Here are The Tribune’s unofficial picks for the best of Sundance
From heartfelt music moments to notable performances, these festival happenings deserved their own awards.
(Adolpho Veloso | courtesy of Sundance Institute) Clifton Collins Jr. (center, in the purple silks) stars as an aging jockey in "Jockey," by Clint Bentley. It's an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
The juries and audiences who decide the winners for the Sundance Film Festival’s awards night
watch a lot of movies and think hard about all of them.
But with 73 feature films unspooled over seven days, they can’t think of everything.
From music performances to behind-the-scenes details, here are The Salt Lake Tribune’s picks for awards that weren’t handed out on Tuesday night.
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s illuminating documentary “Summer of Soul (… Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” is loaded with great performances from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, from such acts as Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips and so many others. But the showstopper is during the gospel portion of the program, when the legendary Mahalia Jackson hands her microphone over to a young Mavis Staples — a passing of the torch that Staples, in an interview for the film, called the highest honor of her career. (A distribution deal has not been announced.)
Best musical moment without music
(Seacia Pavao | courtesy of Sundance Institute) Emilia Jones plays the hearing daughter of deaf parents in "CODA," by Siân Heder. It's an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
In the drama “CODA,” in which Ruby (Emilia Jones), a hearing high school girl with deaf parents, discovers a passion and talent for singing, one recurring plot thread involves Ruby practicing a duet with a cute boy (Ferdia Peelo-Walsh) for a school talent showcase. The parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) attend the concert, and director Siân Heber takes the bold step of showing this duet the way the parents experience it — with no sound at all. It’s a heart-tugging moment, and one of many times Sundance lovers watching online were left to wonder how a Park City audience would have reacted. (AppleTV+ bought the distribution rights to “CODA” for a reported $25 million, a festival record. No announcement has been made if the film will screen in theaters before an eventual streaming release.)
Best performance by that guy from that thing
You’ve probably seen Clifton Collins Jr. many times — on “Westworld,” or in “Capote” or “Traffic” or the “Star Trek” reboot — without much thought. He’s one of those character actors people see but may not recognize. That should change with “Jockey,” where Collins has the lead role as an aging jockey who gets a chance for a winning season, when a trainer friend (Molly Parker) lets him ride her new filly ahead of a big race. Director Clint Bentley’s tender, authentic drama, filmed on a track in Phoenix with a lot of real jockeys and trainers, becomes the perfect stage for Collins’ soulful, lived-in performance. (Sony Pictures Classics bought distribution rights for “Jockey,” so expect it in theaters later this year.)
Best black-and-white depiction of not-so-black-and-white issues
(Edu Grau | courtesy of Sundance Institute) Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson play friends who can pass for white in 1920s New York, but take different paths, in "Passing," an adaptation of Nella Larsen's groundbreaking 1929 novel, directed by Rebecca Hall. It's an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Actor Rebecca Hall’s debut as a director and writer, “Passing,” is an elegantly mounted adaptation of the Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about two light-skinned women (Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga) — one of whom lives in Harlem as a Black woman, the other passing for white with a bigoted Caucasian husband (Alexander Skarsgård). Hall handles some thorny issues of discrimination and identity with a delicate hand, bolstered by rich black-and-white images by cinematographer Edu Grau. (No distribution deal has been announced.)
Most surprising breakout performance
(Eunsoo Cho | courtesy of Sundance Institute) Steve Iwamoto, pictured here with Constance Wu, plays an old Hawai'ian man looking back on his life in "I Was a Simple Man," by Christopher Makoto Yogi. It's an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Steve Iwamoto had only appeared in one movie before starring in “I Was a Simple Man,” in which he plays a dying Japanese American man in Hawaii, thinking back on decades of regrets and finding comfort from the ghost of his long-dead wife (Constance Wu). Iwamoto holds the audience’s attention in this quietly moving drama, without being flashy or overemotional. (No distribution deal has been announced.)
Most surprising directing debut by an actress
(Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute) Carlson Young (who also directed) plays a woman who finds an alternate unvierse where her sister didn't drown in an accident years before, in "The Blazing World." It's an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Tough competition for this one, with Rebecca Hall’s “Passing” and Robin Wright’s “Land” both earning praise from festival attendees, but the left-field pick is Carlson Young’s “The Blazing World,” in the Next program. Young, best known as a star on MTV’s “Scream: The TV Series,” directed and co-wrote the visually arresting psychological drama, and plays the main character, a woman seeking answers about her sister’s death in a surreal alternative reality. Young assembled her crew and cast (which includes Dermot Mulroney, Vinessa Shaw and the creepy German actor Udo Kier) at a resort hotel in Texas, where they stayed in a pandemic “bubble” for the shoot. (No distribution deal has been announced.)
Oddest behind-the-scenes detail in a Q&A
How does a movie crew simulate mud on an actor’s face? The answer came during the Q&A for the psychological thriller “John and the Hole,” in which a 13-year-old boy (Charlie Shotwell) traps his parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) and sister (Taissa Farmiga) in a deep hole on the family’s property. So what’s the makeup artist’s secret? Chocolate brownie batter, Ehle revealed. (No distribution deal has been announced.)
Least comfortable recurring plot point
(Marshall Adams | courtesy of Sundance Institute) Christopher Abbott, left, and Jerrod Carmichael play friends who make a deadly pact in "On the Count of Three," directed by Carmichael. It's an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Mentions of suicide pop up in several titles at the festival this year. A suicide pact is the driving plot device in Jerrod Carmichael’s dark comedy “On the Count of Three.” Suicide is handled metaphorically in the surreal alternative realities of both “The Blazing World” and director Karen Cinorre’s “Mayday.” And in Mariem Pérez Riera’s documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It,” the legendary actress describes in some detail when she attempted suicide after her stormy relationship with Marlon Brando. (The Rita Moreno documentary will air on PBS; no release date has been announced. No distribution deals have been announced for the other films.)
Biggest upside of having the festival online
Yes, watching world-premiere movies in your pajamas is a thrill. But the Q&As, done by Zoom call, have been the best part of Sundance being online. Besides showing us how movie stars and filmmakers decorate their homes — Tessa Thompson, for example, has a lot of plants in her solarium — the Q&As were usually 30 minutes or longer. That’s longer than the in-person Q&As in Park City, when theater managers are trying to cut things short so they can flip the house for the next screening.