Sundance 2021 Awards

The Daily — Feb 4, 2021
Sly Stone in Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul (2021)

Both Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul (. . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and Siân Heder’s CODA premiered last week on the opening day of this year’s mostly virtual Sundance Film Festival. By the end of Tuesday night’s awards ceremony, hosted by Patton Oswalt, both had come out on top, winning over juries and audiences alike. Of the seventy-two features in the 2021 lineup, Summer of Soul is a solid critical favorite, while reviews of CODA have been mixed. Here, section by section, is a sampling of what critics have been saying about the winners of this year’s awards.

U.S. Documentary Competition

Over six consecutive weekends in the summer of 1969, thanks to the organizational chops of singer and concert producer Tony Lawrence and the in-person blessing of mayor John Lindsay, the Harlem Cultural Festival drew 300,000 to watch, listen, and dance to a lineup that the Stranger’s Charles Mudede finds almost overwhelming: “Nina Simone (the storm), Sly and the Family Stone (the radical racial and gender experiment), Stevie Wonder (the boy genius), B. B. King (the king), Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach (the Black modernists), Gladys Knight and the Pips (the perfection of slick), the Staple Singers (the grund of soul), Mahalia Jackson (the queen of heaven), and Hugh Masekela (the shumba of black Africa). This is what Black gold looks like.”

Hal Tulchin, who had been directing television commercials, variety specials, and game shows since the 1950s, threw together a crew manned with five portable video cameras to capture nearly forty hours of taped footage—all on spec. Tulchin was sure that one network or another would be eager to board a project that he was calling “the Black Woodstock,” referencing, of course, the festival happening on Max Yasgur’s farm about a hundred miles north. But no network bit, and the footage was hauled down to a basement, shelved, and forgotten for half a century.

Roots drummer Questlove, making his directorial debut, has intercut highlights with interviews with some of the performers and attendees, and if Summer of Soul, winner of both a grand jury prize and an audience award, “were nothing but a labor-of-love rescue mission from a soul-music scholar, it would still be a first-rate concert film,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Fear. But it’s “also a testament to the rich culture of late ’60s Harlem, in the era of Black power and beauty. And it’s a portrait of a moment of violence and anxiety, riots and volatility, inner-city drug epidemics and a divide created by the advocating for non-violent protests vs. any-means-necessary self-defense. Montage after montage demonstrates how the era was faced with ‘White America at its worst’ vs ‘neo-super-blackness.’ And, to use another quote from someone recalling one of those Sundays in the park, how ‘the concert was like a rose coming through cement.’”

Writing for Sight & Sound, Devika Girish picks out a “striking sequence” that “illustrates the film’s time capsule-like power. A dashiki-clad Reverend Jesse Jackson speaks of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death just a year ago, in 1968, after which Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples join forces to perform “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” the song King had requested for his mass right before he was assassinated. As the two women bring the audience to rapture, Staples recalls in voiceover how awed she was when Jackson asked her to help sing the song. A community mourns, a crowd exults, and the baton passes from one generation to the next—all in one scene.”

Natalia Almada has won this section’s directing award for Users, “a film about our intimate relationship with technology,” as she puts it to Kara Headley at Women and Hollywood. Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov puts it another way, calling Users “an expensive-looking widescreen video diary (shot on the RED Gemini), with fantastically detailed images and rich sound. Contrary to their normal usage (providing establishing shots), Users’s drone shots, especially the pulsing overhead ocean views, are uncharacteristically hypnotic, while a drive through a California wildfire is like Gerry with the danger stakes amped . . . The through line, explained in over-explicit voiceover grounded in Almada’s perspective as a new mother, is technology and how it feels to have it literally watching over us at every age from birth.”

Kristina Motwani and Rebecca Adorno have won the editing award for their work on Peter Nicks’s Homeroom, which completes what IndieWire’s David Ehrlich notes is a “loose trilogy of vérité documentaries about the public institutions of a single American city.” Nicks “has now effectively done for Oakland what The Wire did for Baltimore,” writes Ehrlich, “but without the safety net of a script. The tragedy of Homeroom, which drops us into a school year at Oakland High with the same degree of watchfulness that characterized Waiting Room and The Force, is that the chaos of real life is even more disruptive in this upbeat portrait of marginalized teenagers than it was in Nicks’s films about the intake procedures of the city’s underfunded hospital or the systemic violence of its overfunded police.”

A special jury award presented to emerging filmmakers goes to Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt for Cusp, which captures a year in the life of Autumn, Brittney, and Aaloni, three teens growing up in a small town in Texas. At Slant, Chuck Bowen finds that Cusp has “an aura of desolation that suggests a verité version” of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971). Bowen wouldn’t disagree with the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, who writes that “for all its sensitivity, respect, and evidence of mutual trust, Cusp feels wispy, as if the molding clay hasn’t found its shape.”

Another special jury award, this one for nonfiction experimentation, goes to Theo Anthony for All Light, Everywhere, his second feature after Rat Film (2016). “In a manner after his acknowledged influences Chris Marker and Harun Farocki,” writes Jordan Cronk, introducing his interview with the filmmaker for the Notebook, “Anthony presents a hyper-analytical view of reality as rendered by modern machinery, zooming in and out of eras and events with a dream-like fluidity that folds the narration and digitally mapped topographies of Rat Film into an expansive audio-visual tapestry that pairs archival imagery, on-the-ground footage of a Baltimore police department body camera training program, and a guided tour of the Axon body camera production facility with hypnotizing female voiceover passages and evocative soundscapes by experimental pop producer Dan Deacon.” The New Yorker’s Richard Brody notes that, ultimately, Anthony’s “subject is the elisions and suppressions inherent in the production of images (whether photographic or cinematographic), and, ultimately, a collective political blind spot: the racist preconceptions underlying the seemingly technical procedures of policing.”

U.S. Dramatic Competition

The title of CODA, the winner of a grand jury award, a directing award, an audience award, another for the ensemble cast, and a record-breaking deal—Apple has snapped it up for $25 million—is an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults. Teenaged Ruby (Emilia Jones) is that child, the only hearing member of a family of four, and she’s feeling the urge to leave Gloucester, a modest fishing town in Massachusetts, for Boston, where she hopes to study and possibly become a singer. “Though overly conventionally narrativized,” writes Abby Sun for Filmmaker, “the film is shot, blocked and captioned to provide Deaf audiences the ability to comprehend all the dialogue and signing of Deaf actors Troy Kotsur (who also provided sign language consulting on The Mandalorian), Daniel Durant and the incomparable Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God), in a scene-stealing role as a former beauty queen.”

The A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd finds that “even rudimentary dialogue exchanges and run-of-the-mill arguments feel like a peek into a too-rarely-explored corner of American life . . . Trouble is, all of this material is so specific that it has the effect of throwing the more generic scenes into sharper relief. Too much of the film feels more informed by other movies than any real experience.” But at In Review Online, Morris Yang argues that CODA “realizes its egalitarian and empowering portrayal of the Deaf community without slipping into honeyed condescension.”

Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch have won the Waldo Salt screenwriting award for On the Count of Three, directed by comedian Jerrod Carmichael, who also stars with Christopher Abbott. They’re best friends who make a pact to end their lives together. “It’s very easy for an indie comedy about suicide to tumble into glibness,” writes Alonso Duralde at TheWrap, “but Carmichael and his writers take these characters and their plights absolutely seriously. One of the best things that can be said about On the Count of Three is that it forces viewers to dispel any certainty that its protagonists won’t wind up dead at the end, which provides the film with both integrity and unpredictability.”

Clifton Collins Jr. has won a special jury award for best actor for what Emily Maskell at Little White Lies calls a “career-best performance” in Clint Bentley’s Jockey. Collins “navigates the role of athlete and father with subtle but striking conviction,” and the film reminds Maskell of Chloé Zhao’s The Rider (2017), “another quietly meditative and poignant tale of life on the fringes.”

World Cinema Documentary Competition

Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee, the winner of the grand jury award, recounts the harrowing trek of a close friend he’s calling Amin. In the late 1980s, Amin’s family fled Afghanistan for Moscow and then, one by one, smuggled each member to Europe. Amin now lives as an openly gay man in Denmark. “Whichever form of storytelling had been settled on,” writes Benjamin Lee in the Guardian, “the staggering details of Amin’s life would have been undeniable, but in animating his interviews with him and the various events being recalled, Rasmussen finds an unusually immersive way to pull us in even closer, one that’s both emotionally involving and artfully realized . . . It’s impossible to recall a refugee story told with such devastating efficacy as well as such specific nuance, showing us the horrors Amin experienced but also, importantly, how they stuck to him in the years after and still do.”

The audience award and a special jury award go to Writing with Fire, a portrait of the all-female editorial team behind the Indian newspaper Khabar Lahariya, which translates as “waves of news.” This is the first feature from directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, and in the Hollywood Reporter, Inkoo Kang assures us that they “illuminate plenty: the necessary negotiations with men for low-caste women to speak up in relative safety; how caste discrimination works, especially for working women; and perhaps most importantly, the change that can happen when the most marginalized members of a society empower themselves.”

Hogir Hirori has won the directing award for Sabaya, which he also shot and edited. “Barring a few cards of scene-setting exposition,” writes Isaac Feldberg at the Film Stage, “this vital dispatch embeds viewers with a rescue operation in the Middle East, and does so with a degree of first-person access that’s not just instantly bold: it’s nerve-janglingly scary.”

In 2014, ISIS invaded the Sinjar region of northern Iraq, attacking the Yazidi, a religious minority, killing the men and capturing the girls and women to keep as “sabaya,” or sex slaves. When the Islamic State fell in 2019, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces set up a camp near the Syrian-Iraqi border, where 73,000 refugees, including former ISIS fighters and their slaves, await the end of the decade-old Syrian civil war. Sabaya centers on the Yazidi Home Center, where volunteers infiltrate the camp to find and smuggle out one girl or woman at a time. Some are former sabaya themselves, and a few are willing to tell their stories to Hirori, whose “subtle and unobtrusive approach is one of the film’s strengths,” finds Screen’s Wendy Ide. Hirori “affords the sabaya agency over how much they chose to reveal, and a respect which has long been absent from their lives.”

President, the winner of a special jury award for vérité filmmaking, is Camilla Nielsson’s follow-up to Democrats, her 2014 documentary on the political maneuvering that led to a new constitution in Zimbabwe. In Variety, Guy Lodge finds President to be a “galvanizing, epic-scale docuthriller tracking Zimbabwe’s corruption-riddled 2018 presidential election—presented here as a brazen feat of hijacked democracy to make Donald Trump positively chartreuse with envy.”

World Cinema Dramatic Competition

In Hive, her feature debut, Blerta Basholli tells the real-life story of Fahrije, whose husband has been missing since the end of the war in Kosovo. The patriarchs who oversee her small village expect her to carry on waiting for his return while supporting her family on meager welfare checks. But Fahrije (Yllka Gashi) has waited long enough. “That such an understated, formally cautious film picked up the audience, directing, and grand jury prizes in a vibrant Sundance World Dramatic competition is perhaps greatly a factor of the admiration it engenders for the real Fahrije (whose homemade pickle business continues to thrive), and the seeming ease with which her story can be mapped to the beats of a familiar triumph-over-adversity narrative,” writes Jessica Kiang in Variety. “Nonetheless, there are moments, particularly in Gashi’s tenacious performance, that connect to a rawer emotional power.”

Jesmark Scicluna, who plays—and in real life, actually is—a Maltese fisherman in Alex Camilleri’s debut feature, Luzzu, has won the best actor award. “Naturalistic and a bit on-the-nose in spots,” writes Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter, “the film is also a moving tale of real-world strife—a sort of low-key, contemporary take on Visconti’s neorealist classic La terra trema, with EU officials and regulations undoing seafaring practices that have existed for generations.”

Thai director Baz Poonpiriya, known for his thrillers Countdown (2012) and Bad Genius (2017), has teamed up with producer Wong Kar Wai on One for the Road, the story of two friends revisiting all their old haunts in Thailand. And it’s won a special jury award for creative vision. “Here and there, Wong’s way with color, tone, texture, and a sheet of rain-speckled glass asserts itself, as though Poonpiriya got a contact high of sensual genius,” writes A. A. Dowd. “But the style would have to be more consistently dazzling to make up for the interminable banality of this melodrama, which drags out the conflict between two generally unlikable, thinly sketched bar bros to an unconscionable 136 minutes.”


In Marion Hill’s debut feature, Ma Belle, My Beauty, winner of an audience award, the marriage between two musicians is rattled when a lover they used to share arrives at their new home in the south of France. “Earthy and sensual in ways most contemporary independent films have forgotten how to be, it’s a movie of good food, fine wines and languorous, lusty encounters in the late afternoons,” writes Sean Burns.

On Nicolas Rapold’s podcast, The Last Thing I Saw, Amy Taubin declares Cryptozoo, Dash Shaw’s long-awaited follow-up to My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (2016), to be a “masterpiece.” Magnolia Pictures picked it up just before it won the NEXT Innovator Prize. Working with his wife, animation director Jane Samborski, and a voice cast that includes Lake Bell, Grace Zabriskie, Michael Cera, Angeliki Papoulia, and Zoe Kazan, Shaw imagines a sanctuary for cryptids, mythological creatures of every sort whom the military would very much like to get its hands on.

Jessica Kiang, writing for Variety, finds that the “allegorical power” of Cryptozoo, “despite the presence of so many wondrous supernatural beings, and the references to everything from Greek myth to the Garden of Eden to Celtic fairytale, maxes out at a kind of generalized ‘be respectful of folks who look different to you.’ But even the most simplistic sentiment can be made resonant when rendered in such labor-of-love artwork, when the grandiose and grotesque characters are drawn and voiced with such individuality, and when the lavishly textured backgrounds fill every frame to bursting with eccentric detail. In this zoo, the story may be tame, but the images, and the imagination that releases them, run wild.” 

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