Sundance Wrap-Up: Dispatches From A Virtual Festival

(Image Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival)

The pandemic being the endless nightmare that it is has forced many organizations to reconsider the way they operate. For the first time ever, Sundance was fully virtual. As someone who has always dreamed of attending but never had the money or resources to do so, going virtual presented me with the opportunity of a lifetime and I immediately scooped up a full pass. 

After all was said and done, I came away from the festival feeling both wonderfully fulfilled and pleasantly exhausted, with 22 films seen in just around 5 days. Exactly the experience I was hoping for. Sundance itself should be commended for their efforts, going above and beyond to make the experience as accessible as possible and providing the closest approximation to the festival as they could. From a phenomenal lineup of diverse films (16 out of the 22 films I saw were either directed or co-directed by women or nonbinary filmmakers) to Q&As, the festival was everything I hoped it would be. I left feeling more excited than ever about film and having discovered so many new filmmakers to keep an eye on. 

With so many films seen and even more that I just couldn't get to, the festival had it all and I wanted to touch on some of the stuff I loved, films that fell under-the-radar and a few of the award winners that I was able to see.


Far and away the best film I saw at the entire festival was Jessica Beshir's astonishing Faya Dayi. Playing in the World Documentary section, the film tells stories of Ethiopians and their existence under an oppressive regime, all connected by an addictive plant called Khat. A dreamlike odyssey, the film plays less like a documentary and more like a fiction narrative. Never cutting to talking heads or slides of information, the camera is like an unseen ghost gliding around, above and below its subjects, letting them tell their own stories. There's a moment in the film where you forget you're watching it. The camera hovers right behind a sleeping person with a sheer curtain hanging between them and the camera. Slowly, the camera pulls in and out, in and out, breathing with the person as they sleep. Before I knew what hit me, I too was breathing along with the person and the film with tears welling up in my eyes. I'm not at all a spiritual person but it's the closest I've ever come while watching a film. Beshir's vision is astonishing, like watching a new visual language being birthed onscreen. An absolute knockout about home and the things that bind us, even when we're worlds away. 

Another absolute stunner was visual artist Amalia Ulman's directorial debut El Planeta. Taking inspiration from a real life story about a mother/daughter team of grifters, we follow Leonor (Ulman) and her mother María (played by Ulman's real life mother Ale Ulman) and their adventures following the financial crisis in Spain. The once-wealthy pair are now destitute, living out their days in an apartment while still trying to play the part of the trendsetters they used to be. Ulman's style, heavily influenced by the laissez faire filmmaking of the French New Wave, is utterly delightful. Shot in gorgeous black and white and never really latching onto any particular narrative thread, the film is a lovely lark around the streets of Gijon, Spain. Ulman and her mother's natural relationship is a delight to watch, it's the kind that I've never quite seen depicted on film. What's most astonishing is that the pair had never acted before and yet both seem so effortless onscreen. Especially the elder Ulman. Looking and carrying herself like a certified Movie Star, she eats up every scene she's in. The only shame is that we don't have decades of her work to go explore. Amalia Ulman brings her own artistic sensibilities to the film as well, giving her characters some truly incredible costumes and framing each shot as if it were a photograph. Hers was maybe the most exciting discovery for me, the kind of filmmaker whose sensibilities just fit mine to a tee. Can't wait to see what she does next.

The most personal film I saw at Sundance was Jane Shoenbrun's We're All Going to the World's Fair. In the most deeply felt and unique look at gender dysphoria, Shoenbrun relates their own experiences profoundly by way of a frightening horror film. Centered on teenager Casey (played by the excellent Anna Cobb), we follow her as she documents her journey playing online role playing game The World's Fair. Shoenbrun captures such a specific kind of extremely online and lonely teen in ways I've never seen before. Lurking on weird corners of the internet, falling into Youtube rabbit holes, developing unhealthy parasocial relationships and having your life become more of a performance, the deeper you fall's remarkable. As Casey descends into the game, the lines between reality and fiction blur and her body begins to make less and less sense to her. Shoenbrun brilliantly leaves a lot of this up to your imagination but the feelings of dysphoria and trying to explain them as symptoms of the game are heartbreaking. A beautifully singular and poignant piece of art, all set to an evocative score from Alex G., We're All Going to the World's Fair is the kind of film that's going to mean the world to many, many people. Especially if you've ever sought solace in strangers behind a screen, something I'm sure will become increasingly relatable with each passing year. There's a shot in this film, a man holding his hand to a computer screen, head down in anguish that will live with me for as long as I live. 

The best horror film I saw at the festival was Prano Bailey-Bond's debut feature, Censor. A searing, blood-soaked commentary on the fallacy of what "protections" the Video Nasty ban provided and where Thatcher's UK directed its resources. This is an angry film full of contempt for the idea that media influences bad behavior and for the people who worked to hide art. So much so, that the spiraling lead, the titular Censor, Enid, blurs the lines between what or whom we're really being safeguarded from. Niamh Algar, as Enid, is sensational. It's not only that she's great at slowly losing herself into the dark pits of obsession and purpose, she is. It's her infusion of small, honest details that are remarkably lived-in. As someone with a bit of OCD, I found her decisions so spot on. It's never just the stereotypical tics that you usually see onscreen. Sometimes it's just picking at the same spot on your fingers or constantly readjusting your posture because you feel like you're going to jump out of your skin at all times. I've never seen those little details captured on film and not have the film call attention to it. It's incredible. There's so much that could be said about Bailey-Bond's excellent visual style or the shifting frame rates and perspectives but its commentary is what grabbed me the most. The face melting final 15 minutes are gleefully wild and descend into some of the sharpest satire I've seen on that time period. A bloody, thrilling treat. 


Playing out of competition were the North American premieres of films you'll undoubtedly be hearing about over the next year. Shaka King's Judas and the Black Messiah, is maybe the most uncompromisingly honest film I've seen about the Civil Rights Movement released by a major studio. Telling the story of the FBI's murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the betrayal of one of his closest lieutenants, William O'Neil (LaKeith Stanfield), the film is a freight train of emotions. King, taking a lot of inspiration from New Hollywood in his pacing and lack of sentimentality, delivers a gut punch of a film with some of the best performances of the entire festival. Kaluuya especially. Firmly cementing himself as the best of his generation, he gives what might be his most layered performance yet. Expressing all the rage and emotion of Fred Hampton while betraying a quiet shyness in his ever expressive eyes, Kaluuya is phenomenal in a film full of great performances. His chemistry with Dominque Fishback is key to the film's success. They're lovely together and at times you feel like you're watching one of the great romances unfurl before you. The two make you forget that this is a biopic. And one without a happy ending. Too many biopics make the mistake of making their subject a symbol. JatBM's Hampton is a living, breathing character and that's a testament to Kaluuya's earth shaking performance. You'll get to see this very soon as it premieres on HBO Max on February 12th. It's a devastating and infuriating film that, while never veering into sentimentality, carries Hampton's message of hope powerfully to a new generation. 

Mona Fastvold's The World to Come is equally devastating but for much different reasons. It's become a bit of a joke, especially on the ever-snarky film twitter, that the only Lesbian love stories told in film are weepy, period dramas starring white women. While that's not entirely true, it does seem that films that fall into that camp are the ones that take up the most oxygen. The World To Come may fit that mold in theory but that shouldn't stop you from seeing it. Set in an 1850s New York, the film tells of the relationship between Abagail (Katherine Waterston) and Tally (Vanessa Kirby) and how they navigate around their husbands and an oppressively patriarchal society. What makes this film so special is its unbelievable 16mm photography, otherworldly sound design and Daniel Blumberg's ethereal woodwind score. Watching the two fall for another is like a bright candle in a dark room, its warmth offering an embrace in the cold. Their magnetism is magical, crackling like the woods that surround them. It's an expressionistic tone poem, a map to the obscured women of the past, their voices finally given resonance. One of the best films I saw at the festival, it's the kind of sensuous feast that you'll never forget.   


I've been a fan of Carlson Young's for awhile now because of her excellent performance in the criminally underrated Scream tv series. When I saw she had a film that she'd written and directed premiering at the festival, I reserved my spot immediately. I was wholly unprepared for the bonkers descent into the mind that was The Blazing World. I'm always going to be in for filmmakers taking massive swings their first time up to bat and Young does that and more here. Playing a twin who recedes into her mind after reliving a past trauma involving her dead sister, Young's Margaret goes on a wild quest. On this quest she encounters colorful, demonic figures all in an attempt to reconcile said trauma. Young wears her giallo influences firmly on her sleeve but her visual sense is so singular to who she is. One of the most exciting things about Young is how thoughtful she is about why her palette is the way it is. During the Q&A she talked about how the more oxygen Margaret loses (she's being drowned in the real world by the personification of her depression) the more explosively colorful her inner world becomes. That's such an inventive way to portray that sort of thing and really makes me excited for anything she does going forward. Everything from the sets to the lighting to Margaret's costume (a pink dress and combat boots) made this film feel like it was made specifically for me. Between this and 2019's Braid from Mitzi Pierone, the future is bright for candy-colored, surrealist nightmares and I'm all for it.

Erin Vassilopoulos's Superior was the kind of film that I didn't even realize I was into until about half way through and here I am, sitting on the edge of my seat completely enrapt in the film before me. Another stunner shot on 16mm and co-written by one of the stars, Alessandra Mesa, the film follows Marian (Mesa) after she returns home to seek refuge at her twin sister Vivian's (Anamari Mesa) while outrunning a dark secret. Marian is the black sheep of the family having spent the last six years without talking to her sister. She's in a punk band, extremely flighty and lives her life on the edge. Vivian, on the other hand, is the prim and proper housewife, leading a monotonous existence with her milquetoast husband. Circumstances force the two to switch identities and what follows is the delirious kind of noir that snuck up on me in a big, bad way. I wasn't sure I was on the film's deadpan wavelength but as the sisters' identities begin to coalesce and swirl into one another, I felt myself almost fall into a trance. There were multiple moments where I genuinely had no idea which sister was whom and it made for a dizzying and thrilling experience. My favorite kind of films are ones that feel like a magic trick. Like you aren't entirely sure how they pulled one over on you. Vassilopoulos is a bonafide magician and Superior is pure magic.

As the pandemic marches along it was only natural that we'd begin to get the dreaded "COVID" movies. Of the ones that have been released, most have been remarkably tone deaf at worst or feeling too raw at best. When I read the plot synopsis for Iuli Gerbase's The Pink Cloud wherein a mysterious pink cloud envelops the world forcing it into a prolonged quarantine, I rolled my eyes and moved on. After seeing some praise for it, I caught a second screening of it and was stunned to find out from Gerbase's intro that she not only wrote the film well before COVID (2017) but she shot it before it as well (2019). It's stunning because she captures the dread, mundanity and yearning for an escape better than any film I've seen about this subject. And she did it without the benefit of knowing what we'd be living through. Her's is a sweeping, years long epic that takes place in one house as a couple (brand new when forced into lockdown) lives out an entire life together in the confines of their home. Calling to mind the gorgeous journeys of love and loss like Until the End of the World or Ema, the Pink Cloud is devastating. Leads Renata de Lélis and Eduardo Mendonça are incredible together. They act out the many stages of falling in and out of love, multiple times, with so much honesty and vulnerability. As the years go on, the rooms of the house change and the two fall for other people over screens or through windows. This is where Gerbase is at her best as a filmmaker. Even as our couple slips further into lockdown madness, you feel like you've traveled vast distances all because of how Gerbase shoots the rooms of the house. A single location travelogue of sorts. It's remarkable.


I wanted to briefly touch on the award winners that I was able to catch because it's likely you'll be hearing the most about these. Barring one, the majority didn't come together for me but for each one, you can absolutely see why they scooped up their hardware.

Sweeping both the US and World Dramatic sections were CODA (L) and Hive (R). Both films won the Jury and Audience prizes and while neither fully landed for me in any meaningful way, both fit a certain kind of mold that one would expect. Especially the former.

CODA (directed by Siân Heder) follows Ruby (Emilia Jones) as the only hearing member of an all deaf family. She works with her brother on her father's fishing boat but has dreams of breaking out of her small town to pursue her passion of singing. While lovely, the film hits all the beats of every coming-of-age film you've ever seen. It's a well worn path but Heder injects enough humanity to ground it, and I found myself tearing up multiple times. Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur are excellent as Ruby's parents, easily the most lived-in performances of the film. The two have terrific chemistry, are hysterical and provide the film with its most truth. This is doubly true for Matlin. Her mother, while clearly a loving one, constantly puts down her daughter's passion out of self preservation. It's a behavior I'm familiar with and while I don't share Ruby's experience, it's something I found deeply relatable. Picked up for a staggering $25 million by Apple TV+, CODA should be huge once it hits. It's the perfect kind of feel good story centering on a POV we rarely, if ever, see on film.

Hive is another story of perseverance albeit one with a much more naturalistic approach. Director Blerta Basholli spent ten years trying to make this wrenching true life tale of a woman in Kosovo who, after her husband disappears in war, creates her own business selling a red pepper spread called "ajvar." Ticking all the boxes of the kind of international weepy that scoops up awards, Hive never really got off the ground for me. It's a by-the-numbers film, inert for the majority of its run time. It's unfortunate because this story is one worth telling. Watching Fahrije persist against a violently misogynistic society to stake her claim should be thrilling. Basholli seems too focused on getting how sad this all is across that when the genuine moments of triumph come, they feel muted and without any real excitement. 

Winning the Innovator Award was director Dash Shaw and Animator Jane Samborski's Cryptozoo. Yet another "been here before" narrative (think Jurassic Park but with Cryptids), this animated feature thrilled me solely because of its animation. Samborski's style is astonishing, a painted feast for the eyes that will no doubt awe audiences now that Magnolia has picked it up. I found the film to be a bit tedious narratively and it never really transcends its breathtaking opening scene, a starry night coalescing and swirling into a white forest and two naked lovers stumbling upon the zoo. There's no denying Shaw and Samborski's wildly imaginative talent and this film, more than anything I saw, represents innovation. Looking forward to big things from this pair.

Rounding out the award winners that I caught is Jonas Poher Rasmussen's Flee which won the World Documentary Jury Prize. This film knocked me right on my ass with its exciting animation used to tell a harrowing real life story. Amin, ready to marry his longtime boyfriend, harbors a secret that's eaten at him his entire life. Finally ready to tell his story of escape and refuge, Amin sits down with Rasmussen and we're treated to a devastating journey of loss, bigotry and above all, hope. It's the kind of story you think you've seen variations of before but then levels you with one of the single most cathartic moments you'll ever see on film. It left me sobbing, it's that powerful. One of the best of the fest, Flee was acquired by Neon and as a studio very much doing all the right things at the moment, I'm hopeful that as many eyes as possible will be on it soon enough. It's incredible.

That was just a sampling of all I saw at this year's Sundance but I think it represents a fantastic cross-section of what it had to offer. The festival was everything I hoped it would be and so much more. I came away with a long list of new filmmakers to be excited about and quite a few new favorite films. (Seriously, whenever you can see Faya Dayi, get on it.) The camaraderie on social media was what made me happiest. Getting to watch and talk about all of these exciting new films with different people all over Twitter was a true joy and one of the highlights of this last year. Film is a great unifier and that was no more true than over the last week.

If I have one major takeaway, it's that pandemic or no pandemic, I think a virtual option is a must for these festivals going forward. It provides an accessible way for the rest of us who can't make it in person to join in on the excitement without having to break the bank on travel expenses. I hope it's something they consider. There are countless great film writers who, like me, experienced their first festival this year as well. Their voices are vital and I hope going forward that this change remains permanent. 

-Brandon Streussnig