With a record number of 10,397 submissions, the 2020 Sundance Film Festival short film programmers undertook a herculean task to narrow the official selections down to 74 narrative, animated, and documentary shorts. After previewing 45 official selections made available for advance press screening, IndieWire culled 10 of the most artistically compelling, dramatically surprising, and emotionally resonate pieces. The filmmakers were then emailed and asked to share their inspiration and what they are working on next.
Although no theme unifies this year’s “must see” shorts, there are some trends to note. Perhaps because the list favors the U.S. narrative shorts, the many unique neighborhoods of Los Angeles play an outsized role in many storylines. Sundance alumni return with a vengeance, with last year’s “must-see” short filmmakers Terence Nance and Matthew Puccini and 2014 jury prize winner Bernardo Britto debuting superior new work. And the five-minute-or-less “short shorts” were more satisfying to consume than the longer films (caveat: Brian Knappenberger’s 40-minute child-abuse allegations documentary “The Church and the Fourth Estate” was not available for preview). The only sour note is, unlike previous years, none of the standout films are currently online for non-festival-goers to view.
Without further ado, here are 10 must-see shorts playing the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Six will have their world or international premieres at the festival, which runs January 23-February 2 in Park City, Utah.
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Director/writer: Dani Pearce
Dani Pearce’s four-minute “Backpedal” centers around a young woman (Brenna Harding) determined to hang with the guys, despite the consequences. Based on a poem by Olivia Gatwood, this voiceover-driven drama with extremely strong visual compositions has a look/feel/tone reminiscent of fellow Australian David Michôd’s early award-winning shorts. Viewers will appreciate that the film’s stunning signature shots – including the water coffin scenes – were shot practically.
Defining herself as a film director and photo-media artist with a primary focus on experimental narrative, the Sydney-based Pearce previously created “Nursed Back,” which was a Vimeo Staff Pick in 2017 and played the 2018 Cannes AVIFF Art Film Festival.
Filmmaker Dani Pearce’s inspiration: “The inspiration for ‘Backpedal’ came in two parts — firstly, a catalyst and secondly, a curiosity. The catalyst for the film was the incredible poem by Olivia Gatwood. I discovered the poem online and was overcome by my immediate connection with the material. I knew that I had to adapt it to screen and further, that I had the potential to do something salient with it. And as for the curiosity, well — there has been an insatiable force within me to express these themes (womanhood, coming-of-age, hometown) in an original way for a long time. I am consistently inspired by the challenge of utilizing form and style to impart feeling in new, innovative ways. My incredible producer (Sarah Nichols) has always been fundamentally supportive of my propensity to communicate in this way — she consistently finds genius ways of realizing my imagination — making it both possible and palpable.”
What’s next: “I have a special short film that is in final script stage and I am in development on two features – a documentary and a dramatic work.”
Director/writer: Thembi Banks
From the first image and dialogue exchange in “Baldwin Beauty,” Thembi Banks establishes herself as a strong filmmaker with a bright future ahead of her. The storyline in this 11-minute film is essentially a day-in-the-life of a traveling hairstylist (Raven Goodwin). Keys are lost and found, a spontaneous dance party lingers on, and a customer-satisfying hairstyle is achieved. The viewer is delighted to experience it all – and left eagerly wanting to see what Banks accomplishes next.
Banks recently co-produced Apple’s “Home Before Dark” and has written for “SMILF,” “Daytime Divas,” and “Step Up: Highwater.” Her short was produced under the auspices of Paul Feig and Laura Allen Fischer’s Powderkeg: Fuse program, which champions new comedic voices with a special commitment to female, LGBTQ creators and filmmakers of color. “Baldwin Beauty” and five other Powderkeg: Fuse shorts premiered at Seriesfest in Denver last June, and Sundance is the second place where it will be playing publicly.
Filmmaker Thembi Banks’s Inspiration: “Moving to Los Angeles from New York was a huge transition, and as a Black woman, one of the major issues to be strategized was finding a new hair stylist! It sounds ridiculous but every woman knows if your hair doesn’t look good, you don’t feel good. So I struggled through a couple of insane situations when trying to find someone. Also, being from Harlem, I was used to community, culture and thriving in a neighborhood that was beautifully and diversely black. I found that when I visited and eventually moved to the Leimert Park/ Baldwin Hills area. So I was inspired to tell a story that fused hair, community and the app culture that is now a part of our everyday lives. I’m fascinated by how we can log on and order almost anything… including a friend.”
What’s next: “I am currently prepping a feature film that will shoot in February with the production company MACRO. I’m writing a feature film for Universal Pictures that Malcolm D. Lee is producing about Double Dutch as well as developing a show.”
Director/writer: Bridget Moloney
Made as part of the AFI Directing Workshop for Women, Bridget Moloney’s 11-minute “Blocks” is a slickly produced, extremely funny yet also very moving portrait of a young mother (Claire Coffee) on the verge of nervous breakdown. Her domestic angst manifests itself in an unexpected and ultimately extremely satisfying manner. Los Angeles-native Moloney used her own home and children in “Blocks,” and anyone who has lived in a home littered with Lego will find this short extremely relatable.
Based on this A+ calling card plus her independent pilot, “I Was a Teenage Pillow Queen,” which premiered at the 2018 Tribeca TV Festival, Moloney is clearly ready for the big leagues. Something else to keep your eye out for: The Los Angeles Times and Southwest Airlines are making a docu-series in partnership with Sundance documenting the filmmaker’s first time at Sundance.
Filmmaker Bridget Moloney’s Inspiration: “I loved becoming a parent. I just wasn’t totally prepared for how strange it was. Not just the leaking and sleep deprivation induced loopiness and constant barrage of body fluids and total dissolution of self, but also the new quiet but ever-present hum of anxiety. And I didn’t even have postpartum depression/anxiety! Mothering gave me a new lens and it was, as advertised, magical, but it was also strange. ‘Blocks’ grew out of that.”
What’s next: “I’m developing a series based on “Blocks!” And I’m also finishing up an astral projection romantic comedy feature script that I plan to direct.”
Director/writer: Matthew Puccini
Last year Matthew Puccini made IndieWire’s 10 must-see Sundance shorts list with his short “Lavender.” At the time, he told IndieWire he was “in post-production on a new short film called ‘Dirty,’ about a pair of high school boyfriends who cut class to lose their virginities to each other.” Cut to 2020, and the 11-minute “Dirty” is world premiering in Park City. Showcasing wonderful performances from Morgan Sullivan and Manny Dunn, this top-notch two-hander lives up to its predecessor.
After the success of “Lavender,” which also screened at SXSW, Aspen, Palm Springs, Outfest and was acquired by Fox Searchlight, Puccini was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 2019 “25 New Faces of Independent Film” and one of IndieWire’s “25 LGBTQ Filmmakers on the Rise.”
Filmmaker Matthew Puccini’s Inspiration: “’Dirty’ was born out of my frustration with the lack of sex ed available to most LGBTQ youth in high school. I was thinking a lot about what I wish I’d known and seen growing up, and how naive I was going into my first few sexual experiences as a gay man. I eventually fell in love with the idea of updating the classic ‘losing your virginity’ story by centering it around two queer teenagers, and by featuring queer sex in a way that hopefully feels really honest and unflinching.”
What’s next: “I’m working on an interdisciplinary documentary project called Queer/Elder, which profiles LGBTQ seniors at the SAGE center in Manhattan, and am developing my first feature film, which is a psychological drama about a gay relationship that unravels over the course of attending another gay couple’s wedding. “
“Guisado on Sunset”
Director/screenwriter/editor/cast: Terence Nance
At the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Terence Nance was part of a collective known as the Ummah Chroma, which made the experimental short “As Told to G/D Thyself.” Nance, whose many credits include the award-winning HBO television series “Random Acts of Flyness,” returns solo this year with another wildly experimental short, “Guisado on Sunset.”
Centering our current digital lifestyle, “Guisado on Sunset” is a bold and exhilarating four-minute retelling of a missed connection that happened at a local restaurant on Sunset Boulevard on April 5, 2017. Framed vertically and incorporating mixed-media, Nance’s piece is guaranteed to look like nothing else showing at this year’s fest. “The film took about 16 minutes to shoot,” said Nance, “about four minutes to write and about three days to edit and sound mix. The animation however took about seven to eith months. It was fun.” Screening as part of the New Frontier Shorts Program, “Guisado on Sunset” is also part of the festival’s digital experience, New Frontier in the Wild.
Filmmaker Terence Nance’s inspiration: “I decided to make this short after the experience that inspired it happened. It is the story of a missed connection and I wondered if a film could operate as a means of facilitating a connection(s) that was initially missed.”
What’s next: “I just released my first EP. It’s called ‘things I never had.’ Album coming soon.”
Director/writer: Bernardo Britto
The logline is simple: “A goose remembers his last migration.” This misleads viewers into thinking we know the ending of this charming five-and-a-half minute animation. Au contraire! “Hudson Geese,” made for FXX’s live action/animated anthology “Cake,” leads viewers down unexpected paths with very satisfactory results. Working with Floyd County animation studio, Bernardo Britto wrote the screenplay, created all the designs, storyboarded and timed it all out, and voiced the narrative. “The most important decision was probably finding the right honk sound,” said Britto. “Geese have a truly iconic honk.”
Britto’s “Yearbook” won the 2014 Jury Prize for Best Short Film at Sundance and his live-action feature “Jacqueline (Argentine)” played Sundance in 2016.
Filmmaker Bernardo Britto’s inspiration: “I live near the water in Brooklyn so I always see the Canadian geese that stop by during their migration. And then sometime around October 2016, there was a very specific movie that made me think about the way we view them and the way animals in general have had to adapt to what we’ve done with the planet. That’s the spoiler free version of it, at least.”
What’s next: “I’m always working on new things that I’m truly excited about and that I think will be really really good but I don’t know if I’ve found that balance between humble plug and kind of annoying self-promotion, so for now, I’ll just shout out two other short films that are playing Sundance and that everyone should go see: ‘Slug Life,’ by Sophie Koko Gate and ‘See You Next Time’ by Crystal Kayiza. Both cool movies made by insanely talented people that I have absolutely nothing to do with.”
“Lance (in a Neck Brace)”
Director/writer/producer/editor: Chloé Aktas
Some shorts rise to the top because they laser focus on solitary situations that can mesmerize audiences for nine minutes but could never continue in that vein for a 90-minute feature. Case in point: “Lance (in a Neck Brace)” – a title that accurately sums up what the viewer will be watching for the next nine minutes. A man wearing a neck brace (Lance Jeffries) places a series of cassette tapes into a machine. Nothing else happens – and yet so much happens – as we watch Lance try to deal with heartbreak in this self-contained gem.
Having created such a strong actor’s showcase, filmmaker Chloé Aktas is not surprisingly also an actor (playing Tanya on “The Walking Dead”) as well as a director/writer/editor. A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Aktas was a Student Academy Award finalist for her 2016 short “Mutt.”
Filmmaker Chloé Aktas’s inspiration: “A breakup story is a story of crisis. In all of life’s crises, we all have the opportunities for self-evaluation, to unpack all the boxes of human emotions and identify triggers in our behavior. Crises are moments in life when we grow. The parties in the breakup have the choice to study themselves and their behavior and wonder if the relationship might have ended differently? If we are honest, completely honest with ourselves, we are forced to look inward and that can be just as hurtful as the breakup itself. I wanted to tell a story about a character who wants to heal, but doesn’t want to feel anything in the process, Lance is looking for an ‘easy’ way out. He simply wants to listen to the tapes and feel better, Lance wants the secret elixir to a broken heart. I feel like this is something we all experience; we want to skip to the end, without the trials and tribulations of the middle; but I feel like the middle is where we really find out we are stronger than we think we are.”
What’s next: “My goal is to make my first feature in 2020. I have a feature script that I’m very passionate about and I want to act in and direct it. That is my main goal at the moment.”
Director/writer: Erica Tremblay
Please, someone with the power to greenlight, turn “Little Chief” into a TV series or a feature film! Shot in filmmaker Erica Tremblay’s home state of Oklahoma and produced through the Sundance Institute Native Filmmakers Lab, this 12-minute drama starring Lily Gladstone as an iconoclast teacher and Julian Ballentyne as her troubled student is just wonderful from start to finish – and clearly begs to be expanded.
Defining herself as a filmmaker/activist, Tremblay is currently studying her Indigenous language on the Six Nations reservation in Ontario, Canada. Her previous work has been shown on PBS, CNN, and IFC.
Filmmaker Erica Tremblay’s inspiration: “’Little Chief’ is a love letter to all the matriarchs in my life who are working through their own trauma in order to heal themselves and others in our community. My mother has been an educator for most of my life, and she has sacrificed so much to provide safety and knowledge to her students. It is this exhaustive work that ensures our future as a people. Growing up, these sacrifices were just the reality that I knew and it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized the unique set of challenges she faces as an Indigenous woman teaching Indigenous children. Making ‘Little Chief’ was an opportunity for me to highlight this incredible work and explore the challenges that our teachers and students face every day.
What’s next: “I am currently writing a feature called ‘Fancy Dance,’ about a two-spirit woman who kidnaps her niece from a foster home on the way to a powwow. The U.S. government has long been removing Native kids from their homes and placing them with non-Native wards and I want to explore the impacts of this but in a way that allows the characters to take a break from the trauma and go on a road trip together. I am also working on a feature documentary called ‘Sister’s Gone,’ that investigates the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Alaska.”
“A Love Song for Latasha”
Director/cinematographer/editor/producer: Sophia Nahli Allison
Having already won a slew of festival awards, including the 2019 AFI Fest grand jury documentary prize, “A Love Song for Latasha” comes to Sundance already anointed a “must-see” short. Sophia Nahli Allison’s stunningly constructed and highly poetic 19-minute documentary, which took almost three years to make, examines the short life and long legacy of Latasha Harlins, an innocent teenager gunned down in a neighborhood liquor store shortly after the Rodney King beating.
Sophia Nahli Allison is a self-described experimental documentary filmmaker/photographer/dreamer who has produced eight other short films since 2015. She has also held artist residencies and fellowships at The MacDowell Colony, the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France as a 3Arts Residency Fellow, POV Spark’s African Interactive Art Residency, and the Center for Photography at Woodstock.
Filmmaker Sophia Nahli Allison’s inspiration: “I’m inspired by the reimagining of archives and the importance of preserving oral history and memory. As a South Central Los Angeles native, I was a young girl during the LA Riots and felt it was time for the story and memory of Latasha Harlins to exist fully beyond her trauma. I’m deeply inspired by the intersection of memory and reality, fact and fiction, and using experimental methods to document what no longer tangibly exists. Through the reclaiming and re-envisioning of these archives, the film challenges a system that has historically prevented black women and girls from having agency over their narrative and public image. By activating this space, we are interrogating new ways to imagine and engage with black history that has been erased and left void to create a visceral embodiment of the past, present, and future intersecting.”
What’s next: “I’m primarily focused on my long term project ‘Dreaming Gave Us Wings,’ a self-portrait series, immersive experience, and hybrid documentary that reimagines the history and folklore of flying Africans. It is a spiritual archive on the edge of dreams and memory, an activation of ancestral magic.”
Director/writer/editor: Jason Gudasz
Haunted house stories are a dime a dozen, but the 11-minute “Place” is not your standard spooky tale about a young family (Emily Green, Stella Edwards, and Nick Hurley) moving into a new home that seems to be trying to get rid of the people inside it. “Place” is laugh-out-loud funny, stylish, quirky, and weird in the best possible way. Jason Gudasz’s short has already been embraced by the horror film community, playing Fantasia in Montreal and Fantastic Fest in Austin.
Gudasz is a writer/director/actor active in the LA comedy scene. His official bio proclaims that “he lives in Echo Park with no pets and a healthy relationship with anxiety.”
Filmmaker Jason Gudasz’s inspiration: “I had a dream where a friend told me, ‘This is your next movie…’ and then showed me film projector footage of a kid sitting on the ground in my empty house. It seemed like an okay starting point. I’d just moved into an old bungalow in Echo Park, we still didn’t have too much furniture and the inside was all empty and pretty. I tailored the story and everything to the space. “
What’s next: “Almost finished writing a feature version of “Place.” The main difference is it takes place in a new apartment complex, like those overpriced sterile ones you see around Southern California. Off-white walls, grey carpet, rigid furniture. Those places are terrifying.”
Kim Adelman has covered must-see Sundance shorts for IndieWire since 2007.