(CNN)Boing. That’s the sound of the Sundance Film Festival becoming an Oscars springboard.
Sundance normally holds a bit of an odd position in the calendar, set in the middle of awards season but with a program content to wait it out for next year’s cycle. It’s helped cultivate the festival’s image as a space for cutting-edge American cinema, like a fashion house previewing its wares a season ahead of the rest (“oh, are you still discussing that old movie? Well, here’s what’s next”). But this year — one hopes for one year only — the festival’s position changed as the calendar shifted around it.
Due to the pandemic, the Academy Awards is now in April, qualification extending through February, meaning Sundance took on new allure for one gong-hungry distributor. Warner Bros. (CNN shares the same parent company, Warner Media) launched Shaka King’s Black Panther/FBI drama “Judas and the Black Messiah” to widespread acclaim. A title that was originally slated for 2020 and confusingly included in the National Board of Review’s list of last year’s top films, there’s every chance it will enter
awards contention alongside the likes of “Promising Young Woman,” “Never, Rarely, Sometime, Always” and “Dick Johnson Is Dead” — films that debuted at Sundance 12 months ago and have had to work hard to maintain momentum. That’s some shortcut.
Not that it could win here, premiering as it did out of competition. The jury including Julie Dash, Cynthia Erivo and Joshua Oppenheimer bestowed Grand Jury Prizes on Sîan Heder’s “CODA” (US dramatic), Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s “Summer of Soul” (US documentary), Blerta Basholli’s “Hive” (World cinema dramatic) and Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee” (World cinema documentary), with Audience Awards following suit in all but the last category, where Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s “Writing With Fire” triumphed. Stick a pin in that list for the months ahead.
Another virtual festival supplemented by drive-in screenings, organizers said they expected it would be the best-attended Sundance yet, with tickets starting at $15. The past year has been nothing if not disruptive, but the egalitarian direction it has pushed the festival circuit, not always known for its ease of access, is encouraging. Whether professional critic or simply a fan of film, we’re all bored of staring at our own fall walls by now; everyone should have the opportunity to escape into new cinema for a while.
Here are some highlights from the festival.
Thought there was nothing left to say in say in the coming-of-age genre? “CODA” begs to differ.
In Sîan Heder’s sophomore feature, an adaptation of French hit “La Famille Belie,” Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member in a family of four (CODA is short for children of deaf adults). A high school student by day and a deckhand on her father’s boat before dawn, she’s grown beyond her years, operating as the link between her family and the community of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Ironically enough her gift is her voice, and she follows a crush into a choir class … and you can guess what happens next.
The bones of the film are familiar, but hanging off its frame are some original muscles. A game cast lend real conviction to Heder’s winning screenplay, as Ruby’s talent flourishes and she’s forced to choose between her own path and “protecting” her loved ones. There’s laughs and emotional wallop aplenty, and a star-making turn from Jones (Eugenio Derbez has Ruby’s teacher is also a highlight). Feelgood filmmaking this pure of heart is hard to come by right now.
Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s documentary sold to multiple powerhouse distributors during the festival and an English version voiced by Riz Ahmed (“The Sound of Metal”) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (“Game of Thrones”) is to come. So expect to hear more about this account of a gay Afghan’s flight from home in the 1990s.
Amin (a pseudonym) is in his thirties, working in Denmark as a successful academic. But for years he has lived with secrets that, once spoken, threaten to dismantle his hard-won stability. As a boy he was forced to flee Kabul, and his journey west is as harrowing as you’d imagine, with more twists and incident than a Hollywood screenwriter would think believable. Like any good story, there are redrafts, Amin deceiving himself as much as the audience; he has been forced to live with lies for so long they have become a part of him. Some unravelling is to be done.
Animation from Sun Creative Studio doesn’t just provide anonymity to Amin, it conjures the past to stunning effect. Alongside rotoscope-style sequences, a whirlwind of suppressed memory emerges in scratchy, sketchy flashbacks, these shadows on a soul finding beautiful form.
“The Pink Cloud”
Iuli Gerbase’s “The Pink Cloud” might always be known as the film that predicted lockdown. It knows it too: the line “Any resemblance to facts is purely coincidental” flashes up at the start. Written in 2017 and shot in 2019, the Brazilian director has said lockdown was used as conceit to explore gender inequality in its many forms. Looking at what has happened this past year, it gives me no pleasure to note how right she was.
After hooking up the night before, Giovana (Renata des Lélis) and Yago (Eduardo Mendonça) awake to discover the titular cloud has descended. This malevolent whisp of candy floss will kill any human who goes outside within 10 seconds, forcing these strangers to play house for the foreseeable future. Which eventually puts own our lockdowns in perspective.
The foresight of Gerbase (also the screenwriter) is striking: online plumbing tutorials; the perils of video calling a parent; the thwarted rites of passage; the lack of protection for those most vulnerable. That said, the novelty of this image of the present, beamed in from the past, shouldn’t distract from its acute commentary on a more universal subject: the moments little and large that can cause a woman to lose her autonomy. A film set in a pandemic but not about one, its shelf-life will live on.
“Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”
If you’re missing live music, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is here to scratch that itch with his electric documentary “Summer of Soul.”
It’s the summer of 1969: man was on the moon, hippies descended on Woodstock and 300,000 people congregated in Mount Morris Park, New York for the Harlem Cultural Festival. A veritable who’s who of Black musical excellence from Nina Simone to B.B. King to Hugh Masekela graced the stage, and a crew was on hand to record everything. Only the tapes were lost. No longer.
Recovered from a basement after 50 years, Thompson presents these sublime performances alongside interviews with artists and speakers at the event. In a lovely touch, he also presents his subjects with the footage. They’re agog; stunned that this chapter of cultural history — the significance of which was known to everyone who was there, but lost on many who weren’t — was every bit as brilliant as they remembered it. “I knew I wasn’t crazy,” says one interviewee, “but now I know I’m not.”
An event long-dubbed “The Black Woodstock” has been unhelpfully circumscribed by the comparison. Now it has its film and takes a large step out of the other’s shadow.
“On the Count of Three”
Jerrod Carmichael’s provocative debut is a pitch-black comedy that runs the emotional gamut and asks audiences to hold on.
Staring the comic-turned-director as Val and Christopher Abbot as best friend Kevin, both bear the scars of abusive pasts. Believing they’re without options, they resolve to die after one last day of unfinished business. That means visiting ghosts from the past, possible murder and a lot of cruising in Val’s yellow 4×4.
Writers Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch build layers of dark humor, while the actors inject a feverish energy to proceedings. It feels like a cousin of the Safdie brothers’ recent output, and not just because Abbott, bleached hair and doleful eyes, recalls “Good Times'” deadbeat Connie (Robert Pattinson) in looks and recklessness.
But the stakes here are higher than anything the Safdies have pulled off so far. This is heavy subject matter and could — at best — come across as glib if handled clumsily. Credit then to Carmichael, who finds sufficient lyricism in direction and gravity in performance to prevent “On the Count of Three” pitching into nihilism. Credit also to Abbott for his quicksilver turn, displaying all the emotional acuity we’ve come to expect from the actor.
“In the Earth”
“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” Orson Welles may or may not have said that, but Ben Wheatley’s “Rebecca” was sure-fire proof that the sentiment rings true. Happily for us, the director returns to his small-scale roots with a delightfully sinister and deliriously effective spin on British folk horror, written in lockdown, filmed last summer and served to audiences before the corpse of his Netflix misfire has had the chance to go cold.
Set in the midst of a viral outbreak, “In the Earth” has shades of Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” in its premise, sending a scientist (Joel Fry) and a ranger (Ellora Torchia) into the countryside to investigate peculiar biological activity. Quickly — inevitably — they discover they’re not alone, and not everyone’s motivations are strictly academic. “People get a bit funny in the woods, sometimes,” one character warns.
Wheatley dispenses with the polish of his Du Maurier adaptation, getting down and dirty with his keen eye for grisly spectacle, augmented by some trippy sequences and a score from Clint Mansell that sows dread wherever it goes. We could do with less exposition, but this is an entertaining exorcising of demons and a return to the director’s “Kill List” best.
Ninja Thyberg’s searing debut takes aim at America’s adult film industry, peeling back the veneer of eroticism to find professional rivalries, coercive coworkers and patriarchal oppression. In some ways, the film says, it’s similar to any other job, but Thyberg is clear-eyed about the differences, offering notes on the topic of consent, the downward spiral into extreme acts and the for-profit violence meted out on women’s bodies.
Sofia Kappel as Linnéa, a 20-year-old Swede who moves to L.A. to pursue a career as Bella Cherry, delivers a fearless and committed performance. Paired with deft and unflinching direction, it dares you to disrespect it by looking away. Meanwhile, a supporting cast sourced from within adult entertainment provide an additional note of authenticity.
If “Pleasure” finds widespread distribution — and it is an if, this is explicit stuff — there will be no small amount of pearl-clutching on release. Originally destined for Cannes last year, we can only imagine the commotion it would have caused in that critical pressure cooker. Watching from home, it’s clear this thought-provoking film has a lot to say, if only one chooses to listen in good faith.
“The Sparks Brothers”
Director Edgar Wright’s foray into documentary was born of his love for cult band Sparks, but also the fact he kept having to explain to people just who they were.
Dubbed by one talking head “the best British group to ever come from America,” across six decades their itinerant sound has passed through rock, pop, disco and electro (with a sojourn into neoclassical) while remaining singularly… well, Sparks. Their dips in and out of popularity and their forward-looking, art-for-art’s-sake ethos has made them influential within the industry. In their seventies now, they’re on hand to look back through the albums, while there’s plenty of big names ready to appraise them, from Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers (once a supporting act) to Giorgio Moroder (producer of album “No.1 In Heaven”).
The central duo Ron and Russell Mael make for an affable but inscrutable pair, and despite a 135-minute profile with a dizzying array of interviewees, they leave with most of their mystique intact. Which, one suspects, suits them just fine.
The Sundance Film Festival concludes February 3.