The ticket buyer asks the veteran Sundance Film Festival hand: “What looks good this year?” The old hand shrugs his shoulders and replies, “Heck if I know.”
That’s always the dilemma with Sundance: The slate of feature films is loaded with mysteries — and, despite what any prognosticators say, nobody knows for sure what’s going to be good until after they screen. In 2021, with 73 titles waiting for their online premieres, the question marks only loom larger.
Still, there are good omens for some films — a director with an established track record, or a familiar face in the cast, or a documentary subject who can’t help but be interesting.
With that in mind, here are 10 titles from the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival that are high on the anticipation scale:
“Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir” (Premieres) • This profile of the author of “The Joy Luck Club,” made for PBS’ “American Masters” series, is notable as being the final work of documentarian James Redford, son of Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford. James Redford submitted the movie to Sundance just before he died in October of bile-duct cancer at age 58, and its inclusion in the festival seems a fitting memorial.
“Cryptozoo” (Next) • Animated features are a rarity at Sundance, but writer-director Dash Shaw — who made the creative “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” — is up to the task with this tale where keepers at a zoo filled with legendary beasts wonder if they’re doing the right thing with the strange creatures in their charge.
“I Was a Simple Man” (U.S. Dramatic) • Director/writer Christopher Makato Yogi’s tale of an elderly Hawaiian man (Steve Iwamoto) looking back on his life is the sort of quiet, moving drama that could get lost in the shuffle, even with Constance Wu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) in the cast. Early word says not to sleep on this one.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” (Premieres) • It’s unusual for Sundance to factor into the Oscar race, but the motion-picture academy’s pandemic-extended schedule opens the door for director Shaka King’s historical drama. King tells of William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), an FBI informant assigned in the late 1960s to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, led by the charismatic Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Aside from the “Get Out” reunion of Kaluuya and Stanfield, this promises to be a timely, incendiary drama, with a good shot at a Best Picture nomination.
“Land” (Premieres) • Robin Wright, whose acting career has spanned from “The Princess Bride” to “Wonder Woman,” makes her feature directing debut with this solitary drama, in which she plays a grieving woman who decides to live off the grid in Wyoming. This could be a tour-de-force for Wright, if her directing skill matches her considerable acting talent.
“On the Count of Three” (U.S. Premieres) • The actor-comedian Jerrod Carmichael is one of those talents that seems on the verge of busting out — though his short-lived sitcom “The Carmichael Show” didn’t quite make that happen. Carmichael directed and stars in this dark comedy-thriller, in which he and Christopher Abbott play friends determined to fulfill their suicide pact.
“Passing” (U.S. Dramatic) • Tessa Thompson (“Thor: Ragnarok”) and Ruth Negga (“Loving”) star as Black high school friends in 1920s New York who pass for white — and what happens when one of them creates a life in white society, while the other lives as an African American. Actor Rebecca Hall makes her directorial debut with this adaptation of Nella Larsen’s landmark 1929 novel, a movie that’s sure to get people talking.
“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” (U.S. Documentary) • Every year, there are a few documentaries that ask viewers to pay proper tribute to a performer whose legend is so big that we take them for granted. This year, Moreno — a trailblazer for Latina actors, and one of the first people to land the famed EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) — gets that onscreen treatment.
“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (Premieres) • Speaking of legends getting their due, the visionaries who created America’s favorite street are highlighted in Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary. You’d have to be a grouch not to want to see it.
“Writing With Fire” (World Cinema Documentary) • When Tabitha Jackson, the festival’s new director, was asked to pick a film from the lineup that might get ignored among the big-name talent, she chose this documentary about women in India’s Dalit community forming their own newspaper. The film shows these women speaking truth to power and “making trouble in the best traditions of journalism,” Jackson said.
Learn more about the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and buy tickets at Sundance.org.