USA TODAY International Edition
Who needs snow? Virtual lineup served many gems
Instead of roughing it in the cold and snow of Park City, Utah, to get to various screenings at the annual Sundance Film Festival, we ventured toward the couch to watch the best of what independent cinema has to offer in 2021. • Like the other big- time fests in Toronto, New York and elsewhere did in 2020, Sundance went virtual this year because of COVID- 19, but didn’t skimp on the cinematic goodness. This year’s event included the world premiere of high- profile awards- season contender “Judas and the Black Messiah”; projects with such stars as Tiffany Haddish, Tessa Thompson and Nicolas Cage; a ton of documentaries featuring the glam- rock duo Sparks; Hollywood legend Rita Moreno; “Black Woodstock” and a beloved children’s show; plus a social mediadriven update of Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet.” • Here are the best films we saw this year at Sundance, ranked:
10. ‘ Misha and the Wolves’
Sam Hobkinson’s immersive documentary is one heck of a rollercoaster ride of truth, imagination and storytelling, ultimately about what we will do to survive. Misha Defonseca has a tale that enraptures the entire world, about escaping Nazi occupation in her native Belgium and becoming part of a pack of wolves in the forest. Yet that’s just where the twists and turns begin. Hobkinson creates a narrative that’s part Holocaust film, part detective yarn, where you’re invested in every character.
9. ‘ Jockey’
Clifton Collins Jr. is fantastic as a fading horse rider in director Clint Bentley’s directorial debut. Jackson ( Collins) is a star jockey whose body is failing him as he gets older, but he’s stubbornly determined to have one last championship season as a new horse and a rookie rider ( Moisés Arias) claiming to be his son enter his life. Bentley’s father was a jockey, so there’s a personal touch, and “Jockey” navigates a number of sports- movie cliches to deliver quite the equine experience.
8. ‘ Together Together’
Ed Helms is an awkward delight and Patti Harrison is a snarky gem in the adorable comedy written and directed by Nikole Beckwith. Helms stars as a 40- something bachelor unlucky in love but who badly wants children, and he hires a young barista ( Harrison) to be his surrogate. They start as two strangers who can’t make it through a little bit of small talk and as the baby grows in her belly and they navigate the various pregnancy milestones, both discover they need this unexpected connection.
7. ‘ Judas and the Black Messiah’
Director Shaka King’s timely period drama functions as political thriller and historical vehicle, delving into the social unrest of the late 1960s with two very capable leads. Lakeith Stanfield is a Chicago criminal who avoids prison by becoming an FBI informant, and Daniel Kaluuya plays the target for his infiltration: Fred Hampton, the Black Panther Party chairman whose goal is to
form a Rainbow Coalition of disenfranchised people. Kaluuya is especially great as a revolutionary orator and complex leader deemed too dangerous to exist by the federal government.
6. ‘ Eight for Silver’
The werewolf tale gets a welcome refresh with writer/ director Sean Ellis’ freaky period piece. In the late 19th century, a cruel British land baron ( Alistair Petrie) orders the killing and torture of a traveling band of Romanians, and the slaughter results in a curse that lets loose a terrifying beast – and not just the usual furry creature we’ve seen before. Boyd Holbrook is the pathologist hired to investigate when the wealthy man’s boy vanishes in a gothic setting full of emotional depth and chilling body horror.
5. ‘ R# J’
Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” is retold through an iPhone lens, courtesy of co- writer/ director Carey Williams’ innovative film, which uses social media to craft its romantic drama starring Black and brown youths. The Montagues and Capulets are still feuding in fair Verona, and the Bard’s lines remain, but this time the romance between Romeo ( Camaron Engels) and Juliet ( Francesca Noel) is fostered through GIFfilled text messages and Spotify playlist exchanges when their relatives are fighting on Instagram Live videos. “R# J” takes the world’s most ubiquitous love story, makes it relevant again and even manages to create something new.
4. ‘ Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It’
We knew Moreno is a trailblazing icon; she’s also a blintz- loving, vibrant and impressively honest storyteller. Director Mariem Pérez Riera’s fascinating documentary chronicles the star’s life and work in a historical and influential context but is best when just winding Moreno up and letting her go. She tells of coming to America when she was 5, gets real about sexual assault and attempted suicide, and discusses her struggle to finally play a Latina onscreen. Moreno had to settle for “native” girl roles until Anita, her Oscar- winning character in “West Side Story,” became her role model “because I never had one.”
3. ‘ The Sparks Brothers’
The glam- rock band Sparks, brothers Ron and Russell Mael’s continually evolving group, receives an epic documentary treatment from director Edgar Wright. This isn’t “Behind the Music”: Using assorted animation styles and a flurry of famous faces such as Mike Myers, Beck and Jane Wiedlin, “Sparks Brothers” is a supremely cool look at the eccentric California siblings’ saga amid the ever- changing global music industry, being huge overseas but never in America, and what keeps them passionate and still together today.
2. ‘ CODA’
Written and directed by Siân Heder, the film is a sweet, inclusive and funny twist on the coming- of- age formula starring a fabulous Emilia Jones as Ruby, the only hearing member of a deaf Massachusetts fishing family. Ruby struggles to balance high school with commitments to her mom ( Marlee Matlin), dad ( Troy Kotsur) and headstrong big brother ( Daniel Durant). But joining the school choir – and working with a caring teacher ( comedian Eugenio Derbez, more restrained than usual) – shows her that singing is a passion she wants to explore and unlocks a new part of herself that’ll unleash all the tears.
1. ‘ Summer of Soul ( Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)’
Just imagine the magic of seeing a 19- year- old Stevie Wonder live, going to town on keyboard and drums in the rain, and that’s what Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson conjures in his directorial debut. Footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival shows a community coming together to celebrate Black art. Most noteworthy are the musical performances lost for 50 years, including Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples’ rendition of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”