Sundance Film Festival 2020 in Review

The Sundance International Film Festival doesn’t seem to be interested in eliciting the same aura of prestige as festivals such as Cannes or Berlinale, or in being the platform for the premieres of films which will be talked about the following awards season. Instead, founder Robert Redford and festival director John Cooper seem more concerned with providing a voice to unique filmmakers and artists. Displaying work that may otherwise go unseen to an eager audience, bringing critics, filmmakers, and elderly Utah locals  together in celebration of art, culture, and providing the joys of drinking 3.2% beer at 7,000 feet of altitude, Sundance is all its own. This was my second year attending Sundance, and between skiing and the aforementioned beer drinking, I managed to catch five of the festival’s most talked about films. Here they are, ranked by how much I personally enjoyed each film…

1. The Killing of Two Lovers (dir. Robert Machoian)

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Competing in the festival’s NEXT category, a category dedicated to young, boundary-pushing filmmakers with very small budgets, Robert Machoian’s debut feature was far and away the most pleasant surprise of the week. With a crew comprised primarily of his students and a cast which featured his own children, the BYU professor made this film about a family on the verge of collapse in a small town in Utah. It is nothing short of remarkable. Machoian, whose short films have been featured at Sundance in the past, crafts a piece of work that is stunningly precise in every element. The cinematography by BYU student Oscar Ignacio Jiménez follows a formalism and restraint reminiscent of Alexander Dynan’s in First Reformed; every image is beautiful and claustrophobic, capturing the stillness and sorrow of its subjects. Machoian’s script is nothing less than a masterwork. The brilliantly plotted story toys with its audience from its very first image to its last, subverting expectations in ways that manage never to feel like an overt twist, but instead the logical continuation of events, in a manner entirely opposite to what we had anticipated. Clayne Crawford’s lead performance as David, the troubled patriarch of the family, is fully realized and nuanced in a way that brings the entire story to life. He handles a very difficult character with such empathy, while simultaneously keeping the audience unsure of how to feel about him. The Killing of Two Lovers was without question the strongest display of filmmaking I saw at this year’s festival, and I hope desperately that it gets bought and receives distribution. This deserves, and demands, to be seen on the big screen.

2. Shirley (dir. Josephine Decker)

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Fans of Josephine Decker’s wildly inventive previous directorial effort Madeline’s Madeline, myself included, were a bit caught off guard upon hearing the synopsis for her follow up film. The concern was that Shirley–a fictionalized story revolving around horror author Shirley Jackson and based on a novel by SusanScarf Merrell, a screenplay by Sarah Gubbins and featuring the star power of Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss–would be too conventional a format to allow for Decker to achieve the idiosyncratic heights of her previous work. Fans needn’t continue to fret. While the film is a bit more grounded in reality than Madeline’s Madeline, Decker’s presence as a director is strongly felt, and any fear that this may trend into by-the-books-biopic territory should be immediately dispelled. Decker’s visual style, which features a constantly moving camera, shifting perspective coverage, and metaphorical image-making, is still very much utilized, and adds a strong auteurist voice to this investigation of jealousy, power dynamics, and the creation of art. Stuhlbarg and Moss have been well established as some of our greatest working actors, and Shirley provides them both with a playground geared perfectly towards their strengths. This is a madhouse romp which floats smoothly from horrifying to hilarious within just a few beats, and my hope is that it will bring Josephine Decker the attention and financing a voice as singular as hers is owed.

3. Minari (dir. Lee Isaac Chung)

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For over a decade, Lee Isaac Chung has been making films that largely go unseen and under-appreciated. Minari is certain to break this tradition. One of the two A24 produced films in competition at Sundance this year, this semi-autobiographical story of a Korean family moving from California to Arkansas in the mid-1980s has the potential to be a mainstream crowd pleaser the likes of 2019’s The Farewell. The film follows the Yi family’s first year living in a trailer in Arkansas as father Jacob (Steven Yeun) strives to fulfill his version of the American Dream by starting a farm producing Korean produce and mother Monica (Han Ye-ri) and children David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho) struggle to adapt to their new environment. Alan Kim, who showed up to the premiere of the film in a very sharp cowboy outfit, delivers a performance that is perhaps the most adorable I have ever seen in a movie, and Korean screen-legend Youn Yuh-jung gives an equally charming performance as Monica’s mother. However, Minari is much more than just cute-bait (it is really freaking cute though). Director Lee creates a fantastically moving portrait of Korean cultural intricacies set against the backdrop of midwest America. His characters are all fully formed, their dynamics with one another well explored, and emotional drive of the film much stronger than simply bittersweet nostalgia. If I were to put money on what will be the breakout film from this year’s festival, I’m going with Minari, no question.

4. Zola (dir. Janicza Bravo)

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Possibly the most anticipated premiere of Sundance 2020, Zola is an adaptation of the infamous tweet thread posted by Aziah “Zola” King in October 2015. In that string of 148 tweets, Zola detailed her version of a story in which she was convinced by an acquaintance named Jessica to spend a weekend down in Florida on a mission to make money stripping. Instead, she is unwittingly caught up in whirlwind of prostitution, kidnapping, and eventually murder. Bravo’s adaptation is primarily concerned with telling King’s version of the weekend’s events, although she does briefly acknowledge the alternate story told by Jessica in a very flippant manner. The movie soars when it is focused on being a deeply funny and satirical look at the absurdity of social media culture. Riley Keough and Nicholas Braun give hysterical performances as their equally insane counterparts. The modern editing, highly stylized visuals, and perfectly used 2013 needle-drops heighten the manically fun energy. Legendary composer Mica Levi once again crafts a score that fits its subject perfectly, and serves as a real backbone for the film. While the film succeeds tremendously in creating a tone perfectly suited to a story told in 140 character bursts, it unfortunately falters in its transition to handling tension and real human emotion. The climax of the Zola story is not one to be taken lightly, but Bravo’s direction doesn’t seem particularly interested in treating the traumatic moments in its conclusion with the weight that they require. Nevertheless, it is still guaranteed to be a good time to watch with a crowd, and it manages to achieve more of its goals than it misses. Definitely worth catching in a theater.

5. Wendy (dir. Benh Zeitlin)

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Director Benh Zeitlin’s first feature film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, premiered at Sundance in 2012 to wide acclaim and went on to be nominated for four Academy Awards. Since then, Zeitlin and his crew have long been struggling to make their follow up film, Wendy, a reimagining of the classic Peter Pan story from the perspective of a modern day Wendy Darling. As is often the result of projects that are as long gestating as this one, Wendy attempts to do far too much, and loses focus of its main thematic drive in the process. The same thematic ground as the original is revisited – questions of growing old and believing in the magic of youth – but Zeitlin never seems to really take a new stance on those questions or even update them for a modern audience. Moreover, the narrative often falls completely flat as a result of its underdeveloped characters and meandering approach to the story. Zeitlin seems content to watch the protagonists hang out on the island and run through the jungle without ever suggesting what they are gaining from doing so or why anything we’re watching matters at all. The score is over intrusive and ill-fitting, and the whole thing ends up feeling like an overlong trailer. The cinematography and visual effects are very nice to look at, but I didn’t find anything of substance to hold onto with this one.