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The Best Films of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival

Almost everyone in Park City agreed that this year was one of the strongest overall slates in a long time. Yes, the fest seemed to lack a true breakout like “Manchester by the Sea” or “Brooklyn”—films you instantly knew would be talked about all year—but the overall “yeah, that was pretty good” sentiment extended to more films than ever. There were a few stinkers, but the variety of titles from every program that would come up when people talked about this year’s Sundance was remarkable. There have been years when everyone is talking about the same 3-4 films. This was not one of those years. Here are 15 films we think you’ll be excited to see when they land in theaters (or maybe streaming) later this year.

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“The 40-Year-Old-Version”

Radha Blank’s “The 40-Year-Old Version” represents the sacrifices Black creatives are forced to make to flourish in a white milieu. Throughout the film, Radha desperately fights to get financial backing for her play. In the movie’s best scene, the opening night, the camera cross-cuts between the guffawing white audience and the dismayed Black attendees. Here, the creative’s vision is compromised, and thereby, Blackness and art is neither judged nor defined by Black voices. Filmed in black and white, Blank somehow adds social commentary to a hysterical comedy filled with body-positivity, romance, and rapping for an ambitious debut. (RD) 

“Black Bear”

The first half of Lawrence Michael Levine’s dark comedy is a razor-sharp look at relationship dynamics among the volatile world of creative people as a pretty writer/actress (Aubrey Plaza) sparks drama between a musician (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant girlfriend (Sarah Gadon). With clever dialogue and engaging performances, “Black Bear” feels like a relatively standard “Sundance Movie” about three people coming to terms with their issues in a remote location. And then this movie becomes something else entirely, twisting in on itself and deepening its commentary on how artists use each other to further their art. People are going be talking about this movie when it’s released, and it’s truly stunning that no one has picked it up yet. (BT)

"Boys State"

One Sundance documentary that is bound to get people debating long after the festival is “Boys State,” directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss. Recently picked up by A24 and Apple (before winning the Grand Jury award in the U.S. Documentary Competition), the film documents a week where a thousand young Texas men to create their own government and platforms, and then compete for the role of governor. It's funny like "Science Fair" before it, only with even more poignance—"Boys State" is a totally engrossing microcosm of both the American political system, and the behavior of politicians of any age. Each scene rings with the goofy innocence of high school, but also the context that these history buffs are just displaying what they’ve learned from the adults. (NA)

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“Charm City Kings”

Based on the documentary “12 O’Clock Boys,” the drama “Charm City Kings” envisions the excitement and allure of Baltimore’s street bike culture and perfectly embodies its dangers through the eyes of its ensemble cast. Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) longs to join the famous Midnight Clique bike group but suffers the indignities of youthful mistakes until he and his friends luck their way into running shady errands for the bikers. Despite Mouse’s mom’s (Teyonah Parris) scolding and a warning from a police officer mentor, Detective Rivers (William Catlett), Mouse looks up to Midnight Clique’s leader, Blax (Meek Mill), for inspiration, risking the same deadly fate his older brother met with the group. The cast shines in this “Boyz in the Hood” -inspired script by screenwriter Sherman Payne and a story by Chris Boyd, Kirk Sullivan and Barry Jenkins. Under the direction of Angel Manuel Soto, “Charm City Kings” cast keeps its sense of wonder and daredevilish energy throughout the film’s emotional beats, earning the movie Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast. If you listen carefully, you can catch a nod to Soto’s Puerto Rican roots with a Bad Bunny song in the movie’s hip hop soundtrack. (MC)

“His House”

Black horror, in its ability to relate large social and political topics in an entertaining form, has recently been in the midst of an awakening. Remi Weekes’ “His House,” which follows an African couple fleeing death and civil war, only to settle in a London tenement house haunted by a witch, offers effective jump scares and fantastic makeup and hair styling. Moreover, its beautiful mix of practical and graphic effects and incredible twists enlivens a poignant immigrant’s story that details the travails, bitter sacrifices, and guilt accompanying survival. Adding another layer to the Black experience, “His House” is unique and thrilling. (RD)   

“Mucho Mucho Amor”

As one of the millions of viewers who grew up watching Walter Mercado read the horoscopes on the daily news, Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch’s documentary on the astrologer was easily my most anticipated title of the festival. I’m happy to say it did not disappoint. From the treasure trove of archival footage and photographs to Mercado’s cheeky interviews, “Mucho Mucho Amor” lovingly revisits the life of one of TV’s most charismatic personalities and explores his significance and legacy to Latinx viewers, millennials and the LGBTQ community. In-between interviews from adoring fans like Lin-Manuel Miranda and colorful commentary from Mercado’s nieces and his assistant Willie, the camera drifts to focus on Mercado’s collection of fabulously glittering capes and tchotchke-filled home, giving audiences its most complete picture of the man behind the ethereal persona. (MC)

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“The Nest”

One of the stories of Sundance 2020 was long-awaited sophomore films from Sundance breakouts like Benh Zeitlin, Justin Simien, and Sean Durkin, who finally brought Park City his follow-up to “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” While most of them disappointed with sophomore slumps, Durkin most definitely did not. Shooting a domestic drama like a Gothic Horror, he tells the story of a Brit (Jude Law, as good as he’s been in years) and his American wife (Carrie Coon, doing her best screen work) who return to England pursuing wealth. Well, at least he is. Somber and nuanced, this is the story of how pursuit of symbols of success can tear a family apart, told with captivating visual style and breathtaking acting work. Don’t wait so long next time, Sean. (BT)

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”

Imagine Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days,” where two Ceaușescu-era Romanian women seek illegal abortion in their country against the odds. That’s more or less the world you’re in with Eliza Hittman’s masterful “Never Rarely Sometimes Always;” except, this is today’s America and abortion isn’t exactly illegal. Though it’s made nearly impossible for the shy, reserved Pennsylvanian teenager Autumn (Sidney Flanigan, delivering a performance of stealthy resilience) and her helpful cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder, Flanigan’s spiritual match in every sense of the word), who accompanies Autumn to New York for the procedure. An insightful observer and patient portrayer of contemporary American youth, the astonishing filmmaker Hittman gives her young cast the time and space to flex their visceral muscles. With long takes, close-ups and a deliberately empathetic lens, she captures both their hurt and bravery through a gut-wrenching scene that pays off her film’s burdened title, while crossing paths with #MeToo in more ways than one. (TL)

“Nine Days”

Few films travel to the existential ends of Edson Oda’s “Nine Days.” Starring Winston Duke as a clerk in purgatory deciding which soul will be given a chance at life, the story plays with reincarnation, morality, and regret. The world building at the center of Oda’s film is meticulous, and the craft high-level. The best scenes arrive when the purgatory soul must fade into the void. Before they do, they’re given one final wish: an event to experience. Some choose the beach, others a lighthearted bike ride. No matter, their poignant ends, like the film, express the emotional toll of being and nothingness. (RD)

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“On the Record”

When the lights went down at the Sundance premiere of Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s latest documentary, its pre-festival controversies seemed to fall by the wayside. The focus returned to the women at the heart of the story. Led by former music executive Drew Dixon, “On the Record” follows her heartbreaking experience with Russell Simmons and the aftermath that has haunted her ever since. The movie’s resolute focus on Dixon seems to mirror the isolation she felt back then and the present-day loneliness she felt when approaching the New York Times with her story. In segments later in the film, we hear the accounts of many other women who Russell Simmons sexually assaulted, revealing a terrifying pattern and painful truth that Dixon was never really alone in her struggle. (MC)

Promising Young Woman

It starts off as something a bit schematic; a film that looks like it will safely plow through some thorny #MeToo themes and resolve into an unearned “You Go Girl!” finale. But I am happy to report that Emerald Fennell’s ingenious “Promising Young Woman” is not that film. Not even remotely close. Sure, “Promising Young Woman” will have its feminist ending and yes, you will unconditionally root for Carey Mulligan’s peculiar Cassandra while she rights the male-dominated wrongs as she sees fit through her bruised gaze, surrounded by disarmingly optimistic, candy-colored environs. But be warned that Fennell has something dark in store for you—gloomier and a lot more distressing than you are probably prepared for, pitched on a fine line that dances between a drama, comedy, thriller and even romance. And when Fennell finally arrives at her inevitable conclusion, you will be caught off-guard by her narrative dexterity as well as just how much badly-behaved white boys can all resemble versions of a young Brett Kavanaugh. (TL)

"Spree"

The best and most dangerous satire dives into the heart of darkness, looking for entertainment. Add Eugene Kotlyarenko’s “Spree” to that tradition, a movie that turns a shocking headline of a premise into brutally subversive horror. In the film from co-writers Kotlyarenko and Gene McHugh, Joe Keery stars as Kurt Kunkle, a rideshare driver (who would easily be described by the the internet as an “incel”), who decides to kill his passengers, and film it for the social media content. That’s only the beginning for “Spree” and the way it uses such a dark character to criticize the influencer phenomenon and our societal hunger for likes. Making for one of the best screen-life movies yet, Kotlyarenko shows the action from Kurt's app- and video feed, and the presentation only makes Kurt's carnage even more claustrophobic, hilarious. "Spree" blasts its cultural criticism using rich, bleak absurdity, and it makes for one of the most bonkers and important movies to play Sundance this year. (NA)

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“Sylvie’s Love”

It didn’t take long for me to let myself go through the jazzy rhythms of Eugene Ashe’s “Sylvie’s Love” and realize that I am going to adore this swooning, exquisitely styled and costumed page out of the 1950s and ‘60s. A graceful and immensely tasteful tale of amour fou that brings to mind the old-fashioned pleasures of “Brooklyn” and “Carol” (Ashe’s film is also shot on luscious 16mm), “Sylvie’s Love” will immediately feel alive and major to those who don’t falsely dismiss romances as slight. Starring an ever-elegant Tessa Thompson with Audrey Hepburn-esque mannerisms and Nnamdi Asomugha as the kind of larger-than-life leading man we can use more of in today’s cinema, “Sylvie’s Love” joyously revives an often-sidelined genre by leaning into its melodramatic facets with pride. It also feels quietly political by giving us a period piece, something Douglas Sirk-ian, but with a cast of almost entirely black/PoC actors where (as voiced by Ashe in a post-screening Q&A) “black people of the era don’t exist through adversity, but through love.” (TL)

“Time”

We have seen a lot of what I would call “home movie docs” in the last few years, but few have been as powerful as Garrett Bradley’s dissection of injustice and resiliency. When her husband received a ridiculous, six-decade prison sentence for a bank robbery, Fox Rich fought the system, and she recorded her journey and that of her family’s while she did so. Cutting back and forth between Rich’s home movies and gorgeously shot black-and-white footage of her family today, “Time” becomes a poignant document about not just what’s been lost but what can be kept forever, not only in our hearts but up there on the screen. It was a very strong year for non-fiction filmmaking at Sundance, but I think this is the one that’s going to captivate the most people outside of the mountain air. (BT)

"Zola"

"Zola" is whole a lot of movie—not just because it puts you in the front seat of Aziah King's famously bizarre Twitter saga—and that’s related to how co-writer/director Janicza Bravo has fully envisioned it. It's packed with left-field aesthetic choices that make the film a full five-senses experience, like how Bravo establishes a significant motel location with the sound of a basketball being dribbled faster and faster, or a bonding moment that’s created from an overhead camera shot that moves back and forth between bathroom stalls. Part of this ingenuity comes from working with masters, like the way Joi McMillion cuts the movie to be both bracingly funny but also incisive about sex work, or how Mica Levi provides different textures with her score. “Zola” may be a cautionary tale (for anyone traveling to Florida with strangers), but its choices are bound to inspire more directors to take full advantage of the tools that filmmaking gives them. (NA)

 

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