This year’s Sundance Film Festival broke a number of records, from diversity in its programming to sales, but none of these statistics address the fundamental question behind all the noise: Were the movies any good? As it turns out, the festival more than delivered: Culled from 15,000 submissions, the 2020 edition offered up a range of timely, boundary-pushing documentary storytelling, promising new voices, and satisfying new heights from established filmmakers. Here are the best of the best.
Co-directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s revealing documentary has the potential to be this year’s “American Factory,” in the sense that the filmmakers gained incredible access to capture an intimate story in real time — one that provides the perfect metaphor for this moment in our socio-political history. Boys State is a yearly event put on by the American Legion, where 17-year-olds are split into two political parties and put through a week long process of holding elections and forming a government. Through an insane amount of preparation — interviewing hundreds of potential characters/candidates prior to last year’s Texas Boys State — Moss and McBaine were able to track the most compelling characters who would rise to become the final candidates. While it’s only mock government, the stakes are incredibly high for those in the final rounds, many of whom imagine themselves as the next famous politician to emerge from the storied program. To watch these idealistic (and some not-so-idealistic) young men resort to same cynical left/right mud-slinging and race-baiting tactics, we are forced to confront our dysfunctional two-party partisan political divide. —CO
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There is indeed an actual, living, occasionally roaring black bear that appears in Lawrence Michael Levine’s razor-sharp “Black Bear,” but that’s one of the few hard-and-fast elements of the filmmaker’s nifty deconstruction of both the wider contemporary culture and the microcosm of indie filmmaking. That the film — the first of Levine’s to premiere at Sundance — is programmed in the festival’s forward-thinking NEXT section should suggest to audiences that the film is more than the psychosexual drama hinted at in its official description. Well, it is, but it’s also so much more. For fans of Levine’s wife Sophia Takal’s work, this may feel familiar (the film is, after all, dedicated to the “Black Christmas” filmmaker and the duo have long worked together over the course of their careers), though with a wickedly dark comedic spin. Fans of Takal’s revelatory “Always Shine” will vibe to what Levine’s throwing down, as Levine unravels clever jabs and jibes at current culture — few recent features have so smartly picked apart both feminism and caveman culture with such insight and humor — and the tenuous bonds of his game cast (Christopher Abbott, Aubrey Plaza, and Sarah Gadon) break down in a bucolic setting. To say much more about the script-flipping that happens halfway through the film would be to rob audiences of a real pleasure, but it’s a story-expanding trick that allows the film, its big ideas, and its performers to dig even deeper. —KE
“Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets”
At first glance, “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” unfolds as a brilliant work of cinema verite. Bill and Turner Ross’ boozy hangout movie captures the last raucous night at the Roaring Twenties, a grimy bar on the outskirts of the Vegas strip where various inebriated outcasts bury their sorrows in a blur of anger and poetic laments. It’s late 2016, and with the presidential election about to change the world, the pub serves as a fascinating microcosm of America’s fractured, browbeaten underbelly on the verge of self-destruction.
But here’s the thing. The Roaring Twenties is in New Orleans, not Vegas, and the characters populating its interior didn’t just wander in. Though nothing in the movie acknowledges as much, the Ross brothers cast people to populate the bar, recording the drunken antics of their chosen performers throughout a debaucherous night. The result is both a grand cinematic deception and a bold filmmaking experiment from two of the most intriguing directors working in non-fiction today. Tapping into a kind of alienation to which much of 21st Century America can relate, “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” may not be the straight-faced documentary it looks like, but it’s a sober-eyed document of our times nonetheless. —EK
“Dick Johnson Is Dead”
The title of “Dick Johnson Is Dead” doesn’t lie, but it’s not exactly truthful, either. Dick Johnson dies many times in his daughter Kirsten’s poignant and personal documentary, starting with the opening credits. And yet he’s very much alive the whole time, playacting in an elaborate form of cinematic therapy with his filmmaker offspring as she wrestles with the anxiety of losing him.
That concept could easily devolve into a navel-gazing exercise, but Kirsten Johnson — the veteran nonfiction cinematographer who directed 2016’s wondrous collage film “Cameraperson” — enacts a touching and funny meditation on embracing life and fearing death at the same time. Oscillating from intimate father-daughter exchanges to surreal meta-fictional tangents, the movie lives within its riveting paradox, reflecting the queasy uncertainty surrounding its subject’s fate. Johnson can’t save her father for good, but by preserving him in the most powerful medium at her disposal, she’s found the next best thing: Nobody lives forever, but the movies are a different story. —EK
“The 40-Year-Old Version”
Certainly the funniest debut film at Sundance this year, “The 40-Year-Old Version” presents a fictionalized version of first-time filmmaker Radha Blank, as she tries to “make it” as a playwright without compromising her vision. Being an artist in New York City is always tough: the day job, the side hustles — it means Radha has a lot of juggling to do, among her gig teaching high school theater, a gratifying creative release in rapping, and an attempt at mounting a new play about gentrification on Broadway. The last of these efforts results in some drop-dead funny depictions of cultural appropriation at its worst: one producer (Reed Birney), who had previously offered Radha the chance to write “a Harriet Tubman musical,” says that her view of gentrification “feels like it didn’t come from a black person” — as if this aging white man is the best judge. (Try not cracking up at the bit about another producer who’s trying to stage “an integrated ‘Fences.’”) The film is more than just a collection of trenchant observations, though: it’s a crackling vision, shot in gorgeous black and white, of what it means to live in New York City at this moment, when the gap between rich and poor keeps growing and “selling out” feels more tempting than ever. Its running time could stand to be shortened, but if Blank doesn’t want to kill some of her darlings here that’s something her onscreen alter ego would appreciate. —CB
A kind of anti-biopic of Gloria Steinem, as suggested by its unusual title, “The Glorias” sets out several goals for itself: to present a chronologically fractured accounting of Steinem’s life; to present Steinem as a real human being and not just a symbol of feminism; simultaneously, to present Steinem as a symbol, just one person who has inspired many others in her wake; and to show that real change never comes down to the actions of just one person. Julie Taymor achieves every one of those goals in this impossibly ambitious film. Four different actors play Steinem, with Alicia Vikander portraying her from the age of 20 to 40 and Julianne Moore taking over at 40. Taymor displays her sense of visual grandeur to the material and includes some of her trademark surreal touches: one scene where Vikander’s Steinem is being grilled on TV by an interviewer who calls her a “sex object” on-air morphs into a flight of fancy (shot by Rodrigo Prieto, coming right off “The Irishman”) involving Playboy bunnies, a tornado, and the Wicked Witch of the West. But mostly the film works because of its striking performances: personality trumps didacticism throughout. And what great personalities are on display: Bette Midler as Bella Abzug, Janelle Monae as Dorothy Pitman Hughes, and Lorraine Toussaint as Florynce Kennedy. Taymor never loses sight, just as Steinem never has, that the pursuit of equality requires collective effort — powered overwhelmingly by people of color. “The Glorias” is a much needed repudiation of “white feminism” — it doesn’t hold back from showing that white women have often been the fiercest opponents of Women’s Lib — even as it movingly pays tribute to the bona fide American Hero Gloria Steinem remains. —CB
“Into the Deep”
A true crime doc that also lays bare the lack of empathy at the heart of many true crime stories, “Into the Deep” is one of the most disturbing examples of the form. That’s almost certainly because it was never intended to be a true crime story at all. Australian filmmaker Emma Sullivan wanted to make an affectionate, quirky documentary about Peter Madsen, a Danish inventor and self-promoter who had become a celebrity in his home country for building his own submarine and planning to send himself into space in a self-made rocket. Instead, a year into Sullivan filming Madsen, he brutally murdered journalist Kim Wall aboard his submarine. Sullivan’s film because a cinematic record of soul-searching among Madsen’s friends and former followers: could they have seen this coming? Was there some sign that the man they knew was capable of murder? “Into the Deep” spends most of its time lingering on the shock experienced by Madsen’s inner circle, and the result is profoundly empathetic. That Sullivan, a first time feature filmmaker, was able to edit together a film that contains the inherent shock of the story at its heart without veering into “shock value” and kept the emotions of Madsen’s witnesses front and center is the balancing act of a mature artist. —CB
Told with the rugged tenderness of a Flannery O’Connor novel but aptly named for a resilient Korean herb that can grow wherever it’s planted, Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical “Minari” is a raw and vividly remembered story of two simultaneous assimilations; it’s the story of a family assimilating into a country, but also the story of a man assimilating into his family.
After nearly a decade of barely scraping by in San Francisco, immigrants Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and his wife Monica (“Sea Fog” star Yeri Han) arrive at the rundown Arkansas farm where Jacob hopes to plant their roots. Monica is skeptical. Meanwhile, their seven-year-old son David (adorable newcomer Alan S. Kim, delivering one of the most crucial and transcendently honest child performances since Jonathan Chang in “Yi Yi”) is struggling to make sense of his hyphenated identity, a process that grows more complicated — and more hilarious — when his wonderfully anarchic grandmother (Yuh-Jung Youn) comes to stay with them. What follows is a beautiful film that posits family as the ultimate journey, only to explore how difficult it can be to agree on a destination. Is Jacob trying to prove what’s possible for himself, or is he doing his best to build something for the next generation? Is there any way those two goals might be able to overlap before Monica has to pull the ripcord? Chung answers these questions in remarkable fashion, resolving this gentle and note-perfect drama with one of the most heart-stirring finales in recent memory. —DE
“The Mole Agent”
There’s a certain immersive thrill that comes from documentaries that hide themselves, and “The Mole Agent” epitomizes that appeal. Chilean director Maite Alberdi’s delightful character study unfolds as an intricate spy thriller, in which a sweet-natured 83-year-old widower infiltrates a nursing home at the behest of a private detective. The plan goes awry with all kinds of comical and touching results, so well-assembled within a framework of fictional tropes that it begs for an American remake.
But as much as such a product might appeal to companies hungry for content, it would be redundant from the outset, because “The Mole Agent” is already one of the most heartwarming spy movies of all time — a rare combination of genres that only works so well because it sneaks up on you. —EK
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
Courtesy of Focus Features
Three films into her career, filmmaker Eliza Hittman continues to prove herself as one of contemporary cinema’s most empathetic and skilled chroniclers of American youth. Hittman’s trio of features — “It Felt Like Love,” “Beach Rats,” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” her first studio effort — have all zoomed in on blue-collar teens on the edge of sexual awakening, often of the dangerous variety. Hittman’s ability to write and direct such tender films has long been bolstered by her interest in casting them with fresh new talents, all the better to sell the veracity of her stories and introduce moviegoers to emerging actors worthy of big attention. With “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Hittman continues her traditions with her most vivid work yet, one all the more impressive for its studio pedigree. Newbies Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder star as a pair of close cousins who are forced to deal with an unexpected pregnancy and a small town not at all interested in offering up any alternatives beyond having the baby. Despite its subject matter, the film isn’t just the wrenching drama many might expect. Yes, it’s a searing examination of the current state of this country’s finicky abortion laws and the medical professionals tasked with enforcing them (from the small-minded to the big-hearted), and if art can have any impact on its consumers, the film will stick with many of its viewers, perhaps even changing long-held beliefs. But it’s also a singular look at what it means to be a teenage girl today, and with all the joy and pain that comes with it. —KE
“The Painter and the Thief”
Director Benjamin Ree just happened to be researching art thefts in Norway when two of painter Barbora Kysilkova’s new works were stolen from an art gallery. When Kysilkova sees her thief, a drug addicted Karl-Bertil Nordland, in the courthouse and decides she wants to paint him, it sparks an intense, rollercoaster relationship between two lost souls. The movie oscillates between their dueling perspectives as it dives deeper into the nature of their bond and what it says about the way we tell our own stories. It’s a relationship being performed for the camera to some degree — but the magnetic pull between these two fascinating characters is captured with such raw intimacy, vulnerability, and formal beauty that it transcends the characters’ own desire to control the narrative. With Ree there from day one, we watch as Barbora and Bertil bond over three years, resulting in a twisty yarn that’s deeply engaging throughout. —CO
“Promising Young Woman”
Emerald Fennell’s raucous debut, “Promising Young Woman,” twists its buzzword-laden, spoiler-free synopsis — it’s a #MeToo rape revenge thriller with bite! — into something fresh and totally wild. Thank both Fennell’s wicked mind and star Carey Mulligan’s somehow even more wicked performance for that: cooked up by Fennell (best known to American audiences for her go-round as the second season showrunner for clever spy hit “Killing Eve”) and dizzyingly embodied by an incendiary Mulligan, Cassie is an anti-heroine for our times, and a wholly unique one at that. While the film is rarely predictable in its choices, Fennell saves her (and Cassie’s) biggest surprises for its combustible final 20 minutes, taking risks that are admirable even when they don’t seem as if they’re going to pay off. Fennell’s flair for visual humor is apparent throughout the film — the rococo nightmare that is Cassie’s parents’ house is ten times funnier than it needs to be, only getting better and weirder with each visit — but she saves her best bits for last, when her most ambitious ideas coalesce into a wicked final twist that leaves one hell of a mark. —KE
Courtesy of Sundance
When the news first broke that “Madeline’s Madeline” filmmaker Josephine Decker would be making a starry movie about the author Shirley Jackson, it was hard not to be disappointed (or at least caught by surprise) that one of the most feral, elastic, and vividly singular artists of contemporary American cinema was following her first masterpiece with something that might be classified as a biopic. Shudder. Not to worry: For one thing, the sawtoothed and delirious “Shirley” is no more of a biopic than “Bright Star,” “An Angel at My Table,” or “Shakespeare in Love.” For another, the best elements of this movie — its poisoned eros, its secrets in shallow focus, its steadfast determination to distill the “thrillingly horrible” process of a young woman’s self-awakening — conspire to embarrass the idea that Decker wouldn’t be able to explore her truth in someone else’s fiction.
Adapted from the Susan Scarf Merrell novel of the same name, Decker’s film takes place sometime after “The Lottery” has become the most controversial story ever published in The New Yorker, as a young woman named Rose (Odessa Young) and her academic husband (Logan Lerman) come to stay with Jackson and her menacing husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) for the semester. Comfortably inhabiting all sorts of haggard makeup that she wears like a layer of cobwebs, Elisabeth Moss embodies the author as an irritable grandma who’s been cooped up for long enough to haunt her own house. Shirley hasn’t been outside in over two months; Stanley insists that she isn’t well enough. He depends on her genius, but treats it like a disorder. Anything not to feel threatened. But Rose unlocks something in the reclusive writer, and vice-versa, and these two “lost girls” make each other visible in unexpected ways. No simple portrait of empowerment, “Shirley” is a porous tale of two women who break each other down until they’re nothing but the purest bits of themselves. They crumble until they’re small enough to slip between literature and real life; small enough not to be scared of anything but themselves; small enough to fit through the cracks that Decker finds in the foundation of Jackson’s haunted house. Only then can they begin to build themselves into something new. —DE
For those who have followed Garrett Bradley’s work over the last few years, this Sundance breakout moment is as deserved as it is inevitable. In telling the story of Fox Rich’s arc toward activism – fighting to get her husband out of jail while raising their six children – Bradley has found the perfect partner and canvas for her unique political poetry. A story of a seemingly impossible love, “Time” is a film stripped down to its cinematic and spiritual essence, allowing the audience an emotional window into the deep pain of our rotting justice system and the resilience it demands to survive it. Weaving Rich’s treasure trove of DV home movies with her own distinct black and white compositions, Bradley finds a structure that lets Rich’s story flow like water. —CO
“The Social Dilemma”
Perhaps the single most lucid, succinct, and profoundly terrifying analysis of social media ever created for mass consumption, Jeff Orlowski’s “The Social Dilemma” does for Facebook what his previous documentaries “Chasing Ice” and “Chasing Coral” did for climate change (read: bring compelling new insight to a familiar topic while also scaring the absolute shit out of you). And while the film covers — and somehow manages to contain — a staggering breadth of topics and ramifications, one little sentence is all it takes to lay out the means and ends of the crisis at hand: Russia didn’t hack Facebook, Russia used Facebook.
That may not be a mind-blowing idea for anyone who’s been raised on the internet, but it would be wrong to think that Orlowski’s film is only speaking to the back of the class. While “The Social Dilemma” is relevant to every person on the planet, and should be legible enough to even the most technologically oblivious types (the Amish, the U.S. Senate, and so forth), its target demographic is very online types who think they understand the information age too well to be taken advantage of — zoomers, millennials, and screen junkies of any stripe who wouldn’t have the faintest interest in a finger-wagging documentary about how they should spend more time outside. Constructed from interviews with the very concerned people who designed these platforms, and laced with funny scripted segments that illustrate the effects of social media on a more life-sized scale, Orlowski’s well-argued doc breaks down how a free-to-use business model has become an existential crisis for all civilization, and why logging off might be the only way to save us from ourselves. —DE