Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed DP Sam Levy with the cinematograph for “Passing.” Levy was the DP for “Mayday,” and “Passing” was lensed by DP Eduardo Grau. This change has been made below.
Last year, while the world still gathered in large numbers, I and some fellow Pacific students took a trip to Park City, Utah to visit the Sundance Film Festival. Being there in person was incredible, and when we returned, I made a vow to myself that I would do whatever it took to make it happen again. Unfortunately, with COVID still ravaging the nation, the in-person festival was not able to happen. However, the Sundance Institute wasn’t about to pull the plug. Sundance lived, and this year, took on an even more accessible online format. Forgoing the cost of flights, lodging, and food, I was able to live up to the vow I made and attend the Sundance Film Festival for the second year in a row, this time, from the comfort of my living room. Hunkering down with some blankets and some popcorn, I settled in for six days of independent film, ranging from horror to comedy, drama to fantasy, and one documentary for good measure. Out of the 13 films I saw, I walked away with a few standouts I think deserve some love and attention…
Passing (dir. Rebecca Hall)
Set in 1920s Harlem, Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) are high school friends who are reunited years later, now living very different lives. While both are African-American women who can “pass” as white, they have chosen to live on opposite sides of the color line. This was far-and-away my favorite of the festival. Not only does Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut explore themes of race, but it also looks at the gray areas of gender and sexuality as well. I hope to see this one take some awards next year, at least for Eduardo Grau’s gorgeous black and white cinematography and for Ruth Negga’s outstanding performance.
Mayday (dir. Karen Cinorre)
On a stormy night, Ana (Grace Van Patten) is transported to an alternate universe, where a small band of women soldiers (Mia Goth, Soko, and Havana Rose Liu) are fighting in an endless war. Mayday is a surreal, feminist war drama, where director Karen Cinorre explores trauma, feminism, and finding the strength to carry on in a gorgeous, sweeping, and cinematic world. The entire cast is fantastic, with Goth’s performance as the leader of the crew, in particular, standing out, and DP Sam Levy’s cinematography makes for some gorgeous scenes that capture the breadth of Cinorre’s vision. Don’t miss this one, if not simply for the incredible dance sequence partway through.
Censor (dir. Prano Bailey-Bond)
Taking place in 1980s Britain, film censor Enid (Niamh Algar) is sucked into a dangerous mystery when a film she’s assigned to review echoes the details of her own sister’s disappearance decades before. Giving an ode to the “Video-Nasties” of the era, not only is Algar’s performance perfect in showing the slow descent into madness of her character as she continues to get sucked into this world of underground horror, but the absolutely genius cinematography by Annika Summerson does an amazing job of blurring the line between fantasy and reality, making the audience question whether what Enid is experiencing is real, a film within the film, or simply a delusion. Praying this one gets picked up soon because I’m dying to watch it again (and again and again).
Knocking (dir. Frida Kempff)
Knocking is a Swedish horror export, shot in only 18 days and on homemade camera rigs. A stunning character study, director Frida Kempff uses the horror genre to dig into the grief and trauma of the main character, Molly (Cecilia Milocco), by using focused, claustrophobic camera work that puts you right into her state of mind. It also packs a cathartic ending that poses a sharp commentary on society’s dismissal of women’s experiences and trauma.
In addition to these four, don’t miss the 80s era visual stylings of Erin Vassilopoulos’s Superior, the haunting, surreal trip down the fantasy-horror rabbit hole of Carlson Young’s The Blazing World, or the stunning collision of Western, post-apocalyptic, and Samurai film that is Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland, featuring an unhinged Nicolas Cage screaming the world “TESTICLE!!” — Bren Swogger
Photo: Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson appear in Passing by Rebecca Hall, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Edu Grau.