Sundance Film Festival 2021: From 'Judas and the Black Messiah' to 'Street Gang,' here are the movies we're most looking forward to at this year's event

Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya in 'Judas and the Black Messiah,' one of the big premieres as this year's Sundance Film Festival (Photo by Glen Wilson/Courtesy Sundance Institute)
Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah, one of the big premieres as this year's Sundance Film Festival. (Photo: Glen Wilson/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

January is typically the time that the attention of the film world shifts to Park City, Utah, as the annual Sundance Film Festival unspools for thousands of film lovers, filmmakers and film distributors. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, though, the streets of that small mountain town will largely be quiet this year. Like the Toronto and New York film festivals before it, Sundance is going virtual for its latest edition, which runs from Jan. 28 to Feb. 3. Passes and tickets are available on the festival’s official website where the program is, as always, overflowing with new narrative features, documentaries and international fare. Here’s Yahoo Entertainment’s picks for some of the movies we’re most excited to see heading into this year’s Sundance, including several titles that you can expect to see pop up in the Oscar race.

Meet Sundance’s biggest Kahuna, potentially the first same-year Oscar nominee Judas and the Black Messiah

While Sundance prides itself as being the mecca of top-tier independent filmmaking, the fest typically makes room for at least one major studio release, which usually plays as a “secret screening” announced at the 11th hour. Past showcases have included Universal’s Get Out, Fox’s Eddie the Eagle and Warner Bros.’ Jupiter Ascending. This year’s virtual incarnation looks to be Warner Bros.’s Judas and the Black Messiah, Shaka King’s powerful tale about Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the FBI informant (LaKeith Stanfield) who betrays him. While Sundance routinely debuts future Oscar contenders, this high-profile entry could make history by becoming the festival’s first film to earn nominations the same year it premieres there. (Typically, Oscar nominations for the prior year are announced during Sundance, but eligibility was pushed back two months from its usual year-end deadline due to the coronavirus pandemic.) Judas opens in theaters and on HBO Max Feb. 12, and it could immediately be in the running for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and, most likely, Best Supporting Actor for the stunning Kaluuya. — Kevin Polowy

Two trailblazing women get the documentary treatment

Rita Moreno recounts her life story in the documentary, 'Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It' (Photo: Mariem Pérez Riera/Courtesy Sundance Institute)
Rita Moreno recounts her life story in the documentary Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It. (Photo: Mariem Pérez Riera/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

You may know Rita Moreno as the EGOT-winning star of such classics as West Side Story, The Electric Company and, more recently, One Day at a Time. But the pioneering Puerto Rican actress has led an equally eventful life off-screen. Mariem Pérez Riera’s new documentary — executive produced by Norman Lear and Lin-Manuel Miranda — puts Moreno front and center as she spills secrets on her early years in Hollywood, her wild love affair with Marlon Brando and her late-in-life career resurgence.

While Moreno was wrestling with the slings and arrows of a Hollywood career in the ‘50s and ‘60s, half-a-world away Australian diver and former shark hunter, Valerie Taylor, was exploring the ocean depths and the creatures that swim within them. Sally Aitken’s Playing With Sharks chronicles Taylor’s trailblazing career with copious amounts of remarkable underwater footage. Funnily enough, Steven Spielberg makes a cameo in both of these docs: Taylor helped shoot the shark sequences for the director’s 1975 blockbuster, Jaws, and Moreno has a small role in his upcoming West Side Story remake, bringing her career full circle. — Ethan Alter

Actresses Rebecca Hall and Robin Wright make their directorial debuts with Passing and Land, respectively

Robin Wright stars in and makes her directorial debut with 'Land,' which premieres at this year's Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Daniel Power, courtesy of Sundance Institute/Focus Features)
Robin Wright stars in and makes her directorial debut with Land, which premieres at this year's Sundance Film Festival. (Photo: Daniel Power, courtesy of Sundance Institute/Focus Features)

Between Regina King’s One Night in Miami and Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, 2020 was a stellar year for actresses making their directorial debuts. Now Rebecca Hall (Vicki Cristina Barcelona, The BFG) and Robin Wright (The Princess Bride, Wonder Woman) are following in those footsteps. Hall not only helmed, but also wrote the screenplay for Passing, an adaption of Nella Larsen’s novel about mixed race childhood friends (the intriguing pairing of Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga) who reunite one afternoon in 1920s New York. Shot in black and white, the film is being described as “an elegant psychological thriller about obsession, repression and the lies people tell themselves.” Wright, meanwhile, directs and also stars in Land, a drama about a woman who commits to living in solitude in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains after a tragic accident. With a release date of Feb. 12, Land could also be in the running for April’s Academy Awards. — K.P.

Street Gang reveals how Jim Henson and Frank Oz got to Sesame Street

Jim Henson and Frank Oz model Bert and Ernie puppets in 'Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street' (Photo by Robert Fuhring/Courtesy Sundance Institute)
Jim Henson and Frank Oz model Bert and Ernie puppets in Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street. (Photo: Robert Fuhring/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

TV journalist Michael Davis’s comprehensive 2009 account of the origins of Jim Henson’s beloved children’s program gets the big-screen treatment courtesy of Mad Hot Ballroom director, Marilyn Argelo. Using archival footage of the original street gang — including the dynamic duo of Henson and Frank Oz — plus new interviews with longtime crew and cast members, the movie is guaranteed to be A-OK. And don’t worry if you can’t get tickets to the sure-to-sell-out premiere: Street Gang will have a theatrical release, plus a run on HBO (where the franchise currently resides), later this year. — E.A.

Clifton Collins Jr., horse riders get their time to shine in Jockey

Clifton Collins Jr. stars in 'Jockey,' premiering at the Sundance Film Festival (Photo by Adolpho Veloso/Courtesy of Sundance Institute)
Clifton Collins Jr. stars in Jockey, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. (Photo: Adolpho Veloso/Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

So often when Hollywood dips into the equestrian arena — think Seabiscuit, Secretariat and Dreamer — the focus falls more on the horse than the human riding or racing him or her. No disrespect to our four-legged friends out there, but Clint Bentley’s Jockey puts its emphasis right there in the title. The drama features veteran character actor Clifton Collins Jr. as an aging horse racer coming to terms with the fact that his deteriorating health could end his career and the arrival of a budding young competitor (Moises Arias) who claims to be his son. Bentley and cinematographer Adolpho Veloso shot the film at live racetracks, so expect some hefty dirt-kicking realism. And speaking of underrepresentation, it’s awesome to see Collins — always excellent in supporting roles in projects like Capote, Pacific Rim and Westworld — get a too-rare turn in the spotlight. — K.P.

The World to Come offers a portrait of two pioneer women on fire

Good things come in threes, so it stands to reason to expect great things from The World to Come, the latest 19th century lesbian romance that arrives at Sundance on the heels of Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Ammonite. Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby play the wives of two New York farmers (Casey Affleck and Christopher Abbott) who find solace, and love, in their shared personal tragedies. Like Céline Sciamma and Francei Lee before her, director Mona Fastvold seems eager to faithfully recreate the rugged terrain of the 1800s, as well as the prejudices of the time that forces the central couple apart. The film is appropriately set for a theatrical release on Valentine’s Day weekend, followed by an on demand debut on March 2, just before Kirby potentially lands her first Best Actress nomination for the acclaimed Netflix drama Pieces of a Woman. — E.A.

The Roots and Soul drummer Questlove turns filmmaker with documentary Summer of Soul

Questlove directed the Sundance documentary, 'Summer of Soul' (Photo by Mass Distraction Media/Courtesy Sundance Institute)
Questlove directed the Sundance documentary Summer of Soul. (Photo: Mass Distraction Media/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

A month ago, The Roots drummer and Tonight Show maestro, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson — who’d previously worked on soundtracks for films like Top Five and Detroit — made his biggest Hollywood splash by voicing the bald and gregarious jazz musician “Curly” in Pixar’s latest gem, Soul. Now he’ll take his talents to Sundance with his feature film directorial debut Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a documentary about the historic 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, oftentimes dubbed “The Black Woodstock.” Expect a thorough and loving tribute from Thompson, a walking music encyclopedia. And while Summer of Soul does not sound anywhere as bonkers as Boots Riley’s buzzy 2018 Sundance debut Sorry to Bother You, Questlove could become the second hip-hop icon in three years to use Sundance to vault into a filmmaking career. — K.P.

R#J updates the immortal Bard for the smartphone set

Camaron Engels and Francesca Noel play Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers in 'R#J' (Photo by Charles Murphy/Courtesy Sundance Institute)
Camaron Engels and Francesca Noel play Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers in R#J. (Photo: Charles Murphy/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Every generation has their own Romeo and Juliet. For Gen X it was Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussy; for Millennials it was Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes; and for Zoomers, it’s looking like it’ll be Camaron Engels and Francesca Noel, who headline Carey Williams’s up-to-the-minute adaptation of Shakespeare’s timeless tale of woe about Juliet and her Romeo. This new version unfolds entirely on smartphones and over social media, a reflection of how its target audience interacts with the world today. But the drama, and tragedy, these star-crossed lovers experience will likely be as potent in the 21st century as it was in the 16th. — E.A.

Oscar winner Marlee Matlin makes a rare film appearance in the drama Coda

Marlee Matlin makes a rare on-camera appearance in 'Coda,' which premieres at this year's Sundance Film Festival (Photo courtesy Sundance Institute)
Marlee Matlin makes a rare on-camera appearance in Coda, which premieres at this year's Sundance Film Festival. (Photo: Sundance Institute)

As the Riz Ahmed-starring Sound of Metal makes waves in this year’s awards race, another drama involving hearing impairment arrives at Sundance with the potential to create some buzz. Written and directed by Sian Heder (a Sundance alum for her 2016 premiere Tallulah starring Elliot Page), Coda is a remake of the 2014 French-language film La Famille Bélier. It centers around Emilia Jones’s 17-year-old child of deaf adults (termed “CODA”) who becomes torn between assisting the family New England fishing business and singing in her high school choir. Her parents are played by Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin, the pioneering Children of a Lesser God Oscar winner who regularly turns up on television but rarely headlines films, creating some instant excitement around the film. — K.P.

TV stars Ed Helms and Zoe Lister-Jones are back on the big screen

Ed Helms and Patti Harrison star in 'Together Together' (Photo by Tiffany Roohani/Courtesy Sundance Institute)
Ed Helms and Patti Harrison star in Together Together. (Photo: Tiffany Roohani/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Have you finished your latest Office binge on Peacock and found yourself wondering what Andy Bernard’s been up to? Well, his alter ego, Ed Helms, is headlining the Sundance comedy, Together Together, playing a single guy who hires a young woman (Patti Harrison) to serve as the surrogate mother for the child he’s always wanted. It’s a storyline that one can imagine Andy playing out in the world of The Office, although writer/director Nikole Beckwith sidesteps the cringe comedy that show often relied on.

Another TV star headed to Sundance is New Girl and Life in Pieces scene-stealer, Zoe Lister-Jones, who premiered her directorial debut, Band Aid, at the festival’s 2017 edition. The actress co-directs and stars in the apocalyptic comedy How It Ends, playing an L.A. gadfly trying to squeeze in one more party before an asteroid ends all life on Earth. Can we expect a cameo from Will Forte aka The Last Man on Earth? — E.A.

Jerrod Carmichael shoots for the stars with On the Count of Three

Christopher Abbott and Jerrod Carmichael in 'On the Count of Three' (Photo by Marshall Adams/Courtesy Sundance Institute)
Christopher Abbott and Jerrod Carmichael in On the Count of Three. (Photo: Marshall Adams/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Jerrod Carmichael is one of those people continually on the cusp of major stardom. With the Sundance premiere of On the Count of Three, the comic and former TV star is spreading his wings, both as a first-time film director (he’s previously helmed comedy specials for Lil Rel Howery and Drew Michael) and as a dramatic actor. On the Count of Three sounds deadly serious: Carmichael and Christopher Abbott (It Comes at Night) costar as friends who plot a double suicide by day’s end. Knowing Carmichael, there will be some dark humor mixed in, but either way we can’t help but be hopeful about the comic’s new turn. — K.P

Nic Cage takes no prisoners in his latest cult oddity Prisoners of the Ghostland

Nick Cassavetes and Nic Cage in 'Prisoners of the Ghostland' (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)
Nick Cassavetes and Nic Cage in Prisoners of the Ghostland. (Photo: Sundance Institute)

Nicolas Cage was the toast of Sundance’s 2018 edition after launching his beautifully weird revenge movie, Mandy. Three years later, he’s back with Prisoners of the Ghostland, a typically wild mash-up of genres and acting styles. Directed by Sion Sono, this Mad Max meets Man on Fire yarn casts Cage as Samurai Town’s most wanted bank robber who is dispatched on a mission to rescue adopted granddaughter of a local warlord. The movie also features a Face/Off reunion: Actor/director Nick Cassavetes played an associate of Cage’s bad guy in that 1997 classic, and is also his wingman here. — E.A.

The Sundance Film Festival Runs from Jan. 28 to Feb. 3.

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