Sundance Film Festival 2021: From the X-rated 'Pleasure' to Questlove's 'Summer of Soul,' here are the best movies from this year's virtual edition

Ethan Alter, Brett Arnold and Kevin Polowy
·11 min read

The coronavirus pandemic may have forced the Sundance Film Festival to go virtual for the first time in its history, but movie buffs came out in force anyway. The week-long event proved a buzz-generating machine on social media and other places where film lovers congregate, as indie movies like CODA, Passing and Flee premiered to rave reviews from critics and early-bird audiences, suggesting odds are good for mainstream success. In time-honored tradition, this year's festival also launched a number of cult favorites including the X-rated porn industry expose, Pleasure, which — based on the audience reaction — is among the most shocking movies to ever premiere at Sundance. Here's Yahoo Entertainment's guide to some of the best movies we saw at the festival's 2021 edition.

CODA

Marlee Matlin makes a rare on-camera appearance in 'Coda,' which premieres at this year's Sundance Film Festival (Photo courtesy Sundance Institute)

Marlee Matlin makes a rare on-camera appearance in CODA, which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival. (Photo: Sundance Institute)

Has there ever been a movie that dominated Sundance like CODA did at the 2021 virtual edition? Quite literally, no. Days after selling to Apple Studios for a record $25 million — a cool $7,499,999.31 more than the previous record-holder, 2020's Palm SpringsCODA cleaned up at the awards ceremony, winning... well, pretty much everything except the documentary categories. So what’s the big deal? The comedic drama from writer-director Sian Heder follows the hearing daughter (breakout star Emilia Jones) of deaf parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) is heartwarming, hilarious, charming and toe-tapping. It’s already got everything, and will probably add some Oscar nominations to its belt as well. If only we could’ve been at Sundance in the flesh to cheer it on. — Kevin Polowy

Pleasure

Sofia Kappel stars in 'Pleasure' (Photo: Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Sofia Kappel stars in Pleasure. (Photo: Sundance Institute)

The hottest virtual ticket at Sundance was Ninja Thyberg's revealing (in more ways than one) tour of the Los Angeles porn industry, starring Sofia Kappel as the Eve Harrington-like Bella Cherry, who moves from Sweden to Hollywood pursuing dreams of adult movie stardom. Considering that synopsis, it's probably no suprirse that both screenings of Pleasure sold out almost instantly. Those anticipating another serio-comic romp like Boogie Nights were in for a shock, though: Thyberg's movie leaves little to the imagination, depicting Bella's experiences on various porn sets — from a disturbing audition to a wild S&M sequence — in starkly naked terms. The movie's explicitness proved too triggering for some viewers, all of whom had to confirm they were over 18 before viewing, and those who made it through accurately described the experience as "intense" and "deeply uncomfortable." But thanks to Thynberg's careful eye and Kappel's bold performance, Pleasure is also a nuanced treatise about sexual consent, with Bella learning how to take control of her own body... and her own pleasure. — Ethan Alter

Wild Indian

Michael Greyeyes stars in 'Wild Indian' (Photo: Eli Born/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Michael Greyeyes stars in Wild Indian. (Photo: Eli Born/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.'s carefully-crafted feature film debut is a chilly, eerie thriller in the vein of David Fincher. In the early 1980s, two Native American boys are involved in the death of a classmate and cover up their crime. Two decades later, their lives have gone in remarkebly different directions: Sensitive Ted-O (Chaske Spencer) is an ex-con and troubled Makwa (Michael Greyeyes, in a starmaking performance) has tried to remake himself as the perfect family man. But the past can't stay buried forever, and their shared history soon threatens their present. Corbine's already-rich story gets even richer when he connects the characters' specific experience to the larger legacy of America's exploitation of its indeginous population. — E.A.

A Glitch in the Matrix

Rodney Ascher's 'A Glitch in the Matrix' questions whether or not we're living in a simulation (Photo: Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Rodney Ascher's A Glitch in the Matrix questions whether or not we're living in a simulation. (Photo: Sundance Institute)

Rodney Ascher — the mind behind The Shining documentary Room 237 — returns with another feature-length examination of something wacky that a whole bunch of people genuinely believe: We’re all living in a computer simulation. And it’s not just internet weirdos that think this: Prolific sci-fi author Philip K. Dick was an adherent of this theory, and it permeated his most famous works, including The Man in the High Castle and A Scanner Darkly. The movie wrestles with that idea, cleverly highlighting the many and vaired personalities that believe in it and why. In the age of Zoom-interview talking heads in documentaries, Ascher finds a way to distinguish himself from the pack with the creative use of digital avatars to obscure identities. Look for the film when it hits theaters and VOD services on Feb. 5. — Brett Arnold

Summer of Soul

Questlove directed the Sundance documentary, 'Summer of Soul' (Photo by Mass Distraction Media/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Questlove directed the Sundance documentary Summer of Soul. (Photo: Mass Distraction Media/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Prior to the fest, we mused about Questlove possibly becoming the second hip-hop icon in three years — after Sorry to Bother You's Boots Riley — to use Sundance as a launching pad for a new career as a filmmaker. Dozens of rapturous reviews, multiple sold-out virtual screenings and two Sundance awards (the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for Documentary) later, that looks like an emphatic yes. Summer of Soul offers a vibrant look at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, aka “Black Woodstock.” Lovingly mixed like a DJ set, the film unspools rich and colorful never-seen-before footage of acts like Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and Nina Simone intercut with profound social commentary, making for a vital celebration of Black musical expression that also captures a quintessential moment in time for the culture. It’s one of the best concert docs ever made, but it’s also so much more. — K.P.

Flee and Cryptozoo

Jonas Poher Rasumussen's Sundance award-winner 'Flee' brings a refugee's story to life with animation (Photo: Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Jonas Poher Rasumussen's Sundance award-winner Flee brings a refugee's story to life with animation. (Photo: Sundance Institute)

Animation: It's not just for kids! Sundance premiered two adult-oriented, award-winning cartoons that make radically different, but equally fascinating, use of the medium. With Flee, which won the festival's World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, director Jonas Poher Rasmussen uses animation to bring to life the memories of an Afghan refugee who fled his war-torn homeland in the 1980s and settled in Russia before seeking a new life in Denmark. Flee's hand-drawn imagery captures the momentum of its subject's tense, dramtic journey, and provides an impressionistic recreation of the environments he passes through. Neon and Participant acquired the distribution rights to the film, and will release the subtitled version and an English-language dub — featuring the voices of executive producers Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau — later this year. (Editor's note: Flee was produced in association with RYOT Films, a Verizon Media Group company.)

While Flee is sure to be an arthouse smash, Dash Shaw's Cryptozoo has midnight movie favorite written all over it. A wild mash-up of X-Men, Jurassic Park and an ultraviolent The Last Unicorn, the movie stars Lake Bell as Lauren a seeker of "cryptids" — mythical and magical creatures that society at large either ignores or exploits. Lauren hopes to keep her various friends safe at the titular refuge, but the outside world has other plans. Shaw picked up the NEXT Innovator Prize for his R-rated storybook sketches, and Magnolia acquired Cryptozoo for release later this year. — E.A.

Marvelous and the Black Hole

Rhea Perlman and Miya Cech in 'Marvelous and the Black Hole' (Photo: Nanu Segal/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Rhea Perlman and Miya Cech in Marvelous and the Black Hole. (Photo: Nanu Segal/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Come to Kate Tsang's feature film debut for the delightful sight of Cheers star, Rhea Perlman, stealing scenes and doing close-up magic. Stay for the impassioned lead performance by rising star Miya Cech and the delightful flights of fantasy that punctuate this moving coming-of-age story. Cech plays rebellious teenager Sammy, who is still mired in a black hole of grief following the death of her mother, even as her father (Leonardo Nam) and elder sister (Kannon Omachi) try to move on. Enter Margot (Perlman), a small-time magician who teaches Sammy tricks to help her manage her turbulent emotions. It's a familiar story made fresh by the two stars and Tsang's imagination. — E.A.

We're All Going to the World's Fair

Anna Cobb stars in 'We're All Going to the World's Fair' (Photo: Daniel Patrick Carbone/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Anna Cobb stars in We're All Going to the World's Fair. (Photo: Daniel Patrick Carbone/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Jane Schoenbrun's debut feature feels like the first horror film made by, and for, those raised on the internet. With its radicalizing algorithms, viral challenges and windows into other people’s worlds, it's hard to think of a better movie about today’s extremely online culture. While the movie has several creepy seuqences that lodge themselves in your brain, Schoenbrun also ventures deeper than genre thrills, exploring how everyone online is isolated, sad and alone thru the experiences of two different people: Anna Cobb's lonely teenager and an older man (Michael J. Rogers) who starts following her YouTube videos. Watching this film at a virtual festival amid the backdrop of a global pandemic only makes it all the more relevant. One thing’s for sure: You’ll never hear ASMR the same way again. — B.A.

Passing

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson star in Rebecca Hall's directorial debut 'Passing' (Photo: Edu Grau/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson star in Rebecca Hall's directorial debut Passing. (Photo: Edu Grau/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Fans of richly told period melodramas like Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven will eat up actress-turned-filmmaker Rebecca Hall's directorial debut. A black-and-white adaptation of Nella Larsen's 1929 novel, the story follows the re-connection of two high school classmates (Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, both phenomenal) who are now living disparate lives. Irene (Thompson) lives in Harlem with her husband, a Black doctor (André Holland), while the now-blonde Claire (Negga) has been passing as white — a secret she holds from her racist husband (Alexander Skarsgård). An intriguing, if leisurely-paced, character study on race and gender (and possibly sexuality), the film builds up to a stunner of a climax. Netflix is reportedly close to bringing it to a television near you later this year. — K.P.

Violation

Madeleine Sims-Fewer stars in the Sundance horror film, 'Violation' (Photo: One Plus One/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Madeleine Sims-Fewer stars in the Sundance horror film Violation. (Photo: One Plus One/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Co-directed by star Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli, Violation is an incredibly bleak, but also quite clever, inversion of the rape-revenge film. In a key moment, the female victim (Sims-Fewer) is fully-clothed and her gaslighting rapist (Jesse LaVercombe) appears fully nude and vulnerable. It’s shocking to behold — but would it be if the female lead were the one exposed? The filmmakers force you to consider such things as you watch the repercussions of that encourter play out. The first half of the film is delightful and full of real conversations, so when the horror comes, it’s all the more abrasive and brutal and upsetting, and the revenge doesn't provide the satsifying ending one might expect. Seek this one out when it hits Shudder on March 25. — B.A.

Jockey

Clifton Collins Jr. stars in 'Jockey,' premiering at the Sundance Film Festival (Photo by Adolpho Veloso/Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Clifton Collins Jr. stars in Jockey. (Photo: Adolpho Veloso/Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

There are few things better in film fandom than one of your favorite character actors finally getting the lead role they deserve. And Clifton Collins Jr. knocks his star turn straight out of the ballpark... uh, racetrack, in Jockey. The Westworld scene-stealer plays an aging jockey who can feel his body breaking down, but vows to keep on riding, especially with his trainer (Molly Parker) wrangling a potential title-winning horse and the arrival of a young jockey (Moises Arias) who claims to be his son. Reminiscent of Chloé Zhao’s 2017 festival breakout The Rider, as well as Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, the feature debut from Clint Bentley — the real-life son of a jockey — is achingly beautiful. Sony Pictures Classics acquired the film, and seems poised to give Collins a run at an Oscar nomination next year. — K.P.

The Pink Cloud

Renata de Lélis stars in 'The Pink Cloud' (Photo: Iuli Gerbase/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Renata de Lélis stars in The Pink Cloud. (Photo: Iuli Gerbase/Courtesy Sundance Institute)

If you're wondering why The Pink Cloud opens with a disclaimer stating that it was written in 2017 and filmed in 2019, the answer becomes clear about 10 minutes into Brazilian director Iuli Gerbase's haunting dystopian tale. After a deadly "pink cloud" settles in over the skies of a major metropolis, all of the city's citizens are forced to shelter indoors as days turn to weeks, weeks turn to months, months turn to years and years turn to... forever. The parallels to our current COVID reality are unsettling enough, but Gerbase's film expertly navigates even more emotionally fraught terrain in the evolving relationship between its central characters: Giovana (Renata de Lélis) and Yago (Eduardo Mendonça), whose one-night stand becomes a multi-year living arrangement. The Pink Cloud will make you thankful that, back in our own world, we can still put on a mask and step outdoors. — E.A.

Related: Sundance 2021 projects tackle variety of topics

Read more from Yahoo Entertainment: