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24 must-see movies from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

Darrel Britt-Gibson, Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield appear in 'Judas and the Black Messiah', directed by Shaka King
“Judas and the Black Messiah,” starring Daniel Kaluuya, center, is among the over 70 films set to premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
(Glen Wilson / Warner Bros. / Sundance Institute)
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The Sundance Film Festival is going virtual for the first time and the good news is that makes the preeminent showcase for independent film in the U.S. more accessible than ever. But even with a smaller-than-usual lineup, there is still a lot of titles to sort through over the seven-day (Jan. 28-Feb. 3) event.

In the spirit of shining a light on worthy work, The Times staff has selected 24 favorites from advanced screenings that we think deserve special attention. As usual with Sundance, most of these are available for acquisition, so we don’t know their futures beyond the festival premiere. But if last year’s edition (which brought us “Minari,” “Promising Young Woman,” “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and “Palm Springs,” among others) is any indication, we bet you’ll be hearing much more about them in the year to come.

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‘At the Ready’

A still from At the Ready by Maisie Crow, an official selection of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
A still from Maisie Crow’s “At the Ready,” an official selection of the U.S. documentary competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
(Sundance Institute)

Seeing “armed” high school teenagers in tactical gear training to conduct police raids might be jarring for some of us, but these programs are real in places like El Paso where law enforcement and border patrol are among the big career opportunities. Maisie Crow’s powerful documentary spotlights the unique complexities some Mexican American students in these programs face as they try to navigate their identities and their responsibilities and figure out what they want for their future. — Tracy Brown

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‘CODA’

Emilia Jones in "CODA," directed by Sian Heder and an official selection of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Emilia Jones in “CODA,” directed by Sian Heder and an official selection of the U.S. dramatic competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
(Seacia Pavao/Sundance Institute)

You should be wary of American remakes, but this funny, moving and romantic film, inspired by 2014 French crowd-pleaser “The Bélier Family,” might be the exception that proves the rule. Set in a close-knit Massachusetts fishing community that has fallen on hard times, this feature from director Sian Heder (“Tallulah”) charts the experience of a hearing teenager (Emilia Jones) with deaf parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and how they negotiate the deferred dreams, personal sacrifices and necessary compromises that love so often requires. — Justin Chang

Oscar winner Marlee Matlin returns to the big screen in the Sundance Film Festival opener “CODA,” and she can’t wait for people to see it.

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‘Flee’

Jonas Poher Rasmussen's "Flee" will premiere in the world cinema documentary competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
(Sundance Institute)

A young man, born in Afghanistan but now living in Denmark, reflects on the scars of his experience as a child refugee and his harrowing journey into adulthood in Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary. Originally selected to screen at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (before the event was canceled because of COVID-19), the film unfolds through hand-drawn images that both conceal and reveal as layers of secrecy, shame and identity are gently peeled away. — J.C.

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‘A Glitch in the Matrix’

Rodney Ascher's "A Glitch in the Matrix" is an official selection of the midnight section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
(Sundance Institute)

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Filmmaker Rodney Ascher (“Room 237”) deep dives into the age-old conundrum that is simulation theory — the notion that reality as we know it is an artificial construct. (As Neo might say: Whoa.) Blending Skype interviews and digital reenactments with a ‘90s cyber-cinema aesthetic, Ascher’s existential investigation probes fertile ground with surprising twists and turns, crafting technothriller vibes for today’s extremely online lives. (Also in theaters and on demand Feb. 5) — Jen Yamato

Sundance’s VR, AR and other interactive works show the power of storytelling through evolving technologies and let the fest reach a global at-home audience.

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‘Human Factors’

Sabine Timoteo and Mark Waschke in Ronny Trocker's "Human Factors," premiering at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Sabine Timoteo and Mark Waschke in Ronny Trocker’s “Human Factors,” premiering in the world cinema dramatic competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
(Sundance Institute)

Shifting perspectives and unintended consequences expose the fissures in a French-German couple’s relationship in writer-director Ronny Trocker’s perceptive domestic drama. Trocker employs thriller expectations, a backtracking narrative device and a fine cast to hold our attention. Sabine Timoteo is exceptional as a woman growing weary of her husband’s perfidious ways. — Kevin Crust

Sundance’s Tabitha Jackson won the festival director gig, then the pandemic hit. How she’s leading the film festival’s 2021 edition into the future at a pivotal time in history.

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‘In the Same Breath’

Nanfu Wang's "In the Same Breath" will world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
(Sundance Institute)

Muckraking documentaries don’t get much more intensely personal than Nanfu Wang’s undercover portrait of the COVID-19 pandemic’s devastating toll in Wuhan and beyond. In ways that echo her 2019 Sundance prizewinner, “One Child Nation,” Wang interrogates the governing regimes and social mores of China and the U.S. during the worst global health crisis in a century — and arrives at a furious conclusion about how authoritarianism can wear many different faces. — J.C.

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‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield in "Judas and the Black Messiah," headed to theaters and HBO Max
Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield in Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah,” headed to theaters and HBO Max after the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
(Glen Wilson/Warner Bros.)

If you’re audacious enough to title a film “Judas and the Black Messiah,” you’d better have a couple of exemplary actors to play those two title characters. And this historical drama about the relationship between Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and William O’Neal, an intimate turned FBI informant, has those actors in Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield. The two shared some brief screen time four years ago in “Get Out,” but here, they’re both front and center, circling, cajoling, confiding and, tragically, splintering. Any movie pairing them is required viewing, particularly one as vibrantly alive as this one. (Also in theaters and on HBO Max on Feb. 12) — Glenn Whipp

Things will be very different for the largely virtual 2021 Sundance festival. Here’s how to get the most out of the experience from wherever you are.

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‘Land’

Robin Wright's Edee in a cream sweater
Robin Wright stars in and makes her feature directorial debut with “Land.”
(Daniel Power / Focus Features)

Robin Wright did not intend to star in “Land,” her feature directorial debut about a woman dodging a tragic past by moving to a remote log cabin. But budget issues forced her hand, and we should be glad for the gift. Watching Wright embark on a journey of healing while trying to survive in the mountain wilderness offers a master class in acting, and the director serves the actor well, framing much of the story in close-ups that give the film a powerful intimacy. Demián Bichir shows up as does a bear. We’ll let you guess which one is welcomed. (Also in theaters Feb. 12) — G.W.

Robin Wright stars in her directorial debut ‘Land,’ the story of a woman reclaiming her life by losing herself in the wilderness.

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‘Luzzu’

Jesmark Scicluna in Alex Camilleri's "Luzzu," an official selection of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Jesmark Scicluna in Alex Camilleri’s “Luzzu,” an official selection of the world cinema dramatic competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
(Sundance Institute / Inigo Taylor)

Between this and “CODA,” it’s shaping up to be an especially strong Sundance for stories set within economically and environmentally imperiled fishing industries. This beautifully rough-hewn drama, directed by Alex Camilleri and set on the island of Malta, stars an excellent Jesmark Scicluna as a fisherman torn between his love for the sea and his need to provide for his girlfriend and infant son. — J.C.

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‘Marvelous and the Black Hole’

Miya Cech and Rhea Perlman in "Marvelous and the Black Hole," the directorial debut of Kate Tsang.
(Sundance Institute / Nanu Segal)

Miya Cech is a standout in writer-director Kate Tsang’s feature debut as Sammy, a 13-year-old brimming with anger, grief and loneliness, who is this close to being sent to a bootcamp for delinquents. But then she meets Margot (Rhea Perlman), an older magician who performs for kids, and Sammy’s routine changes. This coming-of-age tale has the right mix of angst, weirdness and heart, with a lovely nod to the power of stories. — T.B.

Kate Tsang moves from TV animation to her feature debut, ‘Marvelous and the Black Hole,’ premiering at Sundance.

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‘Mass’

Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton in "Mass," directed by Fran Kranz.
(Ryan Jackson-Healy/Sundance Institute)

Four outstanding performances (by Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd and Reed Birney) are at the bruised heart of Fran Kranz’s writing-directing debut, which examines the repercussions of an unspeakable tragedy. Confined to a single room in a mostly empty church, the actors fully inhabit a mournful, minutely attentive drama about the elusiveness of grace, the joy and anguish of parenthood and the rare but real possibility of forgiveness. — J.C.

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13

‘My Name Is Pauli Murray’

A still of Pauli Murray from "My Name is Pauli Murray," directed by "RBG" filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen.
(Pauli Murray Foundation/Sundance Institute)

Following up on their hit documentary “RBG,” filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West illuminate a lesser-known trailblazer whose remarkable life story should be required learning. Born in 1910, the late Murray was ahead of the curve in battles for gender and racial equality, forming a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt and influencing countless social warriors, including Ginsberg. By examining both Murray’s professional legacy and her more discreet gender non-conforming private life, “Pauli Murray” becomes a deeply personal look at who deserves credit for making America a more perfect union. — Geoff Berkshire

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‘Passing’

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in "Passing," the directorial debut of Rebecca Hall
Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in “Passing,” the directorial debut of Rebecca Hall and an official selection of the U.S. dramatic competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
(Sundance Institute / Edu Grau)

In her gorgeously shot emotional gut-punch of a feature directorial debut, actress Rebecca Hall announces herself as a true force behind the camera and gifts stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga with roles worthy of their formidable talents. Hall’s adaptation of the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen begins as an exploration of biracial people passing for white in the ‘20s and effortlessly expands to explore the nuances of class, gender and sexuality that overshadow an uneasy friendship. — G.B.

Actresses Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga collaborate with Rebecca Hall on her adaptation of Nella Larsen’s acclaimed novella ‘Passing.’

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‘El Planeta’

Ale Ulman and Amalia Ulman in "El Planeta," directed by Amalia Ulman.
(Sundance Institute / Carlos Rigo Bellver)

Multidisciplinary artist Amalia Ulman makes her debut as a feature filmmaker and stars alongside her mother in the story of a daughter and mother who resort to small scams to get by after they’re kicked out of their apartment. Filmed in Ulman’s hometown of Gijón, Spain, it’s a charmingly low-key character comedy and an incisive look at what two women will resort to when left with only themselves to rely on. — Mark Olsen

Artist Amalia Ulman makes her feature filmmaking debut with “El Planeta,” which she wrote, directed and stars in alongside her actual mother.

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‘Playing With Sharks’

A still from Playing with Sharks by Sally Aitken
A still from Sally Aitken’s “Playing with Sharks,” part of the world cinema documentary competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
(Ron & Valerie Taylor / Sundance Institute)

Pioneering marine photographer Valerie Taylor went from Australian spearfishing champion to one half of the fearless duo (with husband Rod) tasked with filming Great White sharks for films like “Blue Water, White Death” and “Jaws.” Director Sally Aitken charts the now octogenarian’s remarkable life story with the aid of gorgeous underwater photography and stunning 16mm archival footage, surfacing Taylor’s regrets at helping portray sharks as dangerous predators and the urgency of her conservation work today. — J.Y.

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‘President’

A still from President by Camilla Nielsson
A still from Camilla Nielsson’s “President, premiering in the world cinema documentary competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
(Sundance Institute)

Packed campaign rallies, dishonest tactics, contested ballots, corrupt officials, angry crowds: Camilla Nielsson’s gripping blow-by-blow documentary may have you thinking about events even beyond Zimbabwe’s intensely fraught 2018 general election. But any geopolitical parallels arise organically, never detracting from the film’s laserlike focus on two presidential candidates, Emmerson Mnangagwa of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front and Nelson Chamisa of the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance, and the birth pains of democracy in the post-Robert Mugabe era. — J.C.

With fewer movies for sale this year, studios and streaming companies are still coming to the virtual festival hoping to buy hit films.

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‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’

Nick Cassavetes and Nic Cage appears in Prisoners of the Ghostland by Sion Sono
Nick Cassavetes and Nicolas Cage in Sion Soto’s “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” premiering at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
(Sundance Institute)

Nicolas Cage. Sion Sono. Two of cinema’s most sublimely unhinged talents join forces on an Eastern-tinged sci-fi Western that marks subversive Japanese auteur Sono’s (“Love Exposure”) English-language debut. Unleashing his outlandish imagination upon sprawling post-apocalyptic vistas, Sono sets Cage’s outlaw hero on a Snake Plissken-esque quest in a genre-blending canvas tailor-made for its star, and a cult classic in the making. — J.Y.

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‘Rebel Hearts’

A still from "Rebel Hearts" by Pedro Kos, at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
A still from “Rebel Hearts” by Pedro Kos, an official selection of the U.S. documentary competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
(Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles)

A community of progressive L.A. nuns sticks it to the man in Pedro Kos’ delightful documentary about The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. These women see their commitment to social justice and education as an extension of their faith, but the authoritarian forces of the Catholic Church in the ’60s disapproved of their efforts to modernize and give them an ultimatum. Their story is inspiring, but it’s seeing these women reminisce about it decades later that gives the film its charm. — T.B.

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‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It’

EGOT winner Rita Moreno in the documentary "Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It."
(Sundance)

The irrepressible EGOT winner reflects on a landmark life in Hollywood in Mariem Pérez Riera‘s joyful and revealing celebrity profile. But the thrilling career highs — Oscar-winning work in “West Side Story,” a recent comeback in the critically lauded comedy “One Day at a Time” — are tempered by the frustration at what might have been had the entertainment industry known what to do with a Latina actor who could give them anything. — G.B.

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” looks at the ups and downs of the EGOT winner who’s had to overcome Hollywood racism and misogyny.

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‘Son of Monarchs’

Kaarlo Isaacs in Alexis Gambis' "Son of Monarchs," an official selection of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Kaarlo Isaacs in Alexis Gambis’ “Son of Monarchs,” an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
(Sundance Institute)

Alexis Gambis’ film about a New York-based biologist (Tenoch Huerta Mejía) returning to his Mexican hometown already won the festival’s Alfred P. Sloan Prize, given annually to a Sundance entry with a scientific focus. But the monarch butterflies that we see throughout, permanent residents of a dense forest grove and of the protagonist’s childhood memories, are more than a source of academic interest; they’re the lyrical leitmotifs in a strange, unpredictable story of grief, estrangement and slow but inevitable transformation. — J.C.

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‘The Sparks Brothers’

Ron and Russell Mael are "The Sparks Brothers," in Edgar Wright's documentary about the band Sparks.
Ron and Russell Mael are “The Sparks Brothers,” in Edgar Wright’s documentary about the synth pop band Sparks.
(Sundance Institute / Jake Polonsky)

The first documentary directed by Edgar Wright has the same irrepressible energy as his fiction features such as “Baby Driver” and “The World’s End.” The story of Ron and Russell Mael, the two brothers who make up the impossibly long-running band Sparks, the film charts their career through highs and lows. The Mael brothers exist outside of trends, fashion or anyone else’s ideas of what will or won’t be popular, inhabiting an eccentric artistic world completely of their own making. — M.O.

With his Sundance documentary ‘The Sparks Brothers,’ director Edgar Wright delves into the unlikely story of the cult band Sparks.

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‘Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)’

Musician Sly Stone in a still from the documentary 'Summer Of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)'
Musician Sly Stone in a still from the documentary “Summer Of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” by Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson, an official selection of the U.S. documentary competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
(Mass Distraction Media / Courtesy of Sundance Institute )

The directorial debut of musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson features largely unseen footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival, which was attended by more than 300,000 people and took place the same summer as Woodstock in 1969. With electrifying performances by Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Herbie Mann, The 5th Dimension, The Staples Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone and many more, this just may immediately jump straight into the pantheon of landmark concert films. — M.O.

The documentary ‘Summer of Soul,’ directed by Questlove, features revelatory, previously unseen performances from 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival.

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‘Taming the Garden’

A still from Salomé Jashi's "Taming the Garden," an official selection of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
A still from Salomé Jashi’s “Taming the Garden,” an official selection of the world cinema documentary competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
(Sundance Institute)

Salomé Jashi’s low-context, contemplative documentary weaves a mesmerizing spell as it captures the systematic removal of giant trees and their transport by land and sea in the Eurasian nation of Georgia. It could as easily have been called “Chainsaws and Cigarettes,” both of which figure prominently as locals and workers haggle and debate the reshaping of the landscape financed by billionaire politician Bidzina Ivanishvili. But the earthy philosophizing takes a backseat to the majestic visuals and their deceptively potent messaging. — K.C.

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‘Together Together’

Ed Helms and Patti Harrison appear in "Together Together," written and directed by Nikole Beckwith.
(Tiffany Roohani / courtesy of Sundance Institute)

A 40-something app designer in San Francisco (Ed Helms) hires a 20-something woman (Patti Harrison) to be his gestational surrogate and the two strike up an unlikely friendship that challenges and changes them both. Writer-director Nikole Beckwith transforms the expectations of the rom-com into an examination of needs and boundaries, with a keen eye for detail, a lacerating wit and startling earnestness. — M.O.

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