Sundance 2020: 20 Must-See Films

By Kate Erbland, Eric Kohn, Ben Travers, Anne Thompson, Chris O'Falt, David Ehrlich, Jude Dry, Ryan Lattanzio, Tambay Obenson, Chris Lindahl

This year’s Sundance Film Festival is mere days from unspooling in Park City, Utah, heralding a brand new year of indie filmmaking.

This year’s Sundance Film Festival is mere days from unspooling in snowy Park City, Utah and, with it comes a brand new year of indie filmmaking (and, with the expansion of the festival’s Indie Episodics section, plenty of television, too) to get excited about. As ever, the annual festival is playing home to dozens of feature films, short offerings, and technologically-influenced experiences, and while there’s plenty to anticipate seeing, we’ve waded through the lineup to pick out the ones we’re most looking forward to checking out.

From returning filmmakers like Dee Rees, Sean Durkin, David France, Janicza Bravo, and Miranda July, to new-to-the-fest names like Radha Blank, Ekwa Msangi, and Florian Zeller, this year’s festival promises a bevy of big treats and perhaps even bigger surprises. Here’s what we can’t wait to see.

This year’s festival runs from January 23 – February 2 in Park City, Utah. Check out all of our coverage of the festival right here.

“Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” - It’s the last night of The Roaring 20s, a dive bar in the shadows of the Las Vegas Strip, and patrons and employees alike gather as the watering hole readies to close its doors for good (or do they?) — all while offering a glimpse of people as they face the uncertainty of America at the end of 2016. The Documentary Competition entry comes from filmmaking brothers Bill and Turner Ross, who previously won the Sundance Special Jury Prize for Verite Filmmaking in 2015 for their “Western,” the third installment of their Americana trilogy. The duo have always straddled the line between fiction and fact, and while “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” might sound like just another slice of blue collar life, trust that the brothers have some tricks up their sleeves with this one. —CL

“Boys State” - Documentary Competition feature “Boys State” invites viewers to see what they can learn from a group of 17-year-old Texas boys as they form their own mock local, county, and state governments from the ground up. The film is co-directed by Jesse Moss — who previously won a Sundance Special Jury Prize for Intuitive Filmmaking for his “The Overnighters,” an intimate look at life in North Dakota oil fields — and Amanda McBaine, who also produced that earlier project. The documentary is produced by the newly-formed documentary-focused Concordia Studio, led by “Inconvenient Truth” filmmaker (and fellow Sundance regular) Davis Guggenheim. —CL

“City So Real” - Two years after debuting his acclaimed Starz docuseries “America to Me” at Sundance, director Steve James returns to Park City with another Chicago-set story — this time, swapping a suburban high school for a political backdrop. “City So Real” tracks the 2019 mayoral campaign, the coinciding trial of a police officer who killed Laquan McDonald, and how the two illustrate both a divided city and a divided country. James has a talent for finding the unique aspects of his subjects, be it the individuals who share their lives or how those lives define their hometown, and yet his work never ignores the bigger picture. “City So Real” marks his second foray into episodic documentaries, and given the caliber of his first outing, it’s a must-see at this year’s festival. —BT

“Dick Johnson Is Dead” - For cinematic nonfiction fans, the unveiling of Kirsten Johnson’s “Cameraperson” follow-up easily ranks as one of the most anticipated films of 2020. Dick Johnson is the filmmaker’s 86-year old father, a former psychiatrist suffering from dementia who faces the end of life through cinematic exploration alongside his talented daughter. The film mixes fantasy and nonfiction, as the duo confront death by staging his death and bringing him back to life, in a film that Johnson told Variety would be a mix of “Groundhog Day,” Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati, and “Jackass.” As wildly fun as that all sounds, it is hard to not think of the incredibly powerful images Johnson created of her mother facing dementia in “Cameraperson,” and the way that film tackled the big questions of nonfiction representation. In short: don’t assume this Netflix- and Megan Ellison-backed film won’t strike that same balance between being as profound as it is entertaining. —CO

“Farewell Amor” - Tanzanian-American filmmaker Ekwa Msangi makes her feature film debut with “Farewell Amor,” which follows an estranged Angolan immigrant family in Brooklyn as they struggle to overcome the emotional distance between them. Father Walter is trying to let go of a previous relationship, and is joined in the U.S. by his wife, Esther, and teen daughter, Sylvia, who are both struggling to adapt to life in a new country. Eventually, they overcome personal and political hurdles when they learn to rely on the muscle memory of Angolan dance to rediscover what they lost after being apart for such a long time. The film is a universal immigrant story, presenting the unique perspectives of three characters bound together by a shared history. It is an intimate and personal look at the kind of intergenerational story that has defined America from its very beginnings. —TO

“The Father” - This twisty father-daughter drama is co-written by Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “Atonement”) and French playwright Florian Zeller, adapting his hit play and directing for the first time. (The 2015 French adaptation was entitled “Floride” and starred Jean Rochefort). Anthony Hopkins is an aging Londoner who is wrestling not only with the caretakers hired by his concerned daughter (Olivia Colman) but his hold on reality. How long will her husband (Rufus Sewell) put up with her devotion to her father as he heads into senility? There’s plenty for Hopkins and Colman to dig into in this moving and unpredictable Oscar bait drama. —AT

“The 40-Year-Old Version” - Playwright and screenwriter Radha Blank (“She’s Gotta Have It,” “Empire”) writes, directs, and stars in her debut feature about a down-on-her-luck New York playwright who decides to reinvent herself and salvage her artistic voice the only way she knows how: by becoming a rapper at age 40. The film follows its protagonist as she dithers between the worlds of New York’s theater and hip hop scenes, places where the voices of black women are often marginalized. When a play she’s been writing finally gets some lift, she puts recording a rap demo tape on hold, and considers compromising her voice for career success. It’s the quintessential plight of an artist having to contend with either “selling out” or being true to oneself, but told from the POV of a protagonist rarely seen on screen in a leading performance. Shot on black-and-white 35mm film, it’s Blank’s love letter to her beloved hometown and to the canon of New York City films. The film counts Lena Waithe (“Queen & Slim”) among its producers. —TO

“Hillary” - Despite winning the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, Hillary Clinton has been painted again and again as a polarizing figure; a controversial politician; a person plagued by presumptions and scandal. With another presidential election on the horizon, filmmaker Nanette Burstein (“On the Ropes”) looks to sift fact from fiction in a four-part limited series that’s being dubbed a “comprehensive” chronicle of Clinton’s life and career. Previously unreleased footage from her campaign is interwoven throughout, tying together interviews with Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, friends, journalists, opponents, and Clinton herself, as the docuseries builds to the leader’s defining moment. Our collective fascination with the 2016 election may drive us to watch, but what Burstein does with her access will prove whether “Hillary” sheds new light on one of the most recognizable female figures in American history. “Hillary” will premiere March 6 on Hulu. —BT

“Kajillionaire” - It’s been nine long years since writer, filmmaker, Instagram auteur, and iconoclastic woman of her times Miranda July last directed a feature (that would be 2011’s shatteringly fantastical breakup drama “The Future”), and while her delicate recent performance in Josephine Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline” helped temper our withdrawal, it also reminded us just how much the movies have missed her energy. And now — not a minute too soon — July is finally back with a movie all her own: A heist comedy about two con artists (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) who’ve spent 26 years training their only daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) to be the world’s greatest con artist. Trouble rears its head when the girl becomes attached to the family’s next mark (Gina Rodriguez), and begins to resent the choices that her parents have made for them all. It’s mighty enticing premise for anyone with fond memories of “Matchstick Men,” and there’s no doubt that July will transform this story when she filters it through the prism of her own bittersweet imagination. On the heels of “The Future” and July’s sublime debut “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” we have every reason to suspect that “Kajillionaire” will be an embarrassment of riches. —DE

“The Last Thing He Wanted” - Dee Rees’ Netflix adaptation of author Joan Didion’s 1996 political thriller “The Last Thing He Wanted” stars Anne Hathaway as a journalist who stops her coverage of the 1984 U.S. Presidential election to care for her dying father. And in an unusual turn of events, she inherits his position as an arms dealer for the U.S. Government in Central America. Rees directs from a script she co-wrote with Marco Villalobos. Willem Dafoe, Toby Jones, Ben Affleck, Rosie Perez, and Edi Gathegi round out the stacked supporting cast. The film is slated to premiere at Sundance later this month, and will be released by Netflix later this year. Rees’ first film since “Mudbound,” which also debuted at Sundance, is another starry thriller from a filmmaker who excels at juggling difficult material with actors playing against type, so there is reason to believe she has pulled off something special here. —TO

“The Nest” - Filmmaker Sean Durkin made a splash at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival for his eerie debut “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” which won him the Dramatic Directing Award and launched the career of star Elizabeth Olsen. Since then, Durkin has mainly directed television (“Southcliffe”) and produced the films of his pals through their indie collective Borderline Films (“James White,” “Christine,” “The Eyes of My Mother”). Finally, Durkin returns to the director’s chair for “The Nest,” debuting in Sundance’s Premieres section. He also wrote the film, starring Jude Law and Carrie Coon as a British entrepreneur and his American wife who, in the 1980s, flee suburban America for England. Increasing isolation, moral rot, and self-destruction send the couple on a collision course toward something awful. With a stellar cast and a high-profile Sundance berth, “The Nest” is already appointment viewing in Park City this year. —RL

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” - In the wake of both “It Felt Like Love” and “Beach Rats,” Eliza Hittman has announced herself as a master of intimate, aching portraits of young adulthood and all its awful desire. The New York filmmaker’s third film promises more of that, with a dramatic twist on her thematic obsessions and a brand new pair of rising stars in the form of Talia Ryder and Sidney Flanigan. Cast as teenage cousins, the film follows the duo as they travel from rural Pennsylvania to the bright lights (and bureaucratic BS) of New York in the hopes of obtaining an abortion not available in their hometown, a timely story that Hittman will inevitably approach with her characteristic care and honesty. Look for the film to pop at Sundance before Focus Features shares it with the rest of the country in March. —KE

“The Nowhere Inn” - Behind-the-scenes mockumentaries about rock stars are nothing new, but the fusion of creative voices in “The Nowhere Inn” promises something different: The unclassifiable Sundance midnight entry ostensibly follows Annie Clark — otherwise known as St. Vincent — on a tour while the singer grapples with how to portray her authentic self, while her best pal Carrie Brownstein tails her with a camera. But this is not your average behind-the-scenes peek: Directed by “Portlandia” regular Bill Benz and co-written by Clark and Brownstein, this hybrid curiosity promises an amusing and inquisitive trip down the rabbit hole of fame and self-reflection, jumping between its two central characters’ perspectives as the nature of their project takes a series of unusual dreamlike twists. Clark and Brownstein have collaborated in the past, from a series of comedy videos about what it’s like to be labeled “a woman in music” to the St. Vincent-produced Sleater Kinney album “Love,” but this cinematic hybrid suggests their most ambitious experiment to date, a wry meditation on what it means for a performer to stop performing and reveal some measure of truth. The decision to play the movie at midnight points to the potential for an enigmatic, formally daring work that could position both performers in a whole new light. —EK

“Omniboat” - Over the last eight years, an intrepid young group of Miami’s brightest filmmakers and artists have been quietly revitalizing the city’s film scene. The Borscht collective has included and supported work from such filmmakers as Sebastian Silva, Terence Nance, and Celia Rowlson-Hall, while producing some of the most inventive short films to be made in the US. In less than a decade, Borscht has sent an impressive 17 shorts to Sundance. This year, Borscht will premiere its first feature film in Sundance’s forward-looking NEXT section. The anthology film features sections directed by Nance, Rowlson-Hall, The Daniels, Hannah Fiddell, the Meza Brothers, as well as founding collective members Lucas Leyva and Jillian Mayer. Instead of raising money for a film, Borscht pitched investors on helping them buy a speedboat, which proved an easier sell. The result is a fantasy-fueled adventure revolving around the many exploits of the boat, which boldly takes advantage of Miami’s unique visuals, local celebrities, and attitude. It’s sure to have Park City talking. —JD

“Shirley” - Everybody’s favorite woman-on-the-verge Elisabeth Moss returns to the big screen to raise hell once again, this time as self-destructive, midcentury gothic fiction writer Shirley Jackson, perennial chainsmoker and binge-drinker. Michael Stuhlbarg co-stars as her professor husband, Stanley Hyman, in this film that finds their lives rocked by the arrival of a young couple (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young) who become fodder for Jackson’s next novel. “Shirley” is directed by Josephine Decker, who’s been stirring the festival circuit since her 2013 debut “Butter on the Latch,” followed by her erotic avant-garde thriller “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” (2014), and the meta drama “Madeline’s Madeline,” from Sundance 2018. Decker’s expressionist vision and Moss’ gift for inhabiting women in meltdown mode portend a heavenly cinematic match — though also one probably rooted in hell. —RL

“Time” - With “Time,” filmmaker Garrett Bradley returns to the topics of love and incarceration that she so ably explored in her 2017 New York Times Op-Doc “Alone.” In 1997, Fox and Rob Richardson were young newlyweds arrested after a botched robbery. “Time” is the story of how Fox, after serving a three-and-a-half year prison sentence, has dedicated her life to raising their six children while fighting to get Rob, who was sentenced to 60 years, out of prison. Bradley’s 2019 Sundance short “America” demonstrated an explosive cinematic talent creating a radical, beautiful reimagination of African-American big screen representation. “Time” looks to be an evolution of that lyrical style as Bradley captures Fox forging the bonds of family through the walls of incarceration via a combination of family video diaries (which Fox created for Rob), gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, voiceover, and an overlapping time structure. This film has the potential to land somewhere at the intersection of “Hale County” and “Beale Street,” while announcing (for those not already exposed) the arrival of a major new filmmaking talent. —CO

The Truffle Hunters” - A lot of the documentaries that premiere at Sundance tackle high-profile subjects or timely issues readymade to generate buzz. But the lineup often has plenty of room for smaller non-fiction discoveries, especially in its World Cinema Documentary Competition. That’s where the acclaimed “Honeyland” premiered in 2019 before winning the section and eventually scoring two Oscar nominations. This year, “Truffle Hunters” stands a good chance of filling that slot. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw return to Sundance two years after “The Last Race” with the unusual story of elderly men in the Italian forests of Northern Italy on a quest to find the white Alba truffle. The movie follows these quirky experts as they search for these rare, valuable and utterly tasty objects to serve the whims of the highbrow restaurant scene, while battling the impact of climate change and business concerns on their insular profession. As with “Honeyland,” the documentary promises a singular look at the unwieldy relationship between rural and urban worlds — with adorable truffle-hunting dogs to boot. —EK

“Us Kids” - Kim A. Snyder’s 2016 documentary “Newtown” was a deeply sobering portrait of life after death in a Connecticut town that has become synonymous with mass shootings. And while that film was every bit as powerful and sickening as its description might suggest, Snyder knew that it wouldn’t be the final word on the subject; that America would sooner ignore its wounds than meaningfully reckon with them. In the aftermath of the Parkland massacre in 2018, Snyder recognized another opportunity to engage with the survivors of our country’s self-inflicted violence, and explore how they try to make use of their trauma. Snyder embedded herself with the Marjory Stonemason Douglas High School students as they forged themselves into the generational activists they never aspired to be, and the film she culled together from 18 months of footage promises to be an intimate profile of grief, action, and a few young Americans who refused to be shellshocked into silence. —DE

“Welcome to Chechnya” - The latest documentary from “How to Survive a Plague” documentarian David France, “Welcome to Chechnya” investigates a group of fearless activists brave enough to confront Russia’s virulent anti-LGBTQ pogrom. France gained extraordinary access partly by deploying innovative VFX technology to mask the identities of his subjects. These fearless residents of the repressive and closed Russian republic go undercover to expose Chehnya’s underreported atrocities, and they also rescue victims via safe houses and visa assistance in order to help them escape. HBO scooped up the film prior to its Sundance world premiere, so interested viewers need not wait too long to explore France’s latest heartbreaker. —AT

“Zola” - At a time when books and articles are optioned before they’re even published, a viral Twitter thread is the closest thing to a slam dunk this industry could hope for. “Okay listen up. This story long. So I met this white bitch at Hooters…” begins Aziah “Zola” King’s epic story, which follows a wild trip King took to Tampa with a fellow exotic dancer and her boyfriend, and involves a Nigerian pimp, a potential murder, and a suicide attempt from a four-story window. King’s account soon began trending as #TheStory, garnering fans like Solange Knowles, Missy Elliot, and Ava DuVernay. Producers Christine Vachon, Kara Baker, David Hinojosa, Gia Walsh, and Dave Franco wisely saw the potential. They enlisted “Lemon” writer/director Janicza Bravo to direct and co-write the screenplay with playwright Jeremy O. Harris, whose “Slave Play” is currently making waves on Broadway. King shares story credit with Rolling Stone’s David Kushner, whose 2015 article clarified some of the embellishments in the original tale. The film stars Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, and Colan Domingo, among others. It also features an original score by Oscar nominee Mica Levi, whose participation is an endorsement in itself. With such pedigree behind and in front of the camera, as well as the 21st century IP equivalent of a Jane Austen novel, “Zola” is sure to sizzle. —JD


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