What to See at the Virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival

Coming to Seattle from January 28–February 3
January 26, 2021
Sundance Film Festival writes that Cryptozoo is a "vibrant, wondrous, and fantastical feature animation for adults, taking audiences on a sublime journey toward multispecies justice." We're excited to find out what that means.

This week, the Sundance Film Festival kicks off virtually, and we're especially excited about it here in Seattle because Northwest Film Forum is an official partner. Our colleagues at The Stranger are also covering the fest, and they'll have daily film reviews each day (Jan 28–Feb 3). Below, we've rounded up the films they're especially looking forward to—including California-set teen film First Date, Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings, and an adaptation of Nella Larsen's Passing starring Tessa Thompson that is, unfortunately, sold out—and we'll update this page as reviews come in, so you can see everything in one place. Many passes and individual screenings are already sold out (UPDATE: Sundance released a new swath of tickets to sold-out films on Wednesday night), and all of these films will make their way to a streaming device near you soon enough, so read on to get a taste of what's to come. You can also see our picks at a glance on our Sundance homepage, check out the video from Boots Riley embedded below about how to fest, or learn more about NWFF's special panels and workshops

* = Tickets still available (as of Thursday)
† = Has a review from The Stranger

FILMS

PREMIERING THURSDAY, JAN 28

These films will also available on-demand throughout the day on Saturday, January 30.

TOP PICKS

*†Censor
Sundance says: "Film censor Enid takes pride in her meticulous work, guarding unsuspecting audiences from the deleterious effects of watching the gore-filled decapitations and eye gougings she pores over. Her sense of duty to protect is amplified by guilt over her inability to recall details of the long-ago disappearance of her sister, recently declared dead in absentia. When Enid is assigned to review a disturbing film from the archive that echoes her hazy childhood memories, she begins to unrjohavel how this eerie work might be tied to her past. Censor is a faithful, creative ode to 1980s aesthetics and a twisted, bloody love letter to the video nasties of the era. In her assured feature debut, director Prano Bailey-Bond re-creates a moment in which society was on the brink of mass hysteria over the dangers of viewers being seduced by violent images—and then she cleverly immerses us in the haunted Enid’s shifting reality. Actress Niamh Algar stuns as her brittle character grows increasingly possessed by her quest."

Read The Stranger's review, "Censor Is Unhinged VHS-Fueled Horror," by Chase Hutchinson.

CODA
Sundance says: "Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of a deaf family. At 17, she works mornings before school to help her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant) keep their Gloucester fishing business afloat. But in joining her high school’s choir club, Ruby finds herself drawn to both her duet partner (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and her latent passion for singing. Her enthusiastic, tough-love choirmaster (Eugenio Derbez) hears something special and encourages Ruby to consider music school and a future beyond fishing, leaving her torn between obligation to family and pursuit of her dream. Siân Heder’s heartwarming, exuberant follow-up to Tallulah (2016 Sundance Film Festival) brings us inside the idiosyncratic rhythms and emotions of a deaf family—something we’ve rarely seen on screen. In developing CODA, which stands for Child of Deaf Adults, Heder was determined to tell the story authentically with deaf actors. Her writing and direction—layered, naturalistic, frank, and funny—finds perfect expression in richly drawn characters and a uniformly outstanding cast, led by Jones in a fantastic breakout performance."

The Stranger adds: Marlee Matlin is a national treasure and it's our patriotic responsibility to watch everything she's ever in.

Read The Stranger's review, "CODA Puts an Enjoyable Twist on Familiar Tropes," by Jasmyne Keimig.

*†One for The Road
Sundance says: "Boss lives a seemingly charmed life as a popular bartender in New York City, with an endless line of female customers after hours. One night, his estranged friend Aood calls from Bangkok with the news that he’s dying and asks Boss to come home. As the two travel down memory lane throughout Thailand, returning items to Aood’s exes, their pasts and reasons for their broken brotherhood are exposed. But Boss doesn’t know the whole story, and when Aood has one last gift to return, it might destroy their relationship forever. With a perfectly balanced mix of the sorrow, joy, nostalgia, and romance you would expect in a film produced by Wong Kar Wai, One for the Road is a cinematic treat, much like the mouth-watering cocktails that are highlighted throughout. Breakthrough performances from Tor Thanapob, Ice Natara, and Violette Wautier, along with gorgeous and energetic direction from Baz Poonpiriya, take us through the emotionally wrought yet hopeful time between the flower of youth and the hard-earned realization that all things end."

Read The Stranger's review, "One for the Road Is Bloated and Fast, Weepy and Luxurious," by Chase Burns

Summer of Soul (…or, when The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Sundance says: "In 1969, during the same summer as Woodstock, a different music festival took place 100 miles away. More than 300,000 people attended the summer concert series known as the Harlem Cultural Festival. It was filmed, but after that summer, the footage sat in a basement for 50 years. It has never been seen. Until now. Summer Of Soul is a stunning unearthed treasure destined to become a pillar of American music and African American history. In his striking debut as a filmmaker, the legendary musician Ahmir 'Questlove' Thompson presents this transporting documentary—part concert film, part historical record—about an epic event that radiated the wholesale reevaluation of Black history, culture, fashion, and music. This rich tapestry deftly incorporates an unforgettable musical revue that includes many rare gems, such as a Stevie Wonder drum solo and a duet between Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples. Summer Of Soul shines a light on the importance of history to our spiritual well-being and stands as a testament to the healing power of music."

Read The Stranger's review, "Questlove's 'Black Woodstock' Doc Is Pure Gold," by Charles Mudede.


PREMIERING FRIDAY, JAN 29

These films will also available on-demand throughout the day on Sunday, January 31.

TOP PICKS

*†Cryptozoo
Sundance says: "Cryptids are creatures whose existence is disputed or unsubstantiated. When Amber and Matt get lost in the woods during a sex date, they stumble upon a high-security fence. On the other side, they find a cryptid—a unicorn—that would change their lives. Military brat Lauren spent her childhood nights in a nightmarish state, until a mythical baku came to eat her dreams, releasing her from nocturnal torment. Lauren decides to dedicate her life to rescuing and sheltering cryptids from those who seek to exploit them, so she becomes a cryptozookeeper. But when Lauren’s and Amber’s paths cross, Lauren begins to wonder if displaying these rare beasts in confinement is better than enabling these mythical creatures to remain hidden and unknown. Cryptozoo is a vibrant, wondrous, and fantastical feature animation for adults, taking audiences on a sublime journey toward multispecies justice. With penetrating precision and poetic intelligence, filmmaker/animator Dash Shaw explores the complex relationship between idealism, utopian visions, the call to duty, and the alluring power of controlling dreams."

Read The Stranger's review, "Cryptids Meet Capitalism in Cryptozoo," by Chase Burns.

*In the Earth
Sundance says: "As a deadly virus ravages the world, Dr. Martin Lowery embarks on a mission to reach test site ATU327A, a research hub deep in the Arboreal Forest. The arduous journey, guided by park scout Alma, is set back by a nighttime attack that leaves the two bruised and shoeless. When they run into Zach, a man living off the grid, they gratefully accept his help. Zach’s intentions aren’t exactly what they seem, however, and a path out of the forest and into safety quickly fades as the line between myth and science blurs. Writer/director Ben Wheatley (Sightseers, 2013 Sundance Film Festival) delivers a visually rich and disorienting viewing experience that defies easy categorization. In a departure from his sleek genre thrillers (High-Rise, Free Fire), In the Earth uses an understated and unnerving synth score, mystical allusions, and nature itself to instill a feeling of unease and danger. As Martin and Alma desperately look for a way out, this stripped-down approach unfolds into a psychedelic kaleidoscope of changing colors, shapes, and sounds that turns the world inside out."

*†John and the Hole
Sundance says: "While exploring the neighboring woods, 13-year-old John (Charlie Shotwell) discovers an unfinished bunker—a deep hole in the ground. Seemingly without provocation, he drugs his affluent parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) and older sister (Taissa Farmiga) and drags their unconscious bodies into the bunker, where he holds them captive. As they anxiously wait for John to free them from the hole, the boy returns home, where he can finally do what he wants. In his directorial debut, visual artist Pascual Sisto mines this alarming pulp premise for an enigmatic and unsettling meditation on adolescent angst. Adapted by screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone from his own short story, John and the Hole is both a harrowing psychological thriller and a potent coming-of-age fable exploring the difficult passage from childhood freedom to adult responsibility. Through precise, shallow-focus compositions, immersive sound design, and a suspended sense of time, Sisto conveys John’s uncanny experience of 'playing house.' Shotwell’s chilling performance suggests an innocent yearning beneath John’s cold, blank exterior, while Hall, Ehle, and Farmiga are exceptional as his beleaguered family."

Read The Stranger's review, "John Is Really Gonna Leave You Inside That Hole," by Chase Hutchinson.

*Luzzu
Sundance says: "Jesmark, a Maltese fisherman, contends with a newfound leak in his wooden luzzu boat. Barely getting by, he sees his livelihood—and a family tradition from generations before him—imperiled by diminishing harvests, a ruthless fishing industry, and a stagnating ecosystem. Desperate to provide for his wife and their newborn son, whose growth impediment requires treatment, Jesmark gradually slips into an illicit black-market fishing operation. Although Malta makes the occasional movie appearance, Luzzu is one of its first truly local films. This is a poignant, humanistic portrait of an eclipsing way of life, its authenticity stemming from the years filmmaker Alex Camilleri spent befriending Maltese fishermen, who then became his cast. Camilleri’s neorealist approach finds the quiet power of small moments and the underlying intensity of ordinary people pushed into untenable positions. Yet it still belongs firmly to today—a reflection on sustainable ecosystems and the consequences of climate change for these fishermen. You feel their struggle, the loss of an identity tied to tradition, and a love for the sea and these colorful boats with their wood-carved faces."

On the Count of Three
Sundance says: "Val (Jerrod Carmichael) has reached a place where he feels the only way out is to end things. But he considers himself a bit of a failure—his effectiveness lacking—so he figures he could use some help. As luck would have it, Val’s best friend, Kevin (Christopher Abbott), is recovering from a failed suicide attempt, so he seems like the perfect partner for executing this double suicide plan. But before they go, they have some unfinished business to attend to. Jerrod Carmichael confidently directs and stars in On the Count of Three, a darkly comic debut feature about hopelessness, true friendship, and not always feeling in control. The script, penned by Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, is clever and nuanced but also deeply compassionate in its depiction of two humans on the verge of giving up. This unusual existential bromance, propelled by Carmichael’s and Abbott’s committed performances and genuine chemistry, is bound to stay with you for a long time.

The Stranger adds: Ummm, Jerrod Carmichael and Christopher Abbott in a BROMANCE???????? You have our attention!!!!!

*Playing with Sharks
Sundance says: "Most people aren’t thrilled at the chance to be surrounded by a shiver of sharks, but Valerie Taylor isn’t most people. A fearless diver, marine conservationist, and Australian icon, she dedicated most of her life to exploring the beauty of sharks—forming a sought-after underwater cinematography team with her husband, Ron, and even shooting the real sharks in Jaws. Director Sally Aitken captures Taylor’s enduring passion for these intimidating creatures and her unflinching willingness to connect with them in their element. Now in her 80s, Taylor reflects on her lifelong journey with the sea while sumptuous, remastered 16mm footage transports us to the mysterious deep and testifies to the richness of the ocean as it once was. Today, only a small percentage of sharks are left—a grim reality Taylor and her husband fought to avoid through their conservation efforts. Playing With Sharks is a zestful celebration of Taylor’s life and a love letter to the wonder of misunderstood sharks. After all, as Taylor would say, they could just as well be dogs."

ALSO NOTEWORTHY

*Bring Your Own Brigade
Sundance says: "Raging, out-of-control wildfires have become part of the new normal around the globe, leaving heartbreaking devastation and death in their wake. In California, this harsh reality was underscored on November 8, 2018, when several parts of the state were ablaze—the Camp Fire destroying most of the Northern California town of Paradise and the Woolsey Fire roaring through Malibu in the south. In the aftermath, residents face unthinkable loss. As they struggle to rebuild, they debate what could be done to prevent further tragedy. Filmmaker Lucy Walker (The Crash Reel, 2013 Sundance Film Festival) wonders if it has to be this way. She digs into the surprising history and complex range of causes of uncontrolled fires—from climate change and ill-considered fire suppression policies to the influence of wealthy corporate interests. Her film reveals how responsibility continually gets shifted, with ordinary people left suffering the dangerous consequences. Bring Your Own Brigade cogently exposes our out-of-balance relationship with nature and explores what it will take to restore this delicate equilibrium."

How It Ends
Sundance says: "On the day an asteroid is scheduled to obliterate Earth, freewheeling Liza (Zoe Lister-Jones) scores an invite to one last wild gathering before it all goes down. Making it to the party won’t be easy, though, after her car is unceremoniously stolen, and the clock is ticking on her plan to tie up loose ends with friends and family. With a little help from her whimsical younger self (Cailee Spaeny), Liza embarks on a journey by foot across Los Angeles as she seeks to make peace with her regrets—and find the right company for those last few hours. Alum writer/directors Daryl Wein (White Rabbit) and Zoe Lister-Jones (Band Aid) assemble an impressive all-star cast—including Helen Hunt, Olivia Wilde, Fred Armisen, Lamorne Morris, and Nick Kroll—for this uproarious and charming pre-apocalyptic comedy. Both playful and empowering, How It Ends channels the kind of optimistic nihilism we could all use more of right now. The end of the world may be coming, but no one anticipated it could be this much fun."

*Human Factors
Sundance says: "To escape mounting tensions at the advertising agency they co-own, French-German couple Nina and Jan whisk their kids, Max and Emma, away to their seaside vacation home. The couple has signed a new politically charged client, forcing them to confront their clashing priorities. But what’s meant to be an idyllic off-season retreat turns sinister when burglars tear through the house, unseen by anyone except Nina. Though at first the aftermath brings the family closer, it’s short-lived. As the police investigate and the evidence doesn’t add up, the account of what took place begins to unravel alongside the couple’s faith in each other. Peeling back layers of truth and perception with a finely calibrated eye, director Ronny Trocker drops us inside the sordid remains of an exemplary middle-class family as it begins to rot from within. Balancing phenomenal performances and effortlessly inventing its own rules, Human Factors reminds us even the closest family members may be only intimate strangers."

*Knocking
Sundance says: "What. Is. That. Noise. When Molly hears knocking coming from the ceiling in her new apartment, she naturally searches for the source. The upstairs neighbors don’t know what she’s talking about and dismiss her with cool indifference. Is this all in her mind? After all, she’s still processing a traumatic event that left her mentally unwell, and the unprecedented heat wave isn’t helping her think clearly. As the knocking intensifies and gives way to a woman’s cries, Molly becomes consumed with finding out the truth. Could it be Morse code? Is someone trapped? And more importantly, why doesn’t anyone care? Knocking is a sharp indictment of the gaslight culture and social stigma that work against those experiencing mental illness. Director Frida Kempff’s stunning visuals induce a dissonant sensation of physical disembodiment and feverish claustrophobia that mimics Molly’s deteriorating mental state. Cecilia Milocco exudes Molly’s vulnerability and strength in equal measures, spiraling in one moment before standing her ground the next. Knocking leaves you, just like Molly, questioning yourself until the very end. "

*†Mother Schmuckers
Sundance says: "Two low-down, rotten brothers named Issachar and Zabulon are starving and can’t seem to scrounge up a meal anywhere. Things only get worse when they lose the beloved dog belonging to their mom, Cashmere, who kicks them out of the family apartment until they return her nippy little January Jack. Things are going to get uncomfortably bizarre with these two dopes on the run in the ruthless urban jungle of Brussels. Filthy and yet oh-so-charming, the Belgian filmmaking duo of Harpo and Lenny Guit (who will likely never be confused with the other Belgian directing duo, the Dardenne brothers) are quite the Midnight discovery. Their madcap adventure goes gross Three Stooges. It’s sparkling with energy, lo-fi visual trickery, and the ingenuity to make every creative decision equal parts surprising and ridiculous. Mother Schmuckers is sure to offend some—hell, that’s the point—but it is destined to find cult comedy status."

Read The Stranger's review, "Mother Schmuckers Has a Special Kind of Taste," by Chase Burns.

*President
Sundance says:
"When Robert Mugabe was removed from power, Zimbabwe military leaders promised they would not seize control for themselves but would ensure democracy in a national election. Against a backdrop of economic crisis, food shortages, and political violence, the stakes could not be higher. Working to defeat the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF), which has controlled Zimbabwe since independence, is the young and charismatic Nelson Chamisa and the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance. After decades of a corrupt group clinging to power using any tool available—legal or not—can a free, fair, and transparent election be truly possible? Director Camilla Nielsson is in familiar territory with this follow-up to her wildly acclaimed documentary Democrats (2014), which followed the political battle to establish Zimbabwe’s first democratic constitution. Nielsson once again brings viewers into the heart of the struggle for power in a nation closely monitored by the entire world. President is a riveting and epic reminder that, while individuals and their specific ideals may differ, the fight for democracy is never-ending and universal."

*Rebel Hearts
Sundance says: "During the 1960s, a tight-knit group of progressive nuns in Hollywood discarded their habits and gleefully oversaw a radical women’s college grounded in social activism. Spearheaded by sisters Anita Caspary, Helen Kelley, and Corita Kent (also a renowned pop artist), Immaculate Heart College ensured women received degrees at an unprecedented rate and crested a tidal wave of social change that engulfed the nation. But as the nuns marched on Selma and transformed the education system, they incurred the wrath of the archbishop of Los Angeles and, with him, the church’s entrenched old guard. With a mixture of defiance and joy, Rebel Hearts reveals one of the biggest religious showdowns of the twentieth century, which pitted a delightfully noncomforming group of feminist nuns against a powerful patriarchy insistent on female subservience. Pedro Kos’s euphoric and essential documentary reveals a groundbreaking sisterhood that not only flipped the bird—politely—at the Catholic Church’s brazen misogyny but, through their teachings, fundamentally reshaped American society."


PREMIERING SATURDAY, JAN 30

These films will also available on-demand throughout the day on Monday, February 1.

TOP PICKS

*†A Glitch in The Matrix
Sundance says: "Rodney Ascher (Room 237, 2012 Sundance Film Festival) returns to the Festival with this fascinating and visually stimulating documentary examining simulation theory—the idea that this world we live in might not be entirely real. Simulation theory is as old as Plato’s Republic and as current as Elon Musk’s Twitter feed. A Glitch in the Matrix traces the idea's genesis over the years, from philosophical engagements by the ancient Greeks to modern explorations by Philip K. Dick, the Wachowskis, and leading scholars, game theorists, and enthusiasts. Ascher deftly parallels conversations with people who believe we're living in a computer with the purely digital nature of the film itself; all interviews were conducted via Skype, all reenactments were digitally animated, and archives are largely drawn from ’90s-era cyber thrillers and video games. The allure of narratives about dominating forces controlling our lives resonates powerfully with life on Earth. Amidst advancing waves of technology within today’s sophisticated digital culture, A Glitch in the Matrix explores the scientific possibility of simulation theory while interrogating it as a symptom of twenty-first century existential crises."

Read The Stranger's review, "Do Not Miss A Glitch in the Matrix, But Prepare to Be Disappointed," by Charles Mudede.

Passing
Sundance says: "Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), a refined, upper-class 1920s woman, finds breezy refuge from a hot summer day in the grand tearoom of New York City’s Drayton Hotel. Across the room, she spots a blond woman staring her down. Irene wants to steal away, but before she can, Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) rushes over to stop her. It turns out the two were in high school together, and while both are African American women who can “pass” as white, they have chosen to live on opposite sides of the color line. Now, their renewed acquaintance threatens them both. Passing is an elegant psychological thriller about obsession, repression, and the lies people tell themselves and others to protect their carefully constructed realities. In her debut feature, Rebecca Hall uses creamy, mesmerizing black-and-white cinematography and a deft directorial restraint to adapt Nella Larsen’s acclaimed 1929 Harlem Renaissance novel into an affecting experiential insight into the pursuit of happiness and authenticity by those navigating the grinding tensions of American racism."

Jasmyne Keimig adds: I haven't read the source material, but I'm interested to see if this film subverts the "tragic mulatta" trope or jumps headlong into it. Also Dev Hynes did the score, so maybe we should prepare ourselves to hear some lo-fi synthy sounds over a 1920s Harlem.

Read The Stranger's review, "I Wish Passing Were a Little Gayer" by Jasmyne Keimig.

*†Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street
Sundance says: "'Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?' Based on Michael Davis’s best-selling book of the same name, Marilyn Agrelo's film Street Gang explores how creator Joan Ganz Cooney, original series director Jon Stone, and legendary Muppets creator Jim Henson—among other key talents—joined forces to create a children's television show that would become a groundbreaking cultural phenomenon. Recognizing that kids were utterly captivated by television, these visionaries set out to harness the power of the medium for good—to offer learning rather than products to children. More than 50 years later, the show reaches over 150 countries around the world, continuing to entertain while it educates. Drawing on fantastic and funny behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with beloved cast members and crew, the film goes beyond the considerable nostalgic appeal of Sesame Street to tap into the enduring emotional resonance of the program's core message of affirmation and inclusion—and the promise of preparing the next generation to imagine a better world for us all."

Read The Stranger's review, "Street Gang, a Doc About Sesame Street, Might Be the Most Depressing Doc in Sundance," by Charles Mudede.

*†Wild Indian
Sundance says: "Makwa, a young Anishinaabe boy, has a rough life. He often appears at school with bruises he says he got falling down, but no one believes him. He and his only friend, Ted-O, like to escape by playing in the woods, until the day Makwa shockingly murders a schoolmate. After covering up the crime, the two boys go on to live very different lives. Now, as adult men, they must face the truth of what they have done and what they have become. In his feature debut, writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. (Shinaab and Shinaab, Part II, 2017 and 2019 Sundance Film Festivals) tells a story that spans centuries and the continent in a film destined to be a touchstone in Indigenous cinema. Leading an impressive cast, Michael Greyeyes delivers a gripping, enigmatic performance as a modern Native American man who has done terrible, unforgivable things. With a strong and compelling visual style that evokes both fascination and dread, Wild Indian considers the cost of survival in a world as cruel as our own."

Read The Stranger's review, "Wild Indian and the Violence We Keep," by Chase Hutchinson.

ALSO NOTEWORTHY

*Ailey
Sundance says: "Many know the name Alvin Ailey, but how many know the man? Ailey’s commitment to searching for truth in movement resulted in pioneering and enduring choreography that centers on African American experiences. Director Jamila Wignot’s resonant biography grants artful access to the elusive visionary who founded one of the world’s most renowned dance companies, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Wignot’s approach shares Ailey's love of poetry. Where Ailey conveyed poetry through movement, Wignot crafts a visual poetry to evoke Ailey’s memories. Archival footage, layered with audio recordings, expounds on Ailey’s upbringing and establishes the language of his inspiration. Interviews with celebrated company dancers and distinguished choreographers give insight into Ailey’s process and legacy, while the current company of dancers work to bring a tribute to life. Wignot’s portrait is complex, capturing the talent and confidence of a man in the spotlight while also carving out space for Ailey’s vulnerability. Wignot moves between the interior and exterior, the inhale and exhale, to capture Ailey’s reverberating impact."

*Eight for Silver
Sundance says: "In the late nineteenth century, brutal land baron Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) slaughters a Roma clan, unleashing a curse on his family and village. In the days that follow, the townspeople are plagued by nightmares, Seamus’s son Edward (Max Mackintosh) goes missing, and a boy is found murdered. The locals suspect a wild animal, but visiting pathologist John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) warns of a more sinister presence lurking in the woods. Writer-director Sean Ellis follows up his audience award–winning feature Metro Manila (World Cinema Audience Award, 2013 Sundance Film Festival) with this gruesome gothic spin on werewolf lore. Eight for Silver is a beautifully crafted period piece and a supremely effective horror tale. Moving from the creepy candlelit interiors of the family manor to the misty woods beyond, Ellis conjures a clammy atmosphere of doom and dread, punctuated by waking nightmares and sudden bursts of body horror. As Holbrook’s haunted hunter comes closer to his quarry, Eight for Silver takes an unflinching look at the monsters that lurk inside of men."

*El Planeta
Sundance says: "After her father’s death, Leo leaves her life as a fashion student in London and returns to her hometown of Gijón, Spain, where her mother is on the verge of eviction. The two scheme their next meal by selling personal items online and running up tabs based on extensive lies. Their impending misfortune does not stop the pair from dressing up in their best fur coats, heading to the mall to sample makeup, and buying cute shoes (as long as they are returnable). The grifting is delicious, and their familial bond over common tragedy strengthens as evident doom nears. Multitalented writer/director Amalia Ulman’s charming feature-length directorial debut blurs the line between fact and fiction—Ulman plays Leo and her real-life mother, Ale Ulman, plays Leo’s undeniably lovable mother. Borrowing heavily from Ulman’s lived experiences and inspired by the Spanish picaresque genre, El Planeta elegantly crafts a glimpse into the life of a family striving to survive in the post-2009 economic crisis and questioning who is entitled to a better life."

*†Ma Belle, My Beauty
Sundance says: "Newlywed musicians Bertie and Fred are adjusting to their new life in the beautiful countryside of France. It’s an easy transition for Fred, the son of French and Spanish parents, but New Orleans native Bertie grapples with a nagging depression that is affecting her singing. Lane—the quirky ex who disappeared from their three-way relationship years ago—suddenly shows up for a surprise visit, bringing new energy and baggage of her own. First-time feature filmmaker Marion Hill takes us on a tipsy, moody dive into polyamory that holds all of the gravity and complexity of sexual fluidity and triangulation, while maintaining the buoyant atmosphere of a hot summer adventure through the fields of Europe. Levitated by an intoxicating acoustic guitar soundtrack by Mahmoud Chouki, Ma Belle, My Beauty is a breezy and meaningful journey through wine-drenched candlelit dinners, firelit vineyard parties, farmers’ markets, and sunny hikes alongside the creek, as Fred, Bertie, and Lane grapple with how to get what they want inside the soup of their desires, passions, and life ambitions."

Read The Stranger's review, "Ma Belle, My Beauty Is the Queer, Poly Escape We Needed," by Jasmyne Keimig.

*The Sparks Brothers
Sundance says:
"Sparks is your favorite band’s favorite band, and soon to be yours too. Whether or not you’re aware of it, Sparks likely had a hand in something you’re fond of. This is a band that has been in the background of almost every art form across the last 50 years. Growing up in the ’60s, Los Angeles brothers Ron and Russell got by on a heavy diet of popcorn matinees and pop music until the spotlight of school talent shows illuminated their way on a musical journey that has so far spawned 25 studio albums. It should come as no surprise to those familiar with the mind behind such comedies as Baby Driver that Edgar Wright’s debut documentary, The Sparks Brothers, is an absolute delight. Wright’s spirited vision brings five decades of invention to life through nutty animations and interviews with a who’s who of cool, and by digging deeply into the band’s rich, career-spanning archival. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, this charming love letter to innovation, music, and two rebel artists just might make this the biggest year yet for the brothers named Sparks."

*Try Harder!
Sundance says: "At Lowell High School, the top public high school in San Francisco, the seniors are stressed out. As they prepare for the emotionally draining college application process, students are keenly aware of the intense competition for the few open spots in their dream colleges. They scrutinize how every element of their application, from their classes to their extracurricular activities to their racial identities, might be read by admission officers. At Lowell—where cool kids are nerds, nearly everyone has an amazing talent, and the majority of the student body is Asian American—the things that usually make a person stand out can feel not good enough, even commonplace. With humor and heart, director Debbie Lum takes us to the reality of the American college application process and the intersection of class, race, and educational opportunity as experienced by high school seniors living through it. Try Harder! is a portrait of young adults in the most diverse American generation ever as they navigate a quintessential rite of passage and make it their own."


PREMIERING SUNDAY, JAN 31

These films will also available on-demand throughout the day on Tuesday, February 2.

TOP PICKS

*First Date
Sundance says: "Mike, a high school kid with a crush, finally summons the courage to ask Kelsey out on a date. With a date but no wheels, Mike borrows money and gets duped into buying a clunker ’65 Chrysler. Although many a first date goes awry, Mike’s swiftly descends into a surreal misadventure that finds him inexplicably targeted by a pair of cops, a criminal gang, and a vengeful cat lady—with all roads leading to a showdown. First Date is a purely entertaining throwback, billed by newcomer directing duo Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp as a dark comedy and coming-of-age thriller (Superbad meets True Romance). As an ode to the bygone movies of the directors' youth, the film takes unexpected turns through a mishmash of genres without losing its way, deftly balancing tone and playfully reimagining the collision of teenage incorruptibility and real-world cynicism. Propelled by its fantastic lead, Tyson Brown, and the impressive cinematic instincts of Crosby and Knapp, First Date is an outstanding first feature."

Chase Burns adds: I spent my summers growing up in Lodi, California, which is near Valley Springs, California, which is where this film is set. Directors Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp have crafted a playful and fun teen film set in that often-overlooked corner of The Golden State. The press materials for this one suggest it's a genre mash-up, a little like "Superbad meets True Romance." We're excited to find out what that means.

*†Land
Sundance says: "When Edee’s life is tragically altered, she loses the ability to connect with the world and people she once knew. She retreats to a forest in the Rocky Mountains with a few supplies and leaves her old life behind indefinitely. The beauty of her new surroundings is undeniable yet quickly humbling as she struggles to adjust and prepare for the winter ahead. When Edee is caught on the brink of death, a local hunter and his family miraculously save her, but she alone must find a way to live again. Acclaimed actress Robin Wright returns to the Sundance Film Festival with her directorial debut, set in the picturesque but unforgiving wilds of nature. Wright stands out in her performance as Edee, a woman lost in grief, while Demián Bichir's subdued and charming presence depicts an unexpected and reflective companion who questions Edee’s abrupt choices. Land is a quiet yet masterful journey into the complex desire for solitude as a woman searches for meaning in the vast and harsh American wilderness."

Read The Stranger's review, "Land Forgets the Land It Stands On," by Chase Hutchinson.

*†Pleasure
Sundance says: "Newly arrived Swedish transplant Bella Cherry coyly announces to an airport immigration official that she’s come to Los Angeles for 'pleasure,' but upon her subsequent dive into the world of adult entertainment, she soon realizes it is clearly business. Though she warms to the friendly affirmations of the more seasoned girls, eager-but-green Bella relies on her instincts to navigate her experiences with predatory managers, male-dominated sets, and backbiting competitors. Writer-director Ninja Thyberg returns to the Sundance Film Festival with Pleasure, a feature that extends the exploration of her 2014 short. Thyberg cunningly ties audiences’ experiences to Bella’s as the daring, immersive Pleasure uses its explicit portrayal to expose rather than titillate, offering a no-holds-barred worker’s-eye view of the industry. Leading a cast mined from the adult entertainment world, first-time actress Sofia Kappel fearlessly embodies a character who constantly renegotiates and recrafts her persona—from fresh-faced newcomer to boundary-pushing fetish performer to, finally, ascending queen—as a means of asserting her agency."

The Stranger adds: This Swedish-Dutch-French coproduction from director Ninja Thyberg follows the character of Bella, a 20-year-old woman who moves from Sweden to LA to become the world's Next Big Porn Star. That sentence alone has us signing up to watch this feature from Thyberg (her first!), but the real-life porn star cast that rounds out the film (Kendra Spade, Dana DeArmond, Chris Cock, and Mark Spiegle) is what draws us in. Porn performers really know how to embody a role.

Read The Stranger's review, "Pleasure Is Boogie Nights for Gen Z," by Charles Mudede.

*Together Together
Sundance says: "When 26-year-old Anna becomes a gestational surrogate to a single, middle-aged app designer named Matt, she expects only a transactional bit of good karma and the payday that will allow her to finish her college degree. But as Matt’s unbridled enthusiasm for impending parenthood leads him to persistently insert himself into her life and invite her into his, the initially annoyed Anna finds herself reluctantly charmed. The pair of self-described loners gradually open up to each other, give in to the intimacy of their admittedly finite shared experience, and forge an unlikely friendship. Writer-director Nikole Beckwith (Stockholm, Pennsylvania, 2015 Sundance Film Festival) returns with a film that eschews rom-com conventions and subverts expectations of traditional gender dynamics—instead paying tribute to the deeply felt and regenerative power of platonic love. Featuring the boldly mismatched casting of comedy icon Ed Helms and sharp-tongued newcomer Patti Harrison, Together Together depicts the surrogacy process with melancholy and warmth, embedding a distinctively awkward humor within its palpable tenderness for these not-at-all hopeless loners."

The Stranger adds: Patti Harrison is a delightful weirdo, whom you may recognize as the bitchy secretary from Shrill. We hope that Together Together will give her enough space to show the world her talents, so she can officially launch into space and become a star.

ALSO NOTEWORTHY

*All Light, Everywhere
Sundance says: "The “observer effect” is a term used in physics to describe the process in which the act of observation disturbs the system that’s being observed. Humans are such observers—and we have our inherent limitations, biases, and blind spots that skew how we perceive and interpret. In his remarkable, kaleidoscopic essay film, Theo Anthony investigates the correlation between how we see things and the tools and practices involved in the act of seeing. All Light, Everywhere directs our gaze to some fascinating, often surprising connections among technology, weapons, and mechanics of motion, as well as the effect of those factors on the ways in which we construct our realities. Without being prescriptive or didactic, Anthony skillfully points out how politicized the act of seeing is and just how flawed our framing methods can be. The supposedly more objective machines aren’t quite the answer either, despite offering more detailed perspectives. They can be a reflection of power dynamics and biases too. So don’t let anyone fool you— see All Light, Everywhere. "

*Mayday
Sundance says: "An unusual storm is approaching, and it’s about to change everything for Ana (Grace Van Patten). After a short circuit at her workplace mysteriously transports her to an alternate world, she meets a crew of female soldiers caught in an endless war. Along a strange and rugged coastline, men face the stark truth lurking behind damsels who appear to be in distress. Under the leadership of Marsha (Mia Goth), Ana trains as a sharpshooter and discovers a newfound freedom in this uninhibited sisterhood. She soon senses she may not be the ruthless killer they expect, though, and time is running out for her to find a path home. Unafraid of pushing cinematic boundaries, writer-director Karen Cinorre stylishly blurs genres and draws us into the unique realm of her remarkable debut, where possibilities multiply and women take control of their own destinies. Both a feminist fever dream and an ambitious reimagining of a war film, Mayday detonates expectations to question where empowerment truly lies—and firmly brands Cinorre as a filmmaker on the rise."

My Name Is Pauli Murray
Sundance says: "It’s not often we’re introduced to a true luminary, and Pauli Murray was just that—as well as a lawyer, Black activist, feminist, poet, and priest. Murray questioned systems of oppression and conformity throughout the mid-twentieth century, with a radical vision consistently ahead of the times. Murray’s trailblazing legal foresight influenced landmark civil rights decisions and gender equality legislation that transformed our world. Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen (RBG, 2018 Sundance Film Festival) return to Sundance with an illuminating portrait of an inspiring leader. Murray’s writings, photographs, and audio recordings, along with newly discovered footage and interviews, interlace to tell the story of a pioneer with a tenacious spirit. West and Cohen balance numerous professional accomplishments with a window into Murray’s full and complex private life. Murray’s personal letters reveal years of grappling with and resisting gender categories, affectionate exchanges with loved ones, and confident and resolute demands for justice. Pauli Murray has a legacy far-reaching and deep. This is a name you won't soon forget."

Prisoners of the Ghostland
Sundance says: "In the treacherous frontier city of Samurai Town, a ruthless bank robber (Nicolas Cage) is sprung from jail by wealthy warlord The Governor (Bill Moseley), whose adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella) has gone missing. The Governor offers the prisoner his freedom in exchange for retrieving the runaway. Strapped into a leather suit that will self-destruct within five days, the bandit sets off on a journey to find the young woman—and his own path to redemption. Sion Sono’s delirious mash-up of Western, samurai, and postapocalyptic thriller is a sly spoof of the mythical hero’s journey. Cage, in one of his most unhinged performances to date, swaggers through a wasteland populated by fearsome gunslingers, lethal swordsmen, vengeful ghosts, and a deranged desert cult. Working from a gonzo script by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai, Sono orchestrates a large international cast through a kaleidoscope of upended exploitation tropes, balletic fight scenes, and audacious needle drops. Liberated from genre conventions, Prisoners of the Ghostland seems destined to conquer the midnight movie screens."

*Taming the Garden
Sundance says: "The opening shot of filmmaker Salomé Jashi’s striking environmental tale captures a tree as tall as a 15-story building floating on a barge across the vast Black Sea. Its destination lies within a garden countless miles away, privately owned by a wealthy and anonymous man whose passion resides in the removal, and subsequent replanting, of foreign trees into his own man-made Eden. With astonishing cinematic style,Taming the Garden tracks the surreal uprooting of ancient trees from their Georgian locales. With each removal, tensions flare between workers and villagers. Some see financial incentives—new roads, handsome fees—while others angrily mourn the loss of what was assumed an immovable monolith of their town’s collective history and memory. With a steady and shrewdly observant eye, Jashi documents a single man’s power over Earth’s natural gardens: how majestic living artifacts of a country’s identity can so effortlessly become uprooted by individuals with no connection to the nature they now claim as their own. "

*The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet
Sundance says: "Sebastian politely faces his neighbors, who complain about his dog’s cries, and similarly reacts to his employers, who forbid pets in the workplace. A series of peculiar and challenging moments like this follow as Sebastian changes jobs and reconnects with his mother. At one point, along with the new responsibility of being a father, Sebastian must contend with an unknown pandemic—one that requires the bizarre preventive measures of walking crouched down and wearing expensive bubble headgear. At times disaffected, at other times cautiously optimistic, “everyman” Sebastian shows surprising resilience through it all. Ana Katz returns to the Sundance Film Festival with a fable that is at once impressionistic and immediate. Her signature offbeat and sincere tone pervades The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet, shot with black-and-white film and illustrated. Rebelling against traditional plot and structure, Katz draws insight into what acceptance and humility look like in an increasingly chaotic world. The result is a bewitching work that “hits different” in these perplexing times."

*Users
Sundance says: "Acclaimed filmmaker Natalia Almada captures the ruthless locomotion of technology. Her camera flies with ferocious speed alongside jet streams, trains, trucks, and underwater cables that carry data at the speed of light. But just as her lens documents the power of frenetic human invention, so does it dive into technology’s greatest existential competitor: rising oceans, crackling fires, scorched mountain tops—a planet at war with so-called societal progress. In the center of this storm, Almada’s young son stares unquestioningly into his computer screen and is rocked to sleep by a seamlessly paced electronic crib. He’s soothed by forces outside of Almada’s—or, for that matter, any parent’s—influence. With transcendent camerawork that peers into the internal organs of a technologically dependent planet, Users both marvels at and fears for a world in which a child is not only at risk from a warming Earth but comes to trust a perfectly constructed artificial caretaker over his own biological mother."

*Violation
Sundance says: "Unhappily married Miriam and Caleb join Miriam’s somewhat-estranged sister Greta and husband Dylan at a lakeside cabin for a weekend of relaxation and reconciliation. Feeling spurned in attempts to connect with both Greta and Caleb, Miriam increasingly retreats to the easy comfort of her friendship with the affable Dylan. After a transgressive act of sexual violence, the film’s narrative vividly fractures, disorienting audiences while inextricably tying their experience to Miriam’s as she embarks on a vicious crusade of revenge. Beginning as an intimate, intense domestic drama, Violation explodes into a relentless illustration of the driving force and destructive power of even the most righteous of rage. Madeleine Sims-Fewer not only co-wrote, co-directed and co-produced Violation with Dusty Mancinelli but also delivers a committed, full-bodied performance as Miriam, a woman unalterably changed by her violation. With their brutal, perceptive film, Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli challenge us not to avert our eyes from the damage done."

*We're All Going to The World's Fair
Sundance says: "Late on a cold night somewhere in the U.S., teenage Casey sits alone in her attic bedroom, scrolling the internet under the glow-in-the-dark stars and black-light posters that blanket the ceiling. She has finally decided to take the World’s Fair Challenge, an online role-playing horror game, and embrace the uncertainty it promises. After the initiation, she documents the changes that may or may not be happening to her, adding her experiences to the shuffle of online clips available for the world to see. As she begins to lose herself between dream and reality, a mysterious figure reaches out, claiming to see something special in her uploads. This debut feature from writer-director Jane Schoenbrun is exactly the type of striking, singular work the NEXT section was created to showcase. Schoenbrun dives into deep emotional terrain, exploring themes of identity and isolation while skillfully building in online wormholes and creepypasta. This haunting contemporary work thrives as the audience stares into the eyes of lead actress Anna Cobb, who provides a captivating performance."


PREMIERING MONDAY, FEB 1

Also available on-demand on Wednesday, February 3.

TOP PICKS

Judas and The Black Messiah
Sundance says: "Fred Hampton’s cathartic words 'I am a revolutionary' became a rallying call in 1969. As chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Hampton demanded all power to the people and inspired a growing movement of solidarity, prompting the FBI to consider him a threat and to plant informant William O’Neal to infiltrate the party. Judas and the Black Messiah not only recounts Hampton’s legacy and the FBI’s conspiring but also gives equal footing to the man who became infamous for his betrayal—highlighting the systems of inequality and oppression that fed both of their roles. Director Shaka King returns to the Sundance Film Festival with an incredible cast of Sundance alums led by Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield. Kaluuya channels Hampton’s ability to energize and unite communities, while Stanfield taps into the anguish of a man with conflicting allegiances. Dominique Fishback also stands out in her reserved yet confronting performance as Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s life partner. King’s magnetic film carries themes that continue to resonate today and serves as a reminder of the potent power of the people."

*Night of the Kings
Sundance says: "Philippe Lacôte’s gripping second feature, Night of the Kings, has won acclaim at major festivals since premiering at the Venice International Film Festival. We’re thrilled to share his singular vision with Sundance audiences. A new arrival at Ivory Coast’s infamous MACA prison is quickly anointed the institution’s 'Roman'—a griot instructed to tell stories for the population at the command of reigning inmate king, the ailing Blackbeard. Roman must ascertain his place in the prison’s dangerously shifting inmate politics, embrace his inner Scheherazade, and weave a tale that will get them all through the night and stave off impending chaos. Night of the Kings is a bold, imaginative ode to the power of storytelling and a layered, compelling portrait of the complexities of life within the prison walls. Roman’s desperately woven tales cleverly embody the turmoil surrounding him, and Lacôte enhances their fantastical and dramatic effect by interjecting glorious cinematic depictions of the boy’s imaginings. The horde of listening prisoners transforms into a makeshift chorus, translating the tales into song and dance, intensifying the film’s enthralling effect."
Also available on-demand Wednesday, Feb 3


PREMIERING TUESDAY, FEB 2

Also available on-demand on Wednesday, February 3.

TOP PICKS

*Philly D.A.
Sundance says: "For 30 years, civil rights attorney Larry Krasner called out policies that caused Philadelphia to become one of the major cities in America with the most incarcerations. More than 75 times, he sued police officers who perpetuated corruption and brutality. This made him an unlikely candidate for district attorney, but in 2017 he launched an election campaign that promised to reform the system. Passionate in his beliefs, and buoyed by activists committed to ending mass incarceration, Krasner set out to revolutionize his city’s criminal justice system from the inside. Directors Ted Passon and Yoni Brook rigorously bring to life the people impacted and incensed by the failings of the system, as well as those fighting to maintain the status quo. Tracking an election with shocking turns and a first term full of unprecedented moves, Passon and Brook smartly keep Krasner as their fulcrum. But after establishing a truly radical platform, Philly D.A. asks, can this controversial figure actually implement meaningful change? The Sundance Film Festival is excited to showcase the first two episodes of this docuseries."

ALSO NOTEWORTHY

*Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir
Sundance says: "Literary titan Amy Tan analyzes her life, her work, and her family—in the present and past tense—in this longitudinal biopic directed by James Redford. As Tan traces her childhood through The Joy Luck Club and her later compositions, she dissects issues of representation, multigenerational trauma, and the stigma and challenge of illness. Forcefully matrilineal in focus, this film moves through generations of Tan’s family, revealing listening as the heart of Tan’s creative practice and contextualizing the patience with which Tan broke through barriers and waited on the other side, welcoming the world to join her. This, the late James Redford’s final film, epitomizes his filmmaking talent, treading with great empathy into the life story of another and leaving telltale signs of a directorial vision both crystalline and warm. Perfectly implementing the generative listening Tan highlights so deliberately, Redford is responsive and engaged in this dimensional portrait of one of the most important writers in contemporary fiction."

PANELS

TUESDAY, FEB 2

Our Right to Gaze: Models for BIPOC & LGBTQ+ Empowerment in Film
As part of Sundance Film Festival, Northwest Film Forum will host this live, interactive panel about "dismantling industry gatekeeping, disrupting independent film distribution, and empowering BIPOC/LGBTQ+ creators to tell their stories." NWFF Executive Director Vivian Hua, Eugene Sun Park of Chicago's Full Spectrum Features, and Curtis Caesar John of New York's Luminal Theater will serve as panelists, and they'll also discuss their touring short film collection and mentorship program, Our Right To Gaze: Black Film Identities, which will be available to stream on-demand via NWFF starting February 14.

JAN 28–FEB 3

Family Histories: Archival Explorations in Personal Documentary Filmmaking
As part of Sundance Film Festival, Northwest Film Forum will host this on-demand panel featuring filmmakers from around the country, including Seattle's Thérèse Heliczer, who will discuss "using archival footage to tell their own tale of upbringing."

JAN 31–FEB 3

Future-Minded: In Conversation w/ Peter Nicks (Homeroom) & Student Activist Cece Chan
As part of Sundance Film Festival, this on-demand panel from Northwest Film Forum will feature a conversation between Homeroom director Peter Nicks—whose festival film is "a tantalizing case study around public school systems that are not equipped to prepare youth for young adulthood"—and Seattle-area activist and Pacific Lutheran University student Cece Chan. They'll discuss the film as it relates to "local youth-led movements and the larger fight for equity."

FEB 1–3

Grantmakers in Film
As part of Sundance Film Festival, this on-demand panel from Northwest Film Forum will ask the question: "How are grantmakers around the country showing up for artists and filmmakers in a year of COVID-19?" NWFF Executive Director Vivian Hua will moderate a conversation featuring Seattle artist Lydia Boss, Sundance's Film Fund Manager for the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, and others.