Sundance Diary, Part 5: A Final List of Movies to Revisit

A.O. Scott, our co-chief film critic, is keeping a diary as he “attends” the virtual Sundance Film Festival, which ends Wednesday. Read previous entries here and here.

Tuesday, 11 a.m.: For better and sometimes for worse, the Sundance Film Festival has been part of the continuity of American movies for decades: a proving ground for young careers; a marketplace for the trendy and the genuinely new; a zone where commercial aspiration intersects with artistic ambition and social concern. It’s encouraging — maybe even astonishing — that in 2021 it still managed to be all of those things.

Keeping its traditional spot on the calendar, at a time when every schedule has gone haywire, was no small accomplishment. The festival was a little shorter this year, with fewer movies, but it still felt packed and a little frantic. It was easier than ever to skip the parties and the Q. and A. sessions, and there was something charming about the filmmaker introductions that preceded each screening. A programmer in front of a bookcase or a houseplant welcoming a filmmaker with a slightly different version of the same backdrop.

Did I appreciate the movies more because I watched them at home? Maybe, in the sense that I was especially grateful for their power to transport me beyond the tedium of everyday pandemic life. Some of the most satisfying journeys were into the past. I don’t know if that’s because the present era of cascading crises makes me seek out the stability and reassurance of historical knowledge, or if it’s more that I’m driven to search the past for clues. Or maybe this was just a strong year for history-minded documentaries, an often convention-bound mode of filmmaking that seems to be in the midst of a creative reawakening.

The dramatic features, meanwhile, offered a less satisfying sense of the past. Too many of them seemed to check off familiar Sundance boxes — to be earnest or quirky or indignant in ways that didn’t feel entirely fresh. This is partly because of the inevitable lag between when movies are conceived and made and when they arrive in the world. For a filmmaker to capture the now is an especially risky undertaking when the now keeps shifting, and entire eras of history feel like they pass by in a matter of weeks.

There will be plenty of time to criticize and argue. This morning there are still a few more films to see, and ample reason to celebrate the modest, hard-won triumph of the festival as a whole. And in that spirit, I’ll conclude this diary with a personal Top 5 — actually make it a Top 7. What follows is an alphabetical list of the movies I’m most looking forward to seeing again and writing about further.

Bring Your Own Brigade”: Lucy Walker’s documentary on some of the worst recent California wildfires is sprawling and intimate, an issue-driven film that is full of narrative surprise and human detail.

“Cusp”: Three teenage girls in Texas contend with family, friendship, sexuality and violence in Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt’s deceptively dreamy-looking, unflinchingly tough-minded documentary.

“Flee”: The life of a refugee from Afghanistan in Denmark, told in haunting and precise animated images by Jonas Poher Rasmussen.

“My Name is Pauli Murray”: Julie Cohen and Betsy West (“RBG”) survey the life and times of one of the most remarkable and consequential figures in American 20th-century history — a lawyer, teacher, activist and Episcopal priest whose thinking helped write the script of modern civil-rights law and gender politics.

“Passing”: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland and Bill Camp (among others) pass like figures in a seductive, scary dream of Harlem in the 1920s.

“Pleasure”: In its straightforward, unpretentious way, Ninja Thyberg’s debut feature accomplishes something that might have seemed impossible. This movie about a young Swedish woman’s adventures in the American porn industry is explicit without being exploitative, and ethically rigorous without resorting to easy moralism. Sofia Kappel’s quiet, nervy performance anchors a terrifyingly honest examination of power, ambition, labor and consent.

Summer of Soul”: What you need to help you through a hard winter: Gospel, funk, soul, blues, salsa and militant politics, brought to you from 1969 via Questlove’s amazing time machine.

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