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Sundance Film Festival: the highlights

This year, the Sundance Film Festival experienced its most unconventional program yet. Dealing with the effects of COVID-19 they had to transition to an entirely virtual event. With over 14,000 submissions to the festival, the program was filled with ambitious independent films that displayed a wide range of diversity and talent. 2021 was a breakthrough year for diversity, as almost 55% of the films are directed by non-white artists, and 44% of the total categories had women directors. The 73 feature films made their mark with lively performances from all around the world.

“El Planeta”

“El Planeta,” a film centered around a mother-daughter pair living beyond their means, is the first feature film from Amalia Ulman. Ulman directed, produced, wrote, and acted in her film. After a brief time living in London, Leo, played by Ulman, moves back in with her mother, played by Ulman’s real-life mother, Ale. The pair reside in Spain, where the after-effects of the financial crisis have hit hard. Working to barely pay the bills, they have to find ways to make money and resort to grifting, like many of the other people living in Gijon. The film is a dark comedy that highlights the chemistry between the two women and the consequences of their desire to live in the moment.


“CODA,” directed by Sian Heder, produced one of the most successful films at Sundance, winning all four top prizes at the festival. It won the Grand Jury Prize, the Directing Prize for Sian Heder, the Audience Award, and a Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Cast. “CODA,” standing for “Children of Deaf Adults,” is a touching story of Emilia Jones, played by Ruby Rossi, who is the only hearing member of her family. She helps her family's fishing business in Gloucester as an interpreter but begins to find her own calling and wants to pursue music in school. It’s a heartwarming story that is deliberate in its use of sign language and casting of deaf actors. The film brought in a record amount of $25 million in a deal with Apple TV+.

“The Pink Cloud”

“The Pink Cloud” begins with a title card that reveals it was written in 2017 and filmed in 2019. This serves to inform the viewers that the film was not created as a reaction to the coronavirus pandemic. Director Iuli Gerbase’s film begins when Giovana (Renata de Lelis) and Yago (Eduardo Mendonca) suddenly find themselves frantic as alarm bells blast, urging them inside. A pink cloud begins to spread out over the earth and is deadly to breathe in. People are quarantined immediately, and Giovana and Yago embark on an unexpected life partnership. The film may hit too close to home for those growing increasingly tired of quarantine, but it is a unique story of accepting circumstances and becoming less optimistic as time goes on.


“Passing” is an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about two childhood friends who meet again in adulthood. Irene (Tessa Thompson) lives in Harlem with her doctor husband and two children. Claire (Ruth Negga) is married to a racist businessman who falsely believes her to be white. The two characters unexpectedly reunite, and their friendship begins to make one another question the lines that have been drawn between their separate worlds. The film is Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut. She works with quick glances and small shifts in tone to create chemistry and conflict between the two complex characters.

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

“Judas and the Black Messiah,” directed by Shaka King, is an astounding feature debut that stars Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, and Dominique Fishback. The film is a true story centering around the murder of the Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) and William O’Neal (Stanfield), who decides to take an offer to become an FBI informant as a way out of jail time. King’s film offers a detailed and innovative approach to this historical drama as it shifts perspectives between O’Neal and Hampton. The film was one of the most popular titles debuting at Sundance, and it produced outstanding performances that earned Daniel Kaluuya an Oscar nomination.

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