The best movies that came out of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival

February 4, 2020, 9:30 PM UTC
Jovelle Tamayo— 2020 Sundance Institute

You can see the mountains from just about everywhere in Park City, Utah, snowcapped and gleaming. Surrounded by rustic cabins, this tiny ski-resort town must be a deeply serene place to live year-round.

Of course, visiting for the 2020 Sundance Film Festival does not permit one to enjoy panoramic views and mountain solitude in any semblance of peace. But even as Hollywood descends on Park City, there’s still a strange clarity to the oxygen.

Somehow, the festival feels like a holy pilgrimage and rush-hour commute rolled into one. Even racing from screening to screening, it’s hard for even the most seasoned of industry folks not to breathe a little easier, away from their typical concrete jungles. To crib the title of a yesteryear premiere, Sundance is hustle but also flow.

For a festival that annually signals spring for independent cinema, this measure of calm amid the clamor can feel as restorative as the best movies that play there each year. And the finest of its 118 feature-length films did indeed restore, even as some shocked the system and others bucked it entirely.

The very best, Minari, is a tender and tremendously affecting tale of family, youth, and all-American struggle that plays out against the rural backdrop of ’80s Arkansas. At once sweeping and intimate, it follows a Korean-American family that shifts from the West Coast in order to start a small farm. To the unit’s hard-working patriarch, Jacob (Steven Yeun, The Walking Dead), nothing could be more important than this literal process of planting seeds and tending crops; it is the purest fulfillment of his American dream, and he is determined to seize it. To the rest of the family, including an impish grandmother (Youn Yuh-jung), life in Arkansas presents an unfamiliar set of obstacles they never asked for, from the surrounding evangelism to the decidedly isolated nature of their new existence. Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, who drew from memories of his own upbringing, wisely gives domestic tensions—between Jacob and his wife, Monica (Han Yeri), as well as between the parents and their 7-year-old son David (Alan S. Kim), too young to grasp the gravity of a heart condition he was born with—space to organically develop and heighten. There’s wisdom, and humor, as well as unmistakable authenticity in his Minari.

Steven Yeun appears in “Minari” by Lee Isaac Chung.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

A24 will distribute Minari later this year; it’s one of the few titles at Sundance that seems primed to show up on the awards circuit, on its collective strengths as well as the terrifically moving performances by Yeun and Youn, particularly now that the independent box-office success of The Farewell and Parasite has vanished any misconceptions that a movie must be in English to resonate with a wide American audience. (The other is Ironbark, a handsomely tailored espionage drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch that Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions have acquired, in hopes it will land closer to his Imitation Game than his Current War.)

If Minari came into Sundance with a fair amount of buzz—and left it with more, earning double honors as the winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition—the bigger A24 title that landed in Park City was Zola, based on a viral 148-tweet thread from 2015. Hailing from director Janicza Bravo and cowriter Jeremy O. Harris, the film is a strange, surreal beast that thoughtfully (if not entirely successfully) bakes the postmodern performativeness of its premise into the filmmaking.

Riley Keough and Taylour Paige appear in “Zola” by Janicza Bravo.
Anna Kooris—Courtesy of Sundance Institute

It’s named for the dancer and waitress (Taylour Paige) who originally tweeted her account of the events depicted in the film, throughout which she’s plunged into a distinctly Floridian nightmare after agreeing to travel to Tampa with a stripper/sex worker (Riley Keough), her boyfriend (Nicholas Braun, Succession), and her pimp (a supremely menacing Colman Domingo). As Zola falls down a rabbit hole of guns, shady back rooms, and prostitution, Bravo’s narrative gambit becomes evident. Through Zola’s point-of-view retelling of these events, her grim ordeal is reclaimed as a candy-colored, sometimes hilariously out-there odyssey through the kind of beach-noir playground frequented by Spring Breakers director Harmony Korine. Zola falters two-thirds of the way through in a brief detour titled “Stefani,” in which Keough’s character suddenly grabs the mic to deliver her (fairly racist) side of events, through which Zola coaxed her into a life of illicit, soul-crushing crime. It’s fully a detour, and audiences never stack their sympathies away from Zola, which somewhat sinks Bravo’s bold exploration of how going viral entitles someone to decide the definitive version of events.

Zola‘s the most thematically loaded of a few films at Sundance that contemplated life in the age of social media and technology clattering along at a terrifying pace. In Spree, Joe Keery of Stranger Things plays an unhinged Lyft driver whose quest to go viral is so all-consuming he’s willing to kill for it. Even more brutally, Possessor—from Brandon Cronenberg, son of body-horror king David—works a kind of sick-puppy magic in its twisted fable of assassins who use cutting-edge medical technology to hijack other people’s bodies, pushing their consciousnesses aside and revealing themselves only when it’s time to strike. It remains to be seen whether Well Go USA (which has acquired the title) can avoid an NC-17 rating for this deeply gory, amoral thriller, which devolves into a psychoplasmic face-off between one killer (Andrea Riseborough) and the surprisingly cunning man (Christopher Abbott) whose shell she’s stolen.

Andrea Riseborough appears in “Possessor” by Brandon Cronenberg.
Karim Hussain—Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Over in the mainstream, Miss Americana, the Taylor Swift documentary that opened Sundance this year (and brought the musician to town, ensuring all-out pandemonium for two miles in every direction), claims to offer an authentic, unguarded portrait of the world’s biggest pop star, but director Lana Wilson’s aim in the film (which is already available on Netflix) is a little more subversive than that. Instead, as the doc charts Swift’s jerky path through the media spotlight, it doubles as a fascinating, fairly unsettling look at the celebrity complex, how impossibly well-oiled we’ve demanded Swift be while simultaneously shaming her for any perceived superficiality.

The Nowhere Inn, essentially Miss Americana‘s tethered, is a narrative film directed by Bill Benz but frames itself as the meta-documentary creation of Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, who’s making a movie about the real life of her best friend Annie Clark, a.k.a. avant-garde guitar goddess St. Vincent. It’s a wild, vertiginous treatise on fame splintering the self (much like St. Vincent’s recent album, Masseduction), and it packs in vicious satire, Invasion of the Body Snatchers references, some mind-melting instances of pop-star artifice colliding with reality, and Sundance’s single best cameo in Dakota Johnson as Clark’s camera-ready paramour. It’s too much, knowingly so, and one of the most audacious movies that was at the festival this year.

Annie Clark and Carrie Brownstein appear in “The Nowhere Inn” by Bill Benz.
Minka Farthing Kohl—Courtesey of the Sundance Institute

Another that fits that category of “audacious” and will undoubtedly generate bigger headlines is Promising Young Woman, a devastating poison pill of a debut by writer-director Emerald Fennell (Killing Eve) that’s been marketed as a “delicious new take” on the revenge thriller. “Delicious” is the wrong word, unless you’re partial to arsenic and battery acid. Promising Young Woman is furious, righteously so; its protagonist, Cassie (Carey Mulligan), is a kind of vigilante striking back against the patriarchy, who by night entraps bad men into revealing their toxic, culturally enabled proclivity toward taking advantage of women. Then she makes them pay. A trauma in Cassie’s past is driving her, but she’s more incensed at the system than any one individual benefiting from it. Fennell’s film is stylish and sophisticated in execution, but—especially in its divisive, tonally tricky final third—lands like a sledgehammer to the skull.

In a Sundance record, of the festival’s 118 feature-length titles, 44% were directed or codirected by women, with 34% directed or codirected by a person of color. Perhaps needless to say, most of the releases that shook up this historically very white and very male festival were not by white male filmmakers.

From Verónica Chen’s ferocious High Tide—about a woman (Gloria Carrá) locked in a war of wills with contractors after she sleeps with the chief builder—to Pablo Larraín’s sensual head-trip Ema—about a dancer (Mariana Di Girolamo) whose high-wire existence is thrown into disarray after she returns a child she adopted—Sundance offered many portraits of women in the throes of crisis that teased out their complexity, and often their cruelty or weakness, with dazzling ingenuity.

It was a particularly fascinating experience, to say the least, to hear sharp intakes of breath around the theater throughout The Assistant, director Kitty Green’s quiet and quietly devastating look at a day in the life of an assistant to a Harvey Weinstein type. “That’s exactly what it was like,” one voice whispered during a scene in which the assistant, Jane (Julia Garner, note-perfect in a challenging role), carefully disposes of a needle—implied to be for a penis injection drug—left on the floor of the executive’s office. The Assistant paints a sobering picture of an industry in which those at the entry level are held to a code of soul-annihilating silence; for it to play to such fierce acclaim at Sundance, a roost Harvey Weinstein once ruled, felt like an important moment.

In more auteur-driven filmmaking, Josephine Decker’s Shirley packed an invigorating punch in its Sundance premiere. Conceptually, the film’s a daring provocation: Can audiences reimagine “The Lottery” author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband, professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), as mad geniuses all too eager to ensnare a young couple (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young) in psychosexual parlor tricks? Decker’s experimental choices behind the camera, especially when the camera draws maddeningly out of focus, work to bring the audience inside Jackson’s dark, twisted headspace; towering work from all four stars handily manages the rest.

Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss appear in “Shirley” by Josephine Decker, at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Thatcher Keats—Courtesy of Sundance Institute

A less roundly well-received but equally visionary work came from Blindspotting director Carlos López Estrada, whose Summertime merges magical realism with the hard-fought slam poetry of 25 young strivers in Los Angeles. Described as a love letter to Los Angeles, it delivers beautifully on that front—much more so than something like La La Land, which is out to lionize Hollywood as silver-screen myth more than it is to observe the real-life dreamers in and living around it. Estrada’s film is a gamble, and a special film, unfolding as a Slacker-esque reverie with a clear-eyed, hopelessly romantic vantage point from which it looks out over its characters—a young woman standing up to a homophobe on public transport, two aspiring rappers, a fast-food worker at his wit’s end—and offers them freedom to speak their truths.

In the “Midnight” category, especially, female and nonwhite filmmakers prevailed with stories that felt fresh, frightening, and sometimes revelatory. Relic, from Aussie debut filmmaker Natalie Erika James, was all three and the biggest surprise of Sundance for this writer. At first a standard haunted-house spooker in which a dementia-afflicted grandmother (Robyn Nevin) is assailed by forces her daughter (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter (Bella Heathcoate) can’t even begin to comprehend, Relic quickly emerges as an emotionally specific, often terrifying feat of filmmaking on par with The Babadook‘s merging of the familial and phantasmagoric. In a cunning narrative and visual trick, James externalizes the grandmother’s dementia across the family’s quiet domicile, as forgotten rooms and corridors suddenly materialize, only to drift off moments later, inaccessible to all outside them—and possibly inescapable to anyone unlucky enough to have wandered inside. Relic‘s fiendishly shifting architecture and nestled examination of grief deserve to make it the year’s breakout horror title.

Justin Simien’s shaggy ’80s-horror romp Bad Hair, one of the most buzzy Midnight titles headed into Sundance, was also one of the few sophomore films to avoid that dreaded slump. (For example: Don’t look for Beasts of the Southern Wild helmer Benh Zeitlin to have left Park City in euphorically high spirits, given the big shrug of a reception his long-awaited follow-up, Peter Pan riff Wendy, received at its premiere.) Bad Hair could stand to trim 15 minutes, and perhaps will before Hulu releases it later this year (after acquiring the film for north of $8 million), but what Simien has delivered is an energetic, entertainingly daft sendup of cultural appropriation and assimilation that doubles as his love letter to camp classics like Cat People, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Thing. As a follow-up to his acclaimed social satire Dear White People, Bad Hair is surprising and successfully brings Simien into a different genre sandbox.

From left: Yaani King Mondschein, Elle Lorraine, and Lena Waithe in “Bad Hair” by Justin Simien.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Amulet, another directorial debut (by actress Romola Garai), is a more acquired taste than, say, Relic, but its fractured-fairy-tale execution, skin-crawling imagery, and thematic interest in serving bad men their just deserts made it a neat fit in this year’s horror lineup. It’s an angry film, loudly so, and a visually complicated one in how it works warped visions of anatomy and bodily function into its unsettling, tone-bending payoff. It’s interesting to consider a work so intentionally unpalatable in relation to something like Blumhouse’s Run Sweetheart Run (written and directed by Shana Feste), a more mainstream instance of women turning the tables on the men who’d seek to control and contain them. Ella Balinska (Charlie’s Angels) stars as a twentysomething whose affluent date (Pilou Asbaek) turns out to be a real monster, misogyny personified, with the police and most everyone else in his pocket. That Feste’s engaged seriously with “social horror” as it applies to dating violence is commendable; one wishes her film struck a better balance between its genuinely creepy setup and the weirdly upbeat, go-girl feminism of its latter two-thirds.

It was a largely strong crop of narrative films at Sundance this year, even with a few disappointments in the mix. But then there was Netflix’s The Last Thing He Wanted, the closest thing to a full Park City wipeout that played. On paper, the talent assembled for this political thriller based on a Joan Didion novel should have made it a slam-dunk, from director Dee Rees (Mudbound) to stars Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, and Willem Dafoe. But its story is a bramble of convoluted plot points and florid, unconvincing dialogue.

Still, Netflix will survive, and that its wipeout stands out more at Sundance underscores what a dramatically sound year this was for the festival. From soul-stirringly romantic stories of Georgian dancers (And Then We Danced) to metaphysical morality plays (Nine Days), no two films were alike, and most enthralled both in the moment and by lingering after their credits rolled.

The title that’s become most entrenched in this writer’s mind was also the final one caught in Park City. Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always—from Beach Rats director Eliza Hittman—is a triumph of casting and careful, clever writing, but more than that it feels like a triumph of humanity at the movies. Following a young woman (Sidney Flanigan) and her cousin (Talia Ryder) as they leave Pennsylvania to abort an unplanned pregnancy at a New York City clinic, the film approaches their story with a compassion and quiet grace. As embodied, beautifully, by unknown actors, these characters feel achingly real, and the steps Hittman imagines for their journey bruise even if they remain rigidly within the margins of reality. That Hittman won the Sundance prize for neo-realism is exactly right; Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always—the title of which is revealed in a scene that hits like a steamroller—captures a modern American experience never seen on screen in quite so direct and emotionally truthful a manner. It hits theaters in March, from Focus Features, and it’s one of the movies people will be talking about for the rest of this year.

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