The Sundance Film Festival went virtual this year and featured seven days of premieres, events, artist talks and cutting-edge XR exhibitions. Bakersfield Life Magazine's Ema Sasic got a front row seat to some of the year's upcoming films and has the ones you should put on your watchlist.

1. "Flee"

In this animated documentary, Amin Nawabi, an Afghan refugee, whose identity remains anonymous, agrees to tell a remarkable personal narrative of persecution and escape. For years, he has had to say his family was killed in order to seek asylum in Denmark, but now he's ready to tell the truth. He recounts the disappearance of his father, moving to Russia where he and his family had to stay hidden for fear of deportation, his sisters being transported to Sweden illegally and finally his own journey to Denmark. Additionally, we see snippets of his life today, constantly flying back and forth from the United States for school and living in Denmark with his partner. Despite experiencing so much hardship in his life, Amin continues to be hopeful for his future.

The story being told in an animated style gives audiences lively and harrowing visuals to help bring this incredible story to life. "Flee" was selected as the Grand Jury Prize winner in Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Competition and is one of the most deserving winners from this year's festival. 

2. "Mass"

Richard (Reed Birney), Linda (Ann Dowd), Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) are each facing a loss that has taken so much from them. Something connects these two families, but it takes audiences some time before they find the answer: Richard and Linda’s son killed Jay and Gail's son, along with nine others and himself, in a school shooting. Years after the tragedy, filled with grief, sadness, despair and anger, Jay and Gail are ready to face the truth in an attempt to move on. 

We don't see movies on school shootings often, likely because it's such a horrific event that we don't need to see it portrayed on the big screen. But what Fran Kranz has done with his screenwriting and directorial debut handles the subject so delicately and beautifully. Each of the four leads give it their all, making this movie so much more impactful.

3. "Judas and the Black Messiah"

The film is based on true events surrounding the betrayal of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s, at the hands of William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield). O'Neal was a petty criminal, and one day, caught in the act with the possibility of facing several years behind bars if convicted, the FBI gives him the chance to walk free if he agrees to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and take down Hampton. He agrees and quickly earns Hampton's trust. But as the years go on, O'Neal begins to weigh whether he's doing the right thing.

Kaluuya and Stanfield are at their career best in this film. Both totally absorb their character's personalities and conflicts, making their performances powerful. "Judas and the Black Messiah" is currently available to stream on HBO Max.

4. "The Pink Cloud"

The Portuguese-language film opens on a beautiful clear day. All seems to be well, until a mysterious pink cloud appears. It looks so delicate and gentle as it floats over the city. That is until it comes into contact with a human and kills them almost instantly. Giovana (Renata de Lélis) and Yago (Eduardo Mendonça) are strangers who share a spark after meeting at a party. When the deadly pink cloud mysteriously takes over their city, they are forced to seek shelter with each other. Everyone is advised to keep their windows and doors closed, and going outside is simply not an option anymore. 

Iuli Gerbase's "The Pink Cloud" begins with this message: “This film was written in 2017 and shot in 2019. Any resemblance to actual events is purely coincidental.” Without knowing where the world was headed in 2020, Gerbase totally nailed the quarantine emotions we've all felt this past year. Giovana and Yago each deal with the "new normal" differently, which makes for a really reflective viewing experience. 

5. "CODA"

As a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing person in her family, which means she's always around to help them communicate with others. She's up at 3 a.m. every morning and heads out on the water to help her father and brother (Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant) with their fishing business. Fishing, however, isn't really her thing. Her passion is singing. As she falls more in love with singing, Ruby finds it hard to express it to her family (Oscar winner Marlee Matlin plays her mother). When the family's fishing business finds itself in rough waters, Ruby has to decide whether to stick with them or pursue her dreams.

"CODA" is full of heart and soul. There are cute, embarrassing moments, such as her parents driving into the school's parking lot while rap music blasts from the car radio, and touching ones. While everyone around them gets to listen to Ruby's beautiful voice, her family is unable to truly enjoy her talent. With three deaf actors cast in the lead roles, it's a movie that beautifully shows the struggles deaf people experience as well as the triumphs.

The film swept the festival awards, winning best director in the U.S. dramatic section for Sian Heder as well as the U.S. grand jury prize, U.S. dramatic audience award and special jury ensemble cast award.

Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.