A team of esteemed critics from BGN virtually attended this year’s Sundance film festival. Due to the pandemic which has ruined so many closed events, unfortunately, this year was no exception. However, Sundance offered journalists and ticket holders an opportunity to screen movies and TV shows from the comfort of our homes.
We’ve selected a few films and episodic series from the festival to review on the publication, and below is a list of what we covered at this year’s event.
Emergency – Director Carey Willams
Ready for a night of partying, a group of Black and Latino college students must weigh the pros and cons of calling the police when faced with an unusual emergency. Starring: RJ Cyler, Donald Watkins, Sebastian Chacon, and Sabrina Carpenter.
“Writer K.D. Dávila, who also wrote the short film of the same name, keeps the storytelling multi-layered, filled with levity, and not too heavy-handed with its messaging.”
Mars Um (Mars One) – Director Gabriel Martin
In Brazil, a lower-middle-class Black family of four tries to keep their spirits up and their dreams going in the months that follow the election of a right-wing president, a man who represents everything they are not. Starring: Rejane Faria, Carlos Francisco, Camilla Souza, Cícero Lucas.
“Mars One is an exploration of a Black Brazilian family who clings to family, acceptance, and the concept of reward for hard work. Even in the face of challenges that test the way they view themselves.”
892 – Director Abi Damaris Corbin
When Brian Brown-Easley’s disability check fails to materialize from Veterans Affairs, he finds himself on the brink of homelessness and breaking his daughter’s heart. No other options, he walks into a Wells Fargo Bank and says “I’ve got a bomb.“ Starring: John Boyega, Michael Kenneth Williams, Nicole Beharie, Connie Britton, Olivia Washington, Selenis Leyva.
“892 is an intense, emotional, and gut-wrenching drama that sticks with you. It’s also a movie that is a teachable moment about one of the biggest failures in our society to our American vets.”
Fresh – Director Mimi Cave
Frustrated by scrolling dating apps only to end up on lame, tedious dates, Noa takes a chance by giving her number to the awkwardly charming Steve after a produce-section meet-cute at the grocery store. During a subsequent date at a local bar, sassy banter gives way to a chemistry-laden hookup, and a smitten Noa dares to hope that she might have actually found a real connection with the dashing cosmetic surgeon. She accepts Steve’s invitation to an impromptu weekend getaway, only to find that her new paramour has been hiding some unusual appetites. Starring: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Sebastian Stan, Jojo T. Gibbs, Charlotte Le Bon, Andrea Bang, Dayo Okeniyi.
“Fresh definitely has social commentary but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it. The horror is subtle just like it can be in real life when bad things, or bad people, sneak up on you. One of the scariest things about the film is that nothing too outlandish happens. All of the creepy, absurd things that come with online dating, and modern dating in general, are painfully accurate (especially for women). With its darkly humorous writing, stellar acting, and incredible direction, Fresh is a wild experience from beginning to end.”
Speak No Evil – Director Christian Tafdrup
While on holiday in Tuscany, a Danish family becomes fast friends with a fellow traveling family from the Netherlands. Months later, when an invitation arrives encouraging the Danish family to visit the Dutch in their countryside home, they don’t hesitate to plan a quick getaway. Free-spirited and adventurous, the Dutch welcome the Danes for the weekend, channeling an energy that rouses their visitors as drinks flow and they start to let loose. But what begins as an idyllic reunion soon takes a turn as the hosts increasingly test the limits of their houseguests. Starring: Morten Burian, Sidsel Siem Koch, Fedja van Huêt, Karina Smulders, Liva Forsberg, Marius Damslev.
“Speak No Evil explores all of the naturally awkward situations we put ourselves in, especially as a guest at someone’s house. It’s a stressful film and I mean that as a compliment. There’s not one moment I didn’t feel on edge. It’s so affecting that I’m not sure I want to watch it again, but that’s what I want from a horror film. It was so gripping and unrelenting in its suspense that I actually felt a little tired after the experience.”
After Yang – Director Kogonada
When Yang — a lifelike, artificially intelligent android that Jake and Kyra buy as a companion for their adopted daughter — abruptly stops functioning, Jake just wants him repaired quickly and cheaply. But having purchased Yang “certified refurbished” from a now-defunct store, he’s led first to a conspiracy theorist technician and then a technology museum curator, who discovers that Yang was actually recording memories. Jake’s quest eventually becomes one of existential introspection and contemplating his own life, as it passes him by. Starring: Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H. Min, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, Haley Lu Richardson.
“While After Yang is truly a passionate effort and offers a unique artistic vision from Kogonada, unfortunately, the movie is too caught up in its own cinematic metaphors.”
You Won’t Be Alone – Director Goran Stolevski
In an isolated mountain village in 19th-century Macedonia, a young girl is taken from her mother and transformed into a witch by an ancient, shape-shifting spirit. Left to wander feral, the young witch beholds the natural world with curiosity and wonder. After inadvertently killing a villager and assuming her body, she continues to inhabit different people, living among the villagers for years, observing and mimicking their behavior until the ancient spirit returns, bringing them full circle. Starring: Noomi Rapace, Anamaria Marinca, Alice Englert, Carloto Cotta, Félix Maritaud, Sara Klimoska.
“When I see Noomi Rapace, I know that I’ll be treated to a warped version of some mythic fairy tale that will scar me for life, and You Won’t Be Alone does not disappoint.”
Nanny – Director Nikyatu Jusu
Aisha is an undocumented nanny working for a privileged couple in New York City. As she prepares for the arrival of the son she left behind in Senegal, a violent supernatural presence invades her reality, threatening the American dream she is painstakingly piecing together. Starring: Anna Diop, Michelle Monaghan, Sinqua Walls, Morgan Spector, Rose Decker, Leslie Uggams.
“Nanny is technically exquisite with all of the elements in place for the audience to be captivated, but unfortunately, the story fizzles and falls flat.”
Lucy and Desi – Director Amy Poehler
One day in 1940, two budding stars met for the first time in the RKO Pictures commissary, unaware that together they would change the face of pop culture. After surviving a tumultuous upbringing, a teenage Lucille Ball left her family for New York City, where she first found success as a model before moving to Hollywood to begin working in movies. Hailing from Santiago de Cuba, Desi Arnaz was a paid musician by 16 and quickly broke out as a multitalented entertainer. The two would go on to consistently challenge the status quo in entertainment both in front of and behind the camera.
“Lucy and Desi is filled with love and care and asks the tough questions in a way that makes the answers unafraid and unfettered.”
Descendant – Director Margaret Brown
Clotilda, the last ship carrying enslaved Africans to the United States, arrived in Alabama 40 years after African slave trading became a capital offense. It was promptly burned, and its existence denied. After a century shrouded in secrecy and speculation, descendants of the Clotilda’s survivors are reclaiming their story.
“Descendant is more than a phenomenal documentary; it is a majestic work of art.”
Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. – Director Adamma Ebo
In the aftermath of a huge scandal, Trinitie Childs, the first lady of a prominent Southern Baptist megachurch, attempts to help her pastor husband, Lee-Curtis Childs, rebuild their congregation. Starring: Regina Hall, Sterling K. Brown.
“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. showcases all of the ridiculous theatrics of organized religion from the chaotic organ music to the various iterations of the phrase ‘praying on it.’ It can be compared to many mockumentaries, but the overall tone is very similar to Drop Dead Gorgeous. The two films share super dark humor as they pull back the curtains on worlds we suspect to be deceptive.”
Hatching – Director Hanna Bergholm
Tinja’s mother showcases their family’s existence on her popular blog “Lovely Everyday Life” as a brightly-hued domestic idyll set amid manicured suburban perfection. Beneath the impeccable veneer, though, friendless tween gymnast Tinja is struggling, spending most of her time striving to please her image-obsessed mom and appease her shrilly obnoxious little brother. After finding a wounded bird in the woods, she brings its strange egg home, nestles it in her bed, and nurtures it until it hatches. The creature that emerges, christened Alli, becomes Tinja’s closest friend, surrogate child, and living nightmare in this tremendously twisted coming-of-age body horror film. Starring: Jani Volanen, Siiri Solalinna, Sophia Heikkilä, Saija Lentonen.
“Hatching is a fascinating, nightmarish fairytale about the gruesomeness of motherhood. It explores inherited perfectionism and what happens when emotions are constrained. It’s both lovely and terrifying which is representative of motherhood (and womanhood) itself. Hatching will leave you questioning your own relationship with your emotions. The film is oozy, strange, darkly funny, and oddly touching — all things any horror fan will love.”
God’s Country – Director Julian Higgins
When a grieving college professor confronts two hunters she catches trespassing on her property, she’s drawn into an escalating battle of wills with catastrophic consequences. Starring: Thandiwe Newton, Jeremy Bobb, Joris Jarsky, Jefferson White, Kai Lennox, Tanaya Beatty.
“God’s Country is a masterclass in filmmaking. Co-writers Shaye Ogbonna and Julian Higgins have crafted a captivating 21st-century thriller that mirrors an America constantly on the cusp of conflict.”
Alice – Director Krystin Ver Linden
When a woman in servitude in 1800s Georgia escapes the 55-acre confines of her captor, she discovers the shocking reality that exists beyond the treeline…it’s 1973. Inspired by true events. Starring: Keke Palmer, Common, Jonny Lee Miller, Gaius Charles.
“While the film does slip into the ‘fight for what you believe in’ trope at times, at its core, it delivers an underlying message that the fight still continues.”
Neptune Frost – Directors Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman
In an otherworldly e-waste dump camp, a subversive hacking collective attempts a takeover of the authoritarian regime exploiting the region’s natural resources — and its people. When an intersex runaway and an escaped coltan miner find each other through cosmic forces, their connection sparks glitches within the greater divine circuitry. Starring: Cheryl Isheja, Elvis Ngabo “Bobo”, Bertrand Ninteretse “Kaya Free”, Eliane Umuhire, Rebecca Muciyo, Trésor Niyongabo.
“The overarching umbrella of Afrofuturism provides counter-narratives to stories and experiences that imply Black people do not belong, affirming Black existence in the realm of technology, love, and anywhere else we decide to be.”
Aftershock – Directors Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee
Following the preventable deaths of their partners due to childbirth complications, two bereaved fathers galvanize activists, birth-workers and physicians to reckon with one of the most pressing American crises of our time – the U.S. maternal health crisis.
“Aftershock is one of those films that comes at you hard with the best intentions. It succeeds in revealing what’s wrong and highlighting what you can do about it. It shakes and moves you, which is the mark of a great documentary.”
We Need To Talk About Cosby – Director W. Kamau Bell
Can you separate the art from the artist? Should you even try? While there are many people about whom we could ask those questions, none pose a tougher challenge than Bill Cosby.
“We Need to Talk About Cosby feels like an ongoing organic dialogue as you watch. It’s a conversation starter, and it’s a series that will leave you having multiple discussions long after it ends.”
jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy – Directors Clarence “Coodie” Simmons and Chike Ozah
Kanye West in three acts. The story beyond the iconic music, an intimate and empathetic chronicle featuring never-before-seen footage from 21 years in the life of a captivating figure.
“jeen-yus: A Kanye Trilogy is a candid look into Kanye West’s backstory that gives the audience a new perspective of an icon we thought we knew everything about.”
Master – Director Mariama Diallo
Three women strive to find their place at an elite New England university. As the insidious specter of racism haunts the campus in increasingly supernatural fashion, each fights to survive in this space of privilege. Starring: Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Talia Ryder, Talia Balsam, Amber Gray.
“Master is an atmospheric horror film reminiscent of classic 1970s and ‘80s genre films like The Shining, with lingering camera movements. It’s definitely a slow burn and anyone looking for gore will be unsated. Master has a consistently unnerving tone in an otherwise beautifully dark setting. There are brief moments of comfort, but any feeling of safety is short-lived. When their living spaces are invaded, we realize that these experiences, fears, and realities are inescapable.”
The Sundance film festival is still ongoing and you can catch many of these titles online through their site. The festival wraps on Jan 30th.