Films from first-time directors including Rebecca Hall, Robin Wright and Fran Kranz were the standouts at this year’s virtual festival

There is an argument that suggests one of the main contributing factors to the atmosphere of giddy excitement at the Sundance film festival each year is the sheer unpleasantness of being there. It takes days – literally – to reach; the festival itself requires miles of interminable trudging through slush, giving discoveries an extra frisson of hard-won satisfaction. But the 2021 virtual Sundance disproves this theory: even without queues in sub-zero temperatures, it remains the buzziest of gatherings.

It helps that some of the films premiering arrived at the festival having already built up quite a head of steam on the awards circuit. One such picture is the electrifying Judas and the Black Messiah, which must be considered as a serious best picture contender. Shaka King’s sinuous, complex dual portrait of charismatic Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and of the man who betrayed him, FBI informant William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), is utterly gripping, even if King occasionally loses his grasp on the tangle of story threads. Both leads are superb, but it’s Kaluuya’s movie – he fleshes out Hampton with a sparking, quickfire charisma and a poet’s soul.

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