By Eric Kohn
From a midnight selection written by Carrie Brownstein and St. Vincent to a documentary about truffles in Italy, this year's Sundance lineup is filled with intrigue.
The 2020 lineup for the Sundance Film Festival includes 118 features and many more questions. So much attention focuses on the biggest deals (last year’s outrageous $13 million for Amazon’s “Late Night,” and A24’s safer $5 million bet for “The Farewell”), but the festival’s lifeblood often flows in the movies that don’t see the spotlight. This program is the last one for Sundance director John Cooper after an extraordinary 30-year-run, and he and director of programming Kim Yutani have assembled yet another selection loaded with potential. Here are some of the surprises and hidden gems, with some input from the programmers themselves.
Crowdpleasers and Craziness in Competition
The U.S. dramatic competition always foregrounds filmmakers at early stages of their careers (like “Farewell” director Lulu Wang and “Clemency” winner Chinonye Chukwu). Several entries vying for the Grand Jury prize this year are making the jump from the festival’s NEXT section into the big leagues. These include “Shirley,” Josephine Decker’s long-awaited biopic of gothic author Shirley Jackson, which stars the ever-alluring Elisabeth Moss. Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline” was a breakout at NEXT, bringing her quasi-experimental narrative style into the realm of an entrancing character study. “Shirley” suggests she’s entered more accessible terrain.
“You are seeing a growth in this filmmaker,” Yutani said. “It’s her most accomplished film, the most narratively straightforward. We invited it early because we were so passionate about it. The performance from Moss is truly incredible.”
Another uncompromising filmmaker journeying from NEXT to U.S. competition: Janicza Bravo. The Panamanian-American director’s wacky 2017 entry “Lemon” showcased her ability to get cozy with unsettling, miserable characters, blending dark comedy with genuine empathy and taking it in a series of surprising directions. The A24-produced “Zola,” which draws on a screenplay by Bravo and Broadway breakout (and former Sundance-attending film critic) Jeremy O. Harris, stars Taylour Paige and Riley Keough as a pair of wily women who embark on a deranged trip across Florida with a pimp. The story draws on a real-life stripper named Zola, who tweeted the story of her bizarre experiences (which included a suicide attempt and murder) and found national attention when the postings when viral.
“‘Lemon’ was odd, this one is crazy,” Cooper said. “Audiences will respond to it because they’ll really feel the freshness of it, the passion of the filmmaker in it a little more.” Added Yutani: “It’s so wild and funny.”
Meanwhile, several potential crowdpleasers in competition promise to introduce launch filmmaking talent, including “The 40 Year Old Version.” Not to be confused with the similarly titled Judd Apatow comedy, this Lena Waithe-produced debut from “Empire” and “She’s Gotta Have It” writer Radha Blank is allegedly a very distinct vision of one black woman journeying through New York’s theater and hip hop scenes, with a lush 35mm black-and-white look designed to bring viewers deep inside that world.
Then there’s “Minari.” Director Lee Isaac Chung made a mark on the festival circuit with his Rwandan “Munyurangabo” and the involving dramas “Lucky Life” and “Abigail Har;” his latest feature is one of the first major projects for Steven Yeun following his acclaimed performance in “Burning” last year.
“Minari” follows a family of Korean immigrants in 1980s-era rural Arkansas as they attempt to settle into farmland in search of the American dream. The cast includes Yeri Han and Youn Yuh-Jung in their American debuts, as well as Will Patton and Scott Haze, and promises a tender and meaningful look at cross-cultural challenges. It boasts production support from A24 and Plan B — who last teamed up on Sundance 2019 breakout “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” — as well as Yeun himself, which suggests a lot of faith in this project to deliver.
“This is certainly [Chung’s] breakout film,” Yutani said. “It’s accessible in a way that’s still part of him. It’s a much bigger film redefining the American dream story in a whole new way.”
Cooper was also high on “Nine Days,” Edson Oda’s abstract story of a man (Winston Duke) interviewing human souls as he prepared to be born. Cooper singled out the movie’s “total originality, and the amazing visual sense this director has.”
Sundance doesn’t cull from a list of A-list auteurs as Cannes does, but major directorial talent often returns. Considering how much of a phenomenon Miranda July became after her 2004 breakout “You and Me and Everyone We Know,” it’s a wonder that she has only completed one feature, 2011’s “The Future,” since then. With “Kajillionaire,” the quirky and often surreal performance artist assembled a cast that includes Evan Rachel Wood, Debra Winger, and Gina Rodriguez in the story of a woman whose parents plot an ambitious heist.
“I just find her characters fascinating,” Cooper said. “They are always twists in her stories and they keep going weirder. Everyone who likes Miranda July films will like this one.”
Meanwhile, Sean Durkin returns to Sundance for the first time since his haunting debut “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” “The Nest” features Jude Law and Carrie Coon in an 1980s-set story of an entrepreneur whose family moves into an English country manor where the isolated setting and pricey lifestyle pull them apart. Durkin excels at this sort of slow-burn psychological thriller. “I think this film is very personal to him,” Cooper said, “which adds a new kind of weight to it.”
Towering above all else — at least in the context of Sundance breakouts — is the very long-awaited return of Benh Zeitlin, whose magical realist epic “Beasts of the Souther Wild” was a Sundance-winning 2012 phenomenon that ultimately nabbed a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. Since then, Zeitlin has been tinkering away at his followup on the Fox studio lot, and “Wendy” is quite the mystery in this year’s Premieres section. Reportedly a fantastic reimagining of “Peter Pan” through the experiences of a kidnapped young girl, “Wendy” is poised to reintroduce audiences to Zeitlin’s beguiling, visionary storytelling.
“I think it’s reasonable than if you like ‘Beasts,’ you will like this film,” Cooper said. “There might be people overwhelmed by his vision in a way because it is so beautiful and poetic and people don’t go into movies expecting that all the time. It’s his own voice. He’s not doing Marvel films anytime soon.”
Midnight With Bite
This is the section that launched both “Mandy” and “Get Out,” and this year includes Day 1 selection “Bad Hair,” the first feature from Justin Simien since his comedic debut “Dear White People” took off at the festival in 2014 and later became a hit Netflix series. Simien’s satire is designed to interrogate black womanhood from the perspective of a Compton-based character whose weave takes on a life of its own. “It’s not a horror film per se,” Yutani said. “It’s about much bigger ideas, looking at a way into these ideas through experimenting with genre.”
Meanwhile, “The Nowhere Inn” stars co-writers St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein in a story set against the backdrop of a traveling tour, which the musician-stars shot in near-documentary terms. However, sources caution that “Nowhere Inn” isn’t a documentary so much as a deeper, stranger investigation into the life and work of musicians living on the edge. It’s this sort of premise, which brings familiar faces into unknown filmmaking terrain, that makes Sundance worthy of exploration.
Remakes, Sundance Style
Some movies in this year’s lineup take their starting points from earlier filmmaking achievements. The biggest of these comes from Fox Searchlight with “Downhill,” a remake of the beloved Swedish dark comedy “Force Majeure.” The latest from co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the new movie stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell in the same story of a family on a ski trip whose relationship is tested after a life-threatening avalanche. “I’m really impressed with the differences it has with the original, but it still has a similar impact,” Cooper said. “It’s more from the woman’s point of view this time.”
Sundance’s 2009 edition hosted the documentary “Sergio,” about U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello who was killed in Iraq. Greg Barker directs a narrative remake that stars Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas in a wartime drama that promises a strong emotional pull as it focuses on Vieira de Mello’s relationship with the person closest to him before his death. “It had a real impact on me, just the romance of it,” Cooper said. “I like the sexiness of the film, even though it’s about a tragic story.”
Documentarian Heidi Ewing has been a Sundance regular for years, usually with her co-director Rachel Grady. But this year, she’s in the NEXT section with her first narrative effort, “I Carry You With Me,” a love story that follows two men in Mexico dealing with homophobia and the industrial pressure to survive, which ultimately finds one of the immigrating to New York. “You can see her roots as a documentary filmmaker,” Cooper said. “I think it’s a very touching story and there’s a real heartfelt quality to this film.”
Among the other offerings in Sundance’s always promising sidebar, Yutani was eager to talk about “Black Bear,” the Sundance debut for filmmaker Lawrence Michael Levine (“Gabi on the Roof in July”). This one features Aubrey Plaza in a thriller set at a lake house, where a director’s attempt to formulate a new project takes some dangerous turns. “It’s kind of a psychological drama,” Yutani said. “The performance from Aubrey in this film ripped me apart and left me speechless. And I don’t say that very often.”
Docs That Shock
The rising market for non-fiction could mean even bigger sales for documentaries than narratives. There’s much to anticipate about the documentary heavyweights in this year’s lineup, with major buzz surrounding Jesse Moss’ Texas governmental story “Boys State;” David France’s investigative look at gay life under persecution, “Welcome to Chechnya;” and “Crip Camp,” a Netflix-produced look at a 1970s-era summer camp for disabled teens.
The 2020 documentaries also include the Ross Bros, whose innovative character-based documentaries “Western” and “Tchoupitoulas” showcased an ability to push the boundaries of documentary form. This year it’s “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” which focuses on the last days of a Roaring 20s-themed dive bar outside Las Vegas. It sounds like another exciting attempt to reinvent documentary form, on a continuum with the likes of Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine.”
Other documentaries likely to generate conversation include “Happy Happy Joy Joy – The Ren & Stimpy Story,” which takes a disquieting look at the wacky animated series creator John Kricfalusi, whose abusive relationship with an underage woman destroyed his once-celebrated career. “It’s wild and disturbing,” Cooper said. “It’s not trying to make the show separate from the creator. That’s what we hoped to see in it.”
Finally, internet trolls may get whipped into a frenzy over “Feels Good Man,” Arthur Jones’ documentary about the cartoonist behind Pepe the Frog, and how the image was coopted by hate groups around the world. “What I like about it is the contrast between this normal, almost nerdy illustrator-type guy whose life changes with what the world is, and how social media changes things,” Cooper said. “This is a good documentary for showing what one little thing can do. Once and for all, we can understand what a meme is.”
Old Men, New Movies
Sundance doesn’t program movies around trends, but this year has a number of documentaries about old men. With “The Truffle Hunters” (previously known as “The Hunt”), directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw follow an elderly group searching for truffles in Piedmont, Italy as their quest is complicated by global warming. Insiders compared the movie to last year’s documentary breakout “Honey Land,” another absorbing character study that goes beyond the traditional storytelling mechanics of documentary film. (Italian auteur Luca Guadagnino is an executive producer.)
Then there’s “The Mole Agent,” from Chilean director Maite Alberdi, which revolves around the efforts of an elderly man hired by a private investigator to infiltrate a nursing home — exactly the sort of believe-or-not premise bound to generate interest in a narrative remake. And in the NEXT section, there’s just one non-fiction entry: “Some Kind of Heaven,” from director Lance Oppenheim and producer Darren Aronofsky, which focuses on the lives of four retired Americans living off the grid in a vast retirement home in Florida. All three movies go beyond the traditional expectations for Sundance breakouts, and suggest that some of the most exciting faces at this year’s festival might not be newcomers.