Comprising a portion of our top 50 films of last year, Sundance Film Festival has proven to yield the first genuine look at what the year in cinema will bring. We’ll be heading back to Park City this week, but before we do, it’s time to highlight the films we’re most looking forward to, including documentaries and narrative features from all around the world.
While much of the joy found in the festival comes from surprises throughout the 11 days, below one will find our 20 most-anticipated titles. Check out our picks and for updates straight from the festival, make sure to follow us on Twitter (@TheFilmStage, @jpraup, @djmecca, and @FinkJohnJ), and stay tuned to all of our coverage here.
20. The Truffle Hunters (Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw)
There will be no shortage of timely, issue-driven documentaries at Sundance Film Festival, as is the case each year, and we’re looking forward to seeing a number of them over the next few weeks. However, it can be a breath of fresh air when a documentary puts a charming spotlight on a walk of life we don’t normally see. One that has caught our eye is The Truffle Hunters, from The Last Race directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw and executive producer Luca Guadagnino. Telling the story of elders in North Italy who are on the search for the elusive Alba truffle with the help of their trained canines, it promises to be a delightful adventure. – Jordan R.
19. Omniboat: A Fast Boat Fantasia (Various)
The anthology form has found a resurgence in the digital age as a project can make room for a diverse range of directorial voices while still keeping a relatively slim budget. Premiering at Sundance is the wild-looking Omniboat: A Fast Boat Fantasia, which brings together many festival alums and other emerging directors–including the Daniels, Hannah Fidell, Alexa Lim Haas, Lucas Leyva, Olivia Lloyd, Jillian Mayer, The Meza Brothers, Terence Nance, Brett Potter, Dylan Redford Xander Robin, Julian Yuri Rodriguez, and Celia Rowlson-Hall–to tell a Miami-set stories of adventure. The cast includes Mel Rodriguez, Finn Wolfhard, Casey Wilson, Adam Devine, Jessica Williams, and, most intriguingly, Robert Redford who has, in fact, not retired after Old Man & the Gun. At the very least, with the fast boat theme, here’s hoping it’s in the spirit of the Miami Vice sequel we’ll never get. – Jordan R.
18. Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind (Laurent Bouzereau)
While the mysteries surrounding Natalie Wood’s death nearly forty years ago remain unsolved, a new documentary premiering at Sundance hopes to shine a spotlight on her vibrant life rather than the many rumors and theories that have dominated headlines. Perhaps not totally dissimilar to the way Quentin Tarantino gave us a glimpse into the spirit of Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, director Laurent Bouzereau looks to be doing the same for Wood. Featuring her daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner as well as previously unseen home movies, photographs, diaries, and letters, this looks to be a definitive portrait of a talent gone too soon. – Jordan R.
17. Surge (Aneil Karia)
Working with Yorgos Lanthimos, Jessica Hausner, the Wachowskis, Jane Campion, Tom Tykwer, and more, Ben Whishaw has had a fascinating career and the actor looks to continue that streak with a new leading role. The directorial debut of Aneil Karia, Surge follows a mild-mannered airport security employee who gains newfound freedom. Not much else is known about the Sundance world premiere, but with Whishaw at the center of this thriller, we can expect the results to be gripping. – Jordan R.
16. On the Record (Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering)
Already making headlines before its premiere, the latest documentary exposé from Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (the duo behind The Hunting Ground, The Bleeding Edge, and The Invisible War) centers on music executive Drew Dixon and her journey in publicly revealing sexual misconduct allegations against hip-hop magnate Russell Simmons. Recently, Oprah Winfrey withdrew as executive producer of the project and pulled it from Apple after reportedly being pressured by Simmons’ team. Set for a premiere at Sundance this Saturday, the film promises to be a step forward for the MeToo movement and we imagine it will surely be one of the most talked-about films of the festival. – Jordan R.
15. The Evening Hour (Braden King)
Although he only briefly appeared in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, Philip Ettinger made quite a distinct impression with his harrowing turn. The actor is now back with a leading role in a Sundance premiere. In The Evening Hour, he plays a nursing home aide who sells excess medication on the side in rural Appalachia. Directed by Braden King (Here) and adapted by Elizabeth Palmore from Carter Sickels’ novel, this looks like one of the more promising dramas in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section. – Jordan R.
14. Nine Days (Edson Oda)
Another premiere in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section that is on our radar is Nine Days, the directorial debut of Japanese-Brazilian writer-director Edson Oda. Starring Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz, it tells the intriguing sci-fi story of a world in which souls are interviewed to have the opportunity to be born. Out of five contenders, only one will be chosen and the rest have just nine days to experience this version of life. With the Sundance blurb offering comparisons to Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry, this could be a major break-out of the festival. – Jordan R.
13. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross)
The Ross brothers’ unconventional documentary style has brought them great acclaim, making them two of nonfiction filmmaking’s most celebrated auteurs. Their newest work looks to explore modern Americana through the lens of a small dive bar in Las Vegas, focusing on the strange, beautiful connections between the regulars, staff, and casual customers. The aesthetic and emotional aims seem to be forged around the blurriness of modern American life, people desperately clinging onto the iconography of cowboys and whiskey while on the edge of a terrifying future. – Logan K.
12. Minari (Lee Isaac Chung)
One of a couple of films A24 is premiering at Sundance Film Festival, Minari stars Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Yuh-Jung Youn, Will Patton, Alan Kim, and Noel Kate Cho in the story of a Korean American family who moves from the West Coast to rural Arkansas in the 1980s and must adapt to a new way of life. Directed by Lee Isaac Chung, whose debut film Munyurangabo in 2007 was an official selection at Cannes, we’re looking forward to seeing the Burning star shine at the festival with this promising drama. – Jordan R.
11. The Glorias (Julie Taymor)
Academy Award winners Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander will step into the vast shoes of one of the 20th century’s most iconic figures, Gloria Steinem. Directed by theater visionary Julie Taymor, The Glorias will chronicle the life and career of Gloria Steinem from her early years (where Vikander will play the role) to her life now (where Moore will assume playing her). But Moore and Vikander will not be the only actresses playing historical figures in the film as Bette Midler, Janelle Monae, and Lorraine Toussaint will take on the roles of Bella Abzug, Dorothy Pitman Hughes, and Florynce Kennedy, respectively. – Stephen H.
10. The Nowhere Inn (Bill Benz)
St. Vincent’s career has become surprisingly controversial in recent months, with her involvement in the new divisive Sleater-Kinney record causing major stylistic changes, and likely being involved in longtime drummer Janet Weiss’ decision to leave the band. This metatextual film focuses on her with Sleater-Kinney member Carrie Brownstein, both playing themselves, as they try to explore the truth beyond the artifice of performance. If the Sundance-bound film will succeed in those aims is unclear, but it should be interesting regardless. – Logan K.
9. Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg)
Brandon Cronenberg has already managed to stand on his own and not be tied down to his father David’s work. His first film Antiviral was a marvelously chilling and well-directed science fiction horror film with a career-best performance from Caleb Landry Jones. Cronenberg has returned to the sci-fi genre and has brought Christopher Abbott and Andrea Riseborough along with him. His Sundance-bound premiere looks to explore existential themes through a high concept narrative, and is certain to contain some of the grisliest violence of 2019. – Logan K.
8. The Last Thing He Wanted (Dee Rees)
It’s no debate that Joan Didion is one of the best writers of the past century. But for someone whose work is rife with rich observations of the personal and political, it’s somewhat surprising that not much of her work has ever been adapted for film before. Thankfully Dee Rees, continuing her relationship with Netflix after 2017’s critically lauded Mudbound, will be rectifying that. An adaptation of Didion’s 1996 thriller about a reporter who inherits her father’s shady business as an arms dealer while covering the 1984 presidential election, The Last Thing He Wanted has the makings to be a complete triumph all around. A cinematic introduction to one of the great voices of our time, one of our most exciting young directors continuing to tackle politically and socially relevant material, and an overdue reminder of just how great a dramatic actress Anne Hathaway can be. – Stephen H.
7. Tesla (Michael Almereyda)
Director Michael Almereyda’s career has oscillated between contemporary Shakespeare adaptations and biopics, with often the latter genre being his most successful. He re-teams with his Hamlet and Cymbeline star Ethan Hawke for this year’s Tesla. Despite coming just after the middling The Current War, Almereyda has always been an offbeat filmmaker (see his beautifully strange Stanley Milgram film Experimenter). Hopefully Tesla can capture some of that same magic, especially with Hannah Gross, Eve Hewson, and Jim Gaffigan in the ensemble and cinematographer by Sean Price Williams (Good Time, Her Smell). – Christian G.
6. Kajillionaire (Miranda July)
Miranda July has been busy this past decade with numerous projects, but we haven’t seen a feature film from her since the very beginning of the ‘10s. She’s now finally returning, backed by Brad Pitt’s Plan B, with a heist film that will world premiere at Sundance. Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, and Debra Winger, the film follows a con artist family who has groomed their daughter to pull off their schemes. When a new face enters the picture, things change. The prospect of July taking on some genre elements has us mightily intrigued, and we imagine she’ll bring a fresh new perspective to the con film. – Jordan R.
5. The Nest (Sean Durkin)
After his extraordinary debut Martha Marcy May Marlene, it’s been quite a wait for Sean Durkin’s feature film follow-up, but it’ll finally premiere this year at Sundance. The Nest, starring Jude Law and Carrie Coon, follows an American family in the 1980s who head to an isolated manor in Britain. Shot by Son of Saul cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, not much else is known about the project but we’re looking forward to seeing what Durkin has crafted for his long-awaited return. It’s only fitting that he’ll be returning to the festival that launched his career. – Jordan R.
4. Zola (Janicza Bravo)
Janicza Bravo’s Lemon was one of the most peculiar comedy offerings of recent years, announcing a fresh new voice in independent cinema. For her next feature Zola she’s teaming with A24 for a wild true story. Originally based on a Twitter thread, it tells the tale of a former stripper and sex worker who take a trip from Detroit to Tampa with the promise of dancing at a lucrative club. It turns out the man accompanying them is a pimp who aims to make money from the women. Featuring kidnapping and murder, it has the makings of a strange, intense tale of the South and it’s set to world premiere at Sundance. – Jordan R.
3. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)
Eliza Hittman’s previous film Beach Rats is staggeringly insightful and empathetic, showing a great formal leap as a filmmaker while maintaining the humanist traits that make her stand out as an artist. The prospect of her making another work about a teenager, this time a pregnant girl searching for an abortion clinic, almost guarantees emotional devastation and necessary compassion. The appearance of Sharon Van Etten in the cast only increases excitement for her third feature, which premiered at Sundance ahead of a March release by Focus Features. – Logan K.
2. Dick Johnson Is Dead (Kirsten Johnson)
The mesmerizing Cameraperson told a heartbreaking narrative through the utilization of disjointed, seemingly random footage over 20 years of documentary shoots. Over the course of the film, fragments of Johnson’s father Dick were incorporated, eventually leading into overwhelming contemplation of mortality and life’s innate tragedies. Johnson’s next film is entirely built around her father, creating a work designed around trying to preserve his life forever through cinema. It won’t be a surprise if this is a masterpiece. – Logan K.
1. Shirley (Josephine Decker)
After the boundary-pushing highs of Madeline’s Madeline, the anticipation for what director Josephine Decker does next is extremely high. Lucky for us, her upcoming film looks to be just as thrilling and psychologically probing as her last one. Shirley tells the story of a young couple who move into a house with horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) only to find themselves becoming the inspiration for her next novel. Madeline’s Madeline affirmed that we will follow Decker anywhere, and who could not be excited by the pairing of Moss and Stuhlbarg, two of the most acclaimed and prolific actors in recent years. Moss in particular had a killer 2019 with her tour-de-force performance in Alex Ross Perry’s rock and roll drama Her Smell and a killer supporting turn in Us, so we’re expecting great things await. – Stephen H.
There are still plenty of other films we’re looking forward to catching, including Dinner in America, Charter, Cuties, Jumbo, Spree, Black Bear, I Carry You With Me, Some Kind of Heaven, The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me, Bad Hair, and The Night House. On the documentary side, we’re intrigued by Spaceship Earth, Boys State, Assassins, Time, and Whirlybird.
A handful of films are coming out quite soon in theaters or on streaming, including Miss Americana, Downhill, Wendy, Promising Young Woman, and Sergio. In the Spotlight section, there are a few 2019 festival favorites we’ve already reviewed and highly recommend, including Ema, Vitalina Varela, and The Climb.
Sundance Film Festival 2020 begins January 23 and runs through February 2.