From con artists to truffle-hunting dogs, here’s the cream of the prestigious festival’s crop.
By Alissa Wilkinson
It’s impossible to see everything at the Sundance Film Festival, with well over 100 feature films playing to sold-out crowds for 10 days straight. But the festival tends to surface some of the most exciting new voices in cinema, both in fiction and nonfiction film, and Sundance 2020 was no exception.
Here are 13 of the best films (and one TV miniseries) that premiered at Sundance this year and how you’ll be able to see them soon.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
In the extraordinary Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, documentarians and brothers Bill and Turner Ross chronicle the last night of service for a Las Vegas dive bar called Roaring ’20s, as regulars come and go, fight and kiss, and try to face the fact that the place that felt most like it was theirs will no longer exist. For them, it’s the end of the world.
But there’s a catch: The Ross brothers used a real bar in New Orleans as a set and asked people to play characters much like themselves. Is the movie fiction? Yes, technically. Is it nonfiction? Not exactly. Is it “real”? Absolutely.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets reminds us that we’re constantly reinventing and performing ourselves, even in our most comfortable, cherished settings — and cinema does it, too.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is currently awaiting distribution.
Boys State was one of the biggest success stories at Sundance, where it won the festival’s top documentary prize and broke the record for the highest acquisition paid for a documentary, with A24 and Apple buying the film for $12 million. And no wonder: Not only is Boys State timely, but it’s also extremely entertaining. Documentarians Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (The Overnighters) follow the 2018 summer session of Boys State in Texas, a gathering of more than a thousand 17-year-old boys who form a representative government, complete with party platforms and campaigns, in order to learn about how the American system of government works.
In a sea of documentaries seeking to make sense of the divided and confusing political present, Boys State works partly by setting itself one step removed from the “real world.” The teens come to Boys State with formed political ideas, but through debate, discussion, and defense of their stances, they learn a lot about what it takes to form consensus and win. And their experiences are both a microcosmic look into the political process and a hint of the way future politics might unfold, in dismal and strangely hopeful ways.
Boys State will be released theatrically by A24 and on Apple+’s streaming service.
Dick Johnson Is Dead
In Dick Johnson Is Dead, documentarian Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) zooms in on her aging father and her relationship with him as they both begin to come to terms with his inevitable passing. The result is as playful as it is painful; in some sequences, Johnson stages her father’s arrival in heaven. In others, we’re not sure if we’re looking at something that really happened or something imagined.
Some scenes are shot in cinema vérité style, as Dick plays with his grandchildren, packs up his office after retiring, and talks about his late wife, Kirsten’s mother, who had Alzheimer’s and died several years ago. Dick Johnson Is Dead — which won a prize for innovative filmmaking at Sundance — is an exercise in imagination and an inquiry into whether imagining the death of a loved one and their hopes for the hereafter might magnify or blunt the blow of death when it finally comes.
Dick Johnson Is Dead will premiere on Netflix later this year.
Miranda July’s brand of moviemaking isn’t for everyone. In movies like Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and The Future (2011), she mixes a quirky sensibility with the dream logic of a performance artist to tell stories about lonely people looking for connection in a bewildering world. Kajillionaire is July’s most accessible film to date, and possibly her best. Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, and Evan Rachel Wood play a family of oddball grifters — Richard, Theresa, and their adult daughter Old Dolio, respectively — whose lives are upended when they meet a young woman (Gina Rodriguez) and invite her to join them in a planned heist. With standout performances from Wood and Rodriguez and just a hint of surrealism, Kajillionaire’s a strange, sweet, funny yarn.
Kajillionaire will be distributed by A24.
Love Fraud is absolutely unbelievable, except that it’s true. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, One of Us) explore the stories of a shockingly high number of women who were all aggressively courted — and in many cases, married — by a con man with multiple aliases. Over the course of the four-part documentary series, the wronged women, as well as Grady and Ewing, start to track down the culprit. Love Fraud is like The Jinx but better: It dives deeply into the ways we are blinded to the truth, even about ourselves — and its finale is truly, chillingly unforgettable.
Love Fraud premieres on May 8 on Showtime.
A Sundance standout — and winner of both the festival’s US dramatic prize and the audience award — Minari is the story of Korean immigrants Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) who move their two small children (Noel Kate Cho and Alan S. Kim) from California to Arkansas in pursuit of Jacob’s dream of farming. But Jacob and Monica’s marriage is on the rocks, a circumstance that doesn’t improve as they’ve hoped when Monica’s mother (Yuh Jung Youn) comes to stay with them. Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung (Munyurangabo, Lucky Life) and set in the 1980s, Minari feels deeply personal. It’s both a family drama through the eyes of a Korean-American boy and a moving tale of love and loss in the American heartland, exquisitely told.
Minari will be distributed by A24.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a 17-year-old central Pennsylvanian who decides to terminate her pregnancy. But because she’s a minor, she can’t do it in her home state due to Pennsylvania law. So she buys a bus ticket to New York City, where she can legally get an abortion, and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) comes along. Writer and director Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats, It Felt Like Love) tells the story sparingly, favoring naturalism rather than polemics and recalling bleak dramas like the 2007 Romanian drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.
But Hittman’s view feels more in tune with what young women face in the world and with the fear and difficulty inherent in navigating the labyrinthine medical system. Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which won a prize for “auteur filmmaking” at Sundance, focuses on the many obstacles and menaces the girls encounter — mostly from men who feel far more comfortable and safe in the world than the pair — and never lets us breathe too easy.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always will be released by Focus Features on March 13.
The Nowhere Inn
The Nowhere Inn is a semi-fictionalized story about the hazards and constantly seesawing power balance inherent in making a documentary. And it’s a ton of mind-bending fun. Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia) and Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent) wrote the screenplay, and each woman plays a version of herself — or, in Clark’s case, several versions.
In the film, Clark’s stage alter ego is a sharp-edged, take-no-prisoners performance artist, while offstage she’s mild-mannered and pretty boring. She asks Brownstein to make a documentary about her, and for a while, Brownstein coaxes Clark to be “more” St. Vincent to make the movie more interesting. But when St. Vincent finally takes over Clark, things start to go haywire. In The Nowhere Inn, it’s impossible to tell where reality ends and performance begins — or if all of life, in the end, really is performance.
The Nowhere Inn is currently awaiting distribution.
The Painter and the Thief
A stunner of a film, The Painter and the Thief is about young Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova and Karl-Bertil Nordland, the thief who stole two of her paintings from an Oslo gallery. He says he was so high that he can’t remember why he did it — or what he did with the paintings. Barbora’s less interested in the thief than in where the paintings went, but eventually she meets him and decides to paint his portrait, after which they form a friendship and creative partnership of sorts.
The Painter and the Thief, which won a prize at Sundance for creative storytelling, actively challenges what we think we understand about its characters based on their appearance, class markers, or behavior. It highlights the way artists of all kinds, from painters to filmmakers, turn reality into something that’s at least a little fictionalized in order to make their work — and how everyone conceals the truth a little.
The Painter and the Thief is currently awaiting distribution.
Heartbreaking and passionate, Time is the chronicle of a love deferred and the life that hope can provide. Garrett Bradley won the directing prize at Sundance for her documentary, which follows Fox Rich, a woman who has spent 21 years doggedly petitioning for the release of her husband Rob from prison. Rob has been sentenced to 60 years following a crime he committed as a young man, in which they were both involved.
Meanwhile, she’s been raising their six children and becoming a powerful advocate for change in her community. And all along, Fox has made videos at home, which together feel like a diary of her pain and endurance. Time details her struggle, demonstrating how mass incarceration persistently separates black families in America as well as how bureaucracy and centuries of narratives conceal the truth and pain of those separations.
Time is currently awaiting distribution.
Stylistically, director Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) is a perfect match for Shirley, a period psychodrama about a young woman named Rose (Odessa Young) who moves with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) to Bennington, Vermont, after he picks up a teaching post there while finishing his dissertation. His supervisor is Professor Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose wife is the sardonic and brilliant author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss); her story “The Lottery” has just been published in the New Yorker, and she’s starting work on the novel that will become 1951’s Hangsaman.
Rose and Fred end up living with Stanley and Shirley, partly to help out at the house when Shirley suffers her depressive “episodes.” Rose and Shirley strike up a relationship that’s part-antagonism, part-obsession. Shirley is a thoroughly engrossing, sometimes disorienting tale that plays out like a mystery, the kind where you’re never quite sure where reality ends and delusion (or maybe the truth) begins.
Shirley is currently awaiting distribution.
The Truffle Hunters
Hands-down the most charming movie at Sundance, The Truffle Hunters unfolds as a series of vignettes documenting the lives of several old men and their dogs. They live in northern Italy, in Piedmont, where they spend their lives hunting for rare and costly white Alba truffles in the forest. Nearly every frame of The Truffle Hunters is wide and steady, focusing on the men as they discuss business, talk to their beloved dogs, root around in the dirt, and take part in a simple way of life that, it’s clear, is slipping away. (We do occasionally get a dog’s-eye view, too.) It’s a sweet and simple movie with a healthy dose of bittersweet wistfulness for a fading world, and it’s beautiful.
The Truffle Hunters will be released by Sony Picture Classics.
Welcome to Chechnya
People who identify as LGBTQ experience opposition and difficulty all over the world. But in the Russian republic of Chechnya — and the Putin-backed regime led by strongman Ramzan Kadyrov — the state is abducting and killing them with impunity. Welcome to Chechnya, which won a prize for editing at Sundance, carefully follows a number of Chechens fleeing for their lives and others who try to shelter them and provide passage to countries where they might be safe.
Directed by investigative journalist and award-winning documentarian David France, the film digitally obscures the faces of people who are on the run for their lives — a technique to obscure the “truth” that becomes all the more powerful when it suddenly becomes part of the story.
Welcome to Chechnya will be released by HBO in June.