10 Highlights of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival

sundance 2020

Park City’s independent film festival has always been politically charged, but this year it was especially so. Star vehicles from the likes of Anne Hathaway and Hillary Clinton came and went with little to no fanfare, so 2020 was instead a year where Sundance movies stood on their own two feet. With 46% of the films directed by women, female created and led films were easily the most interesting titles to show at the festival.

From revenge thrillers to time-loop rom-coms and biopics of pioneering women, here are the 10 most interesting titles to show at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

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black bear (2020)

Black Bear

Aubrey Plaza (Ingrid Goes West) plays a young filmmaker who decamps for a week of writing at an idyllic lake house. During her time there she becomes caught up in the tension between the owners, a failed musician (Catch 22’s Christopher Abbot) and his pregnant girlfriend (Alias’ Grace Sarah Gadon). Lawrence Michael Levine’s (Wild Canaries) surreal film immerses audiences in the artistic process, with all the thrills and disappointments that come with it.

Black Bear works on several layers, twisting its audience around sharp corners. It starts as a fun relationship farce between the trio, the script, and cast praised for shining in this explosive script. Black Bear soon evolves into an unravelling of everything audiences expect from a film like this. Some critics have scoffed at the questioning of artistic expression, and its connection to love, but others have loved the confounding plots and general emotional experience of Black Bear.

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Promising Young Woman

Emerald Fennell’s (Killing Eve) buzzworthy debut Promising Young Woman is a #MeToo rape-revenge thriller that brings a new twist to the genre. Carey Mulligan (An Education) plays a small-town barista who goes home with a man she meets while drunk in a bar. But after he has his way with her while she’s barely conscious, she becomes a one-woman avenger determined to make the world a safer place for women. Fennell’s film plays with expectations and tone, jumping between Paris Hilton sing-a-longs to grim backstories, with a charming love interested played by Bo Burnham (who wrote Eighth Grade).

Promising Young Woman understands the casual rape culture that spirals into cautionary tales. The film’s already been met with a barrage think-pieces and podcasts discussions, wondering if revenge can ever be both empowering and self-destructive. The tone may feel jarring to some, but the movie understands the complexities of sexual assault and the vigilantism that’s become so popular in 21st-century cinema.

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kajillionaire (2020)

Kajillionaire

Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know) explores the human need for connection in his tale of a family of scammers. Richard Jenkins (The Shape of Water) and Debra Winger (Terms of Endearment) star as Robert and Theresa Dyne, an ageing couple who make a living through small-time scams like entering giveaways multiple times and stealing people’s mail. The couple has raised their daughter, Old Dolio (Westworld’s Evan Rachel Wood), to be fully involved in the family business, using her innocent looks to their advantage.

The trio’s relationship starts to crumble when they meet Melanie (Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez), a confident young woman who wants to join in their schemes. Old Dolio begins to feel jealous of Melanie’s report with her parents, realising everything her parents never offered her. On the back of both Shoplifters and Parasite, Kajillionaire is an understated dramedy about an off-kilter family with skewed family values trying to beat the system.

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palm springs (2020)

Palm Springs

Hailed as the best rom-com to emerge from Sundance since The Big Sick, Andy Samberg (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) gets caught in a time-loop in this laugh-out-loud comedy. Every morning he wakes up in a motel room with a ditzy girlfriend about to depart for a wedding in Palm Springs. Unlike Groundhog Day, Samberg’s character Nyles is coasting through his repetitive new life, living an invulnerable existence. Suddenly he discovers the sister of the bride (How I Met Your Mother’s Cristin Milioti) is also caught in the loop alongside him.

The Lonely Island-produced film may not be as ground-breaking as their previous outings (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping) but it perfectly encapsulates how millennials are trying to work out what life means and how best to navigate it. The movie broke records when it was acquired at Sundance for $17.5M… and 69 cents, and has been lauded as an insightful comedy about laughing at the world by way of learning about its meaning.

Palm Springs is showing at the Sundance film festival with a release date yet to be announced, but Neon and Hulu have picked up distribution rights.

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the father (2020)

The Father

Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes) delivers a deeply touching performance as an 80-year-old sliding into dementia. The Father tracks the fights he has with his daughter (The Favourite’s Olivia Colman) over whether he should go in a nursing home. A brutal viewing experience that immerses audiences into the fractured reality of a dementia sufferer, The Father is part-thriller as his world shifts and part-horror as his daughter transforms into someone else (The Sixth Sense’s Olivia Williams). Every day of his life is filled with shocks, as he questions his existence and wonders if the surrounding changes are real or a symptom of illness.

The directorial debut of French playwright Florian Zeller, The Father places audiences inside the mind of someone slowly losing their own. Hopkins has already become an early front-runner for the 2021 Academy Awards with a performance so crushing many cannot imagine anyone else beating him).

The Father is showing at the Sundance film festival with a release date yet to be announced.

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the glorias (2020)

The Glorias

Although it does little to break the biopic mould, Julie Taymor (Frida, Across the Universe) delivers a solid and timely tale of the life and times of Gloria Steinem. The iconic feminist leader is portrayed across four different decades by four different actresses. Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) plays a younger Steinem, working as a writer in 1960s New York, and in her formative years as a pioneer of the women’s liberation movement. Julianne Moore plays her as an activist turned celebrity during the 1970s. The film is peppered with bold performances from the likes of Bette Midler, Janelle Monae, and Lorraine Toussaint.

Described as an anti-biopic, The Glorias aims to present a chronologically fractured account of Steinem’s life and reveals the woman behind the movement. Although it’s not been a universally praised film, it has been described as an inspiring feminist origins story that not just praises Steinem, but also praises the women who inspired her along the way.

The Glorias is showing at the Sundance film festival with a release date yet to be announced.

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herself (2020)

Herself

Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!, The Iron Lady) and newcomer actress-writer Clare Dunne made huge waves at the festival with their bittersweet social-realist drama Herself. Described as a blend of Ken Loach’s anger and Richard Curtis’ humanism, Herself depicts the self-reinvention of a single mother trying to move on from an abusive relationship.

After months of struggling with the Dublin welfare and housing system, she decides to build her own affordable home. Clare Dunne’s Sandra builds a life, both metaphorically and physically, with the help of an eclectic group of friends and neighbours. Herself is a powerful story of community, the human spirit and what happens when women are elevated.

Herself is showing at the Sundance film festival with a release date yet to be announced, although the rights have been picked up by Amazon Studios.

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zola (2020)

Zola

In 2015, a little-known Twitter user named A’Ziah ‘Zola’ King posted a 148-Tweet saga that involved a stripper, a road trip to Florida, murder, human trafficking, and suicide. Zola, is as compelling as its source material, drawing comparisons to Hustlers and Spring Breakers.

King (Hit The Floor’s Taylour Paige) is a stripper/waitress in Detroit who meets a fellow dancer, Stefani (Logan Lucky’s Riley Keough) who invites her on a trip to Florida with her boyfriend Derrek (Succession’s Nicholas Braun) and roommate (If Beale Street Could Talk’s Colman Domingo). Stefani doesn’t quite tell her the full story and the women soon find themselves in a dangerous game. Zola is a fast-moving caper about objectified women being constantly exasperated by their companion’s frightening idiocy.

Zola is set for a US release this summer by A24, and Sony has acquired international distribution rights for a future release.

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minari (2020)

Minari

Already picked up by A24, Minari is a semi-autobiographical look at a Korean American family moving to Arkansas in the 1980s. Lee Isaac Chung (whose debut Munyurangabo made a splash at Cannes 2007) has a screen counterpart in seven-year-old David (Alan S. Kim) who’s been uprooted from California and moved to Arkansas by his father (Burning’s Steven Yeun). David’s younger sister (Noel Cho) is generally laid back about the big life change, his mother (Han Yeri) a little more resentful.

Minari (named after a plant used in Korean dishes) excels in portraying the complexities of the first-person child perspective that looks at parental arguing, grandparents and the family’s immigrant status from a whole new perspective. Chung’s film has been praised for perfectly blending the specific and the universal, making an entirely relatable story (much like Parasite), that will connect with audiences around the world.

Minari won the US Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic and is expected to be released at the end of the year.

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shirley (2020)

Shirley

Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) delivers a sort-of-biopic on author Shirley Jackson. Adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell’s namesake novel, Shirley takes place sometime after The Lottery (one of the most controversial stories ever published in The New Yorker), as a young woman (Assassination Nation’s Odessa Young) and her academic husband (The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Logan Lerman) come to stay with the author and her menacing spouse (Call Me By Your Name’s Michael Stuhlbarg). He depends on the financial gain of her genius, yet acts like it’s some kind of disability.

Elizabeth Moss (Us), in haggard makeup, has been praised by critics for her performance as a writer so isolated she becomes a ghost haunting her own house. Shirley’s a tale of two reclusive women who break each other down until they can build themselves something new. As much of a biopic as The Hours or Shakespeare in Love, Decker builds a film out of the foundations of Shirley Jackson’s life.

Shirley is showing at the Sundance film festival with a release date yet to be announced.

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