On Set: American Dramas Still Impress at Virtual Sundance Film Festival

KHOL film critic Jeff Counts reviews top contenders in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the first-ever virtual Sundance.
CODA film still
“CODA” was the clear darling of this year’s U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance. (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

by | Feb 5, 2021 | Culture, Film & TV

Before I brag too much about my 16 Sundance movies in four days, I must admit to knowing a few veteran Park City warriors who have seen nearly 30 in previous years—and that was in the days when you had to move from theater to theater. There’s a pride that comes with that kind of exhaustion, and a comradery built from seeing familiar faces in the wintry lines outside each premiere.

Rather than cancel or scale way back in 2021, Sundance chose to go fully digital. All 73 features were available online through a variety of platforms. I did all of my viewing on the bespoke Sundance Apple TV app, and everything worked like a charm. The festival planners hoped to maintain the thrill and exclusivity of real premieres by setting specific show times and limiting the number of virtual tickets for each screening. I’ll be honest: It made little difference to me on my couch, but I appreciated the ideal. For my personalized 2021 Sundance experience, I chose to focus on the flagship category, U.S. Dramatic.

“CODA” was the clear darling of this year’s field. The name is an acronym for “Child of Deaf Adults,” and the story is a wonderful slice of life drama featuring a culture that definitely needs more screen time. But we’ll come back to “CODA.”

Past Grand Jury Prize winners in the U.S. Dramatic Competition include “Precious,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Winter’s Bone,” “Whiplash” and “Fruitvale Station”—all excellent movies. And each rose to the top of what is quite often a mixed bag of peers. Style and substance can occasionally balance poorly in this kind of moviemaking. That is, festival moviemaking. Directors and producers are hoping to get picked up by big distributors while also catching the eye of jurors who apply a decidedly non-commercial rubric. It can’t be easy to create something financially attractive and artistically adventurous, and sometimes the strain of pleasing those competing masters is too apparent. On the whole, this year’s competitors were very good. With stories ranging from unique ruminations on death, depictions of unsettling family dynamics, explorations of race and the durability of friendship. 2021 was a solid festival.

It’s a common occurrence at Sundance for a film to garner early buzz, gather huge momentum and then ride both all the way to the awards show. “CODA” seemed destined to win from the start—so much so that, as a member of the viewing press, you almost wondered if you really needed to watch anything else. I’m glad I did. I liked “CODA” very much and understand why it claimed the top honors. But there were better films in this group.

The biggest surprise was actor/director Jerrod Carmichael’s “On the Count of Three,” about the last day in the friendship of two troubled men. It’s honest and funny and I can’t stop thinking about it. Also on my list of favorites were “Passing” and “Jockey.” First-time director Rebecca Hall’s choice to present her racially charged period piece, “Passing,” in black in white seemed very Sundance-y on paper, but it works. And the mannered, performative script was beautifully inhabited by the two leads, Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson. Better still was Clint Bentley’s “Jockey.” It was maybe the least daring movie of the lot, but Clifton Collins Jr.’s performance at the center of this gritty horse racing drama was the best thing I saw all week. The jury agreed with me on that point, at least.

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival was a product, but not a victim, of its moment. The technology held, and the movies were worth the effort of learning a new way to experience them. It’s impossible to replace the feeling of actually being there among the creators and fellow enthusiasts. But the work is what really matters in the end, and they got that part right.

Stay tuned next week for more reviews from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival on KHOL’s “On Set.”

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About Jeff Counts

Before moving to Jackson in 2019, Jeff spent five years reviewing movies as co-host of the public access television program "Big Movie Mouth-Off." When not focused on film, Jeff writes about opera and co-hosts the classical music interview podcast "Ghost Light."

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