The Sundance Must List: 12 titles to catch at this year's digital indie fest

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Mary Sollosi
·5 min read
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Marshall Adams

Here comes the sun. The 2020 Sundance Film Festival marked one of the last "normal" film events we had before the industry — not to mention the whole world — shut down indefinitely. The iconic fest, which normally takes place in Park City, Utah, returns this week as a virtual event, with digital premiere screenings open to indie film fans everywhere. Sundance may have left the mountains, but its daring 2021 features lineup proves that it's as exciting as ever — and poised to kick off Hollywood's comeback year.

Read about EW's dozen must-see titles below (listed alphabetically, apart from our top picks) and keep checking back all week for previews and coverage of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, which begins Thursday, Jan. 28.

Sundance Institute

EW TOP PICK: Mass
More than half of this year's lineup is the work of first-time filmmakers, and Fran Kranz's astonishing debut marks the Dollhouse star as a writer-director to watch. "Fran is an enormous talent. This is some of the best writing I've ever read," says Jason Isaacs, who is revelatory in the gripping chamber piece alongside Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney. They play the parents of two teens — the victim and perpetrator of a school shooting — who meet years after the tragedy for a long, often surprising conversation. "We all opened ourselves up to each other and emerged out on the other side not quite sure what had just happened to us," says Isaacs of the raw shoot. "At the same time, [I was] thinking it was one of the best things I've ever made."
Premieres Saturday, Jan. 30

Sundance Institute

2. CODA
It's impossible to resist the warmth of Siân Heder's affecting coming-of-age story about a teenage girl who is the only hearing person in her family (all played by deaf actors, including Marlee Matlin) and who, as irony would have it, dreams of becoming a singer.
Premieres Thursday, Jan. 28 (DAY ONE FILM)

Sundance Institute

3. Eight for Silver
The eerie atmosphere for Sean Ellis' 19th-century horror film came courtesy of the shoot's French countryside location. "It had the fog all the time," recalls Boyd Holbrook, who plays a pathologist investigating a mysterious threat. "It has this presence of something lurking behind the shadows."
Premieres Saturday, Jan. 30

Warner Bros.

4. Judas and the Black Messiah
Shaka King's powerful dramatic thriller about Fred Hampton stars Daniel Kaluuya as the Black Panther Party chairman and Lakeith Stanfield as William O'Neal, the FBI informant who brought about his demise. Both actors appear on the cover of EW's February issue — and are strong contenders in this year's Oscar race.
Premieres Monday, Feb. 1

Sundance Institute

5. Land
In addition to starring as a heartbroken woman who isolates herself from the world in the merciless wilderness, Robin Wright stepped behind the camera for the first time on this deeply human (and gorgeously shot) story of survival and connection.
Premieres Sunday, Jan. 31

Sundance Institute

6. Misha and the Wolves
A stranger-than-fiction Holocaust memoir is the subject of Sam Hobkinson's stranger-than-stranger-than-fiction doc, as a disgraced publisher tries to uncover the book's true history in a twisty tale that must be seen to be believed.
Premieres Sunday, Jan. 31

Marshall Adams

7. On the Count of Three
In his bold debut feature, Jerrod Carmichael stars alongside Christopher Abbott as best friends spending a day together, their suicide pact awaiting them at the end of it. Provocative, witty, and vitally contemporary, this is the kind of discovery Sundance is known for.
Premieres Friday, Jan. 29

Sundance Institute

8. One for the Road
What begins as a bucket-list road trip through Thailand morphs into something much more complex in Baz Poonpiriya's rousing, life-affirming buddy movie, a touching reminder of the power we all have to correct our mistakes — and to save each other.
Premieres Thursday, Jan. 28 (DAY ONE FILM)

Sundance Institute

9. Strawberry Mansion
Look to the fest's innovative NEXT section for singular titles like Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley's wonderfully original entry, set in a surreal future where dreams are taxed and an auditor discovers a secret while examining an old woman's subconscious life.
Premieres Friday, Jan. 29

Sundance Institute

10. Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
The first feature by Questlove is a vibrant documentary about 1969's Harlem Cultural Festival, featuring unforgettable event footage of Stevie Wonder, Mavis Staples, and more that's been locked away, unseen, for 50 years. Formerly titled Black Woodstock, the movie celebrates a moment that deserves to be widely remembered.
Premieres Thursday, Jan. 28 (DAY ONE FILM)

Tiffany Roohani/Sundance Institute

11. Together Together
Starring opposite Ed Helms in Nikole Beckwith's earnest dramedy about the friendship between a man and his surrogate, Patti Harrison was changed forever: "Before that, I never really happy-cried," she admits. "Since that movie, I've happy-cried, like, not a lot — a couple times."
Premieres Sunday, Jan. 31

Sundance Institute

PERFORMANCE SPOTLIGHT: Ruth Negga in Passing
When Rebecca Hall asked Ruth Negga to star in her directorial debut, an adaptation of Nella Larsen's 1929 novel Passing, it was an easy decision for the Preacher star. "[It's] not that often that you get these scripts, that are so full-blooded and fully-fledged, about two Black women," she says. The film sees two girlhood friends, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Negga) meet years later in 1920s New York, where Irene is surprised to find that Clare has spent her adult life passing for white.

"Clare confounded me and mesmerized me and confused me," says Negga, who was deeply taken with Larsen's "almost clinical" treatment of her in the book and embraced that clear-eyed but nonjudgmental approach to the willful, selfish, but still sympathetic character. "[Larsen] doesn't want her to be a victim or a hero — she wants her to be a human being." Luckily, Hall found just the actress to bring her, in all her complexity, to vivid life.
Premieres Saturday, Jan. 30

The Sundance Film Festival will run Jan. 28 through Feb 3., 2021. You can get tickets to digital screenings at the Sundance website, and keep checking back here for EW's ongoing coverage of the fest.

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