Guest post by Dan Gentile
Like most things in 2020, film festivals didn't really go according to plan. Sundance managed to hold their 2020 event last January just before the nation began shutting down, but given the dangers of the pandemic still sweeping the country, they had to improvise for 2021.
Instead of holding their annual physical festival in Park City, Utah, Sundance has pivoted to a mix of outdoor drive-in showings in 28 cities across the country and digital premieres that can be streamed from the comforts of home, running from January 28 through February 3.
Although full passes have sold out, they're still offering single film tickets for most features for $15 (some have sold out, but expect more tickets to be released closer to the screenings). Just like a regular festival, films will premiere at a certain time, with ticket-holders given a three-hour window to watch them. Then they’ll each be played a second time, on-demand for 24 hours.
In addition to individual tickets for the marquee films, an Explorer Pass purchased for $25 unlocks on-demand access to films from their Indie, New Frontier and Shorts programs, plus immersive and experimental content that you wouldn't normally find outside of the physical festival.
As always, the line-up features a diverse mix of up-and-coming talent and veterans of the indie filmmaking circuit. Here are nine stand-out films from the line-up, ranging from a gory Japanese action film starring Nic Cage to a documentary exploring the history of “Sesame Street.”
Director Rodney Ascher's “Room 237” explored the rich lore behind Stanley Kubrick's “The Shining,” diving deep into fan theories as far-fetched as to declare the film a sly confession that Kubrick faked the moon landing. Now he's returned to Sundance with “A Glitch in the Matrix,” which unpacks “simulation theory,” an idea that the world we live in isn't real, but is rather a programmed experiment similar to what Keanu Reeves encountered in “The Matrix.” If you're a fan of documentaries that take seemingly absurd ideas very seriously, this film is for you.
How It Ends
Boasting one of the most impressive ensemble casts at the festival, “How It Ends” features Olivia Wilde, Fred Armisen, Helen Hunt, Nick Kroll, Lamorne Morris, and Zoe Lister-Jones in a film that takes place the day that an asteroid is supposed to destroy the earth. Naturally, there's a wild hedonistic party to attend, and naturally there are some hilarious obstacles keeping the protagonist from making it to the world's last hurrah. In addition to starring in the film, Lister-Jones also has co-director and writing credits (she's also responsible for the recent reboot “The Craft: Legacy”).
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street
If there's one street that almost everyone has visited at some point in their lives, it's Sesame Street. The revered children’s show is ubiquitous across households in 150 countries, but even if the theme song has a permanent place in your brain, you might not know the whole story. Based on the book of the same name, this documentary traces the iconic show to its 1969 roots with behind the scenes footage and interviews with the cast and crew.
Prisoners of the Ghostland
Nic Cage continues his streak of bizarre roles, this time playing a bank robber sprung from jail who has to track down a teenage runaway. If that wasn't enough of a plot to immediately draw you in, Cage is stuck in a leather suit rigged with a bomb that will self-destruct in five days. It's the first English language film from Japanese director Sion Sono, who has directed over 50 feature films and was called “the most subversive filmmaker working in Japanese cinema today” by the Hollywood Reporter. Expect a collision of genres and one of Cage's signature unhinged performances.
Eight for Silver
From “American Werewolf in London” to “Teen Wolf,” werewolves have a rich cinematic history. But despite a resurgence of popularity of horror films, the monsters have been noticeably absent from movie screens the past few years. “Eight for Silver” takes the traditional werewolf story back to the 1800s for a period gothic horror film from British writer-director Sean Ellis, who won the World Cinema Audience Award in 2013 for “Metro Manila.”
Cartoonist Dash Shaw's 2016 debut “My Entire High School, Sinking into the Sea” was a charmingly surreal high school disaster film featuring heavyweight voice talent like Jason Schwartzman and Lena Dunham. “Crytozoo” is his follow-up, a collaboration with his wife that took five years to complete. The story revolves around a zoo that rescues and houses mythological creatures called cryptids and dives into the ethical questions regarding the treatment of these fantastic beasts.
In the Earth
A staple on the festival circuit, English director Ben Wheatley is responsible for some of the oddest films of the last decade. From the morose road trip murder flick “The Sightseers” to an English Civil War film where the soldiers eat hallucinogenic mushrooms, his movies are as unpredictable as they come. His latest couldn't be more fitting for 2021, as it follows a scientist seeking out a hidden forest research site where doctors are developing a cure for a deadly virus that's ravaging the world.
Captains of Zaatari
The first documentary feature from Egyptian director Ali El Arabi, “Captains of Zaatari” goes inside the world's largest refugee camp in Syria to follow a pair of best friends obsessed with soccer. With their futures threatened by the uncertainty of their refugee status, soccer becomes their potential pathway to new lives, and a visit from a Qatari sports academy scout just might be their ticket out.
Summer of Soul
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is a busy man. As if serving as the creative force behind The Roots, performing every night on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” writing a book on creativity, and voicing a character in Pixar's latest film “Soul” isn’t enough, he's now making his directorial debut with “Summer of Soul (… Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised).” The film unearths previously unseen footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featuring performances from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and Sly and the Family Stone, plus commentary on the endearing influence of the festival.
Dan Gentile is a writer and coffee enthusiast based in San Francisco, California.