From Sundance stalwarts to up-and-coming auteurs, here are the must-sees at Sundance 2020.
Show me your Sundance lineup and I will tell you who you are, said the ghost of Roger Ebert to 2020. In all seriousness, though, the Sundance slate often heralds the next year of moviegoing trends. Think of last year's Knock Down the House and The Farewell, for example, and Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You the year before. In some cases, at the festival's fringes, the future of filmmaking can even be glimpsed—often at the hands of the next wave of breakout writer-directors.
This year, there's a lot to look forward to, including many Sundance stalwarts returning to the director's chair after a long hiatus (ahem, Miranda July, Sean Durkin, and Benh Zeitlin), along with the promise of discovering new talent. Below are the thirteen Sundance premieres we're most excited to see this year.
Miranda July's name became virtually synonymous with indie film when her feature debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know, broke out 15 years ago at Sundance, won the Special Jury Prize, and went on to have a healthy box-office run. In the intervening years, however, July has remained largely absent from the director's chair. Her 2011 sophomore feature The Future once again showcased her deliciously surrealist range, but it left us all wanting more. The time has come: Sundance premiere Kajillionaire looks to be the perfect vehicle for July's signature quirky, absurdist comedy. It stars Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, and Evan Rachel Wood as a family of con artists whose illegal hijinks lead them into murky waters. If anyone were to be a welcome addition to the over-saturated con-man genre, it's July, who has built her career on never doing the same thing twice.
Much like Miranda July, Benh Zeitlin has been out of the spotlight since the success of his magical realist debut and Sundance-winning Beasts of the Southern Wild. The film grossed more than $23 million and garnered multiple Oscar nominations. So where has Zeitlin been for the last seven years? Making Wendy, apparently. Zeitlin told Indiewire that a slew of major challenges prolongated his Sundance premiere, including Fox Searchlight's acquisition by Disney, a casting process that involved auditioning some 1,500 kids, and a "messy and even dangerous" production on the remote island of Montserrat (which, by the way, is home to an active volcano). Zeitlin seems a bit shell-shocked from the production, and in the interview, he admits to being incredulous that he finished the film in the first place. We can't wait to see it—it's a reimagining of the Peter Pan story, after all, but from the perspective of an empowered Wendy, who emerges as the hero.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Eliza Hittman's coming-of-age stories (It Felt Like Love, Sundance '13, and Beach Rats, Sundance '17) make her a perfect fit for the Sundance family. Never Rarely Sometimes Always—which seems to have taken a page from the title of July's debut—continues in this tradition. The drama centers on the story of two teenage cousins (Talia Ryder and Sidney Flanigan), one of them pregnant, who travel from rural Pennsylvania to New York City for an abortion. Hittman, who is a master of subtext, has built the narrative using intimate close-ups and nuanced performances from the young actresses, both discoveries. Hélène Louvart's 16mm cinematography is sure to heighten the drama of the minimalist performances here.
The Nowhere Inn
From minds of ex-girlfriends-turned-best-friends Carrie Brownstein and Annie Clark (otherwise known as the musical sensation St. Vincent) comes this rollicking mockumentary—which is, in an interesting turn of events, set to premiere in the Midnight section. (No one's sure why, which only adds to the intrigue.) Frequent Portlandia collaborator Bill Benz directs the co-writers in what is being described as a surreal, metafictional exploration of fame and representation. Brownstein, playing herself, goes on tour with Clark, also playing some version of herself, in hopes of filming a music documentary about the singer. But behind her provocative stage persona, Clark just isn't that interesting, and she knows it. Rather than reveal her vanilla self to Brownstein, Clark ratchets up the antics, and her stage persona begins to meld with her authentic self. We'd put a bird on this one landing somewhere between Madeline's Madeline and Portlandia.
Speaking of Madeline's Madeline (Sundance '18), Josephine Decker is back at it with Shirley, which irresistibly promises to marry the thriller and biopic genres. Elisabeth Moss stars as the midcentury gothic writer Shirley Jackson (best known for The Haunting of Hill House), with Michael Stuhlbarg playing her husband. When they decide to rent a spare room in their house to a younger couple (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman), the living arrangement quickly devolves into a psycho-drama, and the couple becomes fodder for Jackson’s next big horror novel. Decker has proven herself to be one of the most narratively and formally audacious working indie directors, and we're excited to see what she can do with this twisty material (not to mention the potential for another hypnotic performance from Moss).
Two words: Alan Ball. Over the years, the intellectual tour-de-force has racked up the Emmys (Six Feet Under and True Blood) and Oscars (American Beauty) for his searing portrayals of humans just trying to deal with life, sex, and death. His characters have uttered some of the most iconic—and depressing—lines in recent memory, and now he's a Sundance helmer for the very first time, where we fully expect him to deliver some more wisdom that's hard to swallow. Uncle Frank is set in 1973, when a teenage girl leaves her hometown to attend NYU and reconnect with her estranged uncle, who is a professor there. She finds him living a double life, and when they both return to South Carolina, they must confront ghosts of the past.
Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene was a sensation at Sundance nine years ago when the director stunned audiences with his ability to create unbearable tension (and gave a whole new meaning to the term "cult movie"). In the years since, he's mostly produced his friends' Sundance premieres under the banner of their production company, Borderline Films. He's back at Sundance with this long-awaited sophomore effort, which stars Jude Law as an ambitious entrepreneur who moves his family to his native England in pursuit of better business opportunities. But life in 1980s ultra-capitalist Britain slowly eats away at them, and the family begins to rot from inside their expensive manor house. Mátyás Erdély, who shot László Nemes’s Son of Saul and Sunset, is the cinematographer here; in conversation with Durkin's flair for eerie atmosphere, The Nest is sure to be an unnerving visual experience.
Dick Johnson Is Dead
Kirsten Johnson's Cameraperson (Sundance '16) is undoubtedly one of the best documentaries of the decade. Like a haiku scrounged from the remnants of memory, that film contains excerpts from 25 documentaries' worth of footage, which Johnson shot over her 14-year cinematography career—a concatenation designed to reflect on relationships between camera and subject, person and world. Part of what makes Cameraperson so compelling is the empathy that pours out of Johnson's lens. That's why festivalgoers would be remiss not to catch Johnson's premiere, Dick Johnson Is Dead, in which she turns the camera on her elderly father as they both confront his inevitable demise. Despite its subject matter, the Netflix-backed film, executive produced by Megan Ellison, doesn't sound maudlin; instead, Johnson's fiction-nonfiction hybrid "turns to the magic of cinema to kill [her father], resurrect him, and celebrate his last years on earth," according to Sundance's synopsis.
In 2015, former Hooters waitress A'ziah King tweeted an epic saga that came to be known as #TheStory. In 144 tweets, King described an odyssey that, in turn, encompassed stripping, sex work, human trafficking, an alleged murder, and a suicide attempt—all of this told with gripping tension and absurdist humor. Legendary indie producer Christine Vachon was among those who were gripped by #The Story, and after snagging the IP attached Lemon director Janicza Bravo and Broadway's Slave Play writer Jeremy O. Harris to translate the tweets into a road trip movie for the ages. If that's not a compelling premise, we don't know what is.
The Truffle Hunters
Last year, Honeyland, a folkloric, visually-stunning vérité portrait of one of the last remaining wild beekeepers, awed Sundance audiences left and right. This year, The Truffle Hunters is poised to do the same. Like Honeyland, Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw's documentary tells a small human story with cosmic environmental implications. Also like Honeyland, the film follows elderly people who practice a dying vocation—in this case, a group of eccentric men in the forests of Northern Italy who forage for the prized white Alba truffle. These intrepid and fiercely independent men love their lives for the quality time it affords with their beloved canines (the real truffle hunters), and they revere nature. But a new wave of downright nefarious truffle hunters are coming onto the scene, and they have no respect for anything but money. Featuring stunning, meticulously-composed static shots—a rare thing in documentary indeed—it's safe to say that The Truffle Hunters will bring home the Special Jury Award for Cinematography in Documentary.
Carlos López Estrada's Blindspotting was one of the big breakouts of Sundance 2018. Summertime promises to be something a bit different, but not without Estrada's signature verve (he came up in music videos). The experimental film, premiering in the NEXT section, was inspired by a spoken-word showcase featuring 25 diverse high school performers. Estrada cast an ensemble of non-actors to use poetry to tell stories about their lives in Los Angeles—among them, a skating guitarist, a tagger, rappers, a fast-food worker, and a limo driver. The premise is intoxicating, and with Estrada's visual prowess, it's sure to deliver.
A thriller featuring body horror and body-snatching could only be the work of David Cronenberg—or that of his son, Brandon, whose feature debut Antiviral announced another grotesque auteur on the scene. Andrea Riseborough, who is preternaturally good at playing unhinged characters, stars as a corporate agent who uses brain-implant technology to take over people’s bodies and force them to commit assassinations. Sundance describes this one as "splendid mindfuck cinema," so we're sold.
Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung's directorial debut Munyurangabo, about the conflict in Rwanda, was widely lauded as a masterpiece. His Sundance premiere Minari is inspired by his own upbringing in a Korean immigrant family chasing the American Dream in 1980s rural Arkansas. The film counts A24 and Steven Yeun among its financiers and producers, which bodes well for what we're confident is a strong script. That Sundance compares Minari to a Yasujiro Ozu film is just another reason to see it.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.