Even in any normal year, trying to predict what will and won’t land at the Sundance film festival is something of a fool’s errand. It’s a lineup filled with small, often totally unknown films, most of which don’t yet have distribution, a long list of italicised question marks waiting to be underlined or erased and what makes it all that much harder to predict is that the movies that premiere with big names are often the biggest disasters. In recent editions, films such as Eighth Grade, The Farewell, Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Hereditary all came from nowhere to end up going somewhere while more obviously starry fare such as Four Good Days (Glenn Close and Mila Kunis), The Last Thing He Wanted (Anne Hathaway and Ben Affleck), After the Wedding (Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams) and Beirut (Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike) all sank without a trace.
With Covid still preventing a traditional in-person Utah festival, this year’s set of films will all premiere online (with some physical and drive-in screenings nationwide) and the impact of the pandemic has also led to a more modest lineup (72 premieres compared with last year’s 118), making it an unusual year but one that may allow space for some of the smaller films that often get ignored.
So with an awareness of the pitfalls that come with such an exercise, here’s a look at seven films that look most likely to break big:
Ever since confused attendees laid witness to “documentary” The Blair Witch Project back in 1999, the festival has become a reliable first port for at least one buzzy horror film from Saw to Get Out to The Babadook and this year’s Midnight section offers up a few tantalising candidates. Top of the list is the Welsh director Prano Bailey-Bond’s atmospheric chiller Censor, set during the UK’s video nasty moral panic of the mid-80s. It’s the tale of Enid (Raised by Wolves rising star Niamh Algar), whose job as a censor requires her to make difficult decisions, picking and choosing which on-screen acts of violence she deems too extreme, hyper-aware that her choices are being analysed by bloodthirsty tabloids. When her latest assignment, a disturbing film from a mysterious director, echoes her own childhood trauma, Enid starts to unravel. Unlike so many retro horrors that have clumsily used nostalgia to secure at least the mildest of adoration from genre buffs, Censor uses a fascinating point in British history to explore issues of trauma, mental health and the realities of violence. It’s likely to be haunting us not just for the duration of the festival but for the next 12 months and further.
Tackling an almost impossibly difficult subject with bracing directness, tough drama Mass might not be one of the most enjoyable films of the festival but it’s set to be one of the most powerful. It’s the debut feature from actor Fran Kranz (arguably best known as the stoner from The Cabin in the Woods) and he constructs a low-budget, high-stress set-up, one that many viewers might prefer to avoid experiencing. Years after a school shooting, two sets of parents meet for a discussion about their sons, both of whom lost their lives. For one couple (played by Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton), it involves a difficult journey back through the wreckage of their grief but for the other (Ann Dowd and Reed Birney), it also requires an even harder analysis as it was their son who was the shooter. Inspired by the fallout from the Parkland shooting, Kranz has made a small film that finds its way around a big issue with sensitivity, uncomfortable to watch but with important, non-judgmental insights for many of us who are able to endure it.
The directorial debut of the actor Rebecca Hall (next seen heading up #TeamKong in March) is an adaptation of Nella Larson’s acclaimed 1929 novel Passing, a story of two childhood friends in Harlem who reunite after years apart. Both are light-skinned women of colour (played by Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson) and at a time of racial division, one has chosen to “pass” as white, a decision that leads to tragedy. When Hall initially presented her script, she was met with caution from producing partners Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker (the pair’s films include Fruitvale Station and Sorry to Bother You) as they were concerned that a white British woman wouldn’t be the best choice until Hall told them about her bi-racial heritage and how generations of her family have passed for white because of their light skin. It’s a passion project for Hall, described as a combination of a drama about race and gender but also a Hitchcockian thriller, filmed in black and white in an old-fashioned 4:3 ratio with a cast that also includes Andre Holland and Alexander Skarsgård, an exciting and challenging package that could be one of the most talked about films of the festival.
In the Earth
Given the quality of the made-during-pandemic movies we’ve already had the chance to see, there is every reason to be cautious about Ben Wheatley’s “secret” horror film shot over 15 days last August. But the director has shown us that he works best with a low budget and without a studio breathing down his neck (his recent remake of Rebecca was a regrettably bland mis-step) and In the Earth promises a return to the sharper bite of the films that originally brought him to our attention, from Kill List to Sightseers to A Field in England. The story focuses on a deadly virus and a mission into a forest to locate a research hub. Details are scarce but it sounds like a potential return to form with Wheatley thrusting his small cast (including Yesterday’s Joel Fry, the excellent Hayley Squires and a malevolent Reece Shearsmith) into a strange world of psychedelic horrors.
In the Same Breath
With breathless speed, film-makers have been deftly documenting the chaos of the past year and releasing their work as fast as possible so that people can have direct access to the many errors and injustices that have found us in such an unprecedented place. The Chinese-born, America-based director Nanfu Wang, whose devastating and personal film One Child Nation won the Grand Jury prize for best documentary at Sundance in 2019, has created what might be the most effective one to date with In the Same Breath. Wang has focused her attention on both China and America in a film that probes the political, looking at the responses from Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, while also reminding us of the personal, speaking to people in both countries whose lives have been irrevocably affected. The film promises to be an infuriating indictment as well as a testament to those who have risked, and often lost, their lives to keep others safe.
On the Count of Three
An unusual, dark bromance here, one centered around two characters who decide upon a double suicide pact right after they deal with some unfinished business in a caper that also touches upon of domestic abuse and child molestation. But it’s kind of a comedy. That’s the ambitious set-up of the comedian Jerrod Carmichael’s directorial debut On the Count of Three, where he stars alongside Sundance stalwart Christopher Abbott (quietly becoming one of the most successful Girls alumni), Tiffany Haddish, Henry Winkler and JB Smoove in a film that at the very least will be nothing like anything else we’ll see at this year’s festival. Carmichael’s underrated semi-autobiographical sitcom The Carmichael Show and his intensely personal documentary shorts released after have shown us that he is a comic with something to say and so many are cautiously excited to see what he’ll do with such audacious material.
Judas and the Black Messiah
The strange, fractured nature of the past year has turned 1960s drama Judas and the Black Messiah from a late summer release to a Sundance premiere and the delayed Oscar eligibility date (from end of December to end of February) has meant that for the first time, a film can travel straight from the festival to the Academy Awards. Buzz around the film (already, confusingly named one of 2020’s best by the National Board of Review) is nothing but positive with stars Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya and Dominique Fishback all deservedly included in the awards conversation. The story is a compelling one, that of a petty criminal who became an informant for the FBI who wanted to dethrone and destroy Black Panther activist Fred Hampton. It’s a still rather untapped corner of history and in Shaka King’s bold studio debut, it’s inarguable proof that more stories from a difficult period of American history deserve to be told, especially on such a large canvas.