Feb 12, 2021 | LIFE | By Andrew Rodden | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian

Just like that, the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, which took place almost entirely online, has ended. The festival — which allowed a limited number of viewers from all over the U.S. to tune in from their couches  — had its ups and downs, but looking back it’s being labeled as a surprising success. In terms of the films themselves, I was mostly underwhelmed, but here are (in my opinion) the highlights of the festival, most of which are genuinely delightful. 

“In the Same Breath” (2021), dir. Wang Nanfu 

The first movie I watched “at” Sundance this year was Wang Yanfu’s “In the Same Breath” (2021), a documentary about the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, China. Wang takes cameras into crowded hospitals, plunging audiences into the raw nightmare of a then-mysterious virus. “In the Same Breath” importantly highlights the inconsistencies and failures of the responses to COVID-19 in both China and the U.S. It’s a heart-wrenching movie that makes it tough to be hopeful about things, but I’m so glad we have documentaries like this that point the finger at those in power. This film will be available on HBO Max later this spring. 

“I Was a Simple Man” (2021), dir. Christopher Makoto Yogi

My personal favorite of the festival, Christopher Makoto Yogi’s second feature film is mesmerizing, haunting, and patient. It’s structured into four chapters of a man’s life, the ghosts of those he’s left behind haunting him throughout. Set in Oahu, Hawaii, the film boasts gorgeous land and seascapes, as well as a gentle symphony of crashing waves and birdsongs. “I Was a Simple Man” conjures comparisons to cinema titans like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but Makoto Yogi paves his own lane and has created something entirely his own. The distribution rights have not yet been bought, but keep an eye out for this movie.

“On the Count of Three” (2021), dir. Jerrod Carmichael

Jerrod Carmichael’s debut feature film is brutal, depressing, and the funniest movie of Sundance. Val (played by Carmichael) figures his life is going nowhere, so he suggests to his recently hospitalized friend, Kevin (Christopher Abbott), that they commit suicide together. Coincidentally, Kevin is in the hospital for a recent suicide attempt, so he agrees, and the film follows the pair as they tie loose ends on the last day of their lives. “On the Count of Three” does not hide from its serious subject matter, but Carmichael hilariously brings out the absurdity and humor of the story, placing this film among the toughest to watch and easiest to laugh at during Sundance. The distribution rights have not yet been bought.

“Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (2021), dir. Ahmir-Khalib ‘Questlove’ Thompson

Presenting never-before-seen footage that had been stored in a basement for fifty years, Questlove’s directorial debut brings the 1969 Harlem Music Festival – marketed as “Black Woodstock” – to the silver screen. It is tragic this festival had been historically shunned for so long, as it featured the legendary likes of B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, and Nina Simone. Archival documentary? No, more like an at-home concert, and the best one you’ll see all year. This film will be available in theaters and on Hulu later this spring. 

“CODA” (2021), dir. Sian Heder

Heder’s feature debut is a touching, but rather bland, story about teenager Ruby (Emilia Jones), whose entire family is deaf except for her. Her father and mother own a fishing business, and there are several great scenes of them on the family fishing boat, but the movie spends a bit too much time on shore. The central plot of the film revolves around Ruby pursuing her passion for singing in the school choir, but this high school storyline is nothing you haven’t seen before. The movie is heading to Apple TV+ this spring, after being bought for $25 million, the largest deal in Sundance history.   

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