Streamer's Guide to Sundance 2020

It’s easy to look at a Sundance lineup with rose-colored glasses and think that there’s going to be some major breakout hits. We do it every year because, after all, hope springs eternal! 2020’s edition looks like the rare slate to premiere in Park City that will truly earn all of the pre-festival drooling.

A glance at the directors unveiling their new films at the first Sundance of the new decade looks like a veritable “who’s who” of filmmakers who were just on the cusp of breakthrough in the 2010s: Eliza Hittman, Josephine Decker, Janicza Bravo, and countless others. It’s also a welcome return for many directors who have been dormant for far too long: Miranda July, Julie Taymor, Benh Zeitlin. Many other names that, unfortunately, barely register upon scanning the lineup may leave Utah with a million-dollar distribution deal for their film and a star on the rise.

But none of them came from nowhere. Even if their feature directing debut nabbed a spot in the Sundance lineup, they all have some prior work that portends – or at least contextualizes – their ascendancy. If you’re not attending the festival, here’s how you can get in on the ground floor of some of these directors on the rise without even leaving the comfort of your home cinema.

The Nest (Premieres)

I had initially planned to avoid the Premieres section in this column altogether because, hypothetically, these films and filmmakers don’t need any more hyping. But when the director of one of your favorite movies of the prior decade makes his first feature in nine years, how can you not get psyched? Sean Durkin of the Borderline Films collective is back in business with The Nest, and he’s got Jude Law and Carrie Coon on board for his triumphant return. The film examines the dark underbelly of the 1980s capitalistic craze, an era for which most yearn with fondness. But as we now reach four decades of remove from Reagan and Thatcher’s world, the moment may be prime for re-interrogation of these supposed halcyon days.

Can’t make it to Sundance? Watch this at home: I’ll never forget the first time I saw Durkin’s stunning debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene. It was a press screening in the summer of 2011, and rather than exit in silence like we normally did, a group of us stood in the lobby and talked through what we’d just seen and experienced for a solid hour. This is far more than the project that launched Elizabeth Olsen. It’s a cult film that gets under your skin and stays there, unsettling you with its narrative and stunning you with its craft. There were many films in a similar vein in the 2010s, but this is the one that deserves to be remembered. (Available to rent on Amazon and Apple)

Nine Days (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Look, any festival description that name-drops Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman has my attention, and the Sundance programmers did just that with Edson Oda’s Nine Days. The conceit sounds a bit like a clever episode of TV’s The Good Place: a reclusive man named Will (Us breakout Winston Duke) interviews people for the chance to become a newborn in the real world. At a time in which so much of our observable reality feels confusing and unreliable, a metaphysical project like Nine Days – if executed with grace – has the power to step in and help us sort through our confusing mess of feelings. Here’s to hoping it has the goods.

Can’t make it to Sundance? Watch this at home: Director Edson Oda might not have any feature credits to his name, but he’s a seriously prolific short filmmaker. His Vimeo profile is chock full of exciting work that showcases his imagination, ingenuity and willingness to try wacky things. Start with something like The Writer, a clever DIY project he put together for an emerging artist contest around the release of Django Unchained, then head to a novel take on the “screen movie” such as Like, and end up somewhere more polished like A Sensorial Ride. The raw talent is here. (Available for free on Vimeo)

Shirley (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Period pieces are usually not my bag. But when a unique and idiosyncratic director trains their eye on the past, it can often yield surprising results. That’s what I’m counting on with Josephine Decker’s Shirley as the indie filmmaker leapfrogs from the NEXT section into the main competition. She’s lucky to be working with Elisabeth Moss, who’s truly on a roll as of late (please watch Her Smell, I beg of you) and looks likely to turn in another dynamite performance here as the titular character, horror novelist Shirley Jackson. The arrival of a newlywed couple in she and her husband’s home gives Shirley material for a new psychodrama novel … as well as fodder for Decker to work some real cinematic magic.

Can’t make it to Sundance? Watch this at home: Decker’s last film Madeline’s Madeline overwhelmed me when I saw it in the summer of 2018. A recent rewatch when I knew a little bit more of what I was getting myself into revealed far more of the deliberate craft and artistry of the piece. She’s doing the absolute most in an admirable go-for-broke style as she follows an artistically inclined teenager dealing with an unnamed mental illness, an overbearing but compassionate mother and a zealous theater director. I can’t say that it always works, but it’s certainly exhilarating to watch a movie dance on a limb for 90 minutes. (Available for free to subscribers of Amazon Prime and Kanopy)

Zola (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Director Janicza Bravo said her new film Zola exists at “the intersection of where Blue Velvet and ‘Bodak Yellow’ meet,” and … has there been a more enticing logline? Watch your back, Swiss Army Man, you now have some serious competition for the most WTF A24 movie. Even just the origins of the film are wild: it’s based on an infamous 2015 Twitter thread (I debated making that what you should use as preparation) about two strippers on a trip to Florida. With Broadway sensation Jeremy O. Harris, the playwright behind Slave Play, co-writing the script with Bravo that Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun and Taylour Paige get to bring to life, this has to be one of Sundance’s hottest tickets. It even has a score by the god Mica Levi, to boot!

Can’t make it to Sundance? Watch this at home: Bravo certainly has a knack for the absurd as shown by her previous feature, Lemon. I missed it in Sundance 2017’s NEXT sidebar, which is the perfect place for such daring, bizarre work as this. What might be a standard tale of a miserable Jewish man struggling to make it as an artist in the hands of someone too close to the material becomes something altogether wacky and wonderful. She directs Brett Gelman to his most subdued and yet elemental performance to date. Bravo’s distance from the character’s existential struggles provides a welcome new angle on a story that’s far too often told with excessive pity for the protagonist. (Available for free to Hulu subscribers)

Boys State (U.S. Documentary Competition)

I know we live in a golden age of algorithmic content where it’s easy to say that things were made “for us” because quite often … they are. When it comes to Jesse Moss’ Boys State, however, I cannot help but feel like this movie was made by a human with me specifically in mind. The film follows a social experiment where a thousand 17-year-old boys from the state of Texas convene to build a representative democracy from the ground up. Having grown up in Houston myself and studied the social construction of government, this feels like all my interests colliding. “Lord of the Flies” found dead!

Can’t make it to Sundance? Watch this at home: Moss’ prior documentary, The Overnighters, came out in 2014, yet it could not feel any more present tense. The film’s micro story of the strain put on a small North Dakotan community by a Lutheran pastor opening his church’s doors to homeless job seekers in the region feels like it felt the macro tremors of the 2016 election. It’s a gripping, urgent tale of how the country approaches immigration and change with an uncommon honesty due in larger part to the lack of a racial dynamic with the arriving men. To top it off, the film ends with one of the most shocking endings I’ve ever seen – fiction or documentary – that demonstrates the purity tests we impose on moral leaders in our communities. Saint or sinner, there is no grace for anything in between. (Available for free to Hoopla subscribers and to rent on Amazon and Apple)

Dick Johnson Is Dead (U.S. Documentary Competition)

“Francois Truffaut died,” Woody Allen once observed. “His films live on, but that’s not much help to Francois Truffaut.” I realize few people want their films introduced with a quote by such a controversial figure in this day and age, but it perfectly encapsulates the cold comfort of immortality in the cinema that director Kristen Johnson captures in her second feature. The documentarian continues to turn her gaze inward: this time at her father, the titular Dick Johnson, as she attempts to keep his dementia at bay and his body alive. The concept alone beguiles when taking into account how Johnson is among the foremost thinkers about the power and ownership of moving images and will most assuredly craft a film with broad applicability beyond her own circumstance.

Can’t make it to Sundance? Watch this at home: Want to know why I ask every craftsperson about authorship when I interview them? It’s because of Kirsten Johnson’s first film, Cameraperson, a documentary memoir in which the images the cinematographer shot for other directors becomes an expression of her own submerged authorial voice. This is one of the most accessible experimental and radical films I’ve ever seen, seemingly simple in its layout and construction but deceptively deep in its assemblage and implications. Those willing to follow Johnson’s exploration of who owns and authors the images within a film will find themselves contemplating the medium in an exciting new way. (Available for free to Criterion Channel subscribers)

Surge (World Dramatic Competition)

Look, I know we – or at least I – am a little bit tired of movies about white men on the edge about to snap. But … maybe we can have Aneil Karia’s Surge, as a treat? For one thing, this looks like a great showcase for Ben Whishaw to show his darker side. It’s less evident in his film work, where he’s best known for playing tech whiz Q in the most recent James Bond films and perhaps for voicing Paddington Bear. But I had the chance to see Whishaw in a West End show a few years back where he plays a borderline sociopathic villain, and I was riveted. Surge, the feature directing debut of Aneil Karia, sets Whishaw’s character Joseph loose in London as he teeters on the verge of simultaneous chaos and self-discovery. It sounds like the kind of visually resplendent dive into the depths of human depravity that capture attention at film festivals.

Can’t make it to Sundance? Watch this at home: Karia has already shown he can corral and martial Whishaw’s masculinity in a mesmeric short from 2013 entitled Beat. In under 10 minutes, Karia and Whishaw cast a spell as the film’s protagonist moves from locale to locale with a kind of rhythmic possession. It’s every bit as arresting as the recent Paul Thomas Anderson music films for Radiohead, in large part because they tap into something almost supernatural about the way music and sound have a physiological effect on the body. Promise this is a better use of time than scrolling social media! (Available for free on Vimeo)

Beast Beast (NEXT)

As a recovering high school theater nerd myself, I cannot help it – I still love movies that center this group of teenagers. (Sorry, some part of us will always crave that validation!) But Danny Madden’s Beast Beast, premiering in Sundance’s more radical and experimental NEXT section, signals a promise to take this sub-genre in a boundary-pushing different direction. Plot details are scant from the official summary, but the film promises to intertwine the lives of a popular theater kid, a skater boy and a gun-loving neighbor in a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of technology and violence. There’s massive breakout potential for lead actress Shirley Chen, whose previous work with Madden won her an acting prize at SXSW in 2018.

Can’t make it to Sundance? Watch this at home: Director Danny Madden has plenty of intriguing shorts films available to watch on Short of the Week – my personal favorite of the bunch being (Notes on) Biology – but the one that you probably want to watch before Beast Beast is Krista, the short from which he adapted the feature. These are nine minutes of pure filmmaking power as Madden visualizes the emotional recall utilized titular high-school drama student as she performs an intense scene in her acting class. The action intensifies at a rapid pace, but we never lose sight of his strong attention to detail, particularly in the soundscape. If Madden can sustain this controlled frenzy for a feature length, we’re in for the best kind of cinematic anxiety attack. (Available to watch for free on Vimeo)

Some Kind of Wonderful (NEXT) 

A non-fiction film that isn’t in one of Sundance’s documentary sections but is in *checks notes* the NEXT section? Color me intrigued. Some Kind of Wonderful is some kind of an anomaly in more ways than just its placement in the festival. It’s backed by none other than the Grey Lady herself, The New York Times, and boasts Darren Aronofsky as one of its producers. But the film itself is directed by – gulp – 23-year-old Lance Oppenheim who’s already been contributing to their Op-Docs program for several years. Per Variety, he was prepping another short for them when he went to film a quasi-utopian Florida retirement community but had enough great footage that he expanded it into a feature. It must be truly wild if Sundance felt fit to program it alongside some of their wackiest films.

Can’t make it to Sundance? Watch this at home: As mentioned, Oppenheim already has plenty of experience behind the camera. Some Kind of Wonderful does not seem like too much of a stretch for the filmmaker given that he’s already gone into some bizarre settings and found some uncommon communities. Be it permanent cruise ship dwellers in The Happiest Guy in the World, airline employees’ makeshift parking lot dwellings in Long Term Parking or a strange film festival exhibiting videos produced to persuade judges into giving more lenient sentences in No Jail Time, Oppenheim is already capable of creating works full of both vivid ethnographic detail and striking authorial distance. (Available for free on The New York Times)

Spree (NEXT)

Sundance has long been a place where performers debut films to reinvent themselves or add a little bit of indie edge to their image. That may be what Stranger Things’ Joe Keery is after with Spree, an aspiring social media influencer currently confined to creating most of his content while driving for a ride-sharing company. This has all the makings of a perfect for-the-moment social satire putting both the gig economy and social media narcissism in its crosshairs. According to the description on Sundance’s official website, director Eugene Kotlyarenko’s film adopts the style of “a continuous social media feed,” which may be the kind of boundary-pushing evolution of the “screen movie” that we need.

Can’t make it to Sundance? Watch this at home: Koltyarenko has already been probing the ways we live almost entirely online and how it cannot be seen as separate from the life we live. His most recent film, 2018’s Wobble Palace, keeps a phone screen within the frame throughout the proceedings as two people in an open relationship explore their options. It begins ambitiously: almost wordless as the characters interface with their devices. What follows is an incisive look at how people live inside their smartphones coupled with a hilarious satire of two progressive Angeleno slacktivists in the days before the 2016 election, oblivious to the oblivion headed their way. (Available for free to Amazon Prime subscribers)

The 2020 Sundance Film Festival runs from Thursday, January 23 to Sunday, February 2 in and around Park City, Utah.

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