14 Movies To Get Excited About In 2021
From a hotly anticipated Fred Hampton biopic to a moving feature about a deaf family — these are the Sundance films you have to check out.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Produced by Ryan Coogler, the second feature from Shaka King is a formidable work of art. A late addition to the Sundance lineup, the film stars Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, the young chair of the Black Panther Party’s Illinois chapter, and Lakeith Stanfield as William O’Neal, the undercover FBI informant who joins the group and betrays them. Kaluuya carries a grounded gravitas and is nothing short of sensational in his tour de force portrayal of the charismatic activist. Meanwhile, Stanfield’s chameleonlike nature serves his frantic character well here; it’s hard to pin down where his head’s at as he scrambles to survive. Throw in a handful of other notable performances (courtesy of Dominique Fishback, Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders, Jesse Plemons, Algee Smith, and Martin Sheen, to name a few) and a frenetic free-jazz score, and the story becomes an even more intense experience.
The movie is clear in its messages and priorities. It’s critical of the FBI and the police. There are no white saviors. It’s rare to see these institutions and groups portrayed without sympathy or a lone “good egg” tossed in as a safety measure — and, honestly, it’s refreshing. King’s work is deeply affecting and potentially triggering, but not at all gratuitous, particularly in its handling of the film’s dreaded climax.
Some aspects of the film seem fair to critique: While Fishback embodies a valuable, quiet strength as Deborah Johnson, the significant contributions of women to the Black Panther Party could stand to be more apparent (something that King himself laments). And given Hampton’s young age — he was 21 when he was killed — 31-year-old Kaluuya might be deemed too mature for the role. Then again, it might be somewhat suitable since Black people can so often be robbed of their youth. Plus, after witnessing Kaluuya’s thrilling performance, it feels wrong to call for anyone to take his place. —Sandi Rankaduwa
Judas and the Black Messiah is being distributed by Warner Bros. and can be seen in theaters and on HBO Max on Feb. 12.
Sian Heder’s joyous, heartwarming film about the only hearing member of an otherwise all-deaf family swept the Sundance awards this year with the US Dramatic Directing Award, the US Dramatic Audience Award, and the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize.
Ruby (Emilia Jones), on the eve of her high school graduation, isn’t sure whether she can pursue an independent adulthood when her family relies on her so strongly. Not only is she their translator to the rest of the hearing world; she also helps her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant) with their fishing business every morning before school. When she spontaneously signs up for the school choir, it’s the rare opportunity for her to do something for only herself, something she dearly loves — but one that her family won’t ever be able to truly experience or understand.
The film almost feels like an after-school special in its earnest, quite on-the-nose premise, down to its tough love–doling choir director (Eugenio Derbez), but an easy-breezy script and truly wonderful performances elevate it to something special. (Heder’s also fully aware of the obviousness: “If I was blind, would you have wanted to be a painter?” Ruby’s mom jokes at one point.) Heder wanted to tell this story authentically, with deaf actors. It’s hard to imagine CODA, which stands for “child of deaf adults,” working as well, or even at all, without Matlin, Kotsur, and Troy, who infuse their idiosyncratic family dynamics with authentic tension, hilarity, joy, and love. I cried with happiness at the end, which in the heart of a pandemic winter is all you can really ask for. —Shannon Keating
Apple TV+ snapped up CODA’s worldwide rights in a deal that was over $25 million, the biggest Sundance acquisition in history.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It
There’s a lot to admire about Rita Moreno, the 89-year-old Puerto Rican actor whose career has spanned more than 70 years and resulted in legendary projects like West Side Story, Singin’ in the Rain, The King and I, and One Day at a Time. Beyond Moreno’s successful career, which has earned her EGOT status, is a long and difficult journey. Director Mariem Pérez Riera depicts Moreno at this late stage of her life when she’s willing to be candid about her experiences in the entertainment industry and her personal life.
From being typecast in Hollywood to being sexually assaulted and harassed by entertainment executives, Moreno describes the hardships on her road to ultimately breaking down barriers for women and people of color in the film industry. When it comes to her personal life, Moreno details her on-again, off-again toxic relationship with Marlon Brando, and how at the end of their seven years together she attempted suicide. She also talks about her 45-year marriage to Leonard Gordon — whom she had a daughter with and stayed with until he died — and how it was more of an unhappy and controlling relationship than it seemed to the public.
The documentary includes interviews with Norman Lear, Eva Longoria, Justina Machado, Lin Manuel-Miranda, and Gloria Estefan, among others. It also shows Moreno receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, being honored at the Kennedy Center, and being given a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. As portrayed in this thorough and powerful documentary, Moreno’s story is about overcoming difficulties through resilience and relishing in her triumphs at a time in her life when she’s more than deserving to enjoy them. —K.Y.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is currently seeking US distribution.
On the Count of Three
Jerrod Carmichael’s extraordinary debut feature, about two friends who decide their only way to escape their existential malaise and misery is with a double suicide, absolutely blew me away — especially when I learned that Carmichael not only directed but costars in the film.
Carmichael is Val, a young Black man with a dead-end job and not much will to live. After failing to die alone, he teams up with his white best friend Kevin (Christopher Abbott, Marnie’s first and best boyfriend on Girls) to complete his wish. The first step: breaking Kevin out of the mental hospital. He’s been depressed, drugged, and institutionalized for most of his life; Kevin doesn’t think there’s anything more that the medical profession can do to help him now, so he’s game to go out swinging with someone he loves.
But first, Val and Kevin have some time to kill. On the Count of Three follows these two young men’s strange, painful, and hilarious journey on their last day earthside — a kind of “bonus day,” since they’ve already decided they both want to die — as they plumb the murky depths of their pasts and consider everything that isn’t waiting for them in their futures.
Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch’s script, which won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance, is smart and acerbic and funny and so, so sad. Carmichael and Abbott bring it to life with crackling chemistry; I wanted to befriend both of them, to hug them, and to tell them I felt it all too. —S.K.
On the Count of Three is currently seeking US distribution.
Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Over the course of six weeks in summer 1969, a host of iconic musicians performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival in Mount Morris Park. Nina Simone, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and other Black artists sang in front of packed crowds at a time when social and political change was sweeping the nation. The footage of the festival has never been seen before.
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson created the music documentary, his directorial debut, with footage that had been sitting in a basement for 50 years. “[Woodstock] got all of the publicity,” cameraperson Hal Tulchin said, referring to the music festival that took place the same summer, “so I tried calling it ‘the Black Woodstock,’ but nobody cared about Harlem. Nobody was interested.”
The film depicts an audience of hundreds of thousands of people who witnessed live performances from legendary Black artists as well as appearances from activists and politicians like Jesse Jackson. But the documentary is about much more than the music itself. Summer of Soul shows the role that music played in motivating social change during a unique time in American history, after Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Malcolm X were all killed. The film also shows how these artists spoke to Black people living in America in a way that other music didn’t and recontextualizes a time period in American history that has typically been told through the lens of white musicians and activists. It provides a fresh perspective on an important piece of pop culture that hasn't been discussed enough. —K.Y.
Summer of Soul has been acquired by Hulu and Searchlight Pictures and will be released theatrically as well as streaming.
Winner of Sundance’s Jury Prize for Best Actor, Clifton Collins Jr. gives a moving, career-topping performance in this Clint Bentley film. This gorgeously understated, immersive drama tells the story of Jackson, a laconic, seasoned horse jockey (Collins Jr.). He’s on his last leg and gearing up for one final championship with the help of his longtime trainer (the consistently wonderful Molly Parker). But when a rookie rider (Moises Arias) shows up claiming to be his son, Jackson starts to reckon with and reevaluate his path. That the story’s backdrop seems to exist perpetually in the moments before sundown isn’t just visually appealing (love me some golden hour), but perhaps it’s a metaphor for the existential themes hovering over Jackson.
Bentley is well poised to bring us into this world; his dad was a jockey, and Bentley, who cowrote the screenplay with Greg Kwedar, followed him along the circuit as a child. Maybe that’s why Jockey feels distinct from other equestrian movies, providing a glimpse into the poetry of horse racing as well as the intense wear and tear it inflicts on the riders’ bodies. Shot on a working racetrack, and featuring real jockeys and track workers, the movie has a clear sense of authenticity infused into each scene.
Jockey’s gentle, unassuming nature could mean it will slip between the cracks, despite its stellar, sensitive performances. But its early acquisition by Sony Pictures Classics suggests it just might find a sizable audience, and hopefully so. It’s a film — and a world — that deserves to be seen. —S.R.
Jockey will be distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Writer-director Nikole Beckwith’s second feature could have been spit out of a quirky-Sundance-plot generator: 26-year-old Anna (Patti Harrison) becomes a gestational surrogate to a middle-aged straight guy named Matt (Ed Helms) who’s tired of waiting to start his family. Anna thinks she’s going to pocket some cash and earn some good karma, but we all know she’s in for much more than that!
Despite its almost parodical premise — which says middlebrow indie dramedy more than “relatively low-stakes IVF hijinks” — Together Together has enough going for it to bear mentioning here. Harrison’s relatively new to the big screen, but fans know the comic for her television roles as well as her gloriously unhinged Instagram account. She brings a milder sense of humor to the role (though no less enjoyably so) as a young woman who, after placing a baby for adoption as a teenager, has struggled to find out who she is and where she fits. She’s surprised that it’s Matt, a well-meaning, goofy, overzealous guy, with whom she finds a sort of family. Subverting rom-com tropes, Beckwith paints a charming portrait of this odd-couple friendship. —S.K.
Ninja Thyberg’s feature debut — a follow-up to her Cannes-selected short film of the same name — is not for the faint of heart. Pretty much guaranteed an NC-17 rating, it has graphic sex scenes and extensive nudity, both female and male (i.e., erect dicks galore). But beyond the explicit visuals and subject matter, there’s a deeper commentary on the nature and nuances of the porn industry. Every role outside of the lead is held by actual workers in the porn industry, adding another innovative layer of realism to the work. Meanwhile, newcomer Sofia Kappel — whose first-ever audition was for this role — is a revelation as the film’s hero.
Pleasure follows 19-year-old Bella (Kappel) as she moves from her hometown in Sweden to LA to work in adult films. We see Bella attempt to work her way to the top of the industry, all while navigating confusing and compromising situations, bouncing between the murkiness of consent versus coercion. It becomes clear that sex work is like any other job, equally subject to the pitfalls of a patriarchal system. (Interestingly, a BDSM shoot crewed and directed by women is one of the more empowering and safe environments seen in the film; this feels intentional.)
The movie has moments of levity and softness, and there’s a sweetness to Bella’s budding friendship with housemate Joy (Revika Anne Reustle). When it comes to the film’s sex scenes, they’re plot-moving and perfunctory — never titillating. Still, a fair warning: One particular scene is so violent and disturbing, I almost tapped out; I don’t think I’ll be watching this film again. But it’s nevertheless one of the most daring, standout movies I’ve seen in a while. Does that constitute pleasure? —S.R.
Pleasure will be distributed in Sweden via SF Studios with a tentative release date of March 28. The film is currently seeking US distribution.
Marvelous and the Black Hole
When viewers meet 13-year-old Sammy (Miya Cech), she’s going through a lot. Mourning the death of her mother, she is struggling in school and has a tense relationship with her father, Angus (Leonardo Nam), and sister.
After getting into trouble at school for vandalizing a bathroom, Angus gives his daughter an ultimatum: She has to pass a summer class focusing on entrepreneurship, or she will be forced to go to boarding school. While she reluctantly attends, Sammy runs into Margot (Rhea Perlman), an eccentric magician whom she convinces to hire as her assistant. Their unlikely friendship and adventures together help Sammy cope with the loss of her mother.
Filmmaker Kate Tsang’s creative coming-of-age movie accurately portrays the angst of feeling like a misunderstood teen as well as the power of healing, imagination, and forgiveness. —K.Y.
Marvelous and the Black Hole is currently seeking US distribution.
How It Ends
Writer-directors Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones are among the many filmmakers drawn to the apocalypse this year. Lister-Jones stars as Liza, who’s been invited to one last great blowout party before an asteroid obliterates the planet. Suddenly metaphysical in these strange final hours of humanity, she’s accompanied by a version of her younger self (Cailee Spaeny); they make for an extremely adorable duo who succeeded in thoroughly charming me and breaking my heart.
Liza, wandering around Los Angeles, stumbles upon an extraordinary cast of characters living it up in their own final hours, played by everyone from Fred Armisen and Nick Kroll to Helen Hunt and Olivia Wilde. The film’s “optimistic nihilism,” as it’s described on Sundance’s promotional materials, makes it feel like a sister to last year’s festival hit Palm Springs, the most expensive Sundance buy before CODA. Apocalypse and death, but make it fun! And you know what? It works. —S.K.
How It Ends is currently seeking US distribution.
Captains of Zaatari
Director Ali el-Arabi’s heartfelt documentary debut goes beyond being just a soccer-based spin on Hoop Dreams. Filmed in a verité style over six years, it’s a moving story of best friends Mahmoud and Fawzi, two Syrian teens who are confined to a refugee camp in northern Jordan but dream of playing soccer professionally. They get the opportunity of a lifetime when a scout travels to the camp, looking to bring promising players to Qatar to train at a sports academy. We see how the “refugee” label plagues them; it imposes physical and legal restrictions on them but also affects how they are perceived by the world. When they (spoiler alert) have the chance to leave the camp grounds, one of them declares, “We’ve become important!”
There’s a marked intimacy and vulnerability between Mahmoud and Fawzi, and Arabi has managed to not only capture that but also present it in a way that’s arresting and aesthetically pleasing. The composition of his shots is beautiful, and the editing of the narrative so conscientious, that it could easily be mistaken for a (well-written) scripted film. Indeed, with the movie’s tight 73-minute runtime, every moment seems to serve a purpose; even minor plot points scattered throughout are addressed by the time the credits roll. In the end, though, Captains of Zaatari is most impressive in its deeply humane and tender portrayal of these two vibrant young men — a gem of an underdog story that argues for their potential, never for pity. —S.R.
Captains of Zaatari has been acquired by London-based sales agent Dogwoof.
Being a teenage girl has never been easy. Cusp, a documentary directed by Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill, captures adolescence’s unique travails. The film follows three friends, Brittney, Aaloni, and Autumn, over the course of a summer during high school in a small Texas town.
“There is no normal. We’re all confused,” one of the subjects says in the first few minutes of the documentary. “I don't know how to describe me. I’m not an adult yet, but I’m not a kid anymore.”
The girls spend their summer smoking weed and drinking beer with friends, hanging out in McDonald’s parking lots, and one of them even pierces another’s nipple in their bedroom. But as casually as the young women take part in typical teenage shenanigans, they also weigh their more heartbreaking hardships. Autumn openly discusses how her mom’s friend molested her when she was younger and how her ex-boyfriend forced her to have sex for the first time. Brittney mentions that she’s felt pressured to have sex with men, and two of the girls talk about one of their friends who was raped by their boyfriend.
While navigating these awful realities, they’re all still able to share moments of joy, fun, and trust with each other. Their friendships are essential in that way.
“I’m scared of what happens next,” one of them says at the end of the documentary, when the young women are on their way to their first day of school after the summer is over. “I’m only 16. I have forever to go.” —K.Y.
Cusp is currently seeking US distribution.
In the Earth
One of the festival’s more timely offerings follows a doctor’s mission to a test site deep in the forest amid (you guessed it) the worldwide spread of a deadly virus. But that loose premise is actually a bit of a red herring. Though we meet Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) in an all-too-familiar setting replete with masks, hand sanitizer, and rapid testing, whatever’s going on in the rest of the world quickly falls away as Martin and his park ranger guide Alma (Ellora Torchia) take off for the test site. Their first night camping, Martin and Alma are attacked and robbed. So when they come upon an off-the-grid woods dweller named Zach (Reece Shearsmith), who offers them new shoes and a bite to eat, they gratefully accept.
You can probably guess that Zach is not a kindly stranger who will send Martin and Alma safely on their way. He’s actually the first great horror villain of 2021: a grizzled wannabe scientist who becomes intrigued by the occult. He captures the doctor and the park scout to carry out disturbing rituals in honor of some presence he and his ex-wife had discovered somewhere “in the Earth” — perhaps nature itself. This isn’t a film for anyone with auditory or visual sensitivities; the droning synths filled me with an appropriately large sense of dread.
I was never quite sure where In the Earth was heading — in part because it’s somewhat uneven — but I’m a sucker for a killer last line, and on this writer-director Ben Wheatley more than delivers. —S.K.
In the Earth will be distributed by Neon.
A modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this film directed by Carey Williams relies solely on Instagram, FaceTime, Twitter, Spotify playlists, and text messages to show how the relationship between Romeo Montague (Camaron Engels) and Juliet Capulet (Francesca Noel) unfolds.
One night, Romeo reluctantly joins his friends in crashing a Capulet party, despite the long-standing feud between the Capulets and his family, and discovers a hidden painting with “#j" on it. He searches the hashtag on Instagram and is compelled by the other artwork he finds, which then leads him to the artist herself, Juliet. In true modern-love fashion, Romeo slides into her DMs, the two start flirting, and then after the party they decide to hang out together all night. Romeo and Juliet build an instant connection and fall in love pretty immediately, which we watch through an iPhone video compilation of their time together.
But as to be expected in an adaptation of the famous romantic tragedy, things get dark and complicated when Romeo and Juliet post a photo of themselves together on their Instagram accounts and their families don’t take it well. Through her own research, Juliet learns that her uncle was responsible for accidentally killing Romeo’s younger brother in a car accident, and that her father played a role in helping the uncle stay out of jail. Williams uses the film to touch on issues of police brutality and online harassment, while also putting a twist on the ending of this classic story. —K.Y.
R#J is currently seeking US distribution. ●
Correction: The production company Bleecker Street bought the rights to Together Together. An earlier version of this post mistakenly said the film had no US distribution.