The Sundance Film Festival released its impressive and imposing lineup of feature films for 2020 back in December. Unlike other festivals that cater primarily to art films or to major releases from established auteurs, Sundance’s lineup is comprised primarily of smaller independent films, especially American releases. In the past, the festival has been criticized for anointing middlebrow films with an almost messianic force; many of the movies that were labeled “Sundance sensations” are now forgotten, or their titles are spoken of with the derisive air of regret. Maybe it’s the altitude that makes critics particularly loopy.
Though there’s plenty of truth in those critiques of Sundance, they’re also somewhat misguided, as every year features dozens of stunning and adventurous films, even if they’re not the ones getting the most ink. With that in mind, I’ve selected five of the many upcoming features worth checking out at Sundance 2020.
One of the best films of the past decade was Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (which he followed with the equally brilliant but polarizing The Square). The pitch-black comedy followed the misadventures of a Swedish family vacation in the French Alps. Early on, when an avalanche heads toward the outdoor deck where the family is enjoying breakfast, the father bolts, leaving his wife and children in the avalanche’s path. Luckily for them, it doesn’t quite reach the lodge, but the couple are left to simmer in the knowledge of just how delicate their bond really is, and how easily it might be snapped.
Östlund’s film was equal parts disturbing and hilarious, and a new remake written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (along with co-writer Jesse Armstrong) might just give the original a run for its money. Rash and Faxon previously co-wrote and co-directed The Way Way Back, and co-wrote The Descendants with Alexander Payne, so they’ve proved a mastery over satire and a detached yet humane style of comedy.
Still, it’s the cast that’s the biggest draw for Downhill. Will Ferrell is set to play the husband, and it will be fascinating to see whether he tries something different with a more reserved performance that mirrors the original, or something more wildly comedic. Julia-Louis Dreyfus’ work on Veep in recent years ensures that she’ll be hilarious and piercing as the wife, and the Silicon Valley scene-stealer Zach Woods also rounds out the cast. It may not top the original, but Downhill will still be one to pay attention to.
Miranda July’s first two features, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and The Future (2011), rank among my favorite films from the last two decades. Therefore, the promise of a new July film is cause for celebration as far as I’m concerned. July steps back and only writes and directs Kajillionaire, which stars Evan Rachel Wood, the great Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, and Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez. Wood, Jenkins, and Winger play a family of grifters who allow a young woman (Rodriguez) to join their clan, only to set everything topsy-turvy.
There’s not much more to go on than that, but if Kajillionaire is anything like July’s previous films, it’ll feature a healthy dose of near-surreal humor and achingly personal connections. It’s a shame that the director won’t be acting in this one, as she was so arresting in The Future and last year’s Madeline’s Madeline. The cast as assembled features an intriguing mix of actors, and July is likely to coax something profound out of them. Her first feature took off at Sundance, and it seems possible she might make a repeat performance.
The Last Thing He Wanted
Director Dee Rees is another former Sundance sensation, whose 2011 film Pariah won the Excellence in Cinematography award at the festival. Her previous film, 2017’s Mudbound, made its way to Netflix and netted the writer and director her best reviews to date. Her previous films have often dealt with intensely personal subjects of race and sexuality, but now Rees is branching out into something new: a political thriller based on the novel by the legendary writer of all trades, Joan Didion.
The Last Thing He Wanted stars Anne Hathaway as Elena McMahon, a political journalist assigned to cover the 1984 U.S. Presidential election. But her plans are ripped to shreds when she’s forced to put everything on hold to care for her dying father (Willem Dafoe). Along the way, she’s swept up into a world of intrigue and conspiracy as she takes over for her father as a Central American arms dealer. Ben Affleck also co-stars as Treat Morrison, a U.S. government official who becomes entangled with Elena in the course of his oversight.
The original novel isn’t as fondly remembered as Didion’s early novels (or any of her non-fiction work), but it seems particularly suited for the present day, when the U.S. has once again been accused of meddling in Latin American elections while American weapons fuel armed conflicts across the globe.
After a very good 1960s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House and a very bad ‘90s version, Shirley Jackson’s most famous novel got a Netflix series adaptation that had little to do with the book, and was great and abysmal in equal proportions. Though The Haunting and the short story collection The Lottery are among her most popular works, Jackson didn’t only write horror, and even when she was writing something darkly suspenseful, she seemed more interested in interrogating the malignancies festering with families.
Josephine Decker’s new film, Shirley, seems to focus on that broader view of Jackson’s writing. Elisabeth Moss stars as the writer, while Michael Stuhlbarg plays her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman. When a young couple moves in with Shirley and her husband, she begins to use drama created by their interactions as fodder for a new novel.
I didn’t love Decker’s rapturously received Madeline’s Madeline (2018) as much as others, though I consider Butter on the Latch (2013) and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) among the decade’s best. Decker is a master at charting a mind’s unraveling, whether it belongs to a young woman obsessed with becoming an actor, or a farmhand pursued by a demented farmer’s daughter. The question with Shirley is whether it’s the eponymous writer doing the unraveling, or the young lovers unlucky enough to feel safe in her presence.
Director Brandon Cronenberg is the son of that other famous Cronenberg, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he would also share an interest in questions of identity and the nature of our own bodies. His sophomore feature, a follow-up to 2012’s Antiviral, stars the chameleonic Andrea Riseborough as Tasya Vos, a corporate assassin of sorts who is able to temporarily implant her consciousness in the minds of regular citizens in order to get them to carry out assassinations for her. But when a mishap finds her stuck in the mind of a man (Girls’ Christopher Abbott), his mind threatens to swallow up her own.
Antiviral has become a cult horror classic of sorts in recent years, which makes Cronenberg’s second feature of great interest. And as long as his dad isn’t making movies, it might be the next best thing. But it’s the stellar casting of the film’s leads that is of most interest to me. Riseborough is never anything less than fascinating, even when she’s cast in bad movies. In the span of less than a year, she gave a hilarious turn as Stalin’s daughter in The Death of Stalin (2017), the doomed title character in Mandy (2018), and a disturbed woman posing as a couple’s missing daughter in Nancy (2018). Similar to Tilda Swinton, simple changes of clothing and hair can make her almost unrecognizable, which means every performance is imbued with a sense of discovery. Christopher Abbott has shown himself to be a mercurial presence on Girls, as well as in James White (2015) and It Comes at Night (2017), but he’s often stuck in smaller roles that don’t let him show off the extent of his talents. Any movie that can pair these two actors is worth checking out.
Jennifer Kent’s ‘The Nightingale’ Is a Chilling Revenge Epic
‘The Nightingale,’ Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to ‘The Babadook’ expands her style and vision and disturbs far more than traditional horror.
After the surprise success of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014), horror aficionados waited with bated breath to see what her next project would be. Rather than crafting another horror film, Kent opted to write and direct the brutal colonialist epic, The Nightingale. This is a revenge drama, and not at all a horror film, yet the Sundance crowds anxiously awaiting admittance seemed to operate under the misapprehension that it was. Their confusion about the film’s genre is understandable — The Nightingale is a painfully brutal film, one with horrors that far exceed Kent’s previous film, even if it’s not horror per se. It seethes with anger and grief, and confirms Kent’s emotive abilities.
Set in 1825 on the island now known as Tasmania, The Nightingale concerns the atrocities enacted by British soldiers, both against the convicts who have been transported to the island as well as the dwindling numbers of Aboriginal people. Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish woman transported after a theft conviction, leads a dull, monotonous life of service for the soldiers of a nearby barracks. She finds moments of pleasure among the doldrums thanks to her husband and her new baby. Her gift is song, and she sings Irish tunes when alone to occupy herself and soothe her young infant. As comforting as her vocal gift is, it also plays a role in her future torments.
When Clare is summoned to sing at a banquet for a visiting captain, she catches the eye of nearly every soldier, most of whom are drunk and haven’t been with a woman in months or years. We learn that Clare is actually an indentured servant in the service of the commanding lieutenant; he has vouched for her, allowing for her release from prison, and her eventual marriage and child. She is three months overdue for her release from servitude, as the lieutenant continually delays writing her letter of release. After her performance before the troops, something snaps, and the lieutenant’s frustrations with Clare and the violent lust of the soldiers collide. In a painfully disturbing scene, she is raped by the lieutenant and his sergeant, while her husband and baby are slaughtered. Clare survives the encounter, and the next morning she sets off to kill the lieutenant and his men. Fueled by anger and grief, she commandeers a horse and hires an Aboriginal guide named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to lead her toward the soldiers, who have marched toward the northern part of the island.
There’s much that’s bloody and disturbing in The Nightingale, but Kent never slips into a Tarantino-esque revenge fantasy. She keeps her story firmly rooted in its period details; we’re always aware of the great difficulties Clare faces in merely traveling on her own, let alone in killing the men who have destroyed her family. None of her friends can help her, as they would be sent back to prison. She’s unable to find supplies or shelter on the journey, as few people are willing to help a woman without an accompanying man. And every man she meets along her trek through the Tasmanian forests wishes violence upon her.
But just as she foregrounds the dangers facing women during the period, Kent pays close attention to the ravages of colonialism and racism — not even Clare is blameless. She seethes with anger and distrust during her first couple days with Billy; it’s only her need to survive long enough to dispatch the lieutenant that keeps her from gunning him down. Clare’s own racism is a difficult but wise choice from Kent. A lesser filmmaker would have tried to suggest that because of the daily misogyny Clare experiences, she would be more understanding and accepting of the Aboriginal people. But of course, that’s hogwash — she’s been bathed in the same racism that affects most of the other white people on the island. Clare is infected with many of the same vile beliefs that animate the soldiers she’s pursuing, but that doesn’t make her quest any less compelling.
Most compelling of all, though, is Franciosi’s performance. The Irish-Italian actress has a wonderfully compelling face that seems to bump every emotion up to ten. It’s hard to see the look of grief on her face in the wake of her family’s slaughter without bursting into tears yourself. When she switches into revenge mode, she seems possessed by some foreign spirit. Ganambarr’s talents are less showy, but he gains a marvelous determination as Clare’s quest merges with his own.
Almost as impressive as Franciosi’s performance is Sam Claflin’s as the lieutenant. Claflin initially seems like a respectable man, before revealing himself to be a misogynist and rapist. But as the film progresses and he treks north in search of a promotion, he unleashes unexpected levels of depravity. The transformation could easily have seemed forced, a poor attempt to make him an even bigger villain, but Claflin makes the descent into evil both compelling and totally believable.
Some Nightingale viewers have apparently been disappointed that Kent didn’t make another horror film as her Babadook follow-up. As one of the few people who never cared for that film, it was refreshing to see just how much more developed and moving The Nightingale is compared to its predecessor. The Babadook was a clever idea executed with workmanlike care, but The Nightingale is a film made of flesh and bone, one that lives and breathes — and bleeds.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on January 31, as part of our coverage of the Sundance Film Festival.
‘The Mountain’ Shows Jeff Goldblum at His Most Chilling
Rick Alverson is a filmmaker who delights in unsettling his audience. His films tend to feature losers and scumbags; sometimes their failures and foibles are inexplicable but inseparable parts of themselves, and other times he invites us to consider the forces that may have shaped these dispiriting figures. In The Mountain, he creates one of his greatest failed men in Dr. Wallace Fiennes, played by Jeff Goldblum. Fiennes is a disgraced physician who travels the country advertising his radically simplified version of a lobotomy, a now discredited psychosurgery that separates connections in the brain in order to treat mental illness. While the procedure was sometimes effective, it also had debilitating side effects, often deadening the personalities of those who received it, as well as decreasing their cognitive skills. The Mountain takes place in the 1950s, as the procedure is already being phased out by the medical community in favor of less destructive drugs. Fiennes drives across the country visiting insane asylums, providing lobotomies to any patients the administrators will make available to him (and pay for).
At each stop, he likes to document the patient before and during the procedure through photographs, which is where Andy (Tye Sheridan) comes in. He’s a Zamboni driver in a tiny Northern town, where there’s seemingly not much to do for fun besides skating. In the film’s opening moments, we learn that his mother is in a mental institution as he narrates a letter to her on the soundtrack. His father (a surprisingly subdued Udo Kier) is a former figure skater currently slumming it as an instructor, though his real profession seems to be as a drinker.
Andy meets Fiennes shortly after a tragedy befalls his father, and the two set off across the country, with Andy documenting the doctor’s exploits with his Polaroid camera. Sheridan plays the character as a total blank, forcing us to decipher what must be running through his head. Fiennes reveals when they first meet that he treated Andy’s mother, and the thought of her being lobotomized haunts his every action. His wants and desires remain shrouded and blurry, but he becomes fascinated with one of Fiennes’ patients, Susan (Hannah Gross), and latches on to her as a source of stability.
Though Sheridan is ostensibly The Mountain‘s protagonist, Goldblum is the main attraction. He gives his most compelling performance in many years, and one of his few leading roles in as much time. The mannerisms and affectations that have come to define his endlessly meme-able presence are reduced to their lowest levels in decades. He’s a sad, pitiful man, clinging to what little expertise and prestige he still has, even as his profession threatens to bury him. He’s also profoundly blind to his own existence. At one point, when trying to assess Andy’s mental state, he asks him about his desires to determine if they’re abnormal. Yet, we’ve seen him prey on women at every roadside stop along the way, charming and then accosting them in lewd ways. He kisses and embraces the women he befriends at shady motels so ferociously that he seems ready to devour them alive, yet he seems more concerned with Andy’s relative lack of desire.
It’s hard not to hope that Andy will free himself of Fiennes’ malign influence at some point, or that the disgraced doctor will finally reach an impasse. But Alverson avoids any simple resolutions, instead giving us something much darker, and far more compelling. We can’t escape the darkest aspects of life, and The Mountain doesn’t ever let us forget it.
Editor’s Note: This review was originally published on January 26 as part of our Sundance Film Festival coverage.
‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ Is a Charming Debut
The first thing one notices about Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco is how sunny it is. Not just tonally — though the description applies — but literally; Talbot and his cinematographer, Adam Newport-Berra, have a knack for catching the golden tinge of the light. Seeing it, one realizes how many films are missing that pleasant hue. Though visually sumptuous, The Last Black Man in San Francisco also has plenty of substance to chew over, concerning itself with racism, classism, and gentrification, while rarely falling into didacticism or simplistic thinking. While watching it, I was filled with the ecstasy of discovery at the voice of an important new filmmaker.
In The Last Black Man, Jimmie Fails (playing a character of the same name) stars as a man barely making it in the Bay Area. He lives with his friend, Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), who shares a small home with his blind grandfather, played by Danny Glover. Jimmie is motivated by a quixotic quest to take ownership of the Victorian-style house his family once owned in a prosperous black neighborhood, which has since been taken over by upwardly mobile white couples. Every other week he visits the elegant, turreted house to touch up the paint on the exterior and to tend to the plants. Jimmie is engaging in wishful thinking, however; the house would be worth millions of dollars in today’s real estate market, and he’ll never be able to afford it on his nursing salary. As Jimmie sets out on a doomed quest to regain the house, Montgomery finally zeroes in on the subject of a play he’s been trying to write, inspired by Jimmie’s aspirations.
This is Fails’ first performance in a feature, yet he has the assured air of someone who was meant to do this. He received a story credit on the film, and portions of it are autobiographical, so those lived experiences may be what contributes his confidence on screen. Majors is adept at providing much of The Last Black Man’s comic relief, though he never devolves into a clown. Even when he and Fails are at their silliest, they are given a sense of importance by Emile Mosseri’s orchestral score, which has a kind of hopeful, Copland-like quality. Anyone listening would know the music referred to a particularly American story, even if the plot wasn’t obvious.
Among all the film’s successes, one flaw particularly stands out. Across the street from Montgomery’s house congregates a group of shit-talkers, streetwise guys who insult Jimmie and Montgomery for their perceived capitulation to white culture. The men come off as caricature, even as the rest of the film feels so real. It’s not clear if they’re a part of Fails’ early conception or Talbot’s final screenplay, but their sections ring false. Still, Talbot and Fails eventually find more compelling uses for the characters.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of The Last Black Man in San Francisco is just how leisurely it is in telling its story. It takes wonderful little detours to absorb the culture of San Francisco and survey its denizens. Some viewers will want a tighter, more plot-driven film, but I could have easily taken another hour to live in its world.
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