Lizard, Passing, Judas and the Black Messiah…The 15 Best Films at this year’s Sundance

This year’s the Sundance film festival, America’s most important film market for independent film adopted a hybrid model that favored digital and satellite screenings as opposed to the physical gathering in Park City, Utah.

Nevertheless, the festival was a resounding success with a record distribution deal recorded for breakout hit CODA as well as multiple other high profile acquisitions.

Even though the program was pared down significantly from last year- COVID-19 is there anything you will not ruin?- we are happy to report that the quality of films were top notch.

Here are our picks of the best of the fest:

15. Mayday

In Karen Cinorre’s stylish feminist fantasy, a posse of four young women lure soldiers to their deaths by pretending to be damsels in distress. In this war allegory, Grace Van Patten looking like a younger Shailene Woodley is Ana, the naïve newcomer who falls under a spell that promises freedom and autonomy but begins to question the politics and methods of this new world in which she finds herself.

Mayday raises some interesting questions but is unsure how to proceed from there.

14. Ma Belle, My Beauty

First-time writer-director, Marion Hill‘s sun-drenched feature is a breezy if unconventional study of polyamory, especially as it concerns queer relationships.

Newlywed musicians, Bertie and Fred are adjusting to their new life in the beautiful countryside of France when Lane, Bertie’s ex-girlfriend shows up to complicate matters. Ma Belle, My Beauty is also a lyrical study of the artistic process.

13. CODA

The breakout hit of the festival obviously is the U.S Dramatic Competition jury and audience prize winner, CODA directed by Siân Heder.

A relentlessly feel-good drama about a teenager, Ruby (radiant newcomer Emilia Jones) the only hearing member of a deaf family navigating love and life, CODA sparked a bidding war amongst major studios and streamers alike. Apple TV+ eventually emerged triumphant with a Sundance record worldwide distribution deal north of $25 million.

12. Lizard

Akinola Davies Jr’s stunning Lizard, the only Nigerian film in competition emerged the big winner in the short film category, claiming the Grand Jury Prize. Lizard, a deceptively simple story of a 9-year-old girl losing some of her innocence after she is thrown out of a Sunday school class is better experienced than described.

Lizard features cameo appearances by some of you favorite Nollywood acts- Rita Edwards, Charles Etubiebi, Lala Akindoju– neat action and impressive CGI.

11. R#J

Every generation gets the Romeo and Juliet it deserves and this hyperconnected Gen-Z may be the luckiest yet as director Carey Williams has somehow cobbled together an irresistible update of Shakespeare’s great tragedy that played in the festival’s NEXT category.

For his first feature, Williams uses Screenlife to retell Shakespeare’s timeless tale with the star-crossed lovers sending DMs, emojis and selfies while falling in love in modern, inclusive Verona. Not to be missed.

10. Hive

Based on a famous true story, Blerta Basholli’s Hive is a stark but ultimately uplifting celebration of resourcefulness, feminism and the ways that the human spirit can adapt to tragedies.

Basholli’s filmmaking is unfussy, unadorned with stylistic or gratuitous choices and the choice of dull, grey colors serves to highlight the economic and clinical depression that is a by-product of the war.

9. Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It

Produced for PBS’ American Masters series, where it is set to air after a planned theatrical run (looking at you COVID), Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It directed by Mariem Pérez Riera covers the remarkable life and career of Rita Moreno– icon, legend and winner of the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) awards.

The delightful doc despite going to some dark places is a celebratory profile of an American original.

8. Captains of Zaatari

This moving and humanistic piece of nonfiction filmmaking is a moving tale of two Syrian teenagers with a deep love for soccer. Journalist turned filmmaker, Ali El Arabi is invited into the world of Fawzi and Mahmoud two inspiring young men who fall in love with football and are hopeful that the beautiful game will take them out of their present circumstances.

Captains of Zaatari captures the audacity of hope and what this can mean for people whose options are limited.

7. Passing

Snapped up by Netflix for a handsome fee, Rebecca Hall’s Passing is an elegant and detailed study of racialized longing and feminine dissatisfaction in 1920s New York.

Marked by explosive and lived in performances by the duo of Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson, Passing, an adaptation of Nella Larson’s 1929 novel is a disturbing tale of two black women- able to pass for white- who choose to live on opposite sides of the racial spectrum.

6. Night of the Kings

Phillipe Lacôte blends age-old traditions with a thoroughly modern style in this stunning shot of magical realism set in a maximum-security prison in the Ivorian capital.

Visually stunning and grounded in the oral griot traditions of Western Africa, Lacôte’s vision considers the universal power of story-telling as well as queries who has the right to tell certain stories. Night of the Kings also speaks to contemporary times, using the supernatural as a guide to commenting on Ivorian- and African- political problems.

5. Faya Dayi

Jessica Beshir’s Faya Dayi is a spiritual and poetic reflection of Ethiopia’s obsession with khat. Shot entirely in gorgeous black and white with images and lengthy stills that pay no mind to narrative coherence, Faya Dayi traces the value chain that manufactures khat and its by-products subsuming this into the lives of the ordinary people involved.

A near hallucinatory experience, Faya Dayi is a work of uncommon beauty and poetic grace.

4. President

President is a companion piece to Camilla Nielsson’s Tribeca-winning 2014 Democrats, an involving documentary which took a close look at the political battles surrounding the establishment of Zimbabwe’s first democratic constitution. 

President is an accomplished thrill ride that chronicles Zimbabwe’s corruption-riddled 2018 presidential election and ends with the judicial process that gave victory to President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his ZANU-PF party.

3. Flee

One of the most original films to play Sundance this year, Flee, directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen is a tour de force that sits at an interesting confluence between animation and documentary.

Selected for Cannes’ official competition last year, Flee is both confessional and cathartic as details the incredible true-life story of an Afghanistan refugee and his miraculous escape from a life of oppression.

2. Judas and the Black Messiah

Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield and Dominique Fishback all turn in splendid performances in this fictional narration of the plot to assassinate Fred Hampton, the then fast-rising chairman of the Illinois wing of the Black Panther movement.

Directed by Shaka King, Judas and the Black Messiah is a major piece of prestige filmmaking and cinematic activism that is bound to be discussed and revisited for a long time.

  1. Summer of Soul…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised

A joyful treasure destined to become a pillar of American music and African American history, Summer of Soul directed by music maestro Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is part concert film and part historical record. And oh what a concert!

The epic Harlem Cultural Festival held in 1969 was a major celebration of Black music and culture. Questlove’s gem of a film incorporates unforgettable musical moments involving Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone while shining a light on the importance of  the once forgotten festival.

No one will forget it after seeing this magnificent documentary.

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