The film festival circuit kicks off with the 2020 Sundance. Here are some of this year’s early stand-outs.
The critical darling of this year’s Sundance, Minari is the story of a father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), and a son, David (Alan S. Kim), and their experience as a Korean family in the 1980s moving to Arkansas to start a farm, Jacob’s lifelong dream. The family’s new life incites tension amongst them as money troubles threaten an already troubled marriage between Jacob and his wife Monica (Han Yeri). David finds himself in conflict with his grandmother, Monica’s mother, as their different worldviews and beliefs clash. Winner of both the US Grand Jury Prize for dramatic films as well as the audience award, Minari has emerged as a must-see for this year and will be distributed by A24.
Based off a 2015 Twitter thread, Zola is the stranger-than-fiction story of Aziah “Zola” Wells (Taylour Paige), who joins some strangers on a trip down to Tampa, Florida to work the strip clubs there. Accompanying her is new friend Stefani (Riley Keough), her boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun), and roommate “X” (Colman Domingo). As the weekend progresses, Zola is thrown into more and more dangerous situations. Directed by Janicza Bravo and co-written with Jeremy O. Harris, Zola is an Ingrid Goes West style journey into America’s most bizarre state.
Promising Young Woman
Cassie (Carrie Mulligan) is a former med-student working as a barista, with a passion for going to clubs and bars at night. After having too much to drink, a “nice guy” offers to drive her home before asking to stop at his place for another drink, and once there attempts to assault her. At this point, Cassie reveals that her drunken demeanour was an act and takes a righteous sense of glee in killing them. Promising Young Woman is a darkly comic look at how one woman reacts to the culture of sexual assault and misogyny that’s been spotlighted by the #MeToo Movement. Promising Young Woman has been picked up by Focus Features.
From the comedy trio The Lonely Island comes the story of a maid of honour (Cristin Milioti) and another wedding guest (Andy Samberg) stuck in a strange set of circumstances that forbids them from leaving the venue. Anything else about the plot should remain unknown to the viewer.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Two 17-year-olds from Pennsylvania journey to New York in order to get an abortion. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) has mistakenly become pregnant and, due to her home state’s strict abortion laws, has to make her way to New York with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder). Together, they try to navigate a broken system in a film that removes itself from the politics of abortion and focuses solely on the experiences of those living with the consequences of those politics. Never Rarely Sometimes Always has been picked up by Focus Features.
In Texas, a group of young boys stage a mock government in a program called “Boys State”. The young men go through all the stages of the political process, from speeches to elections. This acclaimed documentary by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine examines the standards of practice in contemporary politics and interrogates the distinctions between those who want to become civil servants and those who just want to win.
Produced by Michelle and Barack Obama, Crip Camp is the story of a summer camp, Camp Jened, in the Catskills for the disabled teens. In the 1960s and 70s, Camp Jened provided an opportunity for this marginalized demographic to find acceptance and eventually led to their organization as activists fighting for the Americans With Disabilities Act that passed in the 1990s. Crip Camp is due to be released on Netflix.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
In Las Vegas, a dive bar called “The Roaring 20s” experiences its last 24 hours before closing. In reality, the directing duo, brothers Bill and Turner Ross, staged their Vegas bar in New Orleans over a two-day shooting period. The Ross brothers ride the line between fiction and non-fiction in this Sundance highlight about the importance of bars and the community’s they foster.
Dick Johnson is Dead
Kristen Johnson sets out to film her father’s last days before his death, naturally by staging her father’s untimely death in a variety of ways. As both Johnsons work together to kill the older Johnson, they come to terms with the nature of grief and the inescapability of aging.
The Truffle Hunters
This documentary takes a look at the seemingly mundane but strangely intriguing. Focusing on a cast of Italian men and their dogs, filmmakers Gregory Kershaw and Michael Dweck peek inside the world of the truffle hunters. These men bring their specially trained dogs into the woods to search for the best and rarest truffles to sell off. This simplistic, slice-of-life look at the lives of these grouchy hunters has proven to be an unexpected hit at Sundance.
Will (Winston Duke) is tasked with the job of interviewing people applying to live on Earth when new “vacancies” open up. The repetitive bureaucracy of his job, which includes monitoring the progression of these applicants when on Earth, has him depressed and lonely (save for a friend in his assistant Kyo played by Benedict Wong). But after an incident with one of his newly appointed applicants, Will attempts to understand what happened while trying to choose another candidate.
Stranger Things actor Joe Keery stars as Kurt, a driver working for a ride-sharing company who rigs his car with cameras and microphones to achieve his dream of viral fame. His plan: to livestream the deaths of various innocents he runs over with his car. In this mash-up of American Psycho meets Nerve, Spree is slick, satirical, and campy.
From Netflix comes the latest film by The Little Hours director Jeff Baena, co-written with past collaborator Alison Brie. Brie stars as Sarah, an awkward lover of arts and crafts, horses, and crime shows. But Sarah finds herself slowly unravelling as her dreams begin to seep into real life. Horse Girl will be released February 7th on Netflix.
In the footsteps of his father David Cronenberg, director Brandon Cronenberg premiered his sci-fi thriller Possessor to much acclaim from festival goers. Starring big names like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbot, and Sean Bean, Possessor is the story of an assassin who takes the bodies of others to carry out his contracts.
The Nowhere Inn
This mockumentary by musician St. Vincent, real name Annie Clark, and Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein follows a fictionalized version of the friendship between them. When Brownstein decides to document Clark’s latest tour and life on the road, the two find their friendship tested by Clark’s stage persona whilst simultaneously mocking the persona of the film actor.
Auteur director Miranda July submits another strange entry into her growing filmography. Kajillionaire follows Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) and her relationship with her con artist parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger). The strangeness of it all? Old Dolio’s been raised to not see anything strange about running cons and scams, seeing her parents less as caregivers and more like partners-in-crime. Together they live in an abandoned bubble factory that periodically emits large quantities of soap from the walls. But after meeting Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a grounded and realistic presence against the quirkiness of July’s world, Old Dolio finds the surrealism of her life turned right-way-up.
Writer-director Justin Simien, whose previous Sundance hit Dear White People was adapted by Netflix into a television show, returns with Bad Hair. Set in the 1980s, at the heyday of the music video industry, protagonist Anna (Elle Lorraine) dreams of making it as the host of Culture, an MTV-like program. Her new boss Zora (Vanessa Williams) sees something in Anna but advises her to change her natural curly hair into a style closer to Zora’s long, straight hairstyle. After purchasing an expensive weave, Anna finds herself experiencing greater success. Until, that is, her weave starts on a killing spree.
This drama about the compensation crisis following the 9/11 attacks stars Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci as two men fighting for the right amount of compensation for the victim’s families. Keaton’s Ken Feinberg has devised a formula to accurately allocate compensation to the families based off the potential earnings of a projected lifespan. Feinberg instead comes head-to-head with Charles Wolf (Tucci), widower to one of the victims and the chosen champion of the families. Both men agree that the families need compensation, they just can’t agree on the most appropriate way to do it. But with an approaching deadline, Feinberg must get the families to agree to the compensation or risk being rejected by Congress.
A cast of four women have been chosen to cover the life of renowned feminist icon Gloria Steinem. From her childhood up to her life as writer, activist, and political organizer, Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore bring their A-game to this biopic.
The 40-Year-Old Version
Radha Bank directs and stars in this movie about her struggles as a playwright in New York and her decision at age 40 to reinvent herself as a rapper. This winner of the U.S. Dramatic Competition Directing Award has already been acquired by Netflix for distribution.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars in this Cold War-era political spy drama about a British businessman approached by the CIA to help a defecting Soviet deliver information about the Soviet nuclear program.
Taylor Swift: Miss Americana
Already fresh onto Netflix, “Miss Americana” looks at pop-singer Taylor Swift as she begins to voice her political concerns, works on her 2019 album Lover, her past with an eating disorder, her sexual assault, and her mother’s cancer. FIB’s breakdown on “Miss Americana” delves deeper into documentary.
Welcome to Chechnya
HBO’s latest documentary delves into the Russian influence on the Chechnyan government that led to violence against LBTQ+ Chechens in an attempt to reinstate archaic conceptions of masculinity back to the country. HBO has slated its release for June.
Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story
This glimpse into one of the most infamous cartoons of the 1990s and its controversial creator, Happy Happy Joy Joy relays the behind-the-scene story of the classic series and how its creator fell victim to his own success.
After Fox Rich and her husband, Rob, were arrested for a bank robbery, Rich begins to keep a video-diary for her husband as he served a life-sentence while fighting to have his time reduced. Assembled together by director Garrett Bradley, Rich’s home movies act as both a memoir of one family’s life and as a statement about the inherent issues of the United States prison system.
Covering the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s brother Kim Jong-nam, director Ryan White examines the details of what led to the assassination, the backgrounds of the two young women who acted as the assassins, and the delicate geopolitical ramifications from this event.
The Painter and the Thief
When an artist has two of her paintings stolen, she befriends one of the thieves and asks to paint his portrait. This Norwegian documentary by director Benjamin Ree follows their growing friendship, as the painter and the thief begin to understand each other and themselves through the painting of this portrait.
Falling marks the directorial debut of Viggo Mortensen, whose performance as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy propelled him into fame. Recently, Mortensen has delivered a series of iconic roles in Far From Men, Captain Fantastic, and Best Picture winner Green Book (2018). Here, Mortensen not only directs but wrote and stars in this drama about a conservative father suffering from dementia who moves in with his gay son’s family in Los Angeles.
A chronicle of 25 spoken-word performers living in Los Angeles, Summertime focuses on the artistic expression of everyday people attempting to reconcile their reality with their dreams, filmed against a sprawling urban backdrop.
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made
Based on the book series by Stephen Pastis, this family-friendly Disney+ film is about 11-year-old Timmy Failure and his imaginary polar bear partner solving local mysteries in Portland, Oregon. It’s due for release on February 7th.
Already an early Oscar contender, The Father follows 80-year-old Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) and his daughter Anne (Olivia Coleman). Anthony is beginning to lose the thread on his life but refuses assistance from any hired help. Anne is moving to Paris but can’t leave before ensuring her father’s wellbeing, which threatens to deteriorate quicker and quicker. Based off his original stage production, director Florian Zeller crafts a cinematic experience that morphs and changes before the audience’s eyes. The Father is yet to be announced for a release date.
The Night House
From V/H/S director David Bruckner, The Night House follows Beth (Rebecca Hall) after her husband’s suicide and during the beginning of strange visions in the middle of the night. As the house continues to torment Beth, the feeling of isolation and the mystery around her husband’s death grow start to push Beth over the edge.
This fictionalised account of the life of author Shirley Jackson (Elizabeth Moss), Shirley is the story of the contentious author’s marriage and her relationship with her housekeeper Rose (Odessa Young). Both women have husbands who prefer to repress their wives’ desires and dreams to instead subjugate them to their wants. Shirley is a tense drama where Moss’ performance shines.
After an eight-year-long absence, Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin returns to the big screen with his updated take on Peter Pan. Wendy follows the titular character in a present-day setting as she, along with Peter Pan and the other children, attempts to save a mysterious creature referred to as “Mother” from pirates. Zeitlin sacrifices the more familiar elements, like Tinkerbell and the mermaids, and instead shifts the films focus onto climate change in the spirit of his earlier film. Wendy has been picked up by Searchlight Pictures.
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