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Sundance 2020: 20 Films We Can't Wait to See in Park City

The 2020 Sundance Film Festival kicks off on Thursday night with some highly anticipated premieres, including the return of "Dear White People" writer/director Justin Simien with his comedy "Bad Hair," and a Taylor Swift documentary ("Miss Americana") directed by Lana Wilson. We'll be reviewing those two movies after they premiere, along with many others that are having their big debuts at the festival, across different categories. Each year's trip to Park City, Utah for the festival offers the discovery of new talent, and an affirmation that there are still plenty of inspired filmmakers out there, across narrative and documentary projects. It's the festival that just last year gave us breakout hits like "The Last Black Man in San Francisco," "The Farewell," "Brittany Runs a Marathon," "Honey Boy," "Late Night," "Luce," and more. As numerous successes have proven before, it only takes one screening up in the mountains to turn an intriguing logline into the next indie darling. 

Listed below in alphabetical order (and with the official Sundance synopsis included), here are just a few films that we can't wait to discover in Park City over the next few days. 

"The 40-Year-Old Version

Starring Radha Blank, Peter Y. Kim, Oswin Benjamin, Reed Birney, Imani Lewis, TJ Atoms 

Written and directed by Radha Blank 

Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition 

Radha, a once-promising playwright, is barreling toward the stigma of being single and a struggling artist at the age of 40. Facing nonstop rejections from the theatre community while teaching a motley group of teens, she becomes creatively re-invigorated when she returns to rapping, her long-forgotten passion. When her play finally gets going, however, she puts recording a rap demo on the back burner and must navigate the awful tension of compromising her voice for career success.

"Assassins

Directed by Ryan White 

Category: Documentary Premieres 

The mysterious murder of North Korean royal family member Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia sparks a captivating global investigation. At the center of the story, two women are on trial for the murder. Are the women ruthless assassins or political pawns in a twisted game?

The investigation goes far beyond the headlines, probing further into each woman’s upbringing, one in rural Indonesia and one in Vietnam, and, ultimately, what led them to participate in an alleged prank show that ended with Kim Jong-nam dead. Assassins questions every angle of this murder case, from human trafficking to high-level political espionage to the inner dynamics of the North Korean royal family.

"Bad Hair

Starring Elle Lorraine, Vanessa Williams, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Blair Underwood, Laverne Cox 

Written and Directed by Justin Simien 

Category: Midnight 

Los Angeles, 1989. Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine) is a scarred survivor of a scalp burn from a mild relaxer perm. She also has the smarts and ambition to be the next on-air star at Culture, a music video TV show. After years of struggling to be seen for her ideas and hard work, Anna fears the worst when her dreadlocked boss is replaced by Zora (Vanessa Williams), an ex-supermodel with a silver tongue. Zora warns Anna that her nappy look has got to go, so Anna bites the bullet and gets a weave. Turns out, her flowing new hair is the key to success—but it arrived with a mind of its own, and it bites back!

"BLAST BEAT

Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition 

Starring Moises Arias, Mateo Arias, Daniel Dae Kim, Kali Uchis, Diane Guerrero, Wilmer Vanderrama 

Directed by Esteban Arango 

Written by Erick Castrillion and Esteban Arango 

On the cusp of the year 2000, Colombian brothers Carly (Mateo Arias) and Mateo (Moises Arias) prepare to move to the United States for their last years of high school. Metalhead Carly has his heart set on attending the Georgia Aerospace Institute and working for NASA, while his supportive parents (Diane Guerrero and Wilmer Valderrama) seize the chance to escape the political turmoil in Colombia and chase the American Dream. At first, Mateo is the only one to express any cynicism, but when the reality of their new life sinks in, the family struggles to adapt as their expectations are shattered. When events threaten to derail their future, Carly’s dream becomes his only lifeline.

"Dick Johnson is Dead

Directed by Kirsten Johnson 

Category: U.S. Documentary Competition 

What if you could make your loved ones live forever? Dick Johnson Is Dead is Kirsten Johnson’s delirious and desperate attempt to keep her aging father alive. In this effort she turns to the magic of cinema to kill him, resurrect him, and celebrate his last years on earth.

Toggling between observational documentary and fictional fantasy, longtime cinematographer Kirsten Johnson peels back layers of moviemaking as she and her father share a quest to face his death together. Their challenge is heightened by the erosive effect of dementia, which menaces Dick Johnson (both the person and the movie), but will not deter their commitment to explore the unlikely ways in which we might love and know each other all the way to the end.

"The Dissident

Directed by Bryan Fogel 

Category: Documentary Premieres 

Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was critical of his beloved Saudi Arabia and of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s policies. On October 2, 2018, Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul and never came out. His fiancée and dissidents around the world are left to piece together clues to his brutal murder—and in their dogged quest for truth, they expose a global cover-up perpetrated by the very country he loved.

With exclusive access to the Turkish government’s evidence; to Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz; and to Khashoggi’s close friend and fellow Saudi insurgent, Omar Abdulaziz, Academy Award–winning filmmaker Bryan Fogel unearths hidden secrets in this real-life international thriller that will continue to rock the world long after the headlines have faded away.

"Downhill

Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash 

Written by Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, and Jesse Armstrong 

Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Pete (Will Ferrell), and their sons are on a balcony during an idyllic family ski vacation in the Alps when an avalanche suddenly strikes. While they all emerge physically unharmed, Pete’s actions during the avalanche reveal a side of him that leaves his family in a state of shock. The aftermath of this moment permeates the remainder of the trip, and the harder Pete tries to avoid the truth and gloss things over, the more Billie and her sons are forced to re-evaluate their lives and, more specifically, how they feel about Pete—as a husband, father, and man.

"Farewell Amor

Starring: Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, Jayme Lawson, Joie Lee, Marcus Scribner, Nana Mensah 

Written and Directed by Ekwa Msangi 

Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition 

It’s been 17 years since Walter was forced to leave his family in Angola. Now he is picking up his wife, Esther, and daughter, Sylvia, from the airport to bring them home to his one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment. The reunion isn’t seamless. Walter cooks a welcome dinner, and Esther wonders who taught him how to cook. Before they eat, Esther says grace, revealing her thunderous new passion for Jesus. And later, Walter realizes that he has not moved on from Linda, his lover who moved out of his apartment to make way for the family. When young Sylvia starts to explore the city and takes part in a dance competition, she unexpectedly opens up a pathway of muscle memory for the family to rediscover one another.

"His House"

Written and Directed by Remi Weekes

Starring: Wunmi Mosaku, Sope Dirisu, Matt Smith 

Category: Midnight

Many refugee stories end in the same place: a safe (if slightly bewildering) new home. And that’s where His House begins, with a Sudanese couple arriving in a quiet English town for their "happily ever after." But as their acclimation process falters, we realize that there's more to blame than cross-cultural misunderstanding. Things begin to go disastrously wrong. “Screaming nightmares” wrong. “Blood magic” wrong. And then, it gets much, much worse.

"Minari

Starring Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Youn Yuh Jung, Will Patton, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho 

Written and Directed by Lee Isaac Chung 

Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition 

It’s the 1980s, and David, a seven-year-old Korean American boy, is faced with new surroundings and a different way of life when his father, Jacob, moves their family from the West Coast to rural Arkansas. His mother, Monica, is aghast that they live in a mobile home in the middle of nowhere, and naughty little David and his sister are bored and aimless. When his equally mischievous grandmother arrives from Korea to live with them, her unfamiliar ways arouse David’s curiosity. Meanwhile, Jacob, hell-bent on creating a farm on untapped soil, throws their finances, his marriage, and the stability of the family into jeopardy.

"Miss Americana

Directed by Lana Wilson 

Category: Documentary Premieres 

Taylor Swift is a global icon who repeatedly tops the charts, fills stadium tours with rapturous fans, and continues to challenge herself both professionally and personally while remaining steadfast in her vision as an artist. Few have achieved as much as Swift, or have had their personal lives open to such public scrutiny, but in Miss Americana, she finds herself at a watershed moment in her career, using her platform not only as a singer-songwriter, but as a woman fearlessly harnessing the full power of her voice.

"The Nest

Starring Jude Law, Carrie Coon, Charlie Shotwell, Oona Roche 

Written and Directed by Sean Durkin 

Category: Premieres 

Rory (Jude Law), an ambitious entrepreneur and former commodities broker, persuades his American wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), and their children to leave the comforts of suburban America and return to his native England during the 1980s. Sensing opportunity, Rory rejoins his former firm and leases a centuries-old country manor, with grounds for Allison’s horses and plans to build a stable. But the family buckles beneath an unaffordable lifestyle and increasing isolation as they head toward a seemingly inevitable breakdown.

"On the Record

Directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering 

Category: Documentary Premieres 

This documentary presents the haunting story of music executive Drew Dixon, whose career and personal life have been deeply affected by the abuse she faced from the men she admired in the industry she loves. Directed by the Academy Award–nominated filmmaking duo Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (The Invisible War, 2012 Sundance Film Festival), the film follows Dixon (producer of hit records by 2Pac, Method Man, and Mary J. Blige) as she grapples with her decision to become one of the first women of color to come forward as part of the #MeToo movement.

"Relic

Starring Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote 

Directed by Natalie Erika James

Written by Natalie Erika James and Christian White

When octogenarian Edna inexplicably vanishes, her daughter Kay and granddaughter Sam rush to their family’s decaying country home and find clues of her increasing dementia scattered around the house in her absence. After Edna returns just as mysteriously as she disappeared, Kay’s concern that her mother seems unwilling or unable to say where she’s been clashes with Sam’s unabashed enthusiasm to have her grandma back. However, as Edna’s behavior turns increasingly volatile, both begin to sense that an insidious presence in the house might be taking control of her.

"Saudi Runaway

Directed by Susanne Regina Meures 

Muna is a young, fearless woman in Saudi Arabia who is tired of being controlled by the state and the harsh restrictions she endures as a woman. Her arranged marriage, in which she sees a prolonged life without free will, is imminent, so she decides she must escape in order to save herself. Muna secretly documents every moment of her claustrophobic existence using her cell phones, often filming through her hijab. Her camera also gives us intimate access to her innermost thoughts as it becomes her documentation and her lifeline. As her wedding and therefore her escape draw near, we are glued to Muna’s lens as she risks imprisonment to capture every beat of her journey. But will her meticulous plan to escape succeed?

"Spree"

Starring Joe Keery, Sasheer Zamata, David Arquette, Kyle Mooney, Mischa Barton, Josh Ovalle 

Directed by Eugene Kotlyarenko

Written by Eugene Kotlyarenko and Gene McHugh 

Meet Kurt, from @KurtsWorld96. He dreams of one day sitting atop a social media empire, but he’s not there yet. He currently drives for the rideshare company Spree, which is cool for him because he gets to hang with so many dope people all day long. Fortunately, Kurt has come up with the perfect way to go viral: #TheLesson. He’s decked out his car with cameras for a nonstop livestream full of killer entertainment. In the middle of all this madness, a stand-up comedian with her own viral agenda, Jessie Adams, crosses Kurt’s path and becomes our only hope to put a stop to his misguided carnage.

"A Thousand Cuts

Directed by Ramona S. Diaz 

Category: U.S. Documentary Competition 

In 2016, outsider candidate Rodrigo Duterte upset the political establishment in the Philippines by winning the presidency and promising vengeance and violence. Within hours of taking office, bodies piled up in the streets. Rappler, the country’s top online news site, investigated the murders and revealed a government-sanctioned drug war targeting poor addicts instead of lucrative dealers. In an attempt to suppress independent reporting, Duterte unleashed a powerful disinformation campaign that spread like wildfire throughout social media.

"Vivos

Directed by Ai Weiwei 

Category: Documentary Premieres 

On a late-September day in 2014, students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers' College were brutally attacked by police forces and other masked assailants as they were travelling through the town of Iguala, Guerrero. Six people were killed and 43 students were abducted and never heard from again. Since then, the families of the students have lived in limbo with their unanswered questions—and the psychological and emotional toll of the endemic violence currently plaguing Mexican society.

"Wendy

Starring Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin, Ahmad Cage, Krzysztof Meyn 

Directed by Benh Zeitlin 

Written by Benh Zeitlin and Eliza Zeitlin 

Category: Premieres 

Wendy and her brothers come from a warm working family. Raised amongst dinner plates and diner patrons, the children have an itch for the adventurous and slightly mischievous. After long nights watching trains rattle by their bedroom window, the kids are whisked away by a mysterious boy named Peter. A long journey taken on faith lands them on Peter’s island. There they discover a wild new world, one without grown-ups and suspended in time. Reveling in their youthfulness and sprawling freedom satisfies the kids at first, but nostalgia for their lives left behind seeps in. When threats to their eternal childhood develop, Wendy is tasked with saving herself, her brothers, and the other island children with the most powerful tool she has: love for her family.

"Zola

Directed by Janicza Bravo 

Written by Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris 

“You wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”

Zola meets Stefani at a restaurant where Zola waitresses, and the two immediately click over pole dancing. Only a day after they exchange numbers, Stefani invites Zola on a cross-country road trip, where the goal is to make as much money as possible dancing in Florida strip clubs. Zola agrees, and suddenly she is trapped in the craziest, most unexpected trip of her life.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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