The Sundance Film Festival launches today, albeit virtually, and though it has hardly been the same the last two years, you have to give the festival credit for rolling with the punches. Everyone in the entertainment ecosystem has been forced to adapt to the whims of the pandemic, and Sundance is no different.
But you know what’s funny? My favorite film of last year, by a significant margin, was CODA, which I watched in the middle of the night on the couch in my living room, sobbing in the dark. Not only was CODA a Sundance movie, but it set the record for the highest-ever sale at the festival — $25 million to Apple. So don’t write Sundance’s obituary just yet. The festival still offers several exciting discoveries each year, and stars are made online these days anyway. Sundance may be virtual, but believe me, it feels very real to everyone with a credential, whether they’re reading reviews, writing reviews, or being mentioned in those reviews.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that streamers are as hungry for content as ever, and just as eager to establish relationships with young filmmakers on the rise. Plus, just like the good old days of all-night bidding wars in Park City, these buyers come with deep enough pockets to change lives overnight. In some ways, having a movie accepted into Sundance is like snagging a rare lottery ticket… but you still have to actually win the lottery.
Those holding decent numbers include Lena Dunham, who comes to Sundance with Sharp Stick, her first feature since her 2010 breakout Tiny Furniture; Cooper Raiff, whose sophomore feature Cha Cha Real Smooth boasts Dakota Johnson (also starring in the mental health drama Am I OK? from directors Stephanie Allyne and Tig Notaro); and Emerson grad Julian Higgins, who makes his feature debut with God’s Country, which stars Thandiwe Newton as a woman who pushes back against a series of micro-aggressions in her small town. The film features the striking work of up-and-coming DP Andrew Wheeler, who also shot the short film on which it’s based.
You should also keep an eye out, or rather, an ear open, for Nathan Halpern‘s work in the Aubrey Plaza movie Emily the Criminal as well as the Maika Monroe thriller Watcher from director Chloe Okuno and her co-writer Zack Ford. That one features scream queen Maika Monroe (It Follows, The Guest) as a young woman who moves into a new apartment with her fiancé only to be tormented by the feeling that she is being stalked by an unseen watcher in an adjacent building. Sounds creepy to me! Halpern previously composed the music for Catch the Fair One, Swallow, and The Rider, so he’s been a rising star in this field for a few years now.
There’s also writer-director Adamma Ebo, whose feature debut Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul stars Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall as a religious couple who set out to rebuild their congregation in the aftermath of a huge scandal. The film was also produced by Ebo’s sister, Adanne Ebo, so look for them to make waves at the fest.
The Ebo sisters are among a handful of female filmmakers looking to leave their mark on this festival, and that Mariama Diallo and Nikyatu Jusu. Diallo’s Master follows two Black women who begin to share disturbing experiences at a predominantly white college in New England, while Jusu’s horror-thriller Nanny follows a young immigrant caretaker (Anna Diop) who is forced to confront a hidden truth that threatens to shatter the life she’s building for herself in New York City.
Elsewhere, the Midnight movie Speak No Evil from Christian and Mads Tafdrup sounds promising. The film follows a Danish family who visits a Dutch family they met on vacation, but their idyllic weekend reunion unravels as the Danes try to stay polite in the face of increasing unpleasantness.
Of course, some of the highest-profile films enter the festival with distribution in place, as Amazon’s slate includes Emergency and Amy Poehler‘s documentary Lucy and Desi, while A24 is bringing Jesse Eisenberg‘s directorial debut When You Finish Saving the World and Kogonada‘s After Yang starring Colin Farrell. The latter film is a Toronto holdover, just as Neon is bringing its festival favorite The Worst Person in the World to help that film’s Oscar push. Elsewhere, Fox Searchlight already ordered Fresh, Krysten Ver Linden‘s highly-anticipated directorial debut Alice was picked up by Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions, and Showtime is screening the first two episodes of W. Kamau Bell‘s damning documentary We Need to Talk About Cosby, featuring impressive work by Editor Jeremy Lusk.
That’s one of several buzzy titles at this documentary-rich festival, which also offers the world premieres of Ramin Bahrani‘s 2nd Chance, about the controversial creator of the bulletproof vest; Downfall: The Case Against Boeing, which examines the company’s recent plane crashes; and Meg Smaker‘s Jihad Rehab, where terrorists are un-brainwashed, so to speak.
Sundance holds a special place in my heart, as I know it does for so many people whose work has screened at the festival, as well as those who have stood in lines — cold, tired, hungry — just for a chance to be part of that magical moment when a movie premieres for the very first time. It’s a damn shame that COVID has delayed the rebirth of this great festival, but at least we have social media to keep us connected during these challenging times.
Follow our coverage all week long on both Twitter and Instagram and stay tuned for interviews, reviews, and more from Virtual Sundance. Oh, and before I let you go, here are my top 10 most anticipated movies of the festival:
Jeff’s Top 10 Most Anticipated Movies of Sundance
1. Sharp Stick – Here’s the thing. Lena Dunham made Girls, so, yeah. She has earned my respect.
2. When You Finish Saving the World – Jesse Eisenberg is one of the smartest people I’ve ever interviewed. He’ll either knock it out of the park or end up being too damn smart for his own good. For now, he gets the benefit of the doubt.
3. Meet Me in the Bathroom – You had me at Interpol.
4. Cha Cha Real Smooth – This is the Dakota Johnson movie that I want to see, but mainly for Cooper Raiff as a bar mitzvah DJ.
5. Watcher – Maika Monroe in a genre movie? You have my attention.
6. Speak No Evil – This sounds like it could be really, really good. I hope I’m not overhyping it for my own sake. I hate being disappointed by my own unreasonable expectations.
7. Fresh – It was acquired by Fox Searchlight and co-stars Sebastian Stan, so it seems promising to me!
8. Emily the Criminal – Will this be another Ingrid Goes West-style indie breakout for Aubrey Plaza? The title is certainly intriguing…
9. Alice – This marks the directorial debut of writer Krysten Ver Linden, and I’m excited to see how this movie is different from something like Antebellum.
10. 892 – This is one of the final films featuring Michael K. Williams, so I wouldn’t dare miss it.