Top Ten Films of Sundance 2020

Movies Lists Sundance 2020
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Top Ten Films of Sundance 2020

Sundance in 2020 had an unusual vibe to it. It was the second year without longtime Head of Programming Trevor Groth (replaced ably by Kim Yutani), and the final year for longtime Festival Director John Cooper. Big stars still tread through the snow, perhaps even more so than in the past—Angelina Jolie, Taylor Swift, Will Ferrell, even documentary subject Hillary Clinton—but everyone seemed a bit distracted by politics, with impeachment hearings in full swing and the Iowa caucuses looming. Still, Yutani’s second year at the helm of programming turned out to be an excellent one, and we found plenty to love. Here are our Top Ten favorites, beginning with our overall choice for Best Film of Sundance 2020.

Minari

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It’s a peculiar film to emerge as the hot pick out of Sundance—in Lee Isaac Chung’s magnificent Minari, a Korean-American couple with two young children moves to rural Arkansas to try their hand at starting a farm. Eventually the kids’ grandmother comes to live with them as well. Oh, and there’s a prayer-yelling local who helps them. That doesn’t exactly scream “hot Sundance pick,” does it? But Chung’s direction, award-worthy performances from Steven Yuen and Will Patton, and the best kid performance in years from young Alan Kim produce a true masterpiece that will reverberate far beyond Park City. Each line, each movement, each shot contains worlds of meaning. Minari is a wonder, a crucial step forward in Chung’s red-hot career, and a richly deserving recipient of this year’s Audience and Grand Jury awards, both of which it did indeed win. Sometimes everybody gets it right. This was clearly the best film of Sundance 2020, and I doubt I’ll see a better film all year. —Michael Dunaway

The rest of the Top Ten, in alphabetical order:

Black Bear

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One of those movies it’s better not to know too much about, going in. Director Lawrence Levine is married to fellow director Sophia Takal, who twice has explored the themes of jealousy and the creative impulse, in Green and in Always Shine. Here Levine touches on similar territory, in the story of a young actor/screenwriter (Aubrey Plaza) who goes to the huge lakehouse of a married couple (Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon) on a sort of writing residency. Things between the couple aren’t quite as sweet as they seem, and all manner of disruptions and eruptions ensue. And then the movie gets really weird. Levine has a great feel for dialogue and rhythm, and he coaxes a wonderfully nuanced, haunting performance from Plaza. At the very least, you won’t be bored. —Michael Dunaway


Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

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Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a sandbox for its performers so thoughtfully crafted it’s no surprise that Sundance programmers felt the film too real to contain to a narrative fiction category. A masterclass in realism, its sincerity towards the marginalized characters it depicts shines through every frame of a story that could easily have read as caricature in less capable hands. —Elle Schneider


Boys State

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If anyone is unsure about the future generation of politicians (all of us?) Boys State offers both a hopeful and haunting perspective. Filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine interviewed hundreds of 17-year-old male candidates attending the leadership program Boys State in Texas, before deciding on a diverse handful to follow. During the summer program, the boys create a mock government—including elections, speeches, voting and bill passing. At the end of the program, a governor is elected. The filmmakers couldn’t have predicted how their subjects would perform, and luckily, many of them rise to the top in a wildly surprising fashion. Both bright and eloquent, Ben Feinstein and Renee Otero garner positions of leadership, while quietly commanding Steven Garza and Robert Macdougall, both charming and perplexing, campaign for governor. Each of the boys are strategic in their own ways, and never predictable. You continue to think, these kids are born for this. As the film drives toward the final election, the morality and the manipulation each character demonstrates becomes increasingly convoluted. At the end, it’s impossible not to root for one of the candidates, especially after their heartfelt and profound speeches. It’s no wonder Apple and A24 bought this one for a hefty price. It’ll engage all ages, and if you’re on social media, you’ll want to start tracking each of these boy’s political careers immediately. —Meredith Alloway


The Father

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It almost doesn’t seem fair, given a stellar cast including Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, to compare The Father to other Sundance films. And sure, I’d love to see what Lee Isaac Chung could do with those two actors, but then again Chung also had the backing of A24 and Plan B, and I’d love to see what, say, Carlos Estrada could do with that. In the end, you just have to look at the films as films, and The Father is a devastating film. Hopkins, as ever, turns in an extraordinary performance as Antony, whose memory is beginning to fail him, and director Florian Zeller takes us inside his protagonist’s brain—we see the other characters as Antony sees them, even if in reality he is, and we are, confusing them. It’s a conceit that worked to great effect in the celebrated play, which Zeller wrote. (He wrote the screenplay, too, with some help from Christopher Hampton—speaking of enviable assets.) The confusion and frustration of dementia have seldom been so effectively communicated. —Michael Dunaway


Lovemobil

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Speaking of devastating. Holy schnikes. In this Slamdance film, documentarian Elke Lehrenkrauss takes us inside a camper van parked by the side of a highway in rural Germany, which is manned each night by a prostitute. We meet two of them, plus the owner of the van, a former prostitute herself. We also meet a few of the johns, amazingly enough. But the parts of the documentary that will stay with you are the lonely, desperate conversations with the two girls themselves. It’s not sex trafficking, exactly—they’re each there by choice. But at what point of the intersection of economic desperation and male desire is a choice no longer a choice? Devastating. —Michael Dunaway


Shirley

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Not the only film at this year’s festival blurring the line between fiction and reality, Shirley is a fever dream of a biopic, exactly the kind of hazy, sinister character study its subject, author Shirley Jackson, might have fashioned about herself. The portrayal of that sometimes lonely, sometimes frustrating, sometimes fruitless pursuit of art is instantly relatable, and expertly deconstructed by Elisabeth Moss’ powerhouse performance in the lead role, Josephine Decker’s confident direction, and the poetic camerawork of Sturla Brandth Grøvlen. —Elle Schneider


Summertime

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I have no objectivity about this movie. I adore Carlos Estrada’s first film, Blindspotting. I adore Richard Linklater’s Slacker, to whom this film owes an obvious debt. But most of all, I fell madly in love, onscreen and off, with the young LA poets who comprise its cast and screenwriters. They’re all a product of Diane Luby Lane’s incredible nonprofit Get Lit, which finds, encourages, nourishes and promotes young Los Angeles poets and spoken word artists. Estrada had 27 of them write not only poetic pieces for the film, but scenes around them as well, and he had them act in those scenes. It might seem as if poetic recitations would be jarring in the middle of a film, but Estrada weaves them in so seamlessly that they don’t seem like interludes—they seem more like songs in a musical. There’s no small measure of delight just in discovering how each scene sets up the poem. And the whole thing has such a bighearted, joyous vibe to it—even when it’s full of pain. —Michael Dunaway


Tesla

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You know what Sundance, at its essence, is for? Filmmakers that take risks. They can be exhibiting their first film, or their twenty-first, the important thing is that high-reaching independent spirit. It’d be hard to find someone more illustrative of that description than Michael Almereyda, whose association with star Ethan Hawke began nearly twenty years ago with their outlandishly inventive Hamlet. He employs Hawke to great effect here as the mysterious genius Nikolai Tesla. Hawke doesn’t let us see most of what’s going on inside Tesla’s brain and heart—it’s left to narrator (and possible love interest) Anne Morgan (rising star Eve Hewson) to try to do that. Along the way he tangles with and/or teams up with titans like Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) and Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan, continuing his unexpected run of outstanding dramatic Sundance performances). Almereyda takes many bold risks, and though not all of them worked for me, the ones that did were pure magic. Sometimes a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. —Michael Dunaway


Zola

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In Zola, filmmaker Janicza Bravo (Lemon) takes on the infamous twitter saga published by A’ziah “Zola” Wells in 2015. The tweets were ripe for a cinematic interpretation, and Bravo translates them into a riotous, delicious, hilarious, and at times nauseating road trip movie through the south. The sharp script, co-written by Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play), infuses social media devices into a journey that feels equal parts bubblegum dream and vicious crime comedy. After Zola (an excellent Taylour Paige) becomes overnight besties with Stefani (transformative Riley Keough), she’s whipped onto an increasingly Bacchic rollercoaster ride that’s dangerous and skates the fine line of absurdity. But Bravo is smart, as the story and characters could easily go off the rails. While some people have said Zola is a passive protagonist, her quiet scheming is exactly what helps her to survive, and feels more realistic than projecting plot points onto a story that’s already so lush. Zola’s subtle gravitas really shines through the score—from the always ingenious Mica Levi (Under the Skin). It keeps you on your toes because you, like Zola, can never predict if money or death or friendship comes with the next fork in the road. And for all you Succession fans out there, Nicholas Braun as the bumbling boyfriend, Derrek, is the priceless cherry on top. —Meredith Alloway


(Editor’s Note: As one of the authors of this list is a co-executive producer on Dinner in America, they left it off this list, but given our review, Adam Rehmeier’s movie is a worthwhile 11th entry on this list of films you might want to keep a look out for when they hit the theaters or streaming.)

Dinner in America

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Dinner in America joins a long line of films ranging from Repo Man to Relaxer in the grimy canon of American dirtbag cinema: It isn’t graphic by any definition, but all the same, it isn’t for the squeamish. Instead, it’s for the punk rockers. Come for Gallner’s palpitating lead performance; stay for Rehmeier’s thoughts on what your dinner choices say about you. —Andy Crump


HONORABLE MENTION: Bastards’ Road (Slamdance), Big Fur (Slamdance), Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Nine Days, Scare Me, We Are Freestyle Love Supreme, Whirlybird

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