Sundance 2020

Critics Preview Sundance 2020

On Film / The Daily — Jan 23, 2020
Talia Ryder in Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

Over the past several weeks, critics have been studying the lineup of 118 features slated to premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—sorting through titles, digesting synopses, and weighing the names of filmmakers and cast members. What they’ve come up with for their respective publications—Film Comment, the Film Stage, Hammer to Nail, IndieWire, the Playlist, RogerEbert.com, Rolling Stone, Vulture, and Women and Hollywood—are lists of around twenty films, give or take, that they look forward to seeing most between today and February 2. Taking into account how often a film appears on these lists and the degree of anticipation for a few of the lower-profile titles, here’s what stands out.


U.S. Documentary Competition

Let’s start with this competition because Film Comment’s Devika Girish, Nicolas Rapold, and Amy Taubin have all seen and now recommend Garrett Bradley’s debut feature, Time. Bradley’s half-hour film America (2019) has just been added to the lineup of this year’s Berlin Critics’ Week, and last fall, the Brooklyn Academy of Music programmed a weeklong series around it, calling America “a joyous alternative history of African-American representation on screen.” Time focuses on Fox Rich, a writer and mother of six, and her efforts over the past twenty-one years to have her husband released from prison. For Taubin, it’s “a great film and a huge, huge leap forward for her. She’s a filmmaker that a lot of people have been interested in and care about, and for me, it’s never quite been there. But this film I just found amazing.”

Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson Is Dead has made just about everyone’s list. Vulture calls Johnson’s follow-up to Cameraperson (2016) “a complex portrait of grief and an ever-changing exploration of the different ways we all handle it.” As her father struggles with the onset of dementia, he readily agrees to team up with his daughter and stage his death over and again—a series of practice runs for the inevitable. At IndieWire, Chris O’Falt notes that Kirsten Johnson has told Variety that Dick Johnson Is Dead “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.”

Bill and Turner Ross’s Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, which captures the final days and nights of a dive bar in Las Vegas, appears on several lists, but Bao Nguyen’s Be Water, which chronicles the life of Bruce Lee, has landed on just one. “Fans will lose their mind over the abundance of archival footage,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Fear, “while cultural pundits will note how Lee’s journey acts as miniature history of anti-Asian racism in Hollywood and America at large.”

U.S. Dramatic Competition

Back at IndieWire, Kate Erbland writes that, with It Felt Like Love (2013) and Beach Rats (2017), Eliza Hittman “announced herself as a master of intimate, aching portraits of young adulthood and all its awful desire.” In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a teen dealing with an unwanted pregnancy journeys from rural Pennsylvania to New York with her cousin. Vulture notes that the two young women “barely speak to one another, conveying emotion in wordless glances and body language; they spend much of the film dodging men who want something from them, be it physical or otherwise. Their journey—and their relationship—feels real and urgent, and as timely as ever.”

Lee Isaac Chung looks back on a chapter in his own life in Minari, the story of a seven-year-old Korean American boy who struggles to cope when his family moves from the west coast to rural Arkansas. “It’s how you tell these kinds of oft-told tales that make the difference,” writes David Fear, “and those of us who still remember Chung’s stunning 2007 debut Munyurangabo can’t wait to see what he does with this semi-autobiographical material.”

Other frequently mentioned titles from this program include Josephine Decker’s Shirley, which we took a look at back in December; Janicza Bravo’s Zola, cowritten with Jeremy O. Harris, whose Slave Play is one of the most talked about recent productions on Broadway; The 40-Year-Old Version, written and directed by—and starring—playwright Radha Blank; and Max Barbakow’s wedding comedy Palm Springs. At the Film Stage, Jordan Raup, has his eye on Japanese-Brazilian writer-director Edson Oda’s sci-fi feature Nine Days, particularly because Sundance calls it a “spiritual child of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry.”

World Cinema Competitions

Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, hasn’t made a feature since 2012’s Antiviral, so hopes are high for Possessor, starring Andrea Riseborough and Jennifer Jason Leigh. And another thriller, Surge, has been drawing attention. “‘Committed’ doesn’t adequately describe Ben Whishaw’s performance in this story of an airport security officer who, after a chance encounter, begins to lose his mind,” writes David Fear. “And man, does Aneil Karia’s debut give this anarchic bull a stage on which to rage.”

Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, in which an eighty-year-old widow preparing for her own funeral suddenly has her lust for life rekindled, premiered in Venice and will be screened in Rotterdam over the new few days. Devika Girish finds the film to be “a leap forward” from Mosese’s first feature, the documentary Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You. (2019), and Amy Taubin adds that “there are just stunning images in it. Images and framing that I’ve never quite seen before. I’ve seen them in visual art, but not in a movie.”

Two titles premiering in the world cinema documentary competition generating a modicum of interest are Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s The Truffle Hunters, which tracks elderly Italian men as they search for gastronomic treasure, and Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and the Thief, the story of an unusual friendship between an artist and the man who’s stolen two of her paintings. Their bond “develops into something complex, troubling, and beautiful,” notes Vulture. “It’s also the rare film that honestly explores the connection between compassion, desire, and the sublime.” At Hammer to Nail, Christopher Llewellyn Reed agrees that it’s “a remarkable story and an equally remarkable film.”

Premieres

Fifteen years since she won a special jury prize for Me and You and Everyone We Know and nine years since she brought her last feature, The Future, to Sundance, Miranda July returns with Kajillionaire, in which a young woman (Evan Rachel Wood) being raised by con artists (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) strikes up a friendship with one of their marks (Gina Rodriguez). “July’s work has always tackled the fine line between reality and delusion,” Vulture reminds us, “and she tells stories about people who express their emotions in unlikely ways. She’s also an underrated director of actors.”

Also appearing on most critics’ lists are Dee Rees’s The Last Thing He Wanted, an adaptation of Joan Didion’s novel with Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, Willem Dafoe, and Rosie Perez; Sean Durkin’s The Nest, in which Jude Law and Carrie Coon play parents living beyond their means in a centuries-old English manor in the 1980s; Liz Garbus’s Lost Girls with Amy Ryan as a woman determined to find her missing daughter; Julie Taymor’s The Glorias with Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore playing younger and older versions of Gloria Steinem; and Michael Almereyda’s Tesla with Ethan Hawke.

Documentary Premieres

So far, the biggest headline-grabber in the run-up to this year’s Sundance has been On the Record, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s documentary about music executive Drew Dixon and other women who have accused Def Jam Recordings cofounder Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct. When executive producer Oprah Winfrey backed out of the project, Dick and Ziering lost their deal with AppleTV+ as well. Talking to Ben Sisario and Nicole Sperling in the New York Times, Dixon says she feels “like I’m experiencing a second crime. I am being silenced. The broader community is being intimidated. The most powerful black woman in the world is being intimidated.” The premiere of On the Record is nevertheless still scheduled for Saturday.

Another music industry documentary promises to tell a happier story, that of Taylor Swift finding her own voice, politically and otherwise. Miss Americana is directed by Lana Wilson, whose abortion doc After Tiller caused a stir when it premiered at Sundance in 2013.

Next and Midnight

As nearly every critic drawing up one of these lists points out, what he or she is really looking forward to is discovering exciting new work by a filmmaker few have even heard of yet. Many of these discoveries are likely to be made in the Next program. One oddity here is Omniboat: A Fast Boat Fantasia, a “symphony inspired by and made in Miami,” according to Sundance. Fifteen directors are credited, including the Daniels (Swiss Army Man) and Terence Nance (Random Acts of Flyness).

The two main draws in the Midnight program appear to be Bad Hair, a satirical thriller from Justin Simien (Dear White People) starring Vanessa Williams, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, and Laverne Cox, and The Nowhere Inn, featuring Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) and Sleater-Kinney cofounder Carrie Brownstein. “This dispatch from the musicians-getting-meta department sounds like the perfect midnight movie for the sort of Portlandia fans who can sing every word to ‘Digital Witness’ and really wishes Spike Jonze made movies more often,” writes David Fear. “The sketch comedy and Adult Swim pedigree of director Bill Benz is a plus.”

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