A still from Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival wrapped up earlier this month and, like everything else since March of last year year, it was a different type of affair, done remotely and online. While festival-goers were not roaming the packed streets of snowy, cold Park City, there were still plenty of films to enjoy and through online chats, a healthy exchange of thoughts, too. After wading through 30 plus films -- some thrilling, some exhausting and some truly wacky --here’s a roundup of the best stuff i saw.

CODA

A still from CODA by Siân Heder, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

An acronym that stands for Children of Deaf Adults, CODA is also the title of a beautiful, funny, touching film that was maybe the best feature I saw all week and, ironically, was the first film screened. A remake of a French film, 2014’s La Famille Belier, it’s the story of Ruby Rossi, 17 years old and the only hearing member of a deaf family in Gloucester, MA. As such, she has been the conduit to the hearing world her entire life and now has to choose between remaining with her family and helping with their struggling fishing business or break out on her own to pursue a study of music. Director Sian Heder deftly handles the drama and humor with some real flair. Take for instance a scene where the family comes to Ruby’s concert. As the camera pulls back into the audience while she is singing, the sound suddenly goes off and we are given a taste of what a non hearing person must deal with in these situations: the father confused and looking around getting his reaction cues from the faces of other audience members. At times, the film is predictable but it’s done in such an honest way that you never feel cheated. The entire cast is exceptional with Emilia Jones, who plays Ruby, a sensational standout. The soundtrack, featuring among others, The Shaggs, The Clash and most significantly, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, is top notch. The film is a perfect compliment to Sound of Metal, a film revolving around hearing loss that came out earlier this year. Both are also a long overdue call for more prominent films that embrace stories about and involving the disabled. CODA most deservedly took home the US dramatic audience award, the US directing award and US dramatic Grand Jury Prize, and in a nod to the film’s humor, had the actor Troy Kotsur, who plays the father, in his acceptance speech sign “I’m Handless.”

On The Count of Three

Christopher Abbott and Jerrod Carmichael appear in On the Count of Three by Jerrod Carmichael, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Marshall Adams.

Actor and Comedian Jerrod Carmichael makes a strong, assured directorial debut with this dark, morbid, nihilistic and, yes, funny film about two friends spending the day deciding if they want to go through with a suicide pact. Akong with directing, Carmichael turns in a great feature performance alongside Christopher Abbott, who shines in every film he’s previously made. The supporting cast includes Tiffany Haddish, JB Smooth and Henry Winkler, all play off type wonderfully, The score by Owen Pallett matches the tenor of the film superbly. With a stellar screenplay, written by Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, (winning the Waldo Salt screenwriter award) and smooth, quick direction, the picture finds the right balance between the humor and such serious topics as race, mental illness and abuse that cut deep despite it’s light touch.

Judas and the Black Messiah

Glen Wilson

Shown as a special premiere ahead of its debut on HBO Max (streaming now), this is just one of a number of strong films this year that takes a look at events in the history of the civil rights struggle. It’s also one of the best. The film focuses on the surveillance and eventual killing, in December 1969, of Chairman Fred Hampton, the head of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, by FBI director J Edgar Hoover and his sinister Cointelpro program, using a car thief turned informant named Bill O’Neil. Director Shaka King imbues the film with a passion, energy and a look that fully immerses the audience in the period. All of this would make for a great film but what puts it over the top is the performances of the two leads. Daniel Kaluuya, making a strong case as one of the best actors working today, gives a magnetic portrayal as Hampton, eerily looking (he gained significant weight for the role) and sounding very much like the man. The scenes showing Hampton’s speeches are nothing short of electrifying. A fine actor in his own right, LaKeith Stanfield’ give a gloriously nuanced performance as Bill O’Neill who  vacillating between helping an organization he realizes cares little for him past the intel he brings, and one whose importance he is helping to destroy, while never accepting his culpability. It’s an important look at the past that resonates strongly here in the present.

John and the Hole

Charlie Shotwell appears in John and the Hole by Pascual Sisto, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Paul Özgür.

A dysfunctional family drama to say the least. Director Pascual Sisto along with Birdman screenwriter Nicolas Giacobone have fashioned a film that does not lend itself to easy interpretation. Young John turns his idyllic family setting into a nightmare when he drugs and then moves his parents and sister  a fine Michael C Hall, Jennifer Ehle and Taissa Farmiga) into the bottom of a deep underground pit in an attempt to lead life as an adult. It’s Charlie Shotwell as John, though, who stands out here, giving him a full range of emotions from wonderment and wickedness to vulnerability and damage. With a 4:3 aspect ratio that boxes the characters in, and a look of austerity that belies their complexities (French filmmaker Robert Bresson is an influence), it's a film where nothing is truly spelled out, right down to the conclusion.

Hive

Yllka Gashi appears in Hive by Blerta Basholli, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Alexander Bloom.

Winning the World Cinematic audience, directing and Grand Jury awards, Hive is the first film ever from Kosovo to play at the festival. It tells the true story of Fahrije Hoti who, after the war ended in 1999, made the decision to fight against that society's patriarchal and religious traditions by starting a business to make homemade ajvar, a roasted sauce made primary from red peppers that is a staple of the region. Enlisting other women from the village, she has to fight through insults, attacks and worse to create a flourishing female-run business that still stands today -- all the while dealing with the uncertainty of knowing the whereabouts of her husband who, like many men during the war, were taken away (and most killed) by the Serbian Army in an attempt at ethnic cleansing. Blerta Basholli, who graduated from NYU film school, then headed back to her native country, directs this with a very real and naturalistic element, employing handheld camera work and using non-actors from the town where it was shot. Yllka Gashi, a well known actress in Kosovo, is simply amazing and is deserving of more world recognition. Hive is a slow, quiet. thought-provoking and captivating film that hits hard and hopefully will get wider distribution.

One For the Road

Tor Thanapob and Ice Natara appear in One for the Road by Baz Poonpiriya, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Taking home the World Cinema Special Jury Award for Creative Vision, Thai director Baz Poonpiriya’s road movie, which was produced by Wong Kar Wai, had me very conflicted. I had a number of issues with it, most notably its length, pacing and structure. Still, this story of a road trip across Thailand between two estranged friends gave me all the feels, and stayed with me long after it had ended. NYC bar-owning-playboy Boss is called back home to drive his friend Aood, who is dying of cancer and wants to see some exes in order to make amends. One for the Road's themes touch on romance, humor, nostalgia, sadness, fantasy, resentment and ultimately forgiveness. You may want a drink after this -- it features some truly delicious looking cocktails.

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Sundance's Midnight Movie selections, always a festival favorite, did not disappoint this year.

Mother Schmuckers

Harpo Guit, Yannick Renier, and Maxi Delmelle appear in Mother Schmuckers by Lenny Guit and Harpo Guit, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Sylvestre Vannoorenberghe.

What do you get when you cross two nutjob Belgian filmmakers with a large dollop of John Waters and a nice sprinkling of Harmony Korine, not to mention a ton of other past great sleazemeisters? You get this outrageous, absurd, maniacal and twisted film. Writer/directors Lenny & Harpo Guit (named after Lenny Bruce and Harpo Marx, natch) go bonkers with this instant cult classic. What plot there is has two idiot crazy brothers wreaking havoc on the streets of Belgium as they search for their missing dog, as well as their prostitute mother. Mother Schmuckers has everything from a beastiality orgy scene to actor “how the hell did he end up in this film" Mathieu Amalric. It will have you either running for the aisles or laughing hysterically while picking your jaw up off the floor. I loved it!

Pleasure

Sofia Kappel appears in Pleasure by Ninja Thyberg, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Ninja Thyberg expanded her previous short film into this striking portrayal of a Swedish girl’s entry and journey through the US adult industry. This subject matter has been mined before, but Pleasure's approach to issues of patriarchal abuse, abandonment, friendship, identity, consent and control has rarely been seen with such style, laser focus and nary a shred of caricature. Using many real persons involved in the porn industry along with first time actress  Sofia Kappel (who is superb), Thyberg masterfully presents a film that is graphic, often frightening and entirely uncompromising.

Censor

Niamh Algar appears in Censor by Prano Bailey-Bond, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

This perfect midnight movie mindfuck centers around the Video Nasties scene in '80s England when Margaret Thatcher was in power. Violence was on the rise and cheap, extremely graphic and sometimes campy horror films (oh that fake blood was divine) that was coming into homes on the brand-new VHS format were being blamed for it. Enid, played with creepy glory by actress Niamh Algar, is a censor tasked with grading the films and often requiring cuts for home viewing. For her, protecting people is a way of coming to terms with losing her sister to an abduction for which she feels responsible. If you're a fan of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and films like The Evil Dead, Videodrome, Berberian Sound Studio or Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Censor is for you.

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Here are a few honorable feature mentions:

Jockey

A standard tale that has been told many times in different guises (think The Wrestler), Jockey  is lifted to greatness by long time supporting actor (“oh yeah that guy from that film”) Clinton Collins Jr. His stirring emotional tour de force lead role here was one of the best i’ve seen all year, and for which he won the US Dramatic Jury Award for Acting. Remarkable.

Marvelous and the Black Hole

Miya Cech and Rhea Perlman appear in Marvelous and the Black Hole by Kate Tsang, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Nanu Segal.

Kate Tsang’s emotional film about divorce, anger, resentment, magic and fantasy is the type of indie film just tailor-made for festivals but made all the better by the acting of a delightful Rhea Perlman and a knockout sparkplug turn by 14 year old Miya Cech who I'm sure we will be seeing much more of in the years to come.

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Documentaries

Besides the Summer of Soul and The Sparks Brothers, there were a few other docs that really stood out.

Flee

A still from Flee by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

This doc was the talk of the festival, winning the World Cinema Grand Jury Award and deserving of every praise it received. Jonas Poher Rasmussen directs this spellbinding, heartbreaking and harrowing true story of his friend Amin and his family’s gradual escape from Afghanistan as the Taliban seize control in the mid-'90s. It’s a tale that takes them to a corrupt ’80’s Russia after the fall of Communism ,and the lengths they go as refugees to find a safe life in other countries. It’s also a story of a boy’s awakening to his gay identity and having to hide it from political persecution as well as his family he fears will not accept him. Made all the more intriguing is that Flee is told in animation form so as to protect the lives of Amin and his family from danger even today. It’s stunning in its depictions of Amin’s loneliness, despair, present day guilt over choices made. and his struggle to overcome psychological scars in an attempt to love and trust his current partner. Neon, who released Parasite and I Tonya, snapped this up quick and hopefully will see a release later this year.

Misha and the Wolves

A still from Misha and the Wolves by Sam Hobkinson, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

An incredible "you just have to see it to believe it" documentary. Without giving too much away, at its heart this the story of Holocaust survivor Misha DeFonseca whose told tale was she was hidden away from the Nazi’s as a jewish chid in Belgium after her parents were deported. Taken in by a Catholic family, she runs away in an attempt to walk through the woods to Germany to find her parents, and Misha says she was protected along the way by packs of wild wolves. Director Sam Hobkinson handily uses archival footage, interviews and reenactments to wind its way through this remarkable story, twisting and turning through moments of compassion, conniving, Irresponsibility, fact, fiction, complicity, deception, self survival and what drives our motivations. It’s a doozy.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

A still from Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street by Marilyn Agrelo, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Luke Geissbühler.

Last but certainly not least is this delightful and poignant story of the creation of Sesame Street, one of the most loved, historically important and groundbreaking TV shows ever. Based on the book by Michael David and directed by Marilyn AgreloStreet Gang is a story of a group of bonafide geniuses who decided to hone the commercialism of TV at the time to appeal to and teach children of a young age. A show where television wasn’t used to sell you but to love you. The brainchild of Joan Ganz Cooney (whose importance to education and television could never be overstated) and psychologist Lloyd Morrisett, they created the Children’s Television Workshop with a grant from the US Education Dept in what today would equal $59 million. The rest as they say is history. The film highlights the work of many of those involved during the “golden age” of the show, including director and writer Jon Stone, Muppet puppeteers Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Caroll Spinney, musical composers Christopher Cerf and Joe Raposo, writer Norman Stiles as well as many of the cast. Beautifully put together featuring an absolute goldmine treasure trove of archival footage -- much of which had thought to be lost. Controversial aspects aren’t shied away from either, such as Matt Robinson’s (the original Gordon) exit from the show in despair after the character he created, the first black muppet Roosevelt Gordon, was removed due to complaints by African American parents who felt its depiction was enforcing the wrong stereotypes. There are heart wrenching moments as well, as when the cast talks about the episode where Big Bird has to be told about the death of the beloved Mr Hooper. It’s just a beautiful piece of work and one that reminds us that in these trying times filled with such animosity, we could all use a trip back down to the Street.