10 Best Movies at Sundance 2020

By David Fear

From docs on death, politics and truffle hunters to a gleefully existential romcom — the cream of this year’s Sundance Film Festival crop

Another Sundance logs itself into the collective memory banks — another week-plus of debuting features and disappointing follow-ups, fortunes made and filmmaking reputations established, long screening lines and literally breathless Q&As (that altitude!) comes to a close. It was a really strong year for documentaries ranging from just-the-facts-ma’am journalism to ecstatic-truth experiments, as well as stories about women fighting against the slings and arrows of various rigged systems. (Ditto a great showing for females behind the camera, with a reported 44% of the features directed by women.) And while the narrative competition and premiere sections may have felt a littler shakier than usual, you could still find a number of movies nestled among the high-wattage, red-carpet-friendly showcases that were worth sprinting after crowded shuttles for.

The 10 movies below represent not just the best things we managed to catch over the last 10 days, but also a nice cross-section of what the festival continues to offer: alternative perspectives, offbeat visions, other voices, deep dives into pressing issues, the occasional genre exercise worth staying up past midnight to see, and the blissful feeling that you are watching something very special unfold before your very bloodshot eyes. These were the movies we couldn’t wait to see, and now can’t wait to see again and argue over/share with bigger audiences.

(Kudos/shout-outs also to The 40-Year Version, in which writer-director Radha Blank turns herself into a star; Feels Good Man, an everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-Pepe-the-Frog-but-were-afraid-to-ask doc; Shirley, which benefits from a great off-the-leash performance from Elisabeth Moss; Into the Deep, which started as a human-interest story on cuckoo Danish inventor Peter Madsen and ended as a portrait of a serial killer; The Painter and the Thief, about the oddly affecting relationship that grows between a Czech artist and the Swedish convict/drug addict who steals two of her priceless canvases; and The Nest, Sean Durkin’s chilly family melodrama set in ’80s London that plays like The Shining minus the ghosts.)

Bloody Nose Empty Pockets
Turner and Bill Ross’s look at the last 24 hours of a Vegas dive bar appears to be a fly-on-the-Schlitz-soaked-wall slice of verité; the truth about what’s happening in front of the camera is much more interesting and complicated. (Their Sin City tavern is in New Orleans, for starters; the whole story behind the film’s construction can be found here.) If you can get past the fiction v. nonfiction argument, however, what you will find is a sort of petri dish experiment in which sad sacks and sodden philosophers are given room to bounce off each other. It’s less a portrait of a long goodbye to a drinking establishment then it is an exploration of the community that calls such places home and their fellow barflies family — and what happens when you take away that collective space after the very last call. Closing time, indeed.

Boys State
For decades, the American Legion has run a program called “Boys State,” in which promising young men are selected to form a mock government in one week, complete with stump speeches and elections. (Its alumnus include Cory Booker and Dick Cheney.) Filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (The Overnighters) embed themselves with a host of Texas teens as they get a firsthand look at how the sausage of modern politics is made — and observe how tomorrow’s Obamas, Trumps and Karl Roves replicate the agonies and ecstasies of our currently broken two-party system down to the last smear campaign. An absolutely compelling and often alarming tag-along doc that also helped introduce a few young politicos we imagine we’ll be hearing from in the next few years. Steven Garza/Rene Otero 2036 — start getting your signs ready now.

Dick Johnson Is Dead
Or rather, Dick Johnson is slowly succumbing to dementia and dying — so Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) does what any good daughter would do and makes a film about him. Did we mention that said documentary is filled with staged scenes of him shuffling off this mortal coil via falling air conditioners, hit-and-run accidents and fatal cardiac arrests? This may be the most lighthearted, uplifting movie about death ever concocted, as well as an act of catharsis for both those behind the camera and in the audience. The more Johnson inoculates herself against future grief one grisly mock-killing at a time, the more you sense the love and affection behind this conspiratorial project and celebration of a life. Come for the sight of an old man getting “stabbed” in the jugular vein; stay for the Pierre et Gilles-like heavenly scenarios involving tap dancers, confetti and an exasperated Christ.

Drawing on his backstory as a Korean-American kid growing up in ’80s Arkansas, filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung (Munyurangabo) reminds you that the way you tell a coming-of-age story is just as important as what you choose to include in it. Having uprooted his entire family from California to the South’s Natural State, an ambitious father (Steven Yeun) tries to establish his own farm and threatens to fray the ties that bind. His wife, elderly mother-in-law and two kids must deal with their own fish-outta-water experiences; it’s Chung’s screen counterpart, a seven-year-old named David (Alan Kim), who provides the wide-eyed perspective to all of the triumphs and tragedies that lie ahead. This is the cinema à clef as a symphony of grace notes, buffered by arguably the best ensemble cast of the fest (there’s not a bad performance in the bunch, though the underage Kim should be singled out for what is a genuinely wonderful turn) and a gentle sense of looking back at the past with the benefit of wisdom. A24 is releasing this later in the year. Don’t let it slip by.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Eliza Hittman’s tale of two young women (Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder), who journey from rural Pennsylvania to New York so one of them can terminate a pregnancy, is not an easy watch; the extended scene in which you understand why the film is blessed with such a wordy title (it involves a questionnaire) is the definition of devastating. But there’s an equal amount of tenderness and toughness in the manner in which the writer-director chronicles their odyssey, one populated by modern-day trolls, cyclops, minotaurs and other male monsters. It’s a movie that views negotiating constant sexual harassment as a given for young women, but concentrates more on the sisterly bond between these two teens as they deal with smalltown mentalities and big-city obstacles. And the final shot is transcendent.

Nine Days
You’re born, you live and you die. First, however, a well-dressed man must interview you for nine days to see if you have what it takes to be a soul worthy of inhabiting a human being. Japanese-Brazilian filmmaker Edson Oda takes some big philosophical swings with his debut feature: What does it mean to be alive? Does the beauty of being human outweigh the pain of existence? Who are we, before we are anything at all? A cross between a Gondry-esque chin-stroker and a Zen Buddhist tweak on The Good Place, this delicate existential dramedy has its share of quirks. Yet it goes about asking and answering these questions with thoughtfulness and attention to nuance that no amount of tweeness can snuff out. It also proves that Winston Duke — the not-so-secret weapon of Black Panther and Us — can do arthouse minimalism just as well, if not better, than blockbuster maximalism.

Palm Springs
There’s a bit of a twist to this romantic comedy from director Max Barbakow about a bridesmaid (Cristin Milioti), a wedding guest (Andy Samberg) and a never-ending ceremony that you may have heard about from the previous week’s festival coverage; we’re not keen on specifically spelling it out or spoiling anything here. Let’s just say this: It’s produced by the Lonely Island gents, so expect that level of absurdity and lunacy. Fans of certain early 1990s comedies will get a kick out of the conceit. It’s a movie with some substantial concepts on its mind, yet is so breezy and easy going down that it acted as the equivalent of a sorbet in between Sundance’s ultra-heavy dramas. And we’d be perfectly happy if Milioti and Samberg, who have insane screen chemistry, were cast in a series of movies together and become the foul-mouthed Doris Day and Rock Hudson of the 2020’s.

Or, the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Remote-Controlled Assassin. In some distant future, professional killers like Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) can jack their conscience into hapless citizens and use them as hosts — all the better to carry out hits without actually being named the culprit. Her boss (Jennifer Jason Leigh) assigns her to inhabit a young tech guy (Christopher Abbott) in order to knock off his rich father-in-law. And then things get weird(er). The odd man out in this list, and in the World Dramatic Competition lineup overall (how this didn’t make it into the Midnight sidebar is anybody’s guess), Brandon Cronenberg’s genre pastiche scratched a certain itch regarding gutsy acting, gory set pieces and genuine WTF-itude. A lovely cross between the grotty, gross B-movie action flicks of the late 1980s and the sort of surreal, psychotronic whatsits you’d expect from the family name.

After her husband went to prison for bank robbery, Fox Rich began keeping a sort of black-and-white video diary. Her son was four; she was also pregnant with twins. Over the next two decades, Rich would raise her kids to be outstanding young men, become a bestselling author, lecture groups about the art of the memoir and establish herself as a prison-reform activist. She would also work tirelessly to get her spouse freed from a life sentence. A stream-of-consciousness trip through one woman’s story (and one of the single best-looking films at this year’s festival), Garrett Bradley’s doc assembles both Rich’s home movies and her own footage to craft an intimate, inimitable look at the toll that the mass-incarceration epidemic has taken on everyone involved. Yet it never treats its subject dogmatically, and simply presents a highly personal take the title’s numerous meanings — the passage of time, doing time, time waits for no one. And just when you think things could not get more emotionally resonant, the movie turns what might be a gimmicky trick into an absolutely sublime realization of how what’s been lost can be magically recaptured. Simply stunning.

The Truffle Hunters
Some of them have been doing this well into the 80s; other have logged in a little less then 10 years. But all of these Italian men — and their dogs; they’re always with their trusted canine friends — have dedicated their lives to going deep into the woods and finding the rarest of rare white Alba truffles to sell to food brokers and restaurateurs. “Delightful” is an overused word, but it’s the best way to sum up Gregory Kershaw and Michael Dweck’s look at the sometimes competitive, sometimes contentious, always cantankerous world of hunters and gatherers. A formalistically beautiful and perfectly observed piece of nonfiction, as well as a movie that doubles as a look at a symbiotic ecosphere — those that dig for hidden treasures, those that distribute and profit from such findings, those that critique and consume them — remarkably similar to that of a film festival.

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