Sundance 2021 Reviews: Judas and the Black Messiah, Passing & More!

Sundance 2021 reviews: Judas and the Black Messiah, Passing & more!

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival has finally arrived and ComingSoon.net got the exciting opportunity to take part in the virtual iteration of the classic festival and watch some of the incredible films in its catalogue, from Robin Wright and Rebecca Hall’s directorial debuts Land and Passing to the biographical drama Judas and the Black Messiah. Check out our reviews for the films below!

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Knocking

  • Directed by: Frieda Kempff; Written by: Emma Broström
  • Starring: Cecilia Milocco, Krister Kern, Albin Grenholm, Ville Virtanen, Alexander Salzberger
  • Rating: 5/10

Often times a psychological thriller with little-to-no explanations for the events of the story depicted is a smarter move as some ambiguity for the film breeds intriguing debates and compelling character work, but there’s still the occasional efforts in which this lack of exposition leaves a viewer underwhelmed and disinterested, such was the case for me with Knocking. Centered on a woman slowly losing her mind after moving into a new apartment and hearing a mysterious knocking sound from the walls, which no other tenant hears or is willing to believe her about, the film’s attempts at taking a pointed look at gaslighting and many countries’ incapacity to properly help those with a mental illness are certainly admirable, but by locking them in the psychological thriller genre they’re not really explored effectively or obvious enough for audiences to understand that’s part of the point of the film. Instead what we’re given is a mildly-tense-yet-ambling story that features a strong performance from Milocco and stylish direction from Kempff, but not much else in the way of a well-paced narrative or satisfying conclusion.

Luzzu

  • Written & Directed by: Alex Camilleri
  • Starring: Jesmark Scicluna, Michela Farrugia, David Scicluna
  • Rating: 8.5/10

The story of a young family struggling as both must come to terms with their pride regarding their extended families, jobs rooted in tradition and temptations of a turn to crime is certainly a well-worn genre here in the States, but it’s one not often explored so richly and so uniquely as with Alex Camilleri’s Malta-set Luzzu. Centered on fisherman Jesmark as he seeks to find a way to provide for his wife and newborn baby while dealing with a leak in his boat and an increasingly problematic industry in the region, the film might follow the general formula of a slow turn to crime but rather than see him revel in it or suddenly become in the favor of all those around him, Camilleri keeps hammering Js down with realistic problems and moral hurdles and provides a nice slow burn to its story. In addition to its nice subversions of genre formula, the story does a fascinating job of exploring some very real-world issues of the European Union hurting local fishing industries rooted in family generations as well as the toll global warming is taking on the ecosystems of the region and local jobs, and with a proper minimal usage of Jon Natchez’ powerful score, it all culminates in a moving, gripping and often-heartbreakingly real tale.

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John and the Hole

  • Directed by: Pascual Sisto; Written by: Nicolás Giacobone
  • Starring: Charlie Shotwell, Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle, Taissa Farmiga
  • Rating: 3/10

Evil children is a trope in the horror and thriller genre that has been explored in every aspect, from spawns of Satan to influenced by evil entities to just downright maniacal souls, but few have been quite as haunting to watch as the titular teen in John and the Hole, but whether that works in its favor or against it really lies in the preferences of the viewer. After drugging his family and dragging them into the bottom of an unfinished bunker, John casually goes about enjoying some freedom, including stealing money from an ATM using his parents’ debit card, telling lies to various adults regarding the whereabouts of everyone and inviting a friend over, all while bringing his family food scraps, bottles of water and garbage bags full of clothes. The tension and sense of dread permeating from this film is certainly handled expertly and Sisto’s directorial eye is quite artful, but the writing and the story really feels so bland and purposefully controversial that it doesn’t feel more than a poor attempt at trying to start a conversation regarding John’s actions. Is he a monster? Is he just odd? Is this part of some adolescent angst? No matter what the answer is, the way the film progresses and presents the character doesn’t feel like an intelligent or meaningful exploration of him, but rather a slow-burning experiment designed to torture the viewer and make them question what the point of any of John’s actions actually were, or if there even was one.

Passing

  • Written & Directed by: Rebecca Hall
  • Starring: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård, Bill Camp
  • Rating: 9/10

Nowadays when filmmakers choose to explore the issue of race in America, so often is the lens pointed towards the past during the era of slavery or Civil Rights Movement period of the ’60s and ’70s, but there’s a truly fascinating time in between with the Harlem Renaissance that feels so untapped with its potential. Not only does debuting writer/director Rebecca Hall properly explore this time with her adaptation of Nella Larsen’s Passing, but she also compellingly dives into so many of its fascinating themes, from its titular social status to the homoerotic subtext and repression in some of its characters, with an air of authenticity and a beautiful eye that makes her first outing in the director’s chair nothing short of remarkable. Centered on two childhood friends as they reunite by chance and see what their lives have become as they’ve chosen different sides of the race line, with Irene (Tessa Thompson) choosing to embrace her African-American heritage while Clare (Ruth Negga) has chosen to embrace her ability to “pass” as a white woman and marry as such, while also becoming increasingly obsessed and intrigued by the other’s life. Hall brilliantly utilizes the black-and-white styling of the film to tap into the story’s titular theme while simultaneously letting it shine through her thoughtful script and thanks to the gripping performances from leads Thompson and Negga, this is an absolutely absorbing, beautiful and timely work of art sure to turn heads at any awards ceremony with good taste in film.

Censor

  • Co-Written & Directed by: Prano Bailey-Bond; Co-Written by: Anthony Fletcher
  • Starring: Niamh Algar, Nicholas Burns, Vincent Franklin, Sophia La Porta, Adrian Schiller, Michael Smiley
  • Rating: 8.5/10

Though beloved by many and comprised of a devoted fan base going back nearly a century, the horror genre has often been the subject of ire and criticism in regards to the effects some of the violence portrayed in their works have carried over into the real world. While there have been a handful of entries in the genre that have elected to either satirize or spoof said belief, Prano Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher’s Censor offers something far different and more unique by not only showing a reverence for what’s come before but also almost a more meta-yet-direct desire to protect the genre from fairly ignorant criticisms. Following film censor Enid as she slowly loses her mind while investigating a mysterious new film and its potential connection to her sister’s disappearance in her childhood, it takes a fascinating approach to revealing a facet of the film industry and the video nasty era not hardly explored. Though Enid’s descent into madness might feel similar to The Ring‘s Rachel or In the Mouth of Madness‘ Trent, Censor offers a better driving force and more intriguing explanation for her devolution, never fully diving into the supernatural but offering just enough hints of it to please both genre enthusiasts and those generally fond of nostalgic storytelling. With a powerful leading turn from Niamh Algar and artful direction from Bailey-Bond that simultaneously utilizes the best of modern technology and the color palette and framework of horror’s past, this is an absolute dream of a film in every facet and marks a promising future from its co-writer/director.

Searchers

  • Director: Pacho Velez
  • Rating: 9/10

Even prior to the global lockdown, the world of online dating has been an area of real fascination as it continues to expand with dating apps but unlike last year’s similar documentary Shoot to Marry, which focused more on the filmmaker than the modern world of dating itself, Pacho Velez takes a far more simplified and entertaining approach to this subject with Searchers. Placing various New Yorkers in front of a very innovative screen allowing the viewer to see what the subjects are seeing as they scroll through potential matches, messages and setting up their profiles, Velez finds an amazing ability to just draw out everyone’s authentic selves as they react to what they’re seeing. By choosing to really only make the apps and subjects the center of the story, especially in regards to what they’re looking for, instead of himself despite his occasional insertions as he uses the apps himself, Velez has crafted a hilarious, poignant and thoroughly entertaining documentary from start to finish.

Eight for Silver

  • Written & Directed by: Sean Ellis
  • Starring: Boyd Holbrook, Kelly Reilly, Ailstair Petrie, Roxane Duran, Áine Rose Daly
  • Rating: 8.5/10

The werewolf horror genre recently saw a nice change of pace thanks to Jim Cummings’ offbeat and fascinating The Wolf of Snow Hollow and though Sean Ellis’ Eight for Silver takes a similar character-focused approach without any of the sense of humor of Cummings, he still delivers a compelling and fairly original take on the formula. Centered on a pathologist as he heads to a small country village in the 1800s to investigate an animal attack with a darker meaning behind it, the film isn’t your typical werewolf film as it offers a more concrete explanation behind its creature’s origin and features more daytime attacks, but these not only work largely in the film’s favor but also spawns from the attacker behind the local murders being something more terrifying and conceptually fascinating than a normal lycanthrope, a near-Lovecraftian terror that’s somehow made its way to the middle of the woods. Though the film occasionally moves at a sluggish pace and some of its CGI proves a little shoddy, the scares dispersed throughout are very effective, the practical effect work is downright stellar and the performances from its cast are all top-notch, making for an outright chilling and intriguing affair.

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