2021 Sundance: Best Movies : Pop Culture Happy Hour One of the most anticipated moments of any year in movies is the Sundance Film Festival. This is not a year for gathering in crowds, so the Sundance Film Festival in 2021 went virtual. More than 70 feature films, including both narrative films and documentaries, were at Sundance this year. Today we round up some highlights, including two big winners, CODA and Summer Of Soul.
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Great Movies We Saw At The 2021 Sundance Film Festival

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Great Movies We Saw At The 2021 Sundance Film Festival

Great Movies We Saw At The 2021 Sundance Film Festival

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

One of the most anticipated moments of any year in movies is the Sundance Film Festival. For decades, filmmakers including Quentin Tarantino, Jordan Peele and Steven Soderbergh have gotten big boosts from exposure there. But, of course, this is not a year for gathering and crowds, so the Sundance Film Festival in 2021 went virtual.

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

More than 70 feature films, including both narrative films and documentaries, are at Sundance this year.

HOLMES: And while we haven't seen all 70 of them, we've seen quite a few.

HARRIS: And we can't wait to share some highlights. I'm Aisha Harris.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about some of the best things we saw at the Sundance Film Festival on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOLMES: Welcome back. So as we mentioned in the intro, Sundance has been virtual this year. That means that if you get a ticket or you get a press credential, you can stream the films at home. I have been using, for example, an Apple TV app they created. They've kept intact a couple of film festival traditions, I think, as well as they can. They still do little introductions from the directors, which just kind of look like people on Zoom calls (laughter). And they also still do Q&A's after the movie, which as always, can be really informative or really awkward or a little bit of both.

We want to touch on some of the best things we saw, with the caveat that we expect a lot of these to eventually be available for you to see. I hope most of them will be. And we'll spend more time on them then, when they're available. So this is going to feel a little bit more like an overview, a little bit less like a full critique. Aisha, what is the first film that you want to talk about? Let's jump right in.

HARRIS: Well, every year, I think it's safe to say that there is that one sort of big crowd-pleaser that is light but also has interesting themes or a unique storytelling perspective and is very fun for the audience. And last year, I think that was "Forty-Year-Old Version," which we talked about on the show.

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARRIS: This year it seems pretty clear that it was "CODA." The film received top honors at this year's Sundance. It won the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. drama as well as the Audience Award, a director's award for Sian Heder and a Special Jury Award for its ensemble cast. And it's about a young teen girl who's the only hearing person within her family. The rest of her family is deaf. And it's about her trying to sort of figure out how to carve her own path, while also taking care of the family as well in terms of being their liaison and translator when it comes to their business. They work in fishing. This is set in Gloucester, Mass. And so they're in a seaside town. And I really enjoyed it. I think it's a fun, really sweet movie with some really great musical moments.

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARRIS: And I know you saw it, too, Linda. What did you think about it?

HOLMES: Oh, my gosh. This warmed my heart so much. It's got your kind of New England fishing town. It's got your family stuff. It's got your kid who discovers herself in music class, which is such, like, a real thing. And she has this, like, crazy, over-the-top music teacher. But yes, those music and art teachers really kind of do exist, and they are important to people. And by the way, CODA stands for child of deaf adults and, of course, also means, you know, like, an ending or a closing, which I think relates thematically to the fact that she's kind of finishing up high school and looking toward what the next chapter in her life is.

I just found it to be a really wonderful film. They used deaf actors to play the deaf characters, so I think you get a more natural kind of presentation of American Sign Language, which I thought was really interesting to watch. They have it subtitled instead of interpreted so that it plays, I think, a little bit more like it would among an actual family in which everybody was using sign language. I really just found it to be beautiful and stunning, and I loved it.

And Apple bought it for a lot of money, apparently in the $25 million-ish range. It was a record-breaker at the time. I think by the time this episode drops - you never know; something might have beaten it. But as we are taping, it's a record-holder for an acquisition. And like I said, it's going to Apple. I hope that doesn't prevent anybody from seeing it because it's really wonderful.

The next one I want to talk about that I know we both also really loved and a lot of people have read about perhaps is called "Summer Of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)." It was directed by Questlove - Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. And this won Sundance's U.S. Grand Jury Prize for documentary and also the audience award for U.S. documentary. And it's about the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, which they, you know, on and off, kind of refer to somewhat tongue in cheek as Black Woodstock. It had Stevie Wonder and Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples and also, like, Jesse Jackson speaking and a bunch of gospel choirs. It was so interesting to watch this. What did you think? What was your reaction to this?

HARRIS: Oh, I loved it. It opened the festival. It was, like, the centerpiece of the festival. And I think it was the perfect - it's - again, it's one of those crowd-pleasers that I think you're going to take a lot from it. You're going to revel in the performances. And, you know, I think that one of the biggest takeaways from it is the ability to see the breadth of Black music represented. As you mentioned, there's gospel. There's also, you know, a little bit of folk. And you have Gladys Knight and the Pips showing up. And so that emphasis on the fact that Black music is not just soul or it's not just gospel - it's all of these things - I think was...

HOLMES: Right.

HARRIS: ...Great to see. And yeah, there's just so many fantastic moments there.

HOLMES: It's a fascinating moment, you know, 1969, obviously. Politically, there's so much going on. And I just think the film does such a good job of capturing, like you said, such a breadth of performances. And honestly, like, if you can't get into a movie where you get to watch Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples singing "Precious Lord" together, you're - I don't know what you're looking for in a concert film, honestly.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: I loved it. I just absolutely loved it. I thought it was brilliant. What should we talk about next?

HARRIS: Well, another movie that I know we both saw and that I think is going to be perhaps a little bit more polarizing than the previous two films we just talked about is "Passing." And that's directed by Rebecca Hall. This is her directorial debut. And it's based on Nella Larsen's 1929 novel-novella. And it's set in that period. It stars Tessa Thompson, who is having a really fantastic few months, year - you know.

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARRIS: We talked about her with the film "Sylvie's Love." I think she's great here playing a woman in Harlem who encounters, for the first time in years, someone she grew up with, played by Ruth Negga. And this woman is passing as a white woman and is married to a white man who doesn't know that she is actually Black. And it kept bringing up so many thoughts and ideas for me, and I love the way it plays with melodrama and the themes of melodrama cinematically.

And I kept thinking of movies like "Carol," where instead of - although there is, like, a minor queer subtext here - I think instead of that being the focus, it's more about this ability to see another person and when other people can't see - there's just lots of, like, great visual-looking...

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...Moments that I think Rebecca Hall does a really good job of emphasizing. And also, I have to say, Andre Holland - put him in everything.

HOLMES: Absolutely.

HARRIS: He plays Tessa Thompson's husband in the movie, and he's just fantastic.

HOLMES: He is fantastic. I was so fascinated by this film because it has a lot of really interesting stuff going on thematically in terms of sort of who are your sympathies with and why? And who is angry at different times in this movie and why? And who is feeling loving and why? And what are the frustrations that are kind of burbling beneath the surface of this? I also was fascinated by it aesthetically because not only is it filmed in black and white, but it's also in the sort of old TV-style square aspect ratio. So it's very carefully shot to look old, not just in black and white. But I think, you know, some care has gone into that.

It's just a fascinating project. I'm so excited for people to see it. Like you said, so many good performances - really, really enjoyed it. We're going to talk a lot about this one, I think, more when it comes out. Give me another one.

HARRIS: One movie that I - again, I think there will be a lot of talk about this film and that I really thought was interesting was "Pleasure." And this movie is directed by Ninja Thyberg. She's a Swedish director, and this is her directorial debut - feature directorial debut. And it's based off of a short that she made several years ago that premiered at Cannes. And it's basically a story about a young woman who comes to America from Sweden, and she wants to be the biggest porn star in the world. And it's a really fascinating film. Thyberg made it here in part because she says that there was no porn industry in Sweden, and so she set it in LA.

And I think what helps make the film seem so thoughtful and observational about the porn industry without being too judgmental is the fact that most of the cast and crew are people picked from the porn industry in real life. They have worked within it. I don't want to give too much away. But I think there's all these conversations about the sex industry and whether - like, how to view it and how to discuss whether these women - specifically women, often - are complicit or whether they are having, you know, moments of...

HOLMES: Right.

HARRIS: ...Being empowering. Is it empowering? Is it degrading? Is it exploitative? And I think it really walks a fine line here that is not judgmental in that there are shades of gray. So I really appreciated it, and I think it's just a really well-done, very, very interesting and provocative film worth checking out.

HOLMES: Yeah, I felt that same way about a film that I thought called "Together Together," which is sort of a comedy. It feels very, very Sundance to me, very, like, indie Sundance, somewhat light, you know, but still interesting and thoughtful film about a 40-something straight single man, played by Ed Helms, who wants to have a baby. And so he connects with a surrogate, and she's played by Patti Harrison. And it's about this really curious and intimate-but-not-romantic relationship between the two of them and how they become close.

One of the things I found fascinating about it is it's really about boundaries. It's a whole movie about how the setting and respecting of other people's emotional boundaries is part of how you express that you care about them, which I've rarely seen. I thought it was a particularly interesting look at surrogacy, which so often those stories are - and the director has talked a little bit about this as well, Nikole Beckwith - is that a lot of surrogacy stories are about the woman, the surrogate, going through a lot of conflict about, you know, quote-unquote, "giving up the baby" - whatever. This is not really about that. It's certainly not a will-they-or-won't-they about teasing a romance between the two of them.

I just think it's super interesting and thoughtful. And, you know, talk about a cast full of just silent joke assassins coming in - Tig Notaro; Julio Torres, who's hilarious in this. Anna Konkle is in it. Nora Dunn is in it. Fred Melamed is in it. The whole thing is just packed with people who are really, really wonderful, and I'm excited about it. What do you have next?

HARRIS: Well, that cast actually sounds amazing, and I hope I get to check it out soon. Another film that I really, really took to - and it kind of has similar themes as "Pleasure" does in terms of discussing and observing, you know, what it means to be a woman and dealing with exploitation - and that movie is "Censor." It's a British film directed by Prano Bailey-Bond, and it's her feature debut. And the backdrop of the story is the 1980s, at a time where, historically, in the U.K., there was a sort of moral panic occurring around video nasties, which were basically these VHS tapes that were going around of, like, exploitative films. And a lot of them featured lots of nudity and women - basically, like, the American equivalent of slasher films.

HOLMES: Sure, OK.

HARRIS: But these were even more (laughter) - a lot of them were even more graphic and the proliferation of them. And so the lead character, played by Niamh Algar - she is a woman who works for the censor board, and she has to view all these films. And one day, one of the films she's looking at seems to take from or echoes the disappearance of her sister years ago that she, you know, witnessed. And so it brings back all these memories and trauma. And she seeks out the director of the film.

And it's definitely, you know, not for the faint of heart. It's very bloody, gory. But it's also - just the psychological horror of it reminds me a lot of, you know, some of the more interesting and thoughtful films that have been made in the past about, like, exploitation and psychological horror. I think of a movie like "Peeping Tom," the film that came out the same year as "Psycho." And that's about, like, a photographer and the male gaze and the creepy gaze. And I think that this is doing some very interesting things as well in that same vein. So I think people who are really into horror and also just, like, cinematic horror history and that sort of thing will really take to this film.

HOLMES: And you wanted to talk also about another one that you thought was well worth pointing out, which is called "Cusp," the documentary "Cusp."

HARRIS: So "Cusp" is a documentary. It's directed by Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt. And it follows around three teens in Texas over the course of one summer. It is sort of, like, a meandering - there isn't so much a narrative arc as there are themes, essentially around, again, the themes of trauma and just what it's like growing up. And I think that, you know, one could look at this in the way these teens are very, very forward and open with their lives and the things they talk about. And you can look at it as something like "Euphoria," the HBO series, which, you know, is very doom and gloom and might make parents clutch their pearls. But at the same time, I think this is just - it's way more pared back than that. It's not as sensational.

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARRIS: And it definitely has, like, a Terrence Malick-y (ph) sort of vibe to it - sort of wistful but also observational. I really liked it. I think it's definitely worth checking out. It might be harder if you're a parent to watch this.

HOLMES: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Well, I think you have brought some things that are maybe a little bit more challenging and perhaps bracing to watch. One of the ones that I went for - and this is the last thing I want to mention. It's because, you know, Sundance, as well as some of the other film festivals now, also do a little bit of work screening episode of the television, sometimes things that are about to premiere. But in this case, in the case of "These Days" - it's a show called "These Days" - this is a pilot. As far as I know, they have no deal to make the rest of it yet. It is making me cry on the inside because I really, really want them to make the rest of it.

This is the latest sort of effort to make a pandemic-themed show filmed during the pandemic. It essentially leaps off of an online date between a woman played by Marianne Rendon and a guy played by William Jackson Harper, who was Chidi on "The Good Place." She has this terrible date, and then she comes and has a date with him. And it is just the most charming, effortless, flirty, pleasant, sexy, just interestingly shot, little date. This is, like, a 22-minute piece. They're in; they're out.

He plays a journalist. So there are these references to, like, that he's - he's, like, an entertainment journalist. So there's these references that he's written for, like, Vulture and I think Vox and a couple other things. And they do a really good job of, like, he feels like that guy. I found it the most kind of healing, heartwarming, maybe the first, like, pandemic thing that I have immediately just really felt like, oh, I want to watch a whole bunch of this because there's only so much of that, like, the-person-is-breaking-up-on-the-Zoom-call comedy that you really want to see before you get - like, no, this is my day-to-day life. I don't need this in a comedy.

Loved it. It's written and directed by a guy named Adam Brooks. Really recommend seeking it out if it ever lives beyond Sundance. Very, very much want to see more of it. I'm so excited. Oh, my gosh. They need to make it. William Jackson Harper as a straight-up romantic comedy lead...

HARRIS: Yes.

HOLMES: Yes, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Yes, yes. Give me lots. Well, you know, we will be talking more about Sundance films over the course of the next year. Feel free to come and find us at facebook.com/pchh or tweet us at @pchh. And news will continue to break in this area about the opportunity to see these things, and I hope you'll get to see a lot of them.

In another little piece of news, the pandemic has kept us home, as we were just mentioning, for close to a year. Maybe your viewing habits are stuck in a rut. I think freedom from that is part of why Aisha and I like Sundance.

HARRIS: (Laughter).

HOLMES: So we are teaming up with the "Movie Therapy" podcast. And if you're ready to switch things up and you need some fresh recommendations, what we need you to do is send us a voice memo with a question - got to ask a question - to pchh@npr.org, a question about, obviously, needing recommendations, what you're looking for. Send a voice memo to pchh@npr.org. And we will see - perhaps we'll get to your question.

That brings us to the end of our show. Thank you, Aisha, for being here, and congratulations on all the movies that you've seen.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: And thank you, Linda, and congratulations to you as well. We made it.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: We're in the process of making it right now. We will see you all tomorrow, when we will be talking about the new Netflix film "Malcolm & Marie."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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