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.