20 Must-See Films at the Sundance Film Festival 2021
Sundance 2021 is a little different this year. Even though it is still the festival the kicks off the year with fresh voices and films to look forward to for most of us, the fact that the festival is going virtual makes it more accessible and desirable for cinema lovers. With only a few renowned filmmakers making a comeback to Sundance, the slate is mostly populated by new directors. The 2021 Sundance is marked by a remarkable rise in female filmmakers. Almost 80% of the entire program is done by women. This is especially great to hear because 2020 was a year for female filmmakers. Our end of the year list was populated with some of the finest films made by women.
That said, the festival features big names like the Japanese cult filmmaker Sion Sono with his first English language debut. The film stars Nicolas Cage in what looks like complete madness. Also returning to indie roots is British director Ben Wheatley. After a few high-budget gigs – including the Rebbaca remake for Netflix, it is good to see him get to basics. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the list.
Here are the 10 Must-See Films at Sundance Film Festival 2021:
1. Prisoners of the Ghostland
Director: Sion Sono | Country: United States | Runtime: 103 Minutes
In the treacherous frontier city of Samurai Town, a ruthless bank robber (Nicolas Cage) is sprung from jail by wealthy warlord The Governor (Bill Moseley), whose adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella) has gone missing. The Governor offers the prisoner his freedom in exchange for retrieving the runaway. Strapped into a leather suit that will self-destruct within five days, the bandit sets off on a journey to find the young woman—and his own path to redemption.
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Sion Sono’s delirious mash-up of Western, samurai, and post-apocalyptic thriller is a sly spoof of the mythical hero’s journey. Cage, in one of his most unhinged performances to date, swaggers through a wasteland populated by fearsome gunslingers, lethal swordsmen, vengeful ghosts, and a deranged desert cult. Working from a gonzo script by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai, Sono orchestrates a large international cast through a kaleidoscope of upended exploitation tropes, balletic fight scenes, and audacious needle drops. Liberated from genre conventions, Prisoners of the Ghostland seems destined to conquer the midnight movie screens.
2. The Blazing World
Director: Carlson Young | Country: United States | Runtime: 99 Minutes
Ever since Margaret (Carlson Young) was six years old, she has been haunted by the memory of watching her sister drown during an explosive fight between her parents. As a young woman, she slides further into her twisted inner life, ultimately finding herself on the brink of suicide. Through an epic journey down the smokiest and scariest corridors of her imagination, she tries to exorcise the demons pushing her closer and closer to the edge.
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The Blazing World is Carlson Young’s debut feature; it is based on her short of the same name, which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Young brings to life in striking vibrancy an internality that is at once darkly beautiful and entirely terrifying. Blending horror and fantasy, this film is imaginative and gutsy, painting Margaret’s inner life as at once an alien realm and a devastatingly familiar emotional landscape. Manifesting her trauma through a series of lusciously unnerving locations and moving, bizarre interactions, Young unearths something often quietly, privately buried in our struggles toward the light.
Director: Prano Bailey-Bond | Country: United Kingdom | Runtime: 84 Minutes
Film censor Enid takes pride in her meticulous work, guarding unsuspecting audiences against the deleterious effects of watching the gore-filled decapitations and eye gougings she pores over. Her sense of duty to protect is amplified by guilt over her inability to recall details of the long-ago disappearance of her sister, recently declared dead in absentia. When Enid is assigned to review a disturbing film from the archive that echoes her hazy childhood memories, she begins to unravel how this eerie work might be tied to her past.
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Censor is a faithful, creative ode to 1980s aesthetics and a twisted, bloody love letter to the video nasties of the era. In her assured feature debut, director Prano Bailey-Bond re-creates a moment in which society was on the brink of mass hysteria over the dangers of viewers being seduced by violent images—and then she cleverly immerses us in the haunted Enid’s shifting reality. Actress Niamh Algar stuns as her brittle character grows increasingly possessed by her quest.
4. Prime Time
Director: Jakub Piątek | Country: Poland | Runtime: 93 Minutes
New Year’s Eve 1999. Twenty-year-old Sebastian, armed with a gun, hijacks a TV studio and takes two hostages—a famous TV presenter and a security guard. His plan? No one seems to know, including Sebastian himself. His demand to deliver his message, whatever that may be, via live broadcast is repeatedly thwarted by an uncertain police force and an egotistical network chairman. As the night wears on, Sebastian and the hostages bond in unexpected ways, while those in power fumble to restore order.
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Before YouTube or TikTok, there was broadcast television. Prime Time, the debut feature from director Jakub Piątek, subverts the “medium is the message” concept by revealing how tenuously the medium is held together by ineptitude at all levels. Prime Time’s claustrophobic and chaotic atmosphere is marked by its use of one location, handheld camera movement, and frenetic editing. Sebastian (Corpus Christi ‘s Bartosz Bielenia) is neither the villain nor the hero but one more person swept up in the power of spectacle and the fantasy of revolt.
Director: Siân Heder | Country: United States | Runtime: 111 Minutes
Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of a deaf family. At 17, she works mornings before school to help her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant) keep their Gloucester fishing business afloat. But in joining her high school’s choir club, Ruby finds herself drawn to both her duet partner (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and her latent passion for singing. Her enthusiastic, tough-love choirmaster (Eugenio Derbez) hears something special and encourages Ruby to consider music school and a future beyond fishing, leaving her torn between obligation to family and pursuit of her dream.
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Siân Heder’s heartwarming, exuberant follow-up to Tallulah (2016 Sundance Film Festival) brings us inside the idiosyncratic rhythms and emotions of a deaf family—something we’ve rarely seen on screen. In developing CODA, which stands for Child of Deaf Adults, Heder was determined to tell the story authentically with deaf actors. Her writing and direction—layered, naturalistic, frank, and funny—finds perfect expression in richly drawn characters and a uniformly outstanding cast, led by Jones in a fantastic breakout performance.
Director: Frida Kempff | Country: Sweden | Runtime: 78 Minutes
What. Is. That. Noise. When Molly hears knocking coming from the ceiling in her new apartment, she naturally searches for the source. The upstairs neighbors don’t know what she’s talking about and dismiss her with cool indifference. Is this all in her mind? After all, she’s still processing a traumatic event that left her mentally unwell, and the unprecedented heatwave isn’t helping her think clearly. As the knocking intensifies and gives way to a woman’s cries, Molly becomes consumed with finding out the truth. Could it be Morse code? Is someone trapped? And more importantly, why doesn’t anyone care?
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Knocking is a sharp indictment of the gaslight culture and social stigma that work against those experiencing mental illness. Director Frida Kempff’s stunning visuals induce a dissonant sensation of physical disembodiment and feverish claustrophobia that mimics Molly’s deteriorating mental state. Cecilia Milocco exudes Molly’s vulnerability and strength in equal measures, spiraling in one moment before standing her ground the next. Knocking leaves you, just like Molly, questioning yourself until the very end.
Director: Karen Cinorre | Country: United States | Runtime: 100 Minutes
An unusual storm is approaching, and it’s about to change everything for Ana (Grace Van Patten). After a short circuit at her workplace mysteriously transports her to an alternate world, she meets a crew of female soldiers caught in an endless war. Along a strange and rugged coastline, men face the stark truth lurking behind damsels who appear to be in distress. Under the leadership of Marsha (Mia Goth), Ana trains as a sharpshooter and discovers newfound freedom in this uninhibited sisterhood. She soon senses she may not be the ruthless killer they expect, though, and time is running out for her to find a path home.
Unafraid of pushing cinematic boundaries, writer-director Karen Cinorre stylishly blurs genres and draws us into the unique realm of her remarkable debut, where possibilities multiply and women take control of their own destinies. Both a feminist fever dream and an ambitious reimagining of a war film, Mayday detonates expectations to question where empowerment truly lies—and firmly brands Cinorre as a filmmaker on the rise.
Director: Rebecca Hall | Country: United States | Runtime: 98 Minutes
Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), a refined, upper-class 1920s woman, finds breezy refuge from a hot summer day in the grand tearoom of New York City’s Drayton Hotel. Across the room, she spots a blond woman staring her down. Irene wants to steal away, but before she can, Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) rushes over to stop her. It turns out the two were in high school together, and while both are African American women who can “pass” as white, they have chosen to live on opposite sides of the color line. Now, their renewed acquaintance threatens them both.
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Passing is an elegant psychological thriller about obsession, repression, and the lies people tell themselves and others to protect their carefully constructed realities. In her debut feature, Rebecca Hall uses creamy, mesmerizing black-and-white cinematography and a deft directorial restraint to adapt Nella Larsen’s acclaimed 1929 Harlem Renaissance novel into an affecting experiential insight into the pursuit of happiness and authenticity by those navigating the grinding tensions of American racism.
9. Bring Your Own Brigade
Director: Lucy Walker | Country: United States | Runtime: 127 Minutes
Raging, out-of-control wildfires have become part of the new normal around the globe, leaving heartbreaking devastation and death in their wake. In California, this harsh reality was underscored on November 8, 2018, when several parts of the state were ablaze—the Camp Fire destroying most of the Northern California town of Paradise and the Woolsey Fire roaring through Malibu in the south. In the aftermath, residents face unthinkable loss. As they struggle to rebuild, they debate what could be done to prevent further tragedy.
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Filmmaker Lucy Walker (The Crash Reel, 2013 Sundance Film Festival) wonders if it has to be this way. She digs into the surprising history and complex range of causes of uncontrolled fires—from climate change and ill-considered fire suppression policies to the influence of wealthy corporate interests. Her film reveals how responsibility continually gets shifted, with ordinary people left suffering the dangerous consequences. Bring Your Own Brigade cogently exposes our out-of-balance relationship with nature and explores what it will take to restore this delicate equilibrium.
Director: Dash Shaw | Country: United States | Runtime: 95 Minutes
Cryptids are creatures whose existence is disputed or unsubstantiated. When Amber and Matt get lost in the woods during a sex date, they stumble upon a high-security fence. On the other side, they find a cryptid—a unicorn—that would change their lives.
Military brat Lauren spent her childhood nights in a nightmarish state until a mythical baku came to eat her dreams, releasing her from nocturnal torment. Lauren decides to dedicate her life to rescuing and sheltering cryptids from those who seek to exploit them, so she becomes a cryptozookeeper. But when Lauren’s and Amber’s paths cross, Lauren begins to wonder if displaying these rare beasts in confinement is better than enabling these mythical creatures to remain hidden and unknown.
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Cryptozoo is a vibrant, wondrous, and fantastical feature animation for adults, taking audiences on a sublime journey toward multispecies justice. With penetrating precision and poetic intelligence, filmmaker/animator Dash Shaw explores the complex relationship between idealism, utopian visions, the call to duty, and the alluring power of controlling dreams.
11. Fire in the Mountains
Director: Ajitpal Singh | Country: India | Runtime: 83 Minutes
Chandra and her husband, Dharam, run the Swizerland Homestay, an inn that hovers high above the only road in a small Himalayan village. The terrain poses a problem for the family, who must transport their son Prakash down the mountain in his wheelchair to go to the doctor and school. Though Chandra believes Prakash needs more medical attention, Dharam isn’t as keen on the idea. He’d rather put the money toward a shamanic ritual he believes will rid them of a deity’s curse, the cause of Prakash’s affliction. Tensions increase as their worldviews collide and slowly erode their familial ties.
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The debut feature from writer-director Ajitpal Singh, Fire in the Mountains is a searing portrait of the power dynamics at play between tradition and modernity in one family’s foundation. With handheld camerawork and seamless tracking shots, Singh vividly captures the beauty and hardship of their daily lives. Fire in the Mountains is bolstered by Vinamrata Rai’s commanding performance as Chandra, a woman unafraid to stand her ground and find ways forward for her family and village.
12. Eight for Silver
Director: Sean Ellis | Country: USA/France | Runtime: 115 Minutes
In the late nineteenth century, brutal land baron Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) slaughters a Roma clan, unleashing a curse on his family and village. In the days that follow, the townspeople are plagued by nightmares, Seamus’s son Edward (Max Mackintosh) goes missing, and a boy is found murdered. The locals suspect a wild animal, but visiting pathologist John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) warns of a more sinister presence lurking in the woods.
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Writer-director Sean Ellis follows up his audience’s award-winning feature Metro Manila (World Cinema Audience Award, 2013 Sundance Film Festival) with this gruesome gothic spin on werewolf lore. Eight for Silver is a beautifully crafted period piece and a supremely effective horror tale. Moving from the creepy candlelit interiors of the family manor to the misty woods beyond, Ellis conjures a clammy atmosphere of doom and dread, punctuated by waking nightmares and sudden bursts of body horror. As Holbrook’s haunted hunter comes closer to his quarry, Eight for Silver takes an unflinching look at the monsters that lurk inside of men.
13. How It Ends
Directors: Daryl Wein, Zoe Lister-Jones | Country: USA | Runtime:82 Minutes
On the day an asteroid is scheduled to obliterate Earth, freewheeling Liza (Zoe Lister-Jones) scores an invite to one last wild gathering before it all goes down. Making it to the party won’t be easy, though, after her car is unceremoniously stolen, and the clock is ticking on her plan to tie up loose ends with friends and family. With a little help from her whimsical younger self (Cailee Spaeny), Liza embarks on a journey by foot across Los Angeles as she seeks to make peace with her regrets—and find the right company for those last few hours.
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Alum writer/directors Daryl Wein (White Rabbit) and Zoe Lister-Jones (Band Aid) assemble an impressive all-star cast—including Helen Hunt, Olivia Wilde, Fred Armisen, Lamorne Morris, and Nick Kroll—for this uproarious and charming pre-apocalyptic comedy. Both playful and empowering, How It Ends channels the kind of optimistic nihilism we could all use more of right now. The end of the world may be coming, but no one anticipated it could be this much fun.
14. John and the Hole
Director: Pascual Sisto | Country: United States | Runtime: 103 Minutes
While exploring the neighboring woods, 13-year-old John (Charlie Shotwell) discovers an unfinished bunker—a deep hole in the ground. Seemingly without provocation, he drugs his affluent parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) and older sister (Taissa Farmiga) and drags their unconscious bodies into the bunker, where he holds them captive. As they anxiously wait for John to free them from the hole, the boy returns home, where he can finally do what he wants.
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In his directorial debut, visual artist Pascual Sisto mines this alarming pulp premise for an enigmatic and unsettling meditation on adolescent angst. Adapted by screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone from his own short story, John and the Hole is both a harrowing psychological thriller and a potent coming-of-age fable exploring the difficult passage from childhood freedom to adult responsibility. Through precise, shallow-focus compositions, immersive sound design, and a suspended sense of time, Sisto conveys John’s uncanny experience of “playing house.” Shotwell’s chilling performance suggests an innocent yearning beneath John’s cold, blank exterior, while Hall, Ehle, and Farmiga are exceptional as his beleaguered family.
16. On The Count of Three
Director: Jerrod Carmichael | Country: United States | Runtime: 84 Minutes
Val (Jerrod Carmichael) has reached a place where he feels the only way out is to end things. But he considers himself a bit of a failure—his effectiveness lacking—so he figures he could use some help. As luck would have it, Val’s best friend, Kevin (Christopher Abbott), is recovering from a failed suicide attempt, so he seems like the perfect partner for executing this double suicide plan. But before they go, they have some unfinished business to attend to.
Jerrod Carmichael confidently directs and stars in On the Count of Three, a darkly comic debut feature about hopelessness, true friendship, and not always feeling in control. The script, penned by Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, is clever and nuanced but also deeply compassionate in its depiction of two humans on the verge of giving up. This unusual existential bromance, propelled by Carmichael’s and Abbott’s committed performances and genuine chemistry, is bound to stay with you for a long time.
17. In the Earth
Director: Ben Wheatley | Country: United Kingdom | Runtime: 107 Minutes
As deadly virus ravages the world, Dr. Martin Lowery embarks on a mission to reach test site ATU327A, a research hub deep in the Arboreal Forest. The arduous journey, guided by park scout Alma, is set back by a nighttime attack that leaves the two bruised and shoeless. When they run into Zach, a man living off the grid, they gratefully accept his help. Zach’s intentions aren’t exactly what they seem, however, and a path out of the forest and into safety quickly fades as the line between myth and science blurs.
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Writer/director Ben Wheatley (Sightseers, 2013 Sundance Film Festival) delivers a visually rich and disorienting viewing experience that defies easy categorization. In a departure from his sleek genre thrillers (High-Rise, Free Fire), In the Earth uses an understated and unnerving synth score, mystical allusions, and nature itself to instill a feeling of unease and danger. As Martin and Alma desperately look for a way out, this stripped-down approach unfolds into a psychedelic kaleidoscope of changing colors, shapes, and sounds that turns the world inside out.
18. The World to Come
Director: Mona Fastvold | Country: United States | Runtime: 98 Minutes
Mona Fastvold’s rugged period romance, The World to Come, is adapted from Jim Shepard’s 2017 short story of the same name and premiered in competition at the Venice International Film Festival.
In eighteenth-century upstate New York, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is increasingly defeated by grief and the drudgery of rural life. Her deference and propriety maintain a mundane equilibrium with her husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck), but her narrated diaries offer a picture of a richer internal life. When spring brings newcomers Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) to the otherwise empty landscape, the journal entries frantically anticipate—and then enthusiastically document—an affair with Tallie. As menial machinations are interrupted and patriarchal sovereignty is questioned both marriages buckle. The wives’ connection is threatened, but Abigail and Tallie’s love for each other is steadfast, both onscreen and in handwritten pages.
Fastvold exquisitely captures the oppression of settler life while adopting a devoutly literary approach to portray her protagonist’s internal life, striking a transportive balance between warmth and chill.
19. Judas and the Black Messiah
Director: Shaka King | Country: United States | Runtime: 126 Minutes
Fred Hampton’s cathartic words “I am a revolutionary” became a rallying call in 1969. As chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Hampton demanded all power to the people and inspired a growing movement of solidarity, prompting the FBI to consider him a threat and to plant informant William O’Neal to infiltrate the party. Judas and the Black Messiah not only recounts Hampton’s legacy and the FBI’s conspiring but also gives equal footing to the man who became infamous for his betrayal—highlighting the systems of inequality and oppression that fed both of their roles.
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Director Shaka King returns to the Sundance Film Festival with an incredible cast of Sundance alums led by Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield. Kaluuya channels Hampton’s ability to energize and unite communities, while Stanfield taps into the anguish of a man with conflicting allegiances. Dominique Fishback also stands out in her reserved yet confronting performance as Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s life partner. King’s magnetic film carries themes that continue to resonate today and serves as a reminder of the potent power of the people.
Director: Ninja Thyberg | Country: Sweden | Runtime: 100 Minutes
Newly arrived Swedish transplant Bella Cherry coyly announces to an airport immigration official that she’s come to Los Angeles for “pleasure,” but upon her subsequent dive into the world of adult entertainment, she soon realizes it is clearly business. Though she warms to the friendly affirmations of the more seasoned girls, eager-but-green Bella relies on her instincts to navigate her experiences with predatory managers, male-dominated sets, and backbiting competitors.
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Writer-director Ninja Thyberg returns to the Sundance Film Festival with Pleasure, a feature that extends the exploration of her 2014 short. Thyberg cunningly ties audiences’ experiences to Bella’s as the daring, immersive Pleasure uses its explicit portrayal to expose rather than titillate, offering a no-holds-barred worker’s-eye view of the industry. Leading a cast mined from the adult entertainment world, first-time actress Sofia Kappel fearlessly embodies a character who constantly renegotiates and recrafts her persona—from fresh-faced newcomer to boundary-pushing fetish performer to, finally, ascending queen—as a means of asserting her agency.
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