Column: Attending my first Sundance Film Festival in PJs and slippers
The official logo for the 2021 Sundance Film Festival - courtesy of the Sundance Institute
It’s not everyday you get to attend one of the most prestigious festivals from the comfort of your own home. But in the wake of COVID-19 and the brutal reality that it’s not safe to gather in Park City, Utah (the usual home of the festival), the planners of the Sundance Film Festival (which took place January 28th through February 3rd) beamed over 70 new films - ranging from established filmmakers like Edgar Wright to directorial debuts from Ninja Thyberg - into the homes of festival goers across the globe. For once, everyone could attend Sundance simultaneously while staying in their PJs and slippers. You didn’t have to worry if there would be enough time to eat (though when you watch eight films in a day that can still prove challenging), stress about a screening selling out or coordinating how to get miles across the city in a matter of minutes. Like everything else in the world, Sundance looked vastly different, but that doesn’t mean the quality of content dipped.
In fact, Sian Header’s beautiful opening night film “Coda” was acquired by streamer Apple TV+ - after an intense bidding war with Amazon and Netflix - in a landmark, record setting deal worth north of $25 million (the previous record holder was “Palm Springs'' just last year, which recently earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture - Musical or Comedy).
Festival standouts include the aforementioned “Coda,” which follows an aspiring teenage singer navigating life as the only member of her family who can hear (Coda stands for “Child of Deaf Adults''). “Coda” walked away with Sundance’s top honors including the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize, which is the holy grail of festival awards. No word yet on Apple TV’s release plans, but they have a major, crowd-pleasing hit on their slate. Another must-see was Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee” - my personal favorite of the fest - an animated documentary that captured the story of Amin who immigrated from Afghanistan to Russia and eventually Denmark. Indie label NEON - who distributed 2020’s Best Picture winner “Parasite” - acquired the film after its rapturous opening night premiere.
Other buzzy titles include Ninja Thyberg’s “Pleasure,” a world drama that showcased the adult entertainment industry with a heightened sense of realism; Questlove’s award winning documentary surounding the 1969 Harlem culture fest: “Summer of Soul (Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised);” Sion Sono’s English langauge debut “Prisoners of the Ghostland” featuring an unhinged Nicolas Cage; Jerrod Carmichael’s “On The Count of Three,” a dark comedy where two best friends make a suicide pact; Edgar Wright’s witty “The Sparks Brothers” about the pop/rock duo Sparks; and Marilyn Agrelo’s “Street Gang: How We Got To Seasme Street,” an emotional documentary centered on the iconic children’s program.
Some of those titles already have distribution while others are currently looking. Part of the buzz around Sundance is how film buyers would gather in theater lobbies post screening and discuss pitch strategies because they saw a movie too good to resist. It’s where you heard about eleventh hour deals being hashed out over “Super Troopers,” “The Big Sick,” or “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” But in the wake of COVID-19 and the uncertainty around moviegoing in the future, those conversations are happening less and less with plenty of Sundance titles stuck in limbo.
Still, this year’s historic Sundance Film Festival offered optimism on a silver platter in that it provided access to folks around the globe who, in normal circumstances, would have missed the festival. I can only imagine what my younger self would have done having this festival at his fingertips. Little did he know, the impossible was just a few short years away.
Below are my top 10 films screened at Sundance (for the record, I viewed 35 titles).
FLEE - picked up by NEON
PLEASURE - still seeking distribution
CODA - picked up by APPLE TV+
THE SPARKS BROTHERS - still seeking distribution
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH - Warner Bros. releasing Feb 12th
ON THE COUNT OF THREE - still seeking distribution
MASS - still seeking distribution
COMING HOME IN THE DARK - still seeking distribution
SUMMER OF SOUL (OR WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED) - picked up by HULU/Searchlight/Disney
IN THE EARTH - picked up by NEON
Festival coverage can be found below
Day 1 - click here
Day 2 - click here
Day 3 - click here
Day 4 - click here
Judas and the Black Messiah - click here
Pleasure - click here
The Sparks Brothers - click here