2021 Sundance Film Festival: Day 1 highlights

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David Morgan
·6 min read
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Opening night of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival on Thursday was a virtual affair, as this year's festival is being presented online for the first time, streaming narrative and non-fiction films from around the world to homes far from Park City, Utah, the festival's traditional home base. With a lineup that includes 72 feature films from 29 countries, the festival kicked off with a rousing documentary of music history, and haunting stories of family and friendship, from the U.S. and abroad.

Here are some of the highlights of opening night. The festival runs through February 3. [See below for program and ticket information.]

Highlights for opening day:

Emilia Jones stars in
Emilia Jones stars in

"CODA"

In this touching dramedy, Emilia Jones stars as Ruby, a young girl in Gloucester, Mass., suffering from traditional teenage angst (mean girls drama, cute guy butterflies), which is made substantially more isolating because Ruby's mother, father and brother are deaf. ("CODA" stands for Child Of Deaf Adults.) For most of her life she has borne the responsibility of serving as translator between them and the hearing world, but the weight of that job, which turns increasingly crucial when the family opens its own fishing business, becomes potentially crushing once she decides to pursue her dream of singing – a talent that neither her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) nor brother (Daniel Durant) can appreciate.

Writer-director Siân Heder (who was previously at Sundance with her 2016 feature "Tallulah") puts considerable weight upon Ruby's shoulders, and on occasion puts the audience in the shoes of Ruby's parents, with heart-breaking effect. Jones is winning as a spirited but landlocked teen who just needs a confidence boost (enter music teacher Eugenio Derbez) to break out.

Next showing is on Jan. 30 at 10:00 a.m. ET/8:00 a.m. MT.

Tor Thanapob and Ice Natara star in
Tor Thanapob and Ice Natara star in

"One for the Road"

One of the gems of the festival starts out as a picaresque, comical road trip in which a dying man seeks to make amends with his ex-girlfriends, but as the trip progresses it becomes a deeper look at male bonding and the unspoken secrets that can, at inopportune times, damage or reorient a friendship. Tor Thanapob and Ice Natara play Boss and Aood, Thai men whose shared history is tested as Boss agrees to drive Aood (who is dying from leukemia) across Thailand to find peace in broken relationships. But much of the film is told is flashbacks set in New York City, where their friendship was formed over – what else? – a woman.

Baz Poonpiriya (who previously directed the thriller "Bad Genius") shows a deft hand at moving the story back and forth in time, and the cinematography and editing create a spirit of whimsy that shades the darker aspects of the characters' conflicts. And even at moments when you fear the director's use of music is getting a little too on-the-nose, it becomes a lump-in-the-throat moment instead. The film was produced by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai ("In the Mood for Love").

Next showing is on Jan. 30 at 10:00 a.m. ET/8 a.m. MT.

Sly Stone performs at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, as seen in the documentary
Sly Stone performs at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, as seen in the documentary

"Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)"

The Woodstock Music and Art Festival, held on a farm in Bethel, N.Y. in August 1969, became a cultural linchpin of the '60s thanks in part to the Oscar-winning Michael Wadleigh documentary film, which preserved its classic performances. But earlier that same summer, the Harlem Cultural Festival was held over several weekends in New York City, featuring a jaw-dropping lineup of jazz, blues, gospel and R&B artists (Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Sisters, and Gladys Knight and the Pips, to name just a few), with attendance reaching 300,000. Although it was meticulously staged and filmed, a "Black Woodstock" concert film could not find a buyer, and so the 45 hours of footage sat in a basement for five decades.

It could easily have ended up in a landfill, and the impact of the festival entirely forgotten, were it not for director Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, bandleader of The Roots, who helped bring this event back to life. Learning from producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent that there had been a festival that rivaled Woodstock was a shock to him, he told audiences during a post-screening Q&A on Thursday: "How has this been forgotten? How did that happen in New York City and no history was preserved whatsoever?"

Thompson has shaped the documentary into a cultural artifact of a critical time in the life of New York City. The musical performances are joyous, the footage restoration is superb, and one can't help but smile when watching Bill Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo of The 5th Dimension smile as they watch themselves perform "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" 50 years later.

Next showing is on Jan. 30 at 10:00 a.m. ET/8 a.m. MT.

Niamh Algar in the horror film
Niamh Algar in the horror film

"Censor"

Enid, a member of a British film censorship board charged with dispassionately reviewing explicit and violent horror films (dubbed by the tabloids "video nasties"), becomes a little too emotionally involved when she begins imagining that the films she is watching intersect with a terrible tragedy from her past.

Niamh Algar brings to her role a chilling self-assuredness that begins to crack, as her character enters the world of horror film production, in which both fake and real blood flows profusely. A gleeful paean to 1980s horror films – and if anything is missed at this year's virtual Sundance, it is the sound of hundreds of fellow fans who would otherwise attend this bloody treat, laughing and screaming in unison.

Next showing is on Jan. 30 at 10:00 a.m. ET/8:00 a.m. MT.

How to watch

While features will be streamed during selected blocks of time (and can only be viewed then), short film programs will be accessible throughout the festival, which culminates in an awards ceremony that will be streamed live on Tuesday, February 2. [Winning films will be available to watch on demand the following day.]

Offerings may be viewed via a web browser, streamed from your computer to your TV (via Chromecast, Airplay or Wi-Fi), or through an HDMI connection. You can also watch via the Sundance Film Festival TV app (available on AppleTV and iOS, FireTV and Android). [Go here for technical instructions on getting set up.]

In addition to streaming via Sundance's digital portal, films will be presented on satellite screens nationwide, including arthouse cinemas, museums and drive-ins. [A complete list of venues may be found here.]

For online and in-person tickets go to tickets.festival.sundance.org. Check here for a program guide and film descriptions.Printable 2021 program guide (pdf )

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