A still from Cusp by Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

10 must-watch movies from Sundance 2021

The Utah film festival famed for launching ‘Call Me by Your Name' is going digital and you're invited. Here’s what you should get tickets for.

by Douglas Greenwood
27 January 2021, 8:00am

A still from Cusp by Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

There was hope, a little while back, that film festivals would be back to their usual state of affairs this year. After the cull of Cannes at the eleventh hour in 2020 (RIP The French Dispatch), followed by a slew of online-only festivals that followed it, we had hoped that January 2021’s edition of Sundance Film Festival would return in all its arthouse glory, with a plethora of conversation-spurring, best-of-the-year movies for us to enjoy.

Instead, what we get is something that’s almost better than that. Set in the middle of Utah, in a hard-to-get-to town usually knee-deep in snow by the time the festival starts, Sundance has always been a hard festival for movie fans to get to. This time, it’s different: save for a few IRL screenings, the entirety of Sundance Film Festival will take place online. That means US-based cinephiles will get a chance to see these films months before the rest of the world.

If you’re not in the US, fear not -- this can act as an early list of things you can look forward to catching in the year ahead. Fingers crossed the next Call Me by Your Name, The Witch or Donnie Darko is somewhere among this year’s scintillating line-up.  

1. Cusp

Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt met the subjects of their debut documentary feature at a gas station at 2:30AM. Having spent the past few months photographing the American teenage summer, they ran into a group of girls who voiced their thoughts on having been consistently under-appreciated and spoken over throughout their formative years. Thus, Cusp was born: a documentary that follows three teens growing up in a Texas military town, soaking in the last days of a sweltering summer before school starts.

2. Judas and the Black Messiah

This much talked-about Oscar favourite from director Shaka King, Judas and the Black Messiah, tells the story of William O’Neal, a man enlisted by the FBI to gather intelligence on Black Panther party chairman Fred Hampton in order to absolve himself of a prison sentence. Starring Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya as William and Fred respectively, it’s one of the films that’s slated to appear in cinemas and on streaming services in the US at the end of February, as part of HBO Max’s new Warner Brothers deal

A still from The Most Beautiful Boy in the World by Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Mario Tursi.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

3. The Most Beautiful Boy in the World

In 1971, Italian film director Lucino Visconti plucked a 15-year-old Swedish boy out of obscurity and cast him in his new film. A year later, the teenager, Björn Andrésen, was dubbed “the most beautiful boy in the world” at the premiere of the film they had made together, Death in Venice. 50 years on, that moniker still haunts him. A stunning excavation of the price of fame and the gloss that art paints over our personal tragedies, this is an impressive documentary that unpacks Björn Andrésen’s story from childhood through to the present day.

Charlie Shotwell appears in John and the Hole by Pascual Sisto. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Paul Özgür.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

4. John and the Hole

Originally on the coveted competition line-up at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, John and the Hole, a weird, coming-of-age thriller, has been anticipated by critics for a few years now. Directed by visual artist Pascual Sisto and based on a screenplay written by Birdman’s scriptwriter Nicolás Giacobone, it follows the titular character -- a 13-year-old boy -- who sinisterly holds his family hostage in a hole in their back garden after drugging them. What else happens? God knows, but this absurd-sounding movie feels like something A24 will have their paws on soon.

A still from Homeroom by Peter Nicks. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Sean Havey.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

5. Homeroom

2021 seems like a golden year for coming-of-age movies at Sundance. Documentary Homeroom, shot by director Peter Nicks, follows Oakland High School’s class of 2020, who are trying to wrap up their final year as a pandemic and a civil rights movement tear across America. A damning indictment of systemic racism and a portrait of the hopelessness felt by teenagers in an America in free fall, Homeroom is spliced with self-shot footage of the students too, capturing their most intimate moments.

6. The Pink Cloud

You’d think that Brazilian sci-fi thriller The Pink Cloud was a reaction to the pandemic, but in fact, this film was written four years ago and shot in 2019. As the trailer states: “Any resemblance to actual events is purely coincidental”. The film — which carries a feminist message according to writer and director Iuli Gerbase — chronicles the life of a woman who is forced to stay inside after a noxious pink cloud settles over her city, threatening those who face it with death. She’s forcibly isolated with a man she’s only just met, stuck together for years.

Sofia Kappel appears in Pleasure by Ninja Thyberg. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

7. Pleasure

Based on her 2013 short film, Swedish director Ninja Thyberg’s new movie Pleasure focuses on Bella, a 20-year-old girl who leaves her small town in Sweden for a new life in Los Angeles’ porn industry. Apparently both “humorous and human”, it shows how Bella makes sense of a world dominated by men in a country where she already feels like an outsider. Actor Sofia Kappel leads the cast, and is flanked by a cast of actors sourced from the porn industry too.

Still from Searchers. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

8. Searchers

The phrase ‘lockdown horn’ will surely be added to the Oxford English Dictionary at some point soon, as we’ve all spent much of it scrolling haplessly through dating apps in desperate search of ‘the one’ on Tinder, Hinge, Bumble or Grindr. In this documentary, predominantly set in New York, filmmaker Pacho Velez goes beneath the surface on dating apps and creates a portrait of the city and its people, inspired by the profiles that pop up.

Still from We're All Going To The World's Fair. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

9. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair

The world of online RPGs becomes the backdrop for filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun’s fictional full-length debut, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Set in a teenage girl’s bedroom, we witness the chaos as this intangible world seems to bleed into her own. An offbeat entry with relative newcomer Anna Cobb in the lead role and Alex G composing the score. 

10. Violation

A word-of-mouth hit at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, the Canadian horror-drama Violation gets its international premiere at this year’s Sundance, and is one of the movies we expect will go on to bigger things after its screening. Directed by Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer, with the former starring in the lead role. The story follows Miriam: a troubled recent divorcee who returns home to spend time with her younger sister for the first time in years. But quickly, their relationship turns sour. Betrayal, and revenge, ensue.

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