Virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival opens on a screen very near you

COVID-19 has shaken up Hollywood this past year, and the ramifications are still being felt in the snow-covered mountains of Utah, the traditional site of the Sundance Film Festival. This year, the festival, which has been a bellwether of independent moviemaking for more than three decades, will be presented online for the first time, streaming narrative and documentary films from around the world, beginning Thursday, January 28, through February 3.

Most features have two screenings scheduled (along with Q&As with the filmmakers), for which tickets may be purchased. But beware: these virtual screenings can sell out just like real ones.

Held in Park City since 1989, the Sundance Film Festival has helped launch the careers of such directors as Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky, Debra Granik, Benh Zeitlin, Ryan Coogler and Damien Chazelle. The 2021 edition of Sundance includes 72 feature films from 29 countries. Most are world premieres, many are their directors' feature-length debuts, and half are directed by women or non-binary individuals.

It is ironic (or mere wish fulfillment) that, in this year of pandemic lockdown, the festival's opening night roster features a road trip movie set in Thailand, "One for the Road" (though a big chunk of it takes place indoors, in New York City). But if further evidence of what a horrendous year 2020 was were needed, there is another opening night feature, "In the Same Breath," a documentary about how China produced propaganda to spin the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan Province.

one-for-the-road-sundance-620-50708164282-b8af510a5a-o.jpg
Tor Thanapob (right) and Ice Natara star in "One for the Road" by Thai filmmaker Baz Poonpiriya. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The subject matter in this year's lineup is broad and entrancing, with dramedies ("CODA," about a hearing girl with deaf parents), tales of moral dilemmas ("Wild Indian," which traces the long-lasting effects of a murder decades earlier), and horror ("Censor," in which a member of a film rating board becomes a little too involved in the horror videos she watches). With roughly half of the feature films in the Dramatic, Documentary, Midnight and Next categories previewed at press time, there are some remarkable reflections given what the past year hath wrought. 

There are films that allude to the pandemic and the enormous societal changes it has brought about, including the horror film "In the Earth," shot over 15 days last summer. (It is about, yep, a deadly virus.)  The documentary "Life in a Day 2020," directed by Oscar-winner Kevin Macdonald ("One Day in September") and executive produced by Ridley Scott, captures life on Planet Earth on a single day last July – in the midst of the worsening pandemic – culled from 300,000 video submissions.

If there is a trend for 2021, the most obvious is the unsettling uncertainty of life at this point in time, dramatized in stories about sacrosanct properties being invaded or violated, be it one's home ("Human Factors"), the sea ("Playing With Sharks"), a forest ("Taming the Garden"), or cyberspace ("We're All Going to the World's Fair"). There is even the violation of the ultimate private space – one's dreams – in "Strawberry Mansion," a retro-futuristic look at a society in which the federal government taxes our dreams (which are recorded onto VHS tapes, and audited by civil servants wearing ridiculous-looking headgear). And then there is the comedy "How It Ends," which goes whole hog, telling the story of Earthlings spending their last hours before an asteroid puts our planet out of its misery. [See below for a list of feature film offerings.]

While features will be streamed during selected blocks of time (and can only be viewed then), short film programs will be accessible throughout the festival, which culminates in an awards ceremony that will be streamed live on Tuesday, February 2 beginning at 8 p.m. ET/6 p.m. MT. [Winning films will be available to watch on demand the following day.]

Offerings may be viewed via a web browser, streamed from your computer to your TV (via Chromecast, Airplay or Wi-Fi), or through an HDMI connection. You can also watch via the Sundance Film Festival TV app (available on AppleTV and iOS, FireTV and Android). [Go here for technical instructions on getting set up.]

Coming to your hometown

Do you live in Houston, or Key West, Florida? You, too, can attend a Sundance Film Festival screening for real! In addition to streaming via Sundance's digital portal, films will be presented on satellite screens nationwide, including arthouse cinemas, museums and drive-ins. [A complete list of venues may be found here.]

Talks

Free talks and special events held throughout the festival include morning reports on the day's offerings, meetups at the Artists Lounge, and chats at the Cinema Café with filmmakers and actors, including Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and Shaka King (Jan. 29), Rita Moreno and Sonia Manzano (Jan. 30), Robin Wright and Rebecca Hall (Jan. 31), and Tyson Brown, Patti Harrison and Emilia Jones (Feb. 1).

Panel discussions and in-depth interviews will also explore such topics as queer cinema, speculative fiction, and the work of Haitian filmmaker and activist Raoul Peck, director of the James Baldwin biography "I Am Not Your Negro."

Attending "in person"

Typically a festival-goer could gather with other cinephiles at Festival Village and argue about movies over warm or mixed beverages. You can still do that, albeit by way of your digital avatar. If you are used to Zoom calls by now, chatting with other film lovers virtually in 3D environments won't seem so odd.

You can also attend the festival's New Frontier interactive programs, which incorporate storytelling, animation, AI and performance art. For some a mere computer will do, but there are some virtual reality events for which VR headsets that support WebXR are mandatory.

Check in for CBSNews.com's continuing coverage of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, including highlights from each day's premieres.

Lineup

For program descriptions and show times click on the links below. 

U.S. Dramatic Competition

"CODA" (Jan. 28, 30)
"I Was a Simple Man" (Jan. 29, 31)
"John and the Hole" (Jan. 29, 31)
"On the Count of Three" (Jan. 29, 31)
"Wild Indian" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"Passing" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"Superior" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"Jockey" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)
"Mayday" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)
"Together Together" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)

World Dramatic Competition

"One for the Road" (Jan. 28, 30)
"Human Factors" (Jan. 29, 31)
"Luzzu" (Jan. 29, 31)
"The Pink Cloud" (Jan. 29, 31)
"Prime Time" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"El Planeta" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)
"Fire in the Mountains" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)
"Hive" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)
"Pleasure" (Feb. 1, 2)

U.S. Documentary Competition

"Summer Of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)" (Jan. 28, 30)
"Homeroom" (Jan. 29, 31)
"Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It" (Jan. 29, 31)
"Rebel Hearts" (Jan. 29, 31)
"Ailey" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"Try Harder!" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"Cusp" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"All Light, Everywhere" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)
"At the Ready" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)
"Users" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)

World Documentary Competition

"Flee" (Jan. 28, 30)
"Sabaya" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"Faya Dayi" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"Writing With Fire" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"Captains of Zaatari" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)
"Misha and the Wolves" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)
"Taming the Garden" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)
"President" (Jan. 29, 31)
"The Most Beautiful Boy in the World" (Jan. 29, 31)
"Playing With Sharks" (Jan. 29, 31)

NEXT

"Cryptozoo" (Jan. 29, 31)
"Son of Monarchs" (Jan. 29, 31)
"Strawberry Mansion" (Jan. 29, 31)
"Ma Belle, My Beauty" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"R#J" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"Searchers" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"The Blazing World" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)
"First Date" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)
"We're All Going to the World's Fair" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)

Midnight

"Censor" (Jan. 28, 30)
"Knocking" (Jan 29, 31)
"Mother Schmuckers" (Jan. 29, 31)
"Coming Home in the Dark" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"A Glitch in the Matrix" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"Violation" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)

Premieres

"In The Same Breath" (Jan. 28, 30)
"Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"Mass" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"The Sparks Brothers" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"Eight for Silver" (Jan. 30, Feb. 1)
"Land" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)
"Marvelous and The Black Hole" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)
"My Name is Pauli Murray" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)
"Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir" (Feb. 2, 3)
"Philly D.A." (Feb. 2, 3)
"Bring Your Own Brigade" (Jan. 29, 31)
"How It Ends" (Jan. 29, 31)
"In The Earth" (Jan. 29, 31)
"Prisoners of the Ghostland" (Jan. 31, Feb. 2)
"Judas and the Black Messiah" (Feb. 1, 3)

Spotlight

"Night of the Kings" (Feb. 1, 3)
"The World to Come" (Feb. 2, 3)

Special Screenings

"Life in a Day 2020" Feb. 1, 3)

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.