What You Are (and Aren’t) Missing at This Year’s Virtual Sundance Film Fest

Bouncing around the ”reimagined” fest is a satisfying experience, but the roster of films doesn’t quite stack up to the prepandemic era
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Organizers have been calling this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which started January 28 and runs through February 3, “reimagined.” But the truth is they didn’t reimagine it so much as brilliantly figure out how to distill and transmit many of the best parts of the annual Park City gathering virtually. With rock-solid streaming technology, a cavalcade of well-run panels, and the feeling that you can bounce around from one fascinating event to another without ever exhausting all that’s available (just like normal, in-the-flesh Sundance) this is the best COVID-era translation of a real world event I’ve encountered.

That said, the film roster is not quite up to the normal quality, and I really do miss donning snow boots, attending meatspace parties on Main Street, and having post-screening conversations on crowded shuttle buses. But consider that as I write this I’ve just left the screening of a brain-twisting fantasy film and entered “the Artist’s Lounge,” where a Zoom panel called “World-building towards 2030” is going on. For his background image, panelist Stacey Robinson, a professor at the University of Illinois, is displaying a colorful spiral of graphic art showing what he calls “the wind-faces of a brother and sister rising to an unknown beyond.”

Isn’t that what all creatives are facing right now, “an unknown beyond”?

“My work,” Robinson explains, “is about merging the visual aesthetics of black liberated futures…”

Academy Award-nominated director Yance Ford shares that “COVID is on a day-to-day basis a struggle with what life has become and the artist I need to be despite what life has become.”

In the chat: Kendra Ross, Ph.D. comments: “Yance—I am soooo picking up what you’re putting down!”

Me as well.

(The 2030 panel is being archived, so if this interests you, please search it out.)

â—Ťâ—Ťâ—Ť

Onto the movies…

So far the best of the films I’ve seen is Marvelous and the Black Hole, a comedic and charming coming-of-age tale with a never-better Rhea Perlman and the poised young actor Miya Cech. After my fiancée Sara and I recently rewatched Little Miss Sunshine, she asked why there aren’t more films like that. Well, Marvelous walks that line, innocent and profane. Cech’s character is surly, angry, and lost after her mother’s death, and she finds connection with a children’s party magician played by Perlman. Director Kate Tsang said in the Q&A after the premiere that growing up Asian American, this is the film she wished she could have had to help her through her own losses. Enjoyable for all ages.

One of the best things about Sundance are the films that act on the brain-like disturbance waves, breaking apart expectations of storytelling. This rare bird is called art, and Cryptozoo is the stuff. Would I normally give 95 minutes to a stream-of-unconsciousness animation that starts with a post-copulation hippy couple visiting a land of magical animals? Probably not, but how awesome to see a unicorn harpoon a man to death. And then for his girlfriend to smash the beast’s skull in and break off its horn. Characters are voiced in a dreamy mumblecore, and it all seems to take place in the imagination of an elderly woman named Joan who lives in a tower and who loved these creatures but realizes she has to free them. I needed this.

What I wish I hadn’t seen is a film I don’t think is worthy of Sundance’s hardcore adherence to standards of inclusiveness. Eight for Silver portrays “Gypsies” as exotic creatures capable of conjuring evil werewolves. The excuse is that Medieval, pasty-white English gentry deserve what the “Gypsies” dole out. This doesn’t make the stereotyping OK, and anyway, the movie’s plot is confusing and its soul empty.

Conversely, director Edgar Wright’s love letter of a documentary The Sparks Brothers, about the pop band Sparks is, in a word, awesome. More words: touching, inspiring, fun, infectious and made me favorite the brothers Mael on Spotify.

If what you’re seeking in a feature film is suicide fantasy misandrist porn with a heart then look no further than Mayday. Maybe that is your bag, and that’s fine. But me, as much as I love seeing Juliette Lewis in anything—and she’s great here in a supporting role—I’m just not that into watching perfectly nice young dudes getting mowed down even if some important lessons are learned in the end by the young women protagonists. Inglourious Basterds they were not. If Dorothy had gotten to Oz by sticking her head in a gas oven, would you have enjoyed the yellow brick road the same?

Seeking some fortifying inspiration, I virtually dashed to a virtual screening of genuine short documentaries. I found it in This is the Way We Rise, a moving portrait of native Hawaiian slam poet Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio, who rediscovers her will to write by attending a civil disobedience action against a developer. Completely different and equally elegant was Snowy, the story of a family’s journey to do right by its long-lived pet turtle.

I haven’t seen everything getting buzz, and look forward to Monday’s premiere of Judas and the Black Messiah and to catching Prisoners of the Ghostland. Quick thumbs up to Thai director Baz Poonpiriya’s One for the Road—think Cocktail meets The Fault in Our Stars. Also worthy is the doomsday comedy How It Ends, an impressive demonstration of what you can do if you’re a creative person locked down during the pandemic in Los Angeles and have a bunch of actor friends willing to come out to their driveways to do a scene.

What’s it all add up to? The usual indy-ish films with big stars and obvious commercial potential were mostly absent from Sundance 2021. This indicates that studios are still holding back until after the pandemic for various reasons. They either were not able to get films finished or did not think a virtual festival would build momentum to market a movie.

But that left room for an unusual number of supernatural science fiction and fantasy titles. And, TBH, a trip to another reality is pretty damn appealing in early 2021. Until producers can start up again fully, prepare yourself for some odd, occasionally amazing journeys.


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