The 2021 Sundance Film Festival, beginning Thursday, will look quite different. Forging ahead during the pandemic, they’ve to continue offering some of the year’s finest independent discoveries, with a new online platform, drive-ins, screenings at independent arthouses around the country, and more.

We’ll have extensive coverage from the festival (which one can follow here or on Twitter). Before reviews arrive, we’re counting down our most-anticipated films. If you’re interested in experiencing Sundance from home, one can see available tickets here.

15. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (Jane Schoenbrun)

Year after year, Sundance’s NEXT section offers independent cinema’s most compelling new voices; one that’s caught our eye is Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Shot by Daniel Patrick Carbone and scored by Alex G, it follows a teenager (Anna Cobb) whose reality begins blurring when she plays an online horror role-playing game. Schoenbrun has been a figure to watch in the independent creative scene with The Eyeslicer and Chained for Life, and this David Lowery-produced feature looks like it could be a major breakout. – Jordan R.

14. The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (Kristina Lindström)

It’s become tradition for Sundance to include a documentary exploring some part of film history. This year they’ll debut a film on the life of Björn Andrésen, famously cast in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice when he was a teenager. Featuring the actor today, now in his 60s, as well as wealth of archival footage, it looks to explore the pressures of young stardom and the “curse of beauty” decades later. – Jordan R.

13. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson)

One of the more famous creative talents partaking in Sundance happens to be making their directorial debut. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul digs up never-before-seen footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place the same summer as Woodstock but lacks the same cultural cachet. Featuring Stevie Wonder, Mavis Staples, and many more, we imagine the documentary will give due historical appreciation to this music-filled celebration of major Black artists. – Jordan R.

12. Pleasure (Ninja Thyberg)

Initially set for a Cannes debut, Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure delves into the world of adult entertainment in Los Angeles, led by Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), who arrives in the city from Sweden. Shot by Sophie Winqvist Loggins, who provided dazzling sci-fi images in Aniara, we’re curious to see what this outsider’s look at America dishes up. – Jordan R.

12. Cryptozoo (Dash Shaw)

After earning acclaim for his debut feature My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, director Dash Shaw is back with another inventive-looking indie animation. With a voice cast of Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Angeliki Papoulia, Zoe Kazan, Peter Stormare, Grace Zabriskie, Louisa Krause, and Thomas Jay Ryan, Cryptozoo is set around a sanctuary featuring the mysterious creatures known as cryptids and the forces that either want to care for them or exploit them. With that compelling set-up, we’re looking to see Shaw expand his imagination on a bigger canvas here. – Jordan R.

11. Mayday (Karen Cinorre)

Not a great deal is known about Karen Cinorre’s directorial debut Mayday––which follows a woman who gets transported to an alternate world and meets a group of female soldiers––but there are enough factors to warrant our anticipation. With a score by Colin Stetson (Hereditary), cinematography by Sam Levy (Frances Ha, Lady Bird), and cast featuring Grace Van Patten, Mia Goth, Havana Rose Liu, Soko, Théodore Pellerin, and Juliette Lewis, we imagine this will be one of the biggest discoveries of the festival. – Jordan R.

10. The Sparks Brothers (Edgar Wright)

While I’m far from a Sparks aficionado, with the hopeful premiere of Leos Carax’s Annette––written and scored by the duo––on the horizon this year, I’m excited to dive deeper into the band’s vast oeuvre. Edgar Wright’s documentary should be both the perfect introduction and comprehensive exploration fans will enjoy as it clocks in at nearly two-and-a-half hours––the ideal length for such an extensive career. With this being the director’s first documentary foray, I’ll be curious how his kinetic sensibilities translate. – Jordan R.

9. In the Earth (Ben Wheatley)

Ben Wheatley, like Nicolas Winding Refn, has seen his reputation diminish slightly after a string of higher-budgeted disappointments. In the Earth, shot surreptitiously last August and premiering at this month’s Sundance, promisingly returns him to the thrifty, lower-budgeted terrain where he made his name. Yes, it’s COVID-themed, following a scientist and park scout who venture deep into the woods for an equipment check as the world scrambles for a cure to a deadly virus. Joel Fry and Hayley Squires (I, Daniel Blake) star; will one of them wield a Kill List-like hammer? – David K.

8. Strawberry Mansion (Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley)

What if the government didn’t tax just your paychecks and transactions, but your dreams as well? In Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley’s deeply imaginative adventure Strawberry Mansion, a dream auditor in the near-future ventures to a remote farmhouse for his latest assignment. Following their light-hearted Sylvio, this looks to be a genre-melding odyssey into the subconscious, notably featuring a score by Dan Deacon. – Jordan R.

7. One for the Road (Baz Poonpiriya)

Wong Kar Wai is keeping busy, restoring his classics. He also lent his producing hand to One for the Road, the latest film from Bad Genius director Baz Poonpiriya. It’s a tender, well-shot story of estranged friends who come together for a road trip as bad news causes them to reflect on their past lives and loves. It’s set to kick off Sundance; we anticipate it’ll be a standout in their lineup. – Jordan R.

6. John and the Hole (Pascual Sisto)

One of a handful of films originally set to premiere at Cannes, John and the Hole probably has the festival’s most intriguing synopsis: “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.” That’s all we desire to know before discovering the horrors that await in what sounds like the wildest Home Alone sequel yet. – Jordan R.

5. I Was a Simple Man (Christopher Makoto Yogi)

One of the most serene, rejuvenating films of the last few years was Christopher Makoto Yogi’s debut August at Akiko’s. Reteaming with Alex Zhang Hungtai (aka Dirty Beaches and Last Lizard), who solely composes this time around, the director’s second feature I Was a Simple Man follows Masao, a man who lives on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawai’i, and is visited by ghosts of his past, including his wife (Constance Wu). While I would love to watch what is sure to be a transportive experience in a theater, it’s great to see the director get an expanded platform in U.S. dramatic competition at Sundance. – Jordan R.

4. On the Count of Three (Jerrod Carmichael)

There are a number of directorial debuts on this list—one of our most-anticipated comes from comedian Jerrod Carmichael. Led by Carmichael, Christopher Abbott, Tiffany Haddish, J.B. Smoove, Lavell Crawford, and Henry Winkler, On the Count of Three follows two friends who attempt a double suicide. Judging from that logline, here’s hoping his rather brilliant, confrontational stand-up style transfers well to feature form. Bonus points for featuring a new score by Owen Pallett. – Jordan R.

3. Passing (Rebecca Hall)

Although Nella Larsen’s novel, published in 1929, about a mixed-race woman who passes as white has become a part of the American literary canon, it has never been adapted into a film. In 2019 it was announced that it would become Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut after the actor found a connection between the novel and her own family history. Are Hall’s sensitive portrayals in films like Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Christine the signs of a good director? Only time will tell. In the meantime, she’s already shown an eye for talent by casting Ruth Negga, Tessa Thompson, and André Holland as her leads. Passing won’t be the first time Hall has visited the Roaring Twenties—in 2013 she made an electrifying Broadway debut in Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, wherein she played a woman who murders her husband. – Jose S.

2. All Light, Everywhere (Theo Anthony)

Theo Anthony’s Rat Film was one of the most fascinating documentaries of recent years, exploring the contentious history of Baltimore through the unexpected analogies of the rat population. He’ll return this year with All Light, Everywhere, which is described as “an exploration of the shared histories of cameras, weapons, policing and justice. As surveillance technologies become a fixture in everyday life, the film interrogates the complexity of an objective point of view, probing the biases inherent in both human perception and the lens.” – Jordan R.

1. Prisoners of the Ghostland (Sion Sono)

The concept of madman auteur Sion Sono, director of bizarro classics such as Love Exposure and Tokyo Tribe, collaborating with Nicolas Cage, the pioneer of “nouveau shamanic” acting and the most beloved weird actor in the world, is enough to sell Prisoners of the Ghostland by itself. Described by Cage as maybe being “the wildest movie he’s ever made,” Ghostland looks to be the most absurd filmmaking experience of 2021, essential for all fans of cult cinema. – Logan K.

Honorable Mentions

With more than 70 features in the lineup, there’s plenty more to anticipate. We left off late addition Judas and the Black Messiah, which we imagined would’ve been the secret screening in a normal year, as it arrives so soon. Also on our radar is the NEXT selection The Blazing World, the raunchy Midnight entry Mother Schmuckers, and the documentaries Cusp, Taming the Garden, Playing with Sharks, and Flee.

Lastly, there’s a handful of films we’ve already reviewed coming to the festival that will open soon, including Violation (March 25 on Shudder).

Follow our complete Sundance Film Festival 2021 coverage here or on Twitter.

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