera
Madeleine Sims-Fewer as Miriam in VIOLATION

Violation, directed by Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer

With brain-searing imagery, Violation unspools the carefully orchestrated revenge plot of a woman who feels helpless after a traumatic event. With no safe place to land after, she takes matters into her own hands in a methodical, chilling way. Trigger warning: the film shows scenes of rape and body dismemberment. The film's plot brings to mind a list of source material, from Psycho to the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode Lamb to the Slaughter to I Spit on Your Grave to Gaslighting. Yet this story is completely new and stays in the female gaze. The visceral awful story is paired with an soundtrack of sacred, vocally lush music. While I don't think the message of the movie is anything new, the way and manner in which it is told pushes the boundaries of cinema has done before. For that alone, it's worth knowing about, even if you decide not to enter. Not everyone will be able to handle this movie. The directors said they wanted the experience to be visceral for viewers. Mission accomplished. Watching Violation causes shock to the body. Enter with caution.

See also my full-length reviews of Sundance premieres A Glitch in the Matrix and Censor. The last three films that I enjoyed can be found in part two

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