The Sundance Film Festival is both smaller and bigger than it was last year.
Because of the pandemic, there are fewer films on the 2021 lineup — just over 70 titles compared to around 120 last year. But also because of the pandemic, the festival has gone virtual for the first time in its four-decade history, allowing viewers from all over to tune in from their homes.
Since people are at home now more than ever, we’ve compiled a list of 13 movies worth checking out — big-name documentaries, awards contenders, films that will really hit home during a pandemic and more.
‘Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)’
“Summer of Soul” has a lot going for it. It’s directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson — the drummer/frontman of The Roots, which has been Jimmy Fallon’s house band since 2014. It’s got unique performances, including a Stevie Wonder drum solo and a duet between gospel music giants Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples. What more does one need?
Everyone knows about Woodstock. But “Summer of Soul” dives into a different music festival that also took place during the summer of 1969 — the Harlem Cultural Festival. According to the documentary’s description, footage of that event sat in a basement for 50 years and has never been seen. The opening night of Sundance will finally bring this event out of obscurity.
‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It’
The first Latina actress to win an Oscar, Rita Moreno is one of the bigger names featured at this year’s festival. She falls in a rare category of people who have won an Oscar, Grammy, Emmy and Tony Award. Through archival footage, animation and new interviews, “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” chronicles how the groundbreaking actress defied stereotypes and broke racial barriers, paving the way for future Hispanic-American performers.
People interviewed for the documentary include Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Eva Longoria, Terrence McNally (who died from COVID-19 complications last year) and “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda — who along with TV writer/producer Norman Lear executive produced the doc.
The film will have its exclusive U.S. broadcast premiere on PBS’ “American Masters” at a later date, according to a news release.
‘Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir’
This documentary is especially poignant as it marks the final offering from director James Redford, Robert Redford’s son who died of bile-duct cancer in October. Weaving together archival imagery, animation and live performances, Redford tells the story of “Joy Luck Club” author Amy Tan and gives fans a window into her life and career.
“Jamie was a fierce advocate for the power of storytelling to drive impact on the issues that matter most, critical work that he did through @redfordcenter and in his own storytelling,” the Sundance Institute shared following Redford’s death, according to the Deseret News.
“Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir” will have its exclusive U.S. broadcast premiere on PBS’ “American Masters” at a later date, according to a news release.
‘Marvelous and the Black Hole’
I’m a sucker for quirky coming-of-age stories, and Sundance appears to have at least a few of those this year. Take “Marvelous and the Black Hole,” for instance. One description reads: “A teenage delinquent befriends a surly magician who helps her navigate her inner demons and dysfunctional family with sleight of hand magic.”
Sign me up.
“Marvelous and the Black Hole” follows a 13-year-old girl who, while grieving the loss of her mother, becomes the assistant to a grouchy magician. Gradually, the pair develops an unlikely friendship.
If that strange premise isn’t enough to grab your attention, then there’s actress Rhea Perlman — known for her role as Carla on “Cheers” and as the mother in “Matilda” — who plays the magician in this film. The film could also potentially be a breakthrough for 13-year-old actress Miya Cech, who plays Perlman’s sidekick.
‘The Pink Cloud’
COVID-19 continues to be a dominating storyline in 2021, and that’s also the case with Sundance.
“The Pink Cloud” grapples with spending extended time in quarantine — something everyone has experienced during the pandemic. When a deadly mysterious cloud takes over a city (it’s not clear what city at this point), two strangers who met at a party end up having to enter a lockdown that appears to last for months, together experiencing isolation and loneliness as they get to know each other.
This is a film that’ll likely hit home for viewers and could potentially help people cope with the loneliness that has spread just as wide as the virus. Books and films about epidemics, plagues and apocalypses have seen a resurgence in popularity during the pandemic, according to the Deseret News.
“On some level, we have to use fiction to explore the anxieties and fears that we have,” Kyle Bishop, an English professor at Southern Utah University told the Deseret News last year. “So, in that way, fiction functions similarly to a science lab — which is, let’s put these things into motion and let’s see what happens.”
‘Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street’
Who doesn’t love “Sesame Street”?
After 50-plus years, the beloved PBS children’s show reaches 150 countries. But “Street Gang” takes it back to the beginning, when Jim Henson, “Sesame Street” creator Joan Ganz Cooney and others — who saw how kids were enthralled by TV — united to develop a program that could educate as well as entertain.
The documentary features behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast members and crew. According to a news release, it highlights the show’s “core message of affirmation and inclusion — and the promise of preparing the next generation to imagine a better world for us all.”
Considering how far “Sesame Street” extends throughout the world, this documentary is sure to get a lot of attention.
“Land” has the potential to steal the show at Sundance. It stars actress Robin Wright, who also directs the film, and features the Rocky Mountains, which is a good call for any Utah viewer.
The film centers around Edee (Wright), who “loses the ability to connect with the world and people she once knew,” according to Sundance (no idea what that means). She heads into the Rocky Mountains to leave her old life behind. Surrounded by beauty, she meets a local hunter and family that help her rebuild her life.
The plot feels familiar — “Revenant” meets “Cast Away” — but setting it in the Rocky Mountains is a fun twist. And Wright (“Princess Bride,” “House of Cards”) has the potential to win the festival with this film. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one makes its way on streaming services and award shows in the future.
I’ll leave it to the official Sundance page’s description of the film, which reads: “Imagine the most dreaded, tense and emotionally draining interaction you could find yourself in and multiply it by 10.”
“Mass” is about two families and the aftermath of a tragedy caused by one of the family’s sons. It appears the families are trying to move on after the tragedy.
We don’t get a ton of details about the tragedy or what events it sets off. But this sounds like a dramatic and emotionally-draining picture worthy of a premiere viewing. Whether or not it holds up is another question — if it’s multiple conversations after another, that could end up being a little boring and flat. But the hype is there, and I’m truly excited about checking out this project.
Ed Helms. That’s all.
OK, you want more? Fine.
“Together Together” is an odd romance story or a weird buddy comedy that will likely have a bit of charm. The film focuses on Matt, an app designer who wants to have a kid. So Anna becomes his gestational surrogate. The two start out at odds with each other. But over time, they grow to like each other, adding a bit of intimacy to their friendship. The film appears to focus on platonic love, but it’s unclear if it develops past platonic love.
“Together Together” seems like a refreshing take on the traditional romantic comedy. The focus on platonic love sounds really interesting. And the film has a cool starting point — a single man looking for a surrogate. It has the potential to really surprise and shock.
‘Night of the Kings’
“Night of the Kings” is one of the most hyped films going into Sundance. The film has won acclaim already since premiering at the Venice International Film Festival. It’s already drawing a lot of support, so it’s hard not to find this project worth a glance.
“Night of the Kings” centers on a young man who instantly earns the role of telling stories to a prison’s leader, named Blackbeard. The film will apparently include those tales woven into the main narrative, which suggests an ultra trippy viewing experience with an added layer of storytelling. It’s exciting to think about the possibilities of this project and what we might see from it.
‘In the Same Breath’
So there’s no other feature project that hits home more than “In the Same Breath.” Filmmaker Nanfu Wang (“One Child Nation”) reports on the origin and spread of COVID-19 from Wuhan, China, to the United States through a personal and geopolitical scale, showing us how the virus moved so quickly across the world.
The film — which premieres on the first night of Sundance — is definitely one to watch out for. It’s going to feature firsthand interviews from Chinese and Americans. It’s going to take a dive into Wuhan, and a deep dive into the “tragedy born out of a rapid domino effect of cover-ups, mismanagement and lies.” Anyone interested in learning more about the pandemic will want to check out this documentary.
‘In the Earth’
COVID-19 is a central theme for a few films at Sundance, and “In the Earth” falls in that category. It centers around Dr. Martin Lowery, who embarks on a mission to reach test site ATU327A, a research hub deep in the Arboreal Forest. Along the way, he’s attacked and then meets a man named Zach who lives off the grid. From there, myth and science become blurred as Lowery seeks a way out of the forest.
To be honest, I can’t vouch for whether or not the project will be mature-themed or an adult flick. I don’t know how many horror elements there will be. But it sounds like a relevant project during the pandemic. A deadly virus moving throughout the world. A researcher trying to find answers. This film has so much potential to teach us something about our response to the pandemic.
‘How it Ends’
“How It Ends” is another Sundance Film Festival offering that centers on themes like the apocalypse, pandemics and the end of the world. In this film, Liza (Zoe Lister-Jones) finds herself heading to a party as a destructive asteroid nears Earth. When she loses her car, she has to rely on a younger version of herself to guide her to the party. During the journey, she works to make peace with everything she regrets in life.
This film hits on themes ever-present in 2021. The pandemic has made us all question our lives and how we see the world. It’s made us see that life could end at any moment, and we have to consider everything we’re going through, including things we may regret. I imagine “How it Ends” will promote themes of understanding and reconciliation — much needed during a time that has seen division and isolation.