A Hybrid Lineup for Sundance 2021

Luchino Visconti and Björn Andrésen on the set of Death in Venice (1971)

In last year’s Midsommar, Ari Aster’s folk horror hit, Dan, an elderly gaunt man with long white hair and a beard, leaps from a cliff. Unfortunately, he survives the fall and has to have his face bashed in with a mallet. Dan is played by Björn Andrésen, first seen on-screen in 1970 in a small role in Roy Andersson’s A Swedish Love Story but truly discovered the following year when Luchino Visconti cast him as Tadzio, the object of Dirk Bogarde’s obsession in Death in Venice. Andrésen is the subject of a new documentary, Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, slated to premiere next month at Sundance.

It’s one of seventy-two features, thirty-eight of them debuts for their directors, in a lineup announced yesterday afternoon that includes almost as many shorts. Half of the 140 films and projects have been directed by one or more women, and seventy-one have been directed one or more artists of color. Most of them will be presented virtually, although Sundance is setting up drive-in screenings and live events at satellite venues all across the country. The festival has built its own online platform that will allow viewers to not only watch films but also to gather in virtual chat rooms to talk about them.

For all the changes and overall slimming down Tabitha Jackson has had to make in her first year as director of Sundance—a typical lineup usually boasts around 120 features—the sections and competitions are intact. At IndieWire, Eric Kohn talks with Jackson and director of programming Kim Yutani about some of the standout titles, including One for the Road, directed by Baz Poonpiriya and produced by Wong Kar Wai. It’s the story of two friends’ journey through their past in Thailand. “There is this kind of Wong Kar Wai flavor to the film in that it is a kind of nostalgic, beautiful, emotional look at the impermanence of life,” says Yutani. “It really surprised me, and I’d love to see it emerge out of the program.”

Acquisitions, in the meantime, are already underway. Luxbox has picked up Argentine director Ana Katz’s The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet, a comedy about a man in his thirties reluctant to grow up—until a pandemic has everyone on the planet wearing bubble headgear. “This film is highly intuitive, it has a collective yet deeply personal identity,” Katz tells Variety’s John Hopewell. “It really expresses who I am.”

Deadline’s Tom Grater reports that the Athens-based distributor Heretic Outreach has struck a deal for Ronny Trocker’s Human Factors, starring Mark Waschke and the always-riveting Sabine Timoteo as a couple whose marriage, already on shaky ground, is rocked when their family is robbed while on vacation. “What we find remarkable about the film,” says Heretic Outreach’s Ioanna Stais, “is that, weeks after first watching it, we are still peeling off different layers of the narrative and discovering new ways of approaching it.”

Another title lined up for the world cinema dramatic competition is Alex Camilleri’s Luzzu, the story of a struggling fisherman on the island of Malta produced by Rebecca Anastasi and Chop Shop director Ramin Bahrani. Memento Films International is now on board, reports Elsa Keslassy in Variety, where Manori Ravindran has the story on Dogwoof’s acquisition of Hogir Hirori’s world cinema documentary competition entry, Sabaya. Hirori accompanies a group of Yazidis in Iraq as they set out to rescue thousands of women and girls captured by ISIS.

Among the highlights in the U.S. dramatic competition are Jerrod Carmichael’s On the Count of Three, a comedy about a suicide pact with Tiffany Haddish in a supporting role, and Passing, Rebecca Hall’s first feature as a director. An adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as two Black friends who can, if they choose, “pass” as white. Talking to the Playlist, Hall says the story is “about two women struggling not just with what it meant to be Black in America in 1929, but with gender conventions, the performance of femininity, the institution of marriage, the responsibilities of motherhood, and the ways in which all of those forces intersect.”

Two to keep an eye on in the U.S. documentary competition are Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul (. . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), which revisits the series of summer concerts staged by the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, and All Light, Everywhere, Theo Anthony’s first feature since Rat Film (2016). Focusing on surveillance technology, Anthony explores the act of seeing and its impact on human perception.

The Next program will launch Cryptozoo, Dash Shaw’s animated follow-up to My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (2016). Keepers of mythical creatures will be voiced by Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Angeliki Papoulia, Zoe Kazan, Peter Stormare, and Grace Zabriskie. Kentucker Audley plays a dream auditor in Strawberry Mansion, which he’s codirected with Albert Birney. And filmmaker and biologist Alexis Gambis’s Son of Monarchs, the story of a man obsessing over butterflies, has already won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize, an award presented each year to a feature with a scientific theme.

Premieres include Edgar Wright’s first documentary, The Sparks Brothers, a portrait of the influential band that has written a batch of new songs for Leos Carax’s forthcoming Annette; Bring Your Own Brigade, a documentary on the wild fires that regularly ravage northern California by Lucy Walker (Waste Land); Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland, which Nicolas Cage says “might be the wildest movie I’ve ever made”; and Robin Wright’s debut feature as a director, Land, in which she stars as a woman who heads to the Rocky Mountains on her own in the wake of a tragedy.

Two other films in the Premieres program address the pandemic head-on. Ben Wheatley spent fifteen days in August quietly shooting In the Earth, which follows a scientist and a park scout deep into the forest as a killer virus shuts the world down. And Nanfu Wang, who won a grand jury prize at Sundance for One Child Nation (2019), returns with In the Same Breath, a documentary examining the Chinese government’s response to the outbreak in Wuhan.

In the Los Angeles Times, Mark Olsen notes that, in spirit at least, the virus even seems to have infected a few films in the lineup that were likely conceived before the pandemic. “I think that one of the amazing things about film is that the audience makes the meaning to a large extent,” Jackson tells Olsen. “And so even from a month or so out, things might feel different in January. It’s going to be a new year, it’s going to be a new political administration in this country, the vaccines will be further along, it will perhaps it be a more hopeful time. And the meaning of these films will change again as we watch them.”

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