Film & TV

Music, The Matrix, and More: Highlights from the Virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival

Here are the best movies, talks, and programs from Sundance Film Festival's virtual 2021 season.
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"Ailey" directed by Jamila Wignot, Sundance 2021.

Like everything for the past year, Sundance Film Festival had to adjust to a new normal. Festival goers didn't have to bundle up in winter gear this year, since the independent film festival that is usually held in Utah was an all-virtual experience, running from January 28 to February 3, 2021.

Sundance has a long history of showcasing American independent cinema. It’s given a platform to some of the most notable independent film of the recent years. And this year is no different—with 72 films from 29 countries, the program covered a wide scope of topics, tackling challenging and pertinent topics such as the coronavirus, racism in America, and if we're all just living in a simulation. It featured world premieres and directorial debuts, and showcased a variety of genres of art. 

The 2021 lineup featured what will soon be some of the most talked about movies of the year. If you missed the virtual show, here are some of the key highlights—from mind-bending films to standout talks. 

CODA won big with four awards, including the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic.

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Everyone has been raving about this emotional and feelgood coming-of-age drama by director Siân Heder. An adaptation of the French film La Famille Belie, Heder's sophomore movie follows Massachusetts high school student Rudy (Emilia Jones), the only hearing person of her deaf family, and her struggle to choose between chasing her dream of music and her fear of abandoning her parents.

Questlove made us miss live music more than ever with his debut documentary Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).

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Woodstock wasn’t the only showcase of music in the electric summer of 1969. The Harlem Cultural Festival in New York brought 300,000 people together to celebrate Black excellence, with musical performances including Nina Simone and B.B. King. The footage of the performances were lost, and the only record of the event was in the attendee’s memories—until now. More than 50 years later, The Roots' Questlove presents the tapes along with interviews with artists and speakers of the event, reviving this lost chapter of monumental history. 

Questlove's documentary won Sundance's U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Documentary.

Womxn took center stage at the virtual "Speakeasy" series: Conjuring the Collective.

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From singer extraordinaire Brittany Howard and poet Rya Aoki to actor Rita Moreno and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Artistic Director Emerita Judith Jamison, womxn from the Sundance Festival community and beyond got together to celebrate each other and "reclaim the idea of a coven as a source of magic, healing, and power." The virtual speakeasy format showcased a variety of talent and honored different perspectives through dance, music, culture, and other art forms.

In the Same Breath made us think critically about a situation we wish we could forget.

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In her documentary about the coronavirus pandemic and the reality of political censorship, filmmaker Nanfu Wang takes us to a place we'd rather not go: our current world. Wang digs deep and dangerously to expose how the virus' spread correlates to political censorship, documenting the reality of the COVID-19 response in Wuhan and the spread of disinformation and promotion of confusion since in both China and the U.S., with firsthand interviews and the bare, painful truth. It's not the film we want, but it's the one we need.

Academy Award-nominated director Raoul Peck discussed white supremacy, creative expression, history, and his new work.

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For one of Sundance's "Big Conversations," a series dedicated to tackling big topics like science, art, culture, and politics with the artists who speak on these issues, Festival Director Tabitha Jackson sat down with acclaimed filmmaker Raoul Peck. Peck discussed topics like white supremacy and history, as well as his personal journey from Oscar-nominated film on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, to his upcoming miniseries Exterminate All The Brutes, which will premiere on HBO.

A Glitch in the Matrix made us question what’s real.

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If you're all aboard the Elon Musk train, asking yourself questions like “Are we living in a simulation?” then Rodney Ascher’s film for you. Maybe the very fact that this film is premiering virtually because of a worldwide pandemic is enough to convince you we are.

Lucy, a Virtual Reality character from "Wolves in the Walls" held a talk with a real life, virtual audience. 

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Fitting for the 2021 online format, Lucy from Fable's VR experience "Wolves in the Walls" became the first VR character to present her own short film, "Dracula." The screening of her film was accompanied by a moderated conversation with Lucy, as well as a Q&A with the team that created her. A character from virtual reality conversing with a virtual, real life audience points to the future of tech in film and more.

Judas and the Black Messiah director Shaka King talked to Questlove about their new films.

Cinema Cafe - Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson & Shaka King with Hannah Giorgis

As a part of Sundance's "Cinema Café" series, Questlove and Shaka King spoke with The Atlantic staff writer Hannah Giorgis about their respective films. Questlove's documentary was the musician and activist's directorial debut—“a historical first," he joked. King's Judas and the Black Messiah, a biographical feature on young Black Panther leader Fred Hampton who was killed in 1969, made a splash at Sundance this year, with its star-studded cast and a backing from Warner Bros. paving the path to award nominations.

Topaz Jones spelled out the Black experience with alphabet—and took home an award.

Winner of Best Non Fiction Short Film, singer Topaz Jones wrote, directed, and appears in "Don't Go Tellin' Your Mama," which features a mix of interviews with Jones' friends, family, and others, along with archival footage, clips of the artist rapping, and other vignettes, each correlating to a letter of the alphabet. Going from A to Z, one word relating to Black and brown people is presented for each letter. These include "L is for Language," which is accompanied by an interview with rapper Ivy Sole about the power of the Black vernacular and how its used for codeswitching. The short is part oral history, part music video, and part autobiography.

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