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How discombobulating is an online Sundance Film Festival? In past years, I’ve occasionally had trouble flying home from Utah due to heavy snowstorms on the East Coast. In 2021, I just went outside and shoveled my driveway. It’s been a surreal edition of the storied Park City event, but hardly an unsuccessful one, with record-breaking film sales and a clutch of very fine movies. The awards ceremonies were held Tuesday night and CODA,” the opening night drama about a Gloucester teen and her family of deaf fishermen, cleaned up with grand jury and audience awards for US Drama, plus prizes for its director (Cambridge-born Siân Heder) and ensemble cast. Is it a great movie? Maybe not, but it’s awfully easy to love.

What I missed most, watching the festival entries at home in my movie-critic man cave, were the people. The actors and directors you get to interview about their choices and dreams; my critical colleagues from around the country and the world, swapping responses and recommendations (and warnings); the festivalgoers on the shuttle buses, dazzled and exhausted; the army of volunteers, young and old, that make Sundance happen year after year in exchange for the excitement of just being there. (And the skiers; paradoxically, the festival is a great time to hit the slopes because everyone else is at the movies.) The streaming technology that delivered films to my home screen performed without a snag, but I’ve never been more potently reminded that movies are meant to be experienced as part of a crowd.


Some of the offerings directly or indirectly addressed our fragmenting social scene. Searchers,” from Pacho Velez, a Boston filmmaker (“Manakamana”) relocated to New York City, is a wry and wistful documentation of the dating-app scene, filmed in a series of close-ups as the subjects, representing all ages, colors, and genders, peer into Tinder or Grindr or Match.com and puzzle over the mysteries of modern love. That “Searchers” was filmed in the summer of 2020, with masked Manhattanites out and about, makes it seem both modern and nostalgic, and Velez is unafraid to put himself in his own viewfinder. The movie’s a lot less slight than initially plays.

Sundance always has its share of wackadoo entries, whether they’re programmed in the “Next” section or not. Some of them come packaged as ready-made cult items, like Prisoners of the Ghostland,” a mash-up of Westerns, crime thrillers, samurai films, and “Mad Max”-style dystopias. Directed by Sion Sono, an established bad boy of Japanese cinema, it stars Nicolas Cage who, even when his character gets a testicle blown off midway through, seems comparatively tired. The movie’s ultimately less than meets the eye, but since there’s an awful lot meeting the eye here, it’s probably a wash.


Kentucker Audley appears in "Strawberry Mansion."
Kentucker Audley appears in "Strawberry Mansion." Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Much more engaging if equally lunatic is the low-budget Strawberry Mansion,” a day-after-tomorrow fable in which our nightly dreams are monitored, taxed, and commercialized; it’s the tale of one lonely dream-tax auditor (played by co-director Kentucker Audley) who falls down a rabbit hole of romance and conspiracy theories and human-sized mice in sailor’s pinafores. Sometimes you just have to go along for the ride.

There are, of course, more traditional Sundance genres. The rock-doc, for example: The Sparks Brothers,” from Edgar Wright (“Baby Driver”), a fondly indulgent look back at the four-decade career of Sparks (a.k.a. Ron and Russell Mael), who in the words of one onlooker, are “the best British band to ever come out of America.”


The hot-topic drama: Mass,” a stunningly acted four-hander about the parents of a school shooting victim sitting down in a church basement with the parents of the shooter. Taking place six years after the event, the intent of the meeting is to heal, but writer-director Fran Kranz doesn’t let them or us off that easily. How do you keep it interesting when it’s just four people talking in a room? By casting actors as fine as Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, Reed Birney, and the magnificent Ann Dowd.

Ann Dowd in a scene from "Mass."
Ann Dowd in a scene from "Mass." Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The classy literary adaptation: Passing,” which turns Nella Larsen’s slim 1929 novella into a scrupulously thoughtful drama of the choices made by two old friends, Irene (Tessa Thompson), the prim upper-middle-class wife of a prosperous Harlem doctor, and Clare (Ruth Negga), so successfully passing for white that even her racist husband (Alexander Skarsgard) is fooled. Marking the directing debut of British actress Rebecca Hall — who noted during the film’s online introduction that her Chicago-born mother, singer Maria Ewing, came from a family that passed for white — the film is brilliantly performed (by Thompson especially) and somewhat over-controlled stylistically, but it certainly makes a viewer want to see what Hall does next.

Finally, the heartland working-class drama, a longtime Sundance staple represented most recently by “The Rider” (whose director Chloé Zhao is winning every award under the sun for this year’s “Nomadland”). The 2021 entry is Jockey,” a stolidly moving account of a racetrack horse rider (Clifton Collins Jr.) nearing the finish line of his career while dealing with a young jockey (Moisés Arias) who claims to be his son.


The film, which sold to Sony Pictures Classics on the festival’s second day, is a personal matter for its first-time director, Clint Bentley, whose father was a jockey and who grew up on racetracks. If “Jockey” leans heavily on its golden-hour cinematography, the details are finely observed and Collins is tersely moving in the title role. A longtime supporting player (“Westworld”) granted a rare lead, he won a Sundance special jury award Tuesday night for best actor. If it was impossible not to miss the people on the ground at this year’s festival, the people up on the screen made up for it.

Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.