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The 10 best movies from Sundance Film Festival 2021

Marlee Matlin in CODA
(Image credit: Apple)

Typically, the Sundance Film Festival would see thousands of journos, film industry figures, and punters descending on a snowy Park City, Utah to devour on a lovingly curated selection of independently spirited movies. With the Coronavirus pandemic still raging, that wasn’t the case for Sundance 2021, which went virtual for the first time in the festival’s 43-year history. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of films worth shouting about.

Sian Heder’s CODA was the big winner, scooping four awards (including top honours, the Grand Jury Prize), and there were new movies from the likes of Ben Wheatley (In The Earth), Edgar Wright (The Sparks Brothers), and Rebecca Hall (Passing). But where will they rank in the TF top 10? Scroll down to find out, and be sure not to miss these films when they hit UK cinemas

10. Captains Of Zaatari

Fawzi in Captains of Zaatari

(Image credit: Sundance)

The movie: War correspondent Ali El Arabi's documentary debut. Two teenage refugees living in the Za'atari camp in Jordan see professional football as a potential road out of poverty, and get their shot when they’re handpicked to play at a tournament in Doha.

Our reaction: El Arabi’s intimate portrait of a friendship forged in the harshest of circumstances doubles as a rousing underdog story, while offering a unique perspective on the Syrian crisis. A powerfully human, exquisitely photographed story of hope and opportunity.

9. Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

A still from Summer Of Soul

(Image credit: Sundance)

The movie: In 1969 the Harlem Cultural Festival showcased Black talent in free Sunday concerts at the Mount Morris Park – artists including Steve Wonder, BB King, Sly & The Family Stone and Gladys Knight belted out tunes to an appreciative audience – and footage of the event was recently discovered after sitting in a basement for the last 50 years.

Our reaction: Assembled now by Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson (the Roots drummer) along with chats with those who were there and Gogglebox-eque segments of performers raptly watching their gig for the first time, Summer Of Soul is a joyous and pertinent celebration of a largely forgotten event of cultural significance. 

8. John and the Hole

Charlie Shotwell in Charlie and the Hole

(Image credit: Sundance)

The movie: John (Charlie Shotwell, Captain Fantastic) is a seemingly normal 13-year-old boy with loving, well-off parents. But after finding an abandoned bunker in the woods near his house John inexplicably decides to throw his family (Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle, Taissa Farmiga) down the hole.

Our reaction: Home Alone meets We Need To Talk About Kevin in Pascual Sisto’s strikingly strange feature debut, written by Birdman scribe Nicolás Giacobone. Shotwell is superb as the confounding John, whose desire for independence manifests as something out of a Yorgos Lanthimos movie.

7. The Sparks Brothers

Ron And Russell Mael in The Sparks Brothers

(Image credit: MRC)

The movie: Edgar Wright directs this breezy pop-doc about “your favourite band’s favourite band” Sparks. A chronicle of their 50+ year odyssey, with input from famous fans and musical icons.

Our reaction: While there’s plenty here that followers of the famously enigmatic pair may be learning for the first time thanks to Wright’s exhaustive access, it’s a documentary that doubles as an accessible introduction to a band you may never have heard of. If you weren’t a fan before, you will be after.

Read our full review of The Sparks Brothers

6. Passing

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing

(Image credit: AUM Group)

The movie: Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larsen’s Harlem Renaissance novel is a stylish accomplishment. Rendered in B&W and 4:3 ratio, it follows Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), two light-skinned mixed-race childhood friends who cross paths while passing for White – for Irene a momentary convenience, but for Clare a way of life.

Our reaction: Both Thompson and Negga are captivating however the reluctance to tackle complex ideas initially touched on – the liminality of race, the complicity in advancing subjugation, what it means to be both voyeur and object – take some shine off Hall’s restrained, elegant direction and the stellar performances. It was bought for $16m by Netflix during the fest.

Read our full review of Passing.

5. CODA

Emilia Jones in CODA

(Image credit: Apple)

The movie: Ruby (Brit Emilia Jones) is a ‘Child Of Deaf Adults’ and her ability to hear in a hearing-impaired family has meant growing up as a translator for her parents and brother. Which was fine as a kid, but now she’s a teen and interested in singing and college, that expectation is something of millstone...

Our reaction: Sian Heder’s warm, moving crowd-pleaser won the Sundance audience award thanks to beguiling performances, humour (Ruby’s horny mum and dad are delightful) and a universal exploration of the push/pull of family. Set in picturesque Massachusetts, Ruby’s coming-of-age journey also plays out against the struggles of local fishermen to fight big business and a salute to the power of inspirational teachers in Eugenio Derbez’s salty music prof. Plus it’s a primer in creative insults in sign language.

4. Prisoners of the Ghostland

Nic Cage and Nick Cassavetes in Prisoners of the Ghostland

(Image credit: Sundance)

The movie: Japanese director Sion Sono’s gonzo East-meets-Western is a film so unhinged it makes star Nicolas Cage’s average output look like a regency drama. Cage stars as a notorious felon who’s sprung from prison to rescue a girl (Sofia Boutella) in exchange for his freedom. One catch: to stop him from absconding he’s rigged with explosives, and with the clock ticking his nuts are literally on the line…

Our reaction: While production and costume design owes a significant debt to Mad Max and Escape From New York, Sono’s singular vision is defiantly demented. It’s unabashed B-movie madness, and everyone involved is in on the joke, including Cage who’s usually the punchline. At one point he bellows the word ‘testicle’ in a manner that can only be described as life-changing. Really there’s only one word to describe it: nuts.

Read our full review of Prisoners of the Ghostland.

3. Pleasure

Sofia Kappel in Pleasure

(Image credit: Sundance)

The movie: Swede Sofia Kappel has never acted before and her first foray is this graphic, clear-eyed look at the ambition and grit needed to make it in the porn industry. She plays ingenue Bella Cherry, arriving in LA with stars in her eyes and discovering the grey areas of performance/abuse, sisterhood, patriarchal power and women pitted against each other.

Our reaction: Kappel is the only ‘civilian’ in a cast of adult stars and writer/director Ninja Thyberg isn’t coy about showing the meat and potatoes of porn – yet, manages to avoid grubbiness or a sense of exploitation. Bella discovering her personal agency is empowering despite the detail on butt plugs, nudity, shibari and erections. It’s Showgirls done right.

2. Flee

Amin in Flee

(Image credit: Neon)

The movie: Told primarily through animation and real recorded interviews, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s bold documentary feature is the true story of Amin Nawabi (not his real name) who endured unimaginable hardship while fleeing war-torn Afghanistan as a boy.

Our reaction: A suspenseful, profoundly moving refugee story that presents a complex portrait of a survivor fighting for their life and their identity. As with 2008’s Waltz With Bashir, the use of animation is far from a gimmick – it brings us closer to Amin than traditional talking heads ever could.

1. On The Count Of Three

On The Count Of Three

(Image credit: Sundance 2021)

The movie: Comedian Jerrod Carmichael’s feature debut is a blacker than black comedy about two depressed friends (Christopher Abbot and Carmichael himself) who form a suicide pact, and spend their last day tying up loose ends.

Our reaction: While the jokes about Papa Roach and the 2nd amendment elicit laughs, On The Count of Three is a dark film and not glib about its subject matter… It finds such tenderness and humour in desolation, it’s impossible to not be impressed.

Read our full review of On The Count Of Three

Jordan is the Community Editor at SFX and Total Film. When he isn't watching movies or sci-fi shows of questionable quality he's probably shooting men in space or counting down the days till the next Zelda comes out.