The 2021 Sundance Film Festival took place, on a virtual basis, in the five days that straddled the end of January and the start of February. The festival, which also had a handful of in-person screeners at “satellite” locations throughout the country, represented something of a kickoff to 2021 as a movie year, rolling out films that will be arriving throughout the rest of the year, and possibly later.
In addition to a huge variety of feature films from all over the world, this year’s Sundance program featured lots of memorable documentaries. Here’s some of the best ones I saw at Sundance:
Summer of Soul (… Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
This was the equivalent of the opening night film last Thursday. The directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson,” Summer of Soul was assembled from footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts held in New York in the summer of 1969, and featuring a who’s who of Black talent of the era, including Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, The Fifth Dimension, and Gladys Knight and the Pips.
The film mixes in plenty of social and political context of the moment, but overall it’s a gem, put together by footage that had been sitting on the shelf for decades.
There’s no word on when Summer of Soul will be released.
There’s something really special about animated documentaries. They’re rare, but so often they’re great. Jumping into the pantheon, along with Tower, Waltz With Bashir, and Persepolis is Flee, directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen. The film is about a young man using the pseudonym Amin, telling the amazing story of how he fled Afghanistan as a boy, going on a long journey across several countries.
Flee seems destined to go down as one of the best documentaries of the year, one of the best animated features, and one of the best foreign-language films.
It was required at the fest by NEON and Participant Media; it’s not clear when it will have a wide release.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It
A fine examination of the career of a Hollywood and Broadway legend, whose career has extended through seven decades, and who will turn 90 later this year. The documentary arrives the same year Moreno appears in a new version of West Side Story, which will hit theaters 60 years after the last one.
Moreno talks about her roles, her experiences in Showbiz, and even her love affairs, which included a volatile one with Marlon Brando. She discusses how she played all different ethnicities, the sort of thing that isn’t much allowed anymore. We also see her life today and learn that, like most of us, she watches Congressional hearings on TV and shouts “bullshit” at the screen.
The documentary will arrive on PBS’ American Masters, at some point this year.
Misha and the Wolves
An absolutely enthralling doc about a woman who wrote a memoir about her experiences in the Holocaust, which a huge group of people across multiple professions — from Holocaust historians to wolf experts — later determined was a forgery.
Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years came out in 1997, and the author claimed to have been raised by a family of wolves after escaping the Nazis. The subsequent investigations uncovered that not only was Misha’s story untrue, but she wasn’t even Jewish.
Director Sam Hobkinson’s film was acquired by Netflix and is going to be huge whenever it lands on that service.
Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street
Yes, the documentary, based on Michael Davis’ book of the same name, touches on all the famous, tearjerking moments, from the Mr. Hooper scene to the Jim Henson memorial service. It tells a story about the creation of the show — it was born out of the 1960s counterculture and went on to become one of its most important cultural products — that doesn’t differ much from conventional wisdom.
But those clips are so far. It’s famous ones, not so famous ones, and even enjoyably archival footage of Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and the rest of the crew, and contemporary interviews with creator Joan Ganz Cooney.
Street Gang is headed to HBO and HBO Max, but has no official release date as of yet.
The Most Beautiful Boy in the World
Remember Death in Venice? The 1971 film by director Luchino Visconti was about a middle-aged man obsessed with a teenaged boy. This very unsettling documentary, directed by Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri, tells the story of Bjorn Andresen, the actor who played the movie’s teenager, in which he reflects on his brief period of worldwide fame and shares what he’s been up to in the decades since.
It’s a sad story, although most of the suffering he’s done over the years has little to do with his former fame.
The movie is set for release in September.
The Sparks Brothers
Edgar Wright has made a very fun documentary about Sparks, a band that I admit I know almost nothing about. The film, follows the brotherly act through many decades and several different reinventions of their music, and features a long list of celebrity talking heads, including Patton Oswalt, Scott Aukerman, and music doc perennial “Weird Al” Yankovic.
The other enjoyable journey in the film involves Ron Maul’s facial hair, as he made the wise decision at some point to ditch the Charlie Chaplin/Hitler mustache and switch the John Waters style.
Also exciting? Sparks are making the music for Annette, the long-awaited next film — a musical! —from the French director Leos Carax. There’s no word on when The Sparks Brothers, or Annette for that matter, will hit theaters.
This is what an actual stolen election looks like. In director Camilla Nielsson’s second documentary about the politics of Zimbabwe, we follow that country’s 2018 presidential election, the first following the coup that toppled longtime dictator Robert Mugabe after nearly 40 years. Not only that, but the longtime opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, had also passed away prior to the vote.
The election is between incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa and young upstart Nelson Chamisa. And that election day arrives halfway through the movie should be an indication that things are going to be disputed. What’s fascinating is that all of the same allegations about voter fraud, ballot-box-stuffing, and other election-rigging was alleged falsely in the U.S. election, but was actually true in Zimbabwe.
There’s no word yet on the release plan for President.
Captains of Zaatari
Another documentary about refugees, this one follows a group of young men who fled Syria, and are now living in a refugee camp in Jordan, where they dream of becoming soccer players.
Director Ali El Arabi, best known as a journalist, has made a beautiful film, shot over the course of six years, about the universality of the “beautiful game.”
There’s no word about release date plans.
Sundance featured two different documentaries about high school students in the Bay Area. Homeroom, directed by Peter Nicks as the third film in his trilogy of documentaries about Oakland, follows a group of seniors at a high school in that city over the course of the school year, which as we all know didn’t end the way the filmmakers expected it to.
The other doc, Debbie Lum’s Try Harder!, followed a group of kids, most of them Asian-American, at a high-achieving high school in San Francisco. This one is largely about the college admissions process, although the payoff at the end is glorious.
There’s no word yet on release dates for either documentary.