Sundance London 2021 Preview

Lockdown is lifting, and Sundance London is back in a big way, with a particularly great line-up of films. Once again the festival is centered around Picturehouse Central, and this year it runs 29th July – 1st August.

I remember going to this festival back in the day, when they used to host it in the O2 / Millennium Dome. To my mind it somehow gets better every year, so its a joy to have London welcome back a little Utah magic.

I was fortunate enough to virtually attend the main Sundance in Utah earlier this year, so here’s a guide to my favourites amongst what’s coming to town. Everything below scores a recommendation from me…

From 29th July

The Sparks Brothers (Dir: Edgar Wright)

A lovely (if long) celebration of “your favourite band’s favourite band”, Sparks – 2h25m of people rightfully singing their praises. Loses a little snap in the last half hour, as band documentaries often seem to, but even then you do get to see a glimpse of the filming of Annette (2021) with Leos Carax. Two new-to-me facts I learned: sometime peripheral band member Christie Haydon is super-talented (and gorgeous); and I Wish I Looked A Little Better (1983) is a stone cold banger.

From 30th July

Censor (Dir: Prano Bailey-Bond)

British horror is alive and well in the hands of Prano Bailey-Bond! A mid-80s British film censor suspects the films she handles contain clues to the whereabouts of her missing sister. Part Berberian Sound Studio, part Lost Highway… a fugue-state love letter to early 80s VHS horror. And Michael Smiley! I loved it. Do try to see this in the cinema if you can – the colours, compositions, editing, sound design all pop on the big screen.

CODA (Dir: Sian Heder)

CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) is, for better or worse, precision-engineered to be pure Sundance. A young woman struggles to balance her dreams of being a singer with her obligations to help out her deaf family with their fishing operation. If you don’t mind the formula, there’s much to enjoy here. Best bits: fighting with her family (I loved the dad). Biggest cliches: her characterful music teacher unlocks her inner self, and lets her soar. Sure to be a hit with the theatre kids.

Cryptozoo (Dir: Dash Shaw)

An animated Jurassic Park for cryptids, a gentle anti-zoo fable, a love letter to outsiders everywhere, and definitely the big stoner movie of the festival. I especially enjoyed the dreamy vibes (and comedic voice acting) of the opening sequence. At one point a character says “I had a dream… we stormed the Capitol...” – very prescient, given how long it took to make this movie! One note of warning: even before I started watching Cryptozoo, I was feeling sleep-deprived. Once it was over, I went to have a sit on the toilet and a think. Then my cat walked in and I was like: ARG A CRYPTID. It really does things to your head.

In The Same Breath (Dir: Nanfu Wang)

Absolutely jaw-dropping documentary on the emergence of COVID-19, and the Chinese and US governments’ respective responses to it, as they struggle to contain not only the virus, but the narrative. Starts off as a behind-try-scenes report on the virus. Ends as an exploration of mass psychology, propaganda, mobs, liberty, and – ultimately – tyranny. “This started out as a health crisis. It ended as a test of our form of government.” A vital work – If this doesn’t make you angry, you’re already dead.

From 31st July

The Nest (Dir: Sean Durkin)

Rising M&A star Jude Law moves his American family back to the UK to pursue his career dreams. But does he have a proper handle on the reality of his situation? I really dug this film, Durkin’s follow-up to Martha Marcy May Marlene. It has vibes for days: Jude Law and Carrie Coon sniping at each other, 80s train interiors with smoking compartments, beautiful arts & crafts interior designs, and some amazing needle drops. It’s always a pleasure when a director slips in some Bronski Beat. Some of the dialogue felt a little stilted, and certain imagery regarding a horse was a little on the nose, but none of that derailed The Nest for me. There was a sequence near the end, with Carrie Coon, where I was literally pumping the air with happiness. What a gift she is!

Pleasure (Dir: Ninja Thyberg) – This is my #1 pick of the festival

A Swedish girl moves to LA, intent on becoming the biggest name in porn. Astonishingly raw, real performances from Sofia Kappel and Revika Reustle – in their debut roles! Kappel’s performance in particular is jaw-droppingly good: powerful, naturalistic, brave, and never less than emotionally honest. I can’t recall a debut performance this incendiary in recent years. Everyone is going to want to work with her. Pleasure has a lot to say about abuse of power, consent, toxicity and cycles of abuse… it’s the most emotionally exhausting thing I’ve seen in months, and will doubtless be triggering some some, but it really is a remarkable piece of work. Coldly horrifying, but straight from the heart.

Misha And The Wolves (Dir: Sam Hobkinson)

A fascinating documentary, in the the detective story mold, about a little girl who ran away through the woods during the Holocaust and joined a pack of wolves… but not everything is as it appears. I can’t describe the plot in too much detail as that would give too much away, but it’s utterly gripping throughout – and raises big questions about culpability and honour.

From 1st August

Human Factors (Dir: Ronny Trocker)

Trust and empathy start to unravel under the pressure of paranoia and doubt in Trocker’s tale of middle-class professionals whose holiday home is subjected to a break in. Or is it? Comes on like a Ruben Östlund flick with fewer gags, or a less clinical Michael Haneke. Human Factors perhaps doesn’t quite cohere, and only intermittently lands its punches… and yet it lingers in the mind for a good while afterwards. And it does have a very funny POV shot.

Recommendation from the archives: Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (Dir: John D. Hancock)

A girl just released from an asylum heads off with her boyfriend and his mate to a remote house where they have vague plans to start a smallholding and live off the land. But is there a threatening force in the area? This is just fabulous: dreamy melancholic death-of-hippydom horror, with misty vistas and mournful piano. Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is a horror from that period when everything seemed to open up, before slashers took over. Reminiscent of Messiah of Evil, Death Dream, the films of Jean Rollin, etc. I love this one – don’t miss this chance to see it on the big screen!

The one film on this list I haven’t seen yet: Zola (Dir: Janicza Bravo).

Based on that Twitter thread of a sketchy Florida road trip gone wrong. Strippers, guns, duplicity… this seems to have it all. Can’t wait! [Post-fest update – this was really strong, definitely recommended!]

All of the above are worth seeing on the big screen, with my biggest recommendations being Censor, In The Same Breath, Misha And The Wolves, Mass, and above all the incredible Pleasure.

Sundance London runs 29th July – 1st August. Tickets available now.

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