Even though the Sundance Film Festival is a big deal and only a 90-minute flight away from Phoenix, I sadly never attended. After growing up in Upstate NY, shoveling our 60-yard driveway hundreds of times and trudging through blizzards, ice storms, and 3-foot snowdrifts as a paperboy for five years, I tend to shy away from snowy, cold weather whenever possible. (Living in and embracing one of the hottest cities in the country is reasonably reliable proof, don’t you think?)
This year, however, I enrolled in Sundance 2021, and through Internet magic, I watched the festival’s movies from my living room, a workable compromise. Hey, it was cool, figuratively…not literally. Now, I didn’t catch every film, but I experienced 27 of them, and here are my five favorites.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” – Director Shaka King delivers an explosive – literally and figuratively – biopic of Black Panther Party Illinois Chapter Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and Security Chief William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield). Kaluuya is nothing short of electric as Hampton, as he decrees thunderous, mesmerizing speeches that prompt his audiences to repeat in unison, “I am! A revolutionary!” King’s film is also a raw, nuanced, and informative history lesson. He doesn’t pull any punches from the violence caused by the Panthers and police, but King also captures Fred’s empathetic, humanitarian side. Meanwhile, William is supposedly a loyal ally, but with FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) holding Wild Bill – as he was sometimes called – under potential jail-time duress, Fred unknowingly has a reluctant adversary within his trusted circle. Stanfield and Plemons are perfectly cast, and Dominique Fishback is a marvelous surprise as Deborah Johnson, Fred’s girlfriend, who may have called out her boyfriend most accurately: he’s a poet.
“Mass” – On an ordinary afternoon, a volunteer and a social worker prepare a pleasant Episcopal church’s meeting room. This unassuming space contains a table, chairs, some snacks, a Kleenex box, and invisible tension. It will house an assembly of four to discuss an unknown topic…to the audience. They (Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney, and Ann Dowd) arrive in two pairs, sit, and debate in this chamber for most of the movie’s 110-minute runtime in writer/director Fran Kranz’s deeply affecting picture, one that feels like a no-frills Broadway play. In his directorial debut, Kranz doesn’t immediately reveal the core event(s) that brought these rational but emotionally-scarred individuals together. He slowly divulges critical tidbits along the way and keep us riveted to the conversation. Isaacs, Plimpton, Birney, and Dowd seem to bestow every one of their acting gifts – like athletes leaving it all on the field – in this consuming, wholly authentic experience.
“Passing” – By random chance or perhaps fate, childhood friends Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) reconnect at a posh New York City restaurant as 30-somethings. They explore their life choices that afternoon and beyond in writer/director Rebecca Hall’s first feature film, an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel. The story dives headfirst into identity and race, as Irene quickly discovers that Clare has been passing as a white woman for years. Filmed in a rich black and white, Hall captures the big-band sights and sounds of the 1920s as well as the rigid racial lines of the period, ones that Clare has routinely crossed without consequences. She, however, might discover what she’s lost, and Negga is a shoo-in for a 2022 Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.
“The Pink Cloud” – Smack dab in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, writer/director Iuli Gerbase concocts a toxic brew – in the form of pink clouds – that suddenly encircles the planet and forces humans to remain indoors or suffer certain death within 10 seconds of outdoor exposure. Naturally, Gerbase’s premise hits way too close to home for John and Jane Q. Public, as she imagines an ill-timed fate for Giovana (Renata de Lelis) and Yago (Eduardo Mendonca), a couple who just met and are now quarantining for an indefinite time. Not only does Gerbase travel in unexpected directions within the walls of the spacious – but enclosed – modern apartment, but she also stirs anticipated scenarios that are greatly heightened due to Giovana and Yago’s claustrophobic predicament. “The Pink Cloud” might spark CPTSD (current pandemic traumatic stress disorder), but then again, at least you and I can open up a window or step outside to breathe some fresh air.
“Strawberry Mansion” – Writers/directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney dispense a wildly bizarre cinematic acid trip that seems like an uninhabited mix of a long-lost Philip K. Dick short story, “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters” (1973-1974), Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits” (1981), and a good, old-fashioned love story. That’s a lot to absorb, right? Take a deep breath and step into the Strawberry Mansion. It’s 2035, and mild-mannered James Preble (Audley) is a government dream auditor. His job is to assess and tax dreams using far-fetched technologies with some throwback 20th-century remembrances. Accompanied by practical and special effects last seen during the groovy 1970s, Preble meets his latest client Arabella Isadora (played by both Penny Fuller and Grace Glowicki), and her particular dreams enchant him outside of his regular 9-to-5 duties. Well, Audley and Birney’s entire film sparks enchantment…and frequent daydreams too.
Image credits: 5B Productions