The 2021 festival season kicked off with a virtual edition of the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

One day I’ll be able to stop pointing out that a film festival was held virtually, but unfortunately that day isn’t here yet.

Film critics and fans may not have been able to crowd into Park City, Utah this year, but the COVID-19 pandemic did not lessen the quality of the films available to the online audience.

For the next three weeks, I’ll be covering the hits, the misses and a handful of movies that fall somewhere in between. One big hit and one big miss debut this week. I’ll start with the bad news first.

Land is the feature directorial debut for actress Robin Wright (House of Cards). She plays Edee, a woman who has suffered some type of severe emotional trauma and decides to leave her urban lifestyle behind and move into a rustic little shack in the wilderness of Wyoming. Edee arrives with some canned goods and books on how to live off the land.

In a very short period of time, she’s starving, half frozen in a blizzard and very conveniently saved from certain death by Miguel (Damien Bichir).

Why is Edee so sad and trying to get back to nature to heal her emotional wounds? Who knows? I mean, we eventually find out 75 minutes into the 90-minute film, but by that point, the audience won’t care. It’s like an absent-minded tack-on to the end of a conversation between Edee and Miguel.

I understand the desire to avoid constructing a film with constant flashbacks that explain the protagonist’s motivation. That’s annoying but providing no real backstory for Edee until the credits are nearly ready to roll is a terrible miscalculation.

Edee is ultimately just a stone-cold cipher of a woman who spends countless days suffering in horrible conditions for reasons that the film keeps to itself.

It’s one of the longest 90-minute films I’ve seen in quite some time, laboring along at a glacial pace. It doesn’t help that this same subject matter has been covered by far superior films in the not-so-distant pass.

In 2014, Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, captured the true story of Cheryl Strayed, who took on an epic hike of the Pacific Crest Trail to cope with her mother’s recent death. In 2007, Into the Wild told the story of Chris McCandless who graduated from Emory University, gave all his money to charity and hitchhiked to Alaska to live in the wilderness.

Land aspires to a minimalist approach to its acting and its narrative. We get countless gorgeous shots of the Pacific Northwest, but we can see those on the National Geographic Channel. We’re watching visuals but searching for a story.

The film has the feel of a passion project for Robin Wright, but the passion is missing from the film’s screenplay. Why did this project scream to be her directorial debut? The audience will be left wondering as well.

Land hits theaters on Friday, February 12th. Into the Wild is currently playing on Netflix, and Wild is available on all major digital rental services.

Judas and the Black Messiah tells the tale of Fred Hampton, an activist and socialist revolutionary who rose to power in the late 1960’s in the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Like Malcolm X and other militant black leaders, Hampton was a thorn in the side of J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and was under constant surveillance as a result.

This narrative feature embeds the audience in the Black Power Movement of 1968 and 1969 which also proved to be the final days of Fred Hampton’s short life.

The film features a towering performance by Daniel Kaluuya who previously wowed audiences in Jordan Peele’s horror smash hit Get Out. The actor gained muscle weight to play the barrel-chested firebrand Hampton. His speeches during the large rally sequences are things that Oscars are made of.

Lakeith Stanfield (Knives Out, Selma) is equally riveting as Bill O’Neal, a small-time thief and hustler who’s arrested in the opening of the film and becomes an informant for the FBI. O’Neal infiltrates Hampton’s inner circle, reporting on his activities while simultaneously admiring the activist and sharing his political beliefs. Stanfield’s portrayal of O’Neal’s growing guilt is one of the best supporting performances of the current awards season.

Judas and the Black Messiah is Best Picture material. It may have entered the awards conversation too late to truly take home the Oscar gold in April, but it’s still one of the best films of the past twelve months.

Judas and the Black Messiah hits theaters and HBO Max on Friday, February 12th.