The Best Films from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival

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Promising Young Woman Sundance
Promising Young Woman, 2020(Film still)

From Killing Eve showrunner Emerald Fennell’s feature debut to Miranda July’s long-awaited Kajillionaire, a round-up of the (excitingly female-director-heavy) Sundance films we’re most eager to catch

The Sundance Film Festival wrapped up this weekend in Park City, Utah, and its 2020 slate of indie-leaning offerings is almost too wide and enticing to narrow down. We’ve tried, though – here’s a round-up of the (excitingly female-director-heavy) Sundance films we’re most eager to catch in the post-festival real world.

1. Promising Young Woman (above)

Killing Eve’s season two showrunner Emerald Fennell makes her feature debut with this revenge fantasy. It follows Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a once-“promising” med student who dropped out for not-immediately-clear but not-wholly-unguessable reasons, and who now spends her evenings prowling bars for sexual assailants, luring them into a very specifically designed trap. If Fennell’s television work is any indication, Promising Young Woman will offer an irresistible infusion of femme rage into stylised comedy, a Villanelle-esque mix of bright lipstick and pitch-blackness. Points for this wildly ominous version of Toxic.

2. Dick Johnson Is Dead

Kirsten Johnson wowed this year with a black comedy/documentary centring on her father, Dick, who is in the early stages of dementia. In an exercise Johnson described to Vulture as “pre-traumatic stress therapy”, the father-daughter duo repeatedly staged and filmed Dick’s death(s), with varying degrees of absurdity and camp. Dick Johnson is Dead is sure to generate a tonne of feelings (luckily, Dick was a psychiatrist for decades, practised in the art of unpacking emotions), and promises to make us think, too, about how we process loss, how we say goodbye, and how we remember.

3. Shirley

Josephine Decker’s non-biopic of Shirley Jackson, the horror writer known for The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House, follows Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her Bennington-professor husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) as they temporarily take in a young couple new to campus. What follows is described as a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-style“ domestic unravelling, but spookier – a full-blown horror psychodrama. The Madeline’s Madeline director seems interested in probing Jacksonian themes (like the “kinds of psychic damage to which women are especially prone,” as Jackson biographer Ruth Franklin put it), all from within the genre Jackson perfected.

4. Kajillionaire

Miranda July’s long-awaited third directorial effort, which now seems likely to be snapped up by A24, has arrived, nearly ten years after her last. It focuses on Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), the weirdly named daughter of a family of grifters, as she encounters the genuinely nice Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) and has an awakening of sorts – about cynicism, scamming, and what else is out there to experience. July has long been a master of quirkiness that sneaks up to emotionally sucker-punch you; Kajillionaire promises to hold a lot of weighty beats along with its comic ones.

5. Time

This documentary from Garrett Bradley – who served as second unit director on Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us – follows Fox Rich, a Louisiana businesswoman and mother of six who for over two decades has been fighting for her husband’s release from prison. The “video diaries” Bradley had access to (20 years of home footage Rich recorded and sent to her spouse) will undoubtedly shine here, serving, against the backdrop of American mass incarceration and its impact on black families, as intimate capsule portraits of familial devotion.

6. The Assistant

This is the film being described as “the first great movie of the #MeToo era”, a fictionalised version of the Harvey Weinstein story. It unfolds over one working day for Jane, an assistant to a high-powered movie executive, and tracks her growing certainty that he is engaged in abusive behaviour. The unnamed executive does not really appear in the film, aside from some out-of-frame vocalisations; it seems director Kitty Green is focused, much more interestingly, on the ecosystem he commands, the hierarchy that bolsters and sanctions him.

7. Minari

For his fourth feature, Lee Isaac Chung revisits his childhood memories of the Ozark mountains. Minari centres on David, a seven-year-old Korean-American boy adjusting to his new life in small-town Arkansas; his father (Steven Yeun) has relocated the family from the West Coast, and David’s grandmother has moved from Korea to join them, too. Chung’s loosely autobiographical film was well-received in Park City as a portrait of immigrant family experience, and has already secured distribution from A24 (plus, Variety likened it to open-hearted semi-memoirs Moonlight and Lady Bird, of which the world always needs more).

8. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

We can count on quiet, indie coming-of-age films to emerge from Sundance, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always – the story of a pregnant teenager and her supportive cousin, travelling together from rural Pennsylvania to New York City to obtain an abortion without parental consent – seems a moving entrant to the genre. This movie from Eliza Hittman promises an intimate look at two young women’s psyches and their friendship, as they navigate healthcare options, big-city streets, leering men and huge decision-making with just one cumbersome suitcase between them.

9. Welcome to Chechnya

In 2017, Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov began overseeing what has come to be known as an “anti-gay purge” in the republic, a horrific (and arguably under-discussed) state-sponsored programme of torturing, detaining, forcibly disappearing, and outright killing of queer Chechens. This documentary from David France, of vital previous works How To Survive A Plague and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, follows the incredible underground network of activists working to sneak queer people from the republic, provide them with support, and help them seek asylum elsewhere. The film has been stunning Sundance critics, and will undoubtedly continue to move viewers when it premieres on HBO in June.

Necessary mentions...

#TheStory, the 148-tweet thread by Aziah “Zola” Wells that captured the viral interest of the entire internet back in 2015, got the cinematic treatment in Zola. Palm Springs, an Andy Samberg comedy with a Groundhog Day time-loop premise, just set the record for largest Sundance sale to date. Also, the Taylor Swift doc.