It’s going to be shorter this year, but it’s also coming a lot closer to home: The 2021 Sundance Film Festival is going virtual. A bummer for those who like gathering in theaters to share cinematic discovery. But a boon to those who long to check out a prestigious film festival without the hassle of getting there and the cost of staying there.
Playing Jan. 28 through Feb. 3 on a computer/smart TV near you, Sundance offers 71 features from 29 countries to choose from — 38 of them from first-time filmmakers — and more than a dozen premieres. And if you’re feeling fancy, you can even catch a couple of them on the big screen at Denver’s Sie Film Center. The Film Center is among the 28 venues nationwide partnering with Sundance offering an in-person experience, which means you and nine guests can rent out the theaters for $600 (price includes popcorn and soda) and watch one of a dozen titles projected on the big screen. Titles and times are set; visit denverfilm.org/sundance for more.
For the rest of you, Sundance has a variety of passes to choose from: $350 for the all-inclusive festival pass, $75 for a day pass, $15 for a single ticket and $100 for the awards pass. That one allows you to watch as many of the 32 award winners as you can cram in on Feb. 3.
And there’s plenty of good stuff to get excited about: Passing, the directorial debut from actress Rebecca Hall; Summer of Soul, about 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival; The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, about actor Björn Andrésen; and on and on. Whatever you chose, make sure to leave room for Night of the Kings, the new narrative from Ivory Coast filmmaker Philippe Lacôte.
Set in a prison located deep in the jungle and ruled by an inmate, Blackbeard (Steve Tientchewu), Night of the Kings opens with the arrival of Roman (Bakary Koné), a young man who Blackbeard commands to tell a tale when the moon bleeds red. It does, and all the inmates gather in a room and bid Roman speak his story. Roman tells them of Zama, a guerrilla Roman knew on the outside, and while he orates, the prisoners act out his story through dance, pantomime and call and response. Roman is charmed, but when he gets wind of the fate that awaits once he finishes, Roman pulls a Scheherazade and begins to adorn Zama’s saga with ancient mythology, magic and scenes from a movie Roman saw 20 years ago. It’s a tense piece of work, and Lacôte maintains a firm grasp on the material until an odd choice in the third act — a wizards’ duel with bad CGI — momentarily breaks the spell.
That shouldn’t put you off on Night of the Kings (the rest is quite strong), but illustrates a point that while not everything you come across at a festival is flawless, it is also the best way to see cinema off the beaten path.