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Judas and the Black Messiah
Photograph: Glen Wilson

Sundance 2021: The best films from this year’s festival

The hits (and misses) of this year’s virtual indie-palooza

By Time Out Film
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The Sundance Film Festival is usually a mountaintop feast of indie cinema upon which critics and film studios descend – or rather, ascend – with keyboards and chequebooks out and a hope of discovering the next Reservoir Dogs or The Blair Witch Project. In this pandemic-hit year, of course, it’s a slightly different story. But while the fest has gone fully virtual, the slate of films on offer still represents a starting gun for 12 months of thrilling new movies: today’s Sundance breakouts are tomorrow’s Oscar hopefuls.

On the programme are some notable debuts, like Questlove’s concert doc Summer of Soul and Welsh filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond’s VHS horror homage Censor, as well as some more familiar Sundance faces like Shaka King, who debuts his awards-tipped Black Panther thriller Judas and the Black Messiah. Here’s what has landed at this year’s festival – and what hasn’t. 

Sundance 2021: the films to look out for

Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Photograph: Sundance Film Festival

1. Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Film Documentaries

Director: Questlove

The Roots frontman Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson revisits the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival – the ‘Black Woodstock’ – to reassert the cultural status of a gig that drew 300,000 people.

Time Out’s verdict: ‘Partly this is a killer concert film; a series of powerful gigs finally given their due. Thompson also deftly draws the story into the present via his interviewees, many of whom we see watching footage of the concerts, and their reactions – laughs, tears, wonder – raise the stakes for us too.’

5 out of 5 stars
Passing
Passing
Photograph: Sundance Film Festival

2. Passing

Film Drama

Director: Rebecca Hall

Cast: Ruth Negga, Tessa Thompson, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård

Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut is an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s short 1929 novel about two Black women who have a chance meeting in a New York hotel – both of whom are ‘passing’ for white.

Time Out’s verdict: ‘Rebecca Hall’s chief allies in bringing her smart script to screen are Edu Grau’s stunning black-and-white photography, Dev Hynes’s repeating piano jazz score and two extraordinarily thoughtful central performances from Negga and Thompson.’

5 out of 5 stars
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Judas and the Black Messiah
Judas and the Black Messiah
Photograph: Glen Wilson

3. Judas and the Black Messiah

Film Thrillers

Director: Shaka King
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback

Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and FBI informer William O'Neal are the subjects of a Ryan Coogler-produced investigation of Black radicalism that plays like a surveillance thriller 

Time Out’s verdict: ‘Carrying a few extra pounds and nailing the Illinois accent right down to the last syllable, Daniel Kaluuya commits himself full-bore to playing ’60s Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. It’s a towering performance: all coiled power, oratorical savvy and meticulously-researched authenticity.’

4 out of 5 stars
Misha and the Wolves
Misha and the Wolves
Photograph: Sundance Film Festival

4. Misha and the Wolves

Director: Sam Hobkinson

The bizarre true-life story of Misha Defonseca, a Belgian whose tale of evading the Nazis during an epic girlhood odyssey across Europe became a book and later a movie, is the subject of a twisty-turning documentary from British filmmaker Sam Hobkinson.

Time Out’s verdict: ‘A documentary full of narrative trapdoors, this Holocaust detective story is a film to tiptoe through carefully, reserving judgment until the end credits roll. You know where it’s going – and then you don’t.’

4 out of 5 stars
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The Sparks Brothers
The Sparks Brothers
Photograph: Sundance Film Festival

5. The Sparks Brothers

Film Documentaries

Director: Edgar Wright

Superfan Edgar Wright turns the camera on one of his favourite bands, veteran American pop shapeshifters Sparks, in a debut documentary that features a grab bag of musical cameo-ers (Beck, Flea, Duran Duran et al), a lot of giddy enthusiasm and a tonne of music.

Time Out’s verdict: ‘Edgar Wright powers through a pop survival story that has you wanting to punch the air. It’s a great underdog tale, told with infectious, childlike glee.’

4 out of 5 stars
Censor
Censor
Photograph: Protagonist Pictures

6. Censor

Film Horror

Director: Prano Bailey-Bond
Cast: Adrian Schiller, Nicholas Burns, Michael Smiley

The ‘80s era of the ‘Video Nasty’ provides a pungent backdrop for this self-reflexive horror debut about a film censor losing touch with reality.

Time Out’s verdict: ‘Director and co-writer Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut feature is an impressive mix of psychological wig-out, judicious jump shocks and magnificently OTT body horror.’ 

4 out of 5 stars
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Flee
Flee
Photograph: Sundance Film Festival

7. Flee

Film Animation

Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen

The traumatic story of Afghan refugee Amin Nawabi is recounted in a stylised animation with a moving queer dimension

Time Out’s verdict: ‘One of the many paradoxes in this gut-punch adult animation – a worthy heir to Waltz with Bashir and Cartoon Saloon’s The Breadwinner – is that the price of freedom is frequently temporary imprisonment and nearly always long-term trauma.’ 

4 out of 5 stars
Bring Your Own Brigade
Bring Your Own Brigade
Photograph: David McNew

8. Bring Your Own Brigade

Film Documentaries

Director: Lucy Walker

Waste Land director Lucy Walker surveys a different kind of desolation with this boots-on-the-ground account of the 2018 California bush fires.

Time Out’s verdict: ‘Bring Your Own Brigade leans into the overwhelming power, even beauty, of these infernos, allowing us to feel their sheer magnitude through startling imagery. But this isn’t just a disaster movie – it’s fuelled by empathy, and also for curiosity at what causes these fires, and what can be done to prevent them.’ 

4 out of 5 stars
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Coda
Coda
Photograph: Seacia Pavao

9. Coda

Film Drama

Director: Sian Heder

Cast: Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur

Bought by Apple TV+ for a festival record $25m, this comedy-drama explores the pressures on a hearing impaired New England family and the daughter who provides their ears and a spare pair of hands on their fishing boat 

Time Out’s verdict: It hails from the same school of warm, family-centric comedy-drama as past Sundance breakouts Little Miss Sunshine and The Farewell, but while touching and always likeable, Coda falls a way short of those heights.’ 

3 out of 5 stars
In the Earth
In the Earth
Photograph: Sundance Film Festival

10. In the Earth

Film Horror

Director: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Ellora Torchia, Joel Fry, Reece Shearsmith

Ben Wheatley swaps the grand surrounds of Rebecca’s Manderley to the English woods for an earthier, lower-budget horror in a similar vein to Kill List and A Field in England.

Time Out’s verdict: ‘The latest from leftfield British indie powerhouse Ben Wheatley is a quarantine quickie – a low-budget trippy horror, set during a pandemic. Written in the early days of the lockdown and shot almost entirely outdoors in just two weeks, it’s a soil-under-the-fingernails, forest-bound mindmelter – with bonus pagan chills.

3 out of 5 stars
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