The 2021 Sundance Film Festival begins this week, and it’s been completely retooled as a one-of-a-kind experience under the pandemic. This translates into avatar parties, virtual cinema lobbies—oh, and movies.
Sure, few self-respecting filmmakers would choose to watch a week of great movies in their living room instead of on the big screen. But look at it this way: attending Sundance is expensive. From travel, buying warm clothes, and getting gouged on an Airbnb where grown adults share bunk beds, Sundance is by far the most expensive festival in the country.
This year, all the exclusive movies are available to anyone who can buy the ticket before it sells out. That means you, broke filmmaker who did not get into Sundance! (We’re not being callous; we’re commiserating. If you’re a filmmaker, getting rejected from Sundance is statistically inevitable.)
Another point of note: there are actual films playing on the big screen. This year’s festival includes "Satellite Screens" across the United States and Puerto Rico. So take a look.
Otherwise, you can expect that the virtual screenings will still very much feel like a normal screening. There is a virtual lobby while you wait for the film to start, there are filmmaker introductions, and there are questions with the cast and crew afterward. Important tip: you have to start the film on time to be able to participate in the Q&A.
Check out the full explanation from Sundance on exactly how to fest this year here.
So, to recap, the 2021 lineup is a super cocktail of different filmmaking styles crammed into a few days. Which ones should you see?
Here are some films that we at No Film School are very excited about!
Prisoners of the Ghostland
The always-innovative Sion Sono is at Sundance with his English-language debut, and it sounds brilliant. Sundance programmers describe it as a spoof on the hero's journey through a “delirious mash-up of Western, samurai, and post-apocalyptic thriller."
Nicolas Cage says it's the wildest film he's ever made. We can’t even imagine what that means.
In the Same Breath
A still from In The Same Breath by Nanfu Wang, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
As a filmmaker, Nanfu Wang is brave. She takes no sucker punches, and her opening night film compares the leader of China and the leader of America—and how their reactions to and handling of the pandemic were, to put it succinctly, royally f***ed.
Michael Greyeyes appears in Wild Indian by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Eli Born.
Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. first got on the No Film School radar with his Sundance short Shinaab. It was the best kind of short film—a visually poetic rumination that is short only in length. His deliberate filmmaking style leaves a big impression. (You can listen to Lyle on our NFS short filmmaker podcast from 2017 here.)
We couldn’t be more excited about his new feature film, starring Michael Greyeyes, Kate Bosworth, and Jesse Eisenberg. Sundance programmers describe it as “destined to be a touchstone in Indigenous cinema.”
Bring Your Own Brigade
A still from Bring Your Own Brigade by Lucy Walker, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Lucy Walker.
As a visionary non-fiction filmmaker, Lucy Walker has championed inventive styles and visual acuity in documentaries and has often incorporated how humans interact with their landscapes as central features of her storytelling.
Here, she investigates our relationship with fires, following the communities in Northern California that saw the destruction of the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire, predicting a serious reckoning with fire.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
Anna Cobb appears in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair by Jane Schoenbrun, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Daniel Patrick Carbone.
Long time weirdo film champion (and producer of the Eye Slicer) Jane Schoenbrun presents her debut, a glow-in-the-dark journey of a teenage girl embarking on an internet horror RPG. Sundance programmers describe this as “exactly the type of striking, singular work the NEXT section was created to showcase.” World’s Fair, it is!
A still from Rebel Hearts by Pedro Kos, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles.
This delightful premise from filmmaker Pedro Kos is also completely true: feminist Nuns take on the boys club at the Vatican.
Forget all the best Marvel match-ups, this is the one we want to see!
Kentucker Audley appears in Strawberry Mansion by Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Tyler Davis.
Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, having last made weird gorilla spoof Sylvio together (listen to the NFS interview about it here) combine their sensibilities yet again.
With Audley’s clever indie mumblecore background and Birney’s eccentric visual acumen, they present a film described as a ”playfully surreal romantic fantasy.”
Captains of Zaatari
A still from Captains of Zaatari by Ali El Arabi, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
We’ve never heard of anything like this! Filmmaker Ali El Arabi spent over five years living in a refugee camp to shoot this movie. And it looks cinematically stunning.
The footage in this film, which is all true despite its narrative look, could be poised to overtake many fabricated features in the fest for its cinematography.
Camaron Engels and Francesca Noel appear in R#J by Carey Williams, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Charles Murphy.
Smartphone Shakespeare! Filmmaker Carey Williams takes on Romeo and Juliet and tells the story through the lens of our phones, getting creative with language and color inside of mobile videos, social apps, and the internet.
From the Old Globe to Zefirrelli to the one with Leonardo DiCaprio, we're sure that nobody has done it like this before.
A Glitch in the Matrix
A still from A Glitch in the Matrix by Rodney Ascher, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Documentaries programmed in the midnight section have got to be out there. We think that is the case with this offering from the director who brought us the reality-questioning Room 237.
This time, Rodney Ascher asks us to consider this: what if we are living in a computer simulation?
To get tickets to these and a ton of other good films, check out the official 2021 Sundance Film Festival site.
And don’t forget to scan the Satellite Screens to see where just might be able to close your eyes, pretend it’s a normal year, and watch a movie on the big screen.
Header image of Nick Cassavetes and Nic Cage in Prisoners of the Ghostland by Sion Sono, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.