The Sundance Film Festival lineup is always good for eating up a chunk of my “Best of” list at the end of each year. That’s just one of the many reasons why the journey to the frigid climate (which suits me just fine) of Park City is always worth. Another is that I get to escape from the typically bad movie month of January, leaving those reviews to others.
So while the site sorta goes through a shutdown while I’m away, the value is in getting to review so early many of the films that we’ll be talking about throughout the year. There will be a couple hundred films vying for my attention out there, but here are just ten that have my attention. One of the interesting things about Sundance is that each day brings new discoveries; a movie’s buzz either gets louder or fades away with each screening. There’s always something that emerges, and always something that disappoints. Hopefully, nothing on the below list will be in the latter category.
Director: Lawrence Michael Levine
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon
The latest from Wild Canaries and Gabi On the Roof in July director Lawrence Michael Levine (usually partnered with wife and fellow director Sophia Takal), Black Bear pretty much had me with its central cast of Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, and Sarah Gadon. A dramatic thriller set in a remote lakehouse in the Adirondacks, it centers on a married couple who host a filmmaker friend looking for some inspiration. What unfolds is a blurring of art and reality, of autobiography and invention, as a web of jealousy and manipulation is spun. It’s a rare turn for Plaza away from comedy, especially here in Park City, but that makes me want to see this even more.
Director: Josephine Decker
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman
You can always peg Elisabeth Moss to make an impact each year at Sundance, but not always in a leading turn like this. After a killer 2019, she kicks off 2020 with Shirley, in which she plays horror author Shirley Jackson who, along with her husband, invite a young couple to stay in their home to get a fresh start. What the guests find instead is that they are becoming the inspiration for Shirley’s next horror novel. Decker, who previously directed the wildly imaginative Madeline’s Madeline, is a creative force and I’m hoping some of her visual splendor carries over to this.
The Last Thing He Wanted
Director: Dee Rees
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Willem Dafoe, Ben Affleck, Toby Jones, Rosie Perez
Mudbound director Dee Rees continues her partnership with Netflix, while Anne Hathaway makes her return to Sundance after 2017’s Colossal. Based on the novel by political author Joan Didion, the film tells the story of a reporter who quits her job covering the 1984 Presidential election, only to inherit her father’s shady arms-dealing business. This being a Netflix joint, it’s hard to gauge what kind of impact this will have, but there’s no doubting the talents of Rees, who has made Sundance her home since 2011’s Pariah.
Director: Justin Simien
Justin Simien had all of Sundance buzzing with his controversial debut feature, Dear White People, and he looks to do the same with Bad Hair. A psychological horror with Simien’s satirical eye, it centers on an aspiring TV personality with a bad hair care history, who dares to drop her natural look in favor of a more-telegenic weave. While the weave appears to be her key to success, it may also have a mind of its own.
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Cast: Devin France, Yashua Mack
Welcome back, Benh Zeitlin. Where ya been hiding? Zeitin made an impact on Sundance like few before him with 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, and then he just…well, vanished. Now he’s back with another unusual fairy tale, a retelling of the Peter Pan story from Wendy Darling’s perspective. It’ll be tough for Wendy to reach the multiple Oscar-nominated heights of Zeitlin’s debut, but it’s exciting to see him back behind the camera.
Director: Brenda Chapman
Cast: Angelina Jolie, David Oyelowo, Keira Chansa, Jordan Nash, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Clarke Peters, Michael Caine
Leave it to former Disney filmmaker Brenda Chapman (Her removal from Brave is still a touchy subject) to come up with something this imaginative and bring it to Sundance. Another riff on classic fairy tales, Come Away features a star-studded cast in a story that imagines Alice from Wonderland and Peter Pan as siblings, living with their parents in an idyllic setting well-removed from the fantasy worlds they would later visit. However, real life begins to intrude as their family must cope with a tragedy that may split them apart. It’s a film that Disney might’ve wanted for themselves under different circumstances.
Directors: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Cast: Will Ferrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Miranda Otto, Zoe Chao, Zach Woods
Unlike other American remakes of successful foreign films, Downhill probably didn’t need much tweaking from its source material, 2014’s Force Majeure. Because who can’t already imagine Will Ferrell as the cowardly husband who looks out for himself when an avalanche endangers his family during a ski vacation in the Alps? And who can’t already see Louis-Dreyfus raking him over the coals for his spinelessness? The comedy writes itself, and the explorations of marriage and gender roles are icing on the cake.
Director: Eugene Ash
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Eva Longoria, Aja Naomi King, Wendi Mclendon-Covey
The jazz era romance Sylvie’s Love features Sundance staple Tessa Thompson alongside ex-NFL star Nnamdi Asomugha, who turned heads with the 2017 prison drama Crown Heights. He’s been keeping busy ever since, and now gets to play lead opposite Thompson in the story of two lovers in the New York summer of 1957. She’s waiting on her fiance to return home from the war, he’s a saxophonist looking for his big break. The story tracks them as their lives go in separate directions, but the love between them never fades.
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Tuppence Middleton, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Bean
It’s like this is the year when breakout directors from 2012 finally decide to remind us they exist. The sophomore effort from Antiviral director Brandon Cronenberg is a sci-fi/horror his old man would be proud of. Andrea Riseborough returns to Sundance after a trio of buzzy indies (Mandy, Nancy, Burden) to play a corporate agent who inhabits other people’s bodies using brain transplant tech, forcing them to commit assassinations that benefit the company. Damn. A different kind of body horror from the Cronenberg clan, and I’m down for it.
Director: Carlos Lopez Estrada
The Opening Night film at Sundance is always a big deal. It’s expected to kick off the festival with a certain energy that’s meant to last all the way to Closing Night. Director Carlos Lopez Estrada did just that a couple of years ago with Blindspotting, and now he’s back in that spotlight with Summertime, a film that looks to have the same lyrical style and raw creative spirit. Multiple stories weave in and out of of one another, following 25 Los Angeles high school poets: a limo driver, a tagger, a skating guitarist, a fast food worker, and more.