The Best of Sundance 2021, according to film students at St. Pete’s Eckerd College

They collectively watched more than 100 films.

click to enlarge A still from ‘Searchers’ by Pacho Velez, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. - Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Asterlight
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Asterlight
A still from ‘Searchers’ by Pacho Velez, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

From Jan. 28-Feb. 3, 11 Eckerd College Sundance Film Festival student correspondents and one faculty member watched over 100 films, engaged in virtual Q&As, explored a festival virtual platform in orbit of the International Space Station, and debated the future of film festivals and indie film culture. Sundance usually takes place over 10 days in late January in snowy Park City, Utah, where emerging filmmakers and established voices alike gather along with thousands of indie film fans to take the pulse of film culture outside of the mainstream.

This year, the American Independent Cinema class at Eckerd College gathered together in St Petersburg and beyond to experience the pared down, but relatively more accessible festival powered by strong wifi and pots of coffee.

Readers can find the full slate of Eckerd @ Sundance coverage at our blog. Here are some of our final thoughts about this year’s festival.

The virtual experience

This year Sundance followed other major film festivals in pivoting to a virtual format with over 70 feature films, 50 short films, and numerous XR (virtual reality, mixed reality, and augmented reality) experiences offered exclusively online. Each film showed twice at the festival with a live “premiere” that included a waiting room chat area where attendees could share their locations and what films they had been enjoying so far in an approximation of waiting in line at the Library Theater or Eccles Theater in Park City. After each premiere there was a live Q&A where you could submit questions and have them upvoted by peers to ask them of the directors, producers, and stars of the films.

The “premiere” format succeeded in creating a sense of an event for each film, as Eckerd correspondent Autumn Davis reported: “Instead of having these films on demand and available for the audience to watch whenever they desired, the film festival made the decision to have virtual seats. This required viewers to schedule out their movies and make sure they have available time for when the movie started. This was able to give more of a united feeling rather than just letting the audience view the film on their own time.”

While socially distanced and virtual, this digital format could be just as engaging as in-person, as Eckerd correspondent Sami Trattel reported: “As discussed by Mark Gill, the executive producer of ‘Next Stop Wonderland,’ ‘Frida,’ and ‘Law Abiding Citizen,’ at the 2008 Los Angeles Independent FIlm Festiva, ‘the digital revolution is here. And boy does it suck’. I argue that this is not the case though, and that in fact this ‘digital revolution’ allows for independent film to have more exposure than ever before. Not only does it allow for more people to see films, not just at the film festivals but worldwide, but this also allows for great discussion that the audience can engage in. This audience may be different from the regular film festival goer, and new ideas and opinions are always great ways to keep on progressing in thoughts and discussion. For example, after every film I watched at this year’s Sundance Film Festival I would later watch the live question and answer segment that would follow. In these question and answer segments, there would not only be possibilities to ask directors, writers, actors, and other big-figures in the said film questions, but also allowed for a discussion within the audience itself. This was possible from a more laid-back chat box that was also added, and from that you could engage yourself in discussion from people all around the world.”

After each film, those who purchased a “New Frontier” pass could elect to attend a “Film Party” at the orbiting film festival space and often talk with those associated with the films or just pop by and meet folks from around the world. While there were technological issues with entering New Frontier for some of our group, including the uncanny experience in which one class member entered the space but could not see anyone else, overall it offered some of the energy of talking with fellow indie cinephiles at a distance. As Eckerd sophomore Charlie Trent noted, “the New Frontier made me feel more included at the Sundance Festival even though I was hundreds of miles away.” 

One aspect that was more subdued this year, at least for those not on Twitter and Sundance-related social media, was incidental conversations about films that one would have while waiting at bus stops or riding the shuttles around Park City. “Buzz and gossip about the films premiering and Sundance becomes a lot more difficult when streaming these films online,” reported Eckerd senior and film studies major Diana Blecher. “The only conversations that you can engage in is with the small group of people in the waiting room waiting for the film to begin, those same people at the end of the film waiting for the Q&A, and when exploring the virtual chat room with venues through New Frontier. Engaging with other viewers is possible, but not as easy or convenient as in person.”

While the online platform couldn’t recreate the immersive experience of being in Park City, waiting for the bus, strolling on Main Street, and picking up Sundance swag at the various pop-up exhibits, there were comforts to this festival not usually available. As Blecher noted, “It is not the immersive experience I wanted, but it was still enjoyable. I like to think that there’s nothing better than curling up on my couch under thick blankets with some snacks and a new movie. Additionally, a movie that I could pause whenever I needed to get up for something. That is not something you can experience in a movie theater screening.”

For Eckerd correspondent Breanna Wilkenson, the virtual aspect allowed for greater inclusivity than the past. As Wilkenson reported, “Whereas before people would need to save up money and plan months in advance and then stand in cold long lines to see a single film. More people can now afford to attend the festival and watch films from the comfort of their own homes. This brings a bigger, more diverse crowd to the Sundance film festival.”

How much this shift to a virtual format will remain in place in the future is something to keep an eye on but the depth and breadth of Sundance’s platform this year suggests that they have invested a lot in the virtual format as something that is here to stay. As Eckerd correspondent Brian Skinner argues, “Before, filmmakers saw film festivals as this stepping stone in the journey to distribution. And now, in the face of rapid evolution and a global pandemic, filmmakers are choosing to get their films distributed via virtual means. Critics of this virtual movement often cite the ideas of tradition, and I can’t help but disagree. Independent films are often about new frontiers, and breaking barriers, so why not embrace this movement? Virtual platforms means anyone in the world can access it, allowing for more and more people to see your films. And who knows, maybe in like three years, we’ll figure out some new, even more accessible way to view films.”

click to enlarge Eckerd students gather in the Sundance Film Festival’s “Film Party” New Frontier space. - Screenshot by Christina Petersen
Screenshot by Christina Petersen
Eckerd students gather in the Sundance Film Festival’s “Film Party” New Frontier space.

Top films from Sundance 2021

Your Eckerd student correspondents chose their top eight films from the festival, presented below in no particular order, with representative reactions. 

  • Coming Home in the Dark (James Ashcroft, 2021): “This thriller is unlike any other I have seen before. It feels so authentic and real, and you can both identify with the protagonists and the villains. It makes you question who to root for.” 
  • Playing with Sharks (Sally Aitken, 2021): “a fun story about Valerie Taylor, a conservationist. Her story of success and what she’s done to help sharks was . . . a breath of fresh air.”
  • The Pink Cloud (Iuli Gerbase, 2021): “an interesting take about a worldwide quarantine that was written before COVID-19 existed.”
  • Rebel Hearts (Pedro Kos, 2021): relates “the stories of a group of revolutionary nuns in the 1960s who sought to create a more liberating and just society for themselves and others, told through interviews, archival footage, and beautiful animations.”
  • Eight for Silver (Sean Ellis, 2021): “brought a clever edge to the traditional werewolf story that . . .  differentiated it from its predecessors.”
  • On the Count of Three (Jerrod Carmichael, 2021): “a dark film that features two men who plan to commit suicide after one last day.”
  • Try Harder! (Debbie Lum, 201): “a beautiful, yet heartbreaking film. It opened old wounds, but lit old flames. Try Harder! has been my favorite film from Sundance, and I have nothing but praise for it.”
  • The World to Come (Mona Fastvold, 2021): “The World to Come felt like a poem. It made my heart ache deeply, marinating in feelings of melancholic love, and unexpected loss.” 

As faculty correspondent, I watched 35 feature films, one indie series, and one VR short over the seven days of the festival. My top eleven of the festival, in no particular order, are:

  • CODA (Sian Heder, 2021): This crowd-pleaser won multiple awards, including the Grand Jury and Audience awards for U.S. Dramatic Film, a directing award for Sian Heder, who learned sign language expressly to make this film about the only hearing member of a family of deaf adults, and a special jury award for its ensemble cast that included Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin and Doctor Who alum Emilia Jones. CODA also set a record for highest acquisition price ever at Sundance when Apple paid $25 million for the rights. Keep an eye out for it on Apple TV +.
  • Summer Of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, 2021): Like CODA, the debut film from musician and DJ Questlove garnered multiple awards, including the Grand Jury and Audience awards for U.S. Documentary, in its excavation and contextualization of the forgotten history and footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. When Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson sang together on the Harlem stage, it was like time stopped while watching this film. Searchlight Pictures is sending this into theaters and it will stream on Hulu in the coming months.
  • Cusp (Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt, 2021): winner of a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for emerging filmmaker for its first-time directors, this immersive doc about three young women navigating adolescence in rural Texas is a study in trauma and resilience.
  • Flee (Jonas Poher Rasmussen, 2021): Winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, this animated documentary tells a version of the refugee narrative that you have never heard before. Neon acquired the film for distribution so it should be coming to theaters and streaming near you in the coming months.
  • In the Same Breath (Nanfu Wang, 2021): This documentary, from the director of One Child Nation, presents some of the first footage from China during the pandemic and follows the novel coronavirus as it transgressed borders and boundaries. An arresting, up-to-date mirror of our times. Produced by HBO Films, it should come to HBO MAX soon.
  • On the Count of Three (Jerrod Carmichael, 2021): Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, this screwball black comedy follows two best friends during their last day together, righting wrongs, discovering themselves, and planning a suicide pact.
  • At the Ready (Maisie Crow, 2021): A study in the contradictions of the contemporary American experience, this doc follows a group of Mexican-American youth who are interested to pursue careers in law enforcement.
  • Mischa and the Wolves (Sam Hobkinson, 2021): Netflix acquired this twisty postmodern doc about a Holocaust survivor’s harrowing tale and the nature of truth.
  • Searchers (Pacho Velez, 2021): A sweet and endearing look at the search for love in all the digital places in New York during the pandemic.
  • Ma Belle, My Beauty (Marion Hill, 2021): Like Searchers, this film proves that love and life find new ways to thrive, only now in the sun-drenched vineyards of southern France. Winner of Audience Award for Sundance’s NEXT section. 
  • Passing (Rebecca Hall, 2021): Netflix reportedly paid over $15 million for the rights to first-time director Rebecca Hall’s black-and-white adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. Keep an eye out for this to drop on Netflix.

Honorable mentions (all three films come from the Sundance NEXT section)

  • R#J (Carey Williams, 2021): refreshes “Romeo and Juliet” as told entirely through cell phone screens and social media. 
  • Strawberry Mansion (Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley, 2021): What happens when dreams become a literal form of currency? In this deadpan Expressionist film, the government gets involved.
  • Cryptozoo (Dash Shaw, 2021): Filmmaker Dash Shaw won the NEXT Innovator Prize for this study of what society would be like if all the imaginary creatures from our dreams became real.

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