New films by Julie Taymor, Dee Rees, and Justin Simien mix with fascinating new docs and debut features in our list of Sundance 2020 must-sees.
In the darkest pit of January — the realm of forgettable studio comedies and misplaced action movies foisted on the unsuspecting public — a small beacon of hope shines in the mountains of Park City, Utah: the Sundance Film Festival. For 34 years, it’s stood tall as one of the most exciting and interesting film festivals in the world, as the Sundance Institute effectively takes over the small ski town (and bits of Salt Lake City) to showcase some of the cinema we can look forward to through the rest of the year.
After launching the site last February with our coverage of last year’s Sundance, The Spool is headed to Park City once again in 2020 for an even more comprehensive look at the thrilling slate of films to come. From audacious debuts to topical documentaries, stylized followups and vibrant new voices, we’ll be covering as much as we can in that fateful, snow-capped final week of January.
Before we do, though, we wanted to give you a taste of what Film Editor Matt Cipolla and I are most excited to see and cover at Sundance. We’ll be bleary-eyed and addlepated by festival’s end, but rest assured we do it all for you, the fine people who read this website. It took some doing to even whittle it down to these ten, but trust us, you’re going to want to keep an eye out for these picks. [Clint Worthington, editor-in-chief]
Justin Simien first hit Park City six years ago with Dear White People, a refreshing if uneven satire about race relations at a fictitious, Ivy League-type university. It helped launch Tessa Thompson’s career and spawned the Netflix serial adaptation of the same name, but now he’s back with something nuttier: a movie about a killer weave. If Bad Hair is anything like his other work—or, given its logline, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric—it’ll be something of a bonkers blessing. Either way, its cast of Lena Waithe, Laverne Cox, Jay Pharoah, newcomer Elle Lorraine, and more are sure to have fun here. [Matt Cipolla]
Feels Good Man
It’s hard to imagine a Trump era without the rise of the alt-right and their inexorable love of memes — most notably Pepe the Frog, a comic character created by Matt Furie which quickly became co-opted by the worst people alive to fuel their troll campaign to get Donald Trump elected president. But what happens when something you create is perverted into a symbol of hate? That’s what Arthur Jones tackles in his debut doc Feels Good Man, which will hopefully help us gain an understanding of the way the shared culture of social media can facilitate our worst impulses, and poison even the most innocuous of images. [Clint Worthington]
Love her or hate her, Julie Taymor‘s work is always one of incredible formal and thematic ambition — at her best, she makes masterworks like Titus and Frida; at her worst, well, did you see Across the Universe? But even in a post Turn Off the Dark world, I have a soft spot in my heart for Taymor’s audacity and singular visual style, which is why The Glorias, her biopic of pioneering feminist Gloria Steinem (Julianne Moore), strikes me as so intriguing. With a supporting cast that includes Alicia Vikander, Janelle Monáe, and Bette Goddamn Midler, and Chicago playwright Sarah Ruhl co-writing, The Glorias might be a return to form, or a Glorias mess. [Clint Worthington]
Fresh off her role in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Noémie Merlant stars in a much different romance. There’s no lush period setting, no ornate costumes. Instead, she plays a lonely amusement park cleaner who finds herself infatuated with a Tilt-a-Whirl ride that she names Jumbo. Have you ever watched testimonials of people who come out as being in love with inanimate objects? They’re fascinating, to say the least, and whether it’s due to loneliness or contentment with being alone, Zoé Wittock’s debut feature will hopefully touch on these oft-neglected shades of human desire. [Matt Cipolla]
The Last Thing He Wanted
Dee Rees is no stranger to Sundance — she’s a multiple Vanguard Award winner, and she’s even part of the US Dramatic jury this year — so it’s no surprise that we’ll be seeing her followup to 2017’s critically-acclaimed Mudbound. This time, Rees turns her camera to Joan Didion‘s novel about a journalist (played by Anne Hathaway) who finds herself doing arms deals with the Contras in Central America thanks to the dying wishes of her father (Willem Dafoe). It’s a departure from Rees’ usual material, which usually deals with the complications of the African-American experience (the historical evils of racism, homophobia in the Black community), but Rees’ superlative command of her projects — and the A-list cast she has assembled, including Ben Affleck as a shady US state official — has us excited for this one. [Clint Worthington]
Between Antiviral and his upcoming Possessor, Brandon Cronenberg seems dedicated to following in the footsteps of father David, delving into high-concept, grotesque horror with all the glee of a Scanner exploding someone’s head. For his trippy sophomore effort, Andrea Riseborough plays Tasya Vos, an agent for a corrupt megacorp who uses technology to occupy people’s bodies so she can perform untraceable assassinations. But the more she does it, the less control she has of herself, until she finds herself in the mind of a man (Christopher Abbott) who might just swallow her whole. Lush cyberpunk designs and no small amount of sickly gore populates this midnight favorite, and we can’t wait to see how well Brandon fills his father’s shoes. [Clint Worthington]
Promising Young Woman
From Jennifer’s Body to Under the Skin, the femme fatale archetype has provided an uptick in conversation over the past decade. (Well, a more consistent one, that is.) Discussions of rape culture, gender roles, and the male versus the female gaze have grown thankfully more abundant in theaters and online as a result, and Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman looks to be another entry to the canon. A tale of a former med student who dropped out after being wronged (Carey Mulligan), she now drifts through clubs pretending to be blackout drunk. When a self-professed “nice guy” tries to take her home with ulterior motives, she reveals them for who they truly are. Now it’s a matter of healing through time or healing through payback—or maybe both. [Matt Cipolla]
Part of the NEXT competition comes the sixth feature from indie director Eugene Kotyarenko, this time following a 20-something named Kurt (Joe Keery). Or rather, he’s @KurtsWorld96, an aspiring social media influencer who drives around in hopes of gaining some followers while he works for a rideshare company. Sundance has shown an interest in social media-driven movies for the last three years, but given that the protagonist here is willing to go on a killing spree for Internet fame, it seems more Ingrid Goes West or Assassination Nation than Eighth Grade. It’s definitely good company to be in if it works. It could be incredibly pandering if it doesn’t stick the landing, but what’s Sundance without the equal possibilities of success and failure? [Matt Cipolla]
Michael Almereyda seems intent to spend his career charting the ethos and pathos of complicated men of science in dramatically stylized ways. 2015’s Experimenter, charting the life and career of Stanley Milgram, was an audacious mixture of traditional biopic and Brechtian metafiction (rear-projected sets, Peter Sarsgaard’s Milgram narrating his life to the camera as it’s happening) to ask probing questions about the cost of viewing life through the lens of cold scientific inquiry. With Tesla, Almereyda may have the follow-up he’s always longed for; Ethan Hawke plays iconic inventor Nikola Tesla, creator of alternating current and one of the Industrial Revolution’s most iconic rebels. And along the way, Eve Hewson’s Anne Morgan acts as a fourth-wall impresario to Tesla’s struggles and achievements alike. Tesla’s long been a fascinating subject for historical interpretation, and under Almereyda’s surrealist eye, we ought to get a whole new context for such a legendary figure. [Clint Worthington]
Last but not least is another movie inspired by the Internet, although this one is (purported to be) true. In late 2015, 20-year-old stripper Aziah “Zola” Wells met a sex worker and quickly went on a road trip from Detroit to Miami, stopping at nightclubs to make some cash. As a result, they ended up dealing with pimps, guns, attempted suicide, and more—at least according to Zola’s 148-tweet thread that quickly went viral. A24 scooped up the rights to make a script out of it, and now we have what should be some trashy fun. Taylour Paige stars in the title role while Riley Keough plays her new BFF, and Janicza Bravo directs in her first feature effort. And hey, Mica Levi (Under the Skin, Jackie) even does the score! [Matt Cipolla]