2020 Sundance Film Festival: Best and Worst Films

  • Publish Date: February 2, 2020
  • Comments: ↓ 1 user comment

Updated 1:56p to add Welcome to Chechnya and Tesla

The winners

The U.S. dramatic jury prizes were selected by a body composed of Rodrigo Garcia, Ethan Hawke, Dee Rees, Isabella Rossellini, and Wash Westmoreland. Other prizes were selected by additional juries.

U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic)
U.S. Audience Award (Dramatic)
Drama | USA | Directed by Lee Isaac Chung

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Previous Grand Jury Prize winners:
2019: Clemency 77
2018: The Miseducation of Cameron Post 69
2017: I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore 75
2016: The Birth of a Nation 69
2015: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl 74

Previous Audience Award winners:
2019: Brittany Runs a Marathon 72
2018: Burden 63
2017: Crown Heights 64
2016: The Birth of a Nation 69
2015: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl 74

The first winner of both top prizes since 2016, Abigail Harm writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s fourth feature is inspired by his childhood in rural Arkansas. A hit with critics, this humble family portrait stars Steven Yeun as Jacob, a Korean-American father who moves his family from California to Arkansas in the 1980s with the hopes of starting a farm. As his family struggles to adjust, Jacob brings his wife’s mother (Yuh-Jung Youn shines in a sweetly comedic role) from Korea to live with them. Seven-year-old David (Alan Kim) forms a special bond with his grandmother, allowing Chung to transform “the specificity of his upbringing into something warm, tender and universal,” according to Peter Debruge of Variety. It’s a “raw and vividly remembered story of two simultaneous assimilations,” writes IndieWire's David Ehrlich, “It’s the story of a family assimilating into a country, but also the story of a man assimilating into his family.” In his review for TheWrap, Carlos Aguilar declares that Minari is already “among the very best movies of 2020.”

U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Documentary)
Boys State
Documentary | USA | Directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss
Acquired by Apple and A24 for approximately $10 million

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Previous Grand Jury doc winners:
2019: One Child Nation 85
2018: Kailash 66
2017: Dina 75
2016: Weiner 84
2015: The Wolfpack 75

This documentary from Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, the team behind 2014’s The Overnighters, follows four out of a thousand 17-year-old boys that gather every year in Austin for Texas Boys State, where they are tasked with building a two-party government from the ground up. It goes about as smoothly for these teenagers as one would expect considering the current state of our democracy, resulting in a “compelling window into the cutthroat instincts that can inform the campaigning process, even without the future of the republic at stake,” according to IndieWire's Eric Kohn. Praising the film even more, Anthony Kaufman of Screen Daily believes the “remarkably entertaining” documentary “skillfully manages to walk a fine line between irreverent and unsettling.”

U.S. Audience Award (Documentary)
Crip Camp
Documentary | USA | Directed by James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham
Streams in March (date tbd) on Netflix

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Previous Audience Award doc winners:
2019: Knock Down the House 80
2018: The Sentence 69
2017: Chasing Coral 86
2016: Jim: The James Foley Story 73
2015: Meru 77

According to Daniel Fienberg of THR, directors Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht deliver an “inspiring, lively birth-of-a-movement documentary” that is “more than a simple chronicle of the origins” of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Beginning at Camp Jened (where LeBrecht was a former camper) in 1971, the film chronicles how then-counselor Judy Heumann and several camp alums begin a decades-long fight for equality. Vox's Alissa Wilkinson finds Camp to be “buoyant and inspiring,” and Peter Debruge of Variety is impressed that the movie “succeeds in enlightening without ever coming across as an ‘eat your spinach’ civics lesson.”

Other winning films include:

Audience Award: NEXT: I Carry You With Me

World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic: Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness

Audience Award: World Cinema Dramatic: Identifying Features

World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary: Epicentro

Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary: The Reason I Jump

Best of the festival

Below are additional titles generating the most positive buzz at this year's festival. That's followed by a list of the remaining notable festival debuts, and then by a recap of this year's Sundance duds. Note that any Sundance films which previously debuted at other festivals (such as The Assistant) are excluded, as is the Netflix film Miss Americana (which is already streaming and has a full set of reviews available).

Black Bear
Drama | USA | Directed by Lawrence Michael Levine

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Things are not as they initially seem in this tricky indie from writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine (Wild Canaries, Gabi on the Roof in July). Split into two parts, the film initially follows a couple (Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon) as they entertain a creatively-blocked filmmaker (Aubrey Plaza) at their remote mountain lake house. The second part peels back the layers of their relationship, investigating gender and the line between life and art. For EW's David Canfield, the “writing is fizzy and delightful, the performances explosively committed,” and Levine’s direction “conjures an arresting mood.” A.A. Dowd of the AV Club sees this “often scathingly funny” film as a “dark comic millennial spin on the Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? template, buoyed by three expertly modulated performances and acidic bon mots.” And in his A– review for The Playlist, Robert Daniels writes, “Unique and unfazed, hilarious yet philosophical, Black Bear is the comedic form reinvented and re-conformed to mad and intoxicating ends.”

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Documentary/Drama | USA | Directed by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross

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Filmmakers Bill and Turner Ross (Contemporary Color, Western, Tchoupitoulas, 45365) push the form of the documentary further along with this chronicle of the last night at a Las Vegas bar called the Roaring 20s. This sounds straightforward enough, but in fact the bar is actually in New Orleans, not Vegas, and the patrons have been cast to populate the bar and play versions of themselves. It’s “both a grand cinematic deception and a bold filmmaking experimentation,” writes Eric Kohn of IndieWire. Sometimes the cameras can be seen in the mirrors behind the bar, but this doesn’t distract from what Screen Daily's Anthony Kaufman calls a “unique, albeit rarefied example of hybrid cinema that reveals emotional truths through staged reality.” Alissa Wilkinson of Vox claims it’s a “beautifully empathetic work of art,” and adds, “Is the movie fiction? Yes, technically. Is it nonfiction? Not exactly. Is it ‘real’? Absolutely.”

Dick Johnson Is Dead
Documentary | USA | Directed by Kirsten Johnson
Streams sometime in 2020 on Netflix

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Kirsten Johnson’s new documentary might end up being even more highly praised than her universally acclaimed 2016 film Cameraperson. In his review for Variety, Guy Lodge describes Dick Johnson as a “profoundly heartfelt cinematic eulogy to the filmmaker’s living father Richard, made with his good-humored collaboration as he slowly slips into the limbo of Alzheimer’s,” adding that “it also doubles as a witty, thoughtful rumination on death itself, the ways we prepare for it (or don’t), and what may or may not come next.” THR's similarly enthusiastic Todd McCarthy declares this “uniquely wonderful film about family, film, life and death” to be “brilliantly original in every way,” and “one of the craftiest and funniest love letters ever composed.” Johnson picked up a special jury award for "innovation in non-fiction storytelling."

The Dissident
Documentary | USA | Directed by Bryan Fogel

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Director Bryan Fogel, who won an Academy Award for 2017’s Icarus, returns with what THR's Todd McCarthy calls a “grimly riveting work” and “as comprehensive and sobering an account of the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi as one could want.” With access to the Turkish government’s evidence, Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, and his close friend and fellow insurgent, Omar Abdulaziz, Fogel creates a “riveting” and “moving testament to a man whose courage burned too brightly to die with him,” writes Owen Gleiberman of Variety.

The Father
Drama | UK/France | Directed by Florian Zeller
Acquired for an unreported amount by Sony Pictures Classics

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Academy Award winners Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman star in award-winning playwright Florian Zeller’s debut feature about a father slipping into dementia and a daughter trying to care for him. Adapting his own play, Zeller has made an “outstanding directorial debut,” according to THR's Todd McCarthy, who finds it “sharp, teasingly diabolical and, most of all, an account of an insidious disease that’s deadly on point.” While both actors are excellent, it’s Hopkins performance that has stunned critics. In a review for The Guardian, Benjamin Lee calls his performance “devastating,” “breathtaking,” and “incredibly harrowing,” and Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson describes it as a “towering piece of acting that is as precise and exacting as it is enveloping” in a film that is “an act of understanding, radical in its toughness and its generous artistry.” Could another Oscar nomination be in store?

Drama | USA | Directed by Miranda July

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Returning to Sundance where Me and You and Everyone We Know won a Special Jury Prize in 2005, Miranda July premiered her first feature film since 2011’s The Future. It’s also the first of her films in which she has not starred. Instead, Evan Rachel Wood takes on the role a younger July might have played, and excels (according to critics) as Old Dolio, who has been trained her whole life to be a con artist like her parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger). When an outgoing stranger (Gina Rodriguez) is introduced to the family, Old Dolio begins to imagine a new life for herself in what is, according to Tim Grierson of Screen Daily, a “beautifully bizarre film whose considerable strangeness allows for sharp observations about family, loneliness and the terror of emotional intimacy.” Variety's Peter Debruge believes it “all builds, in a wonderfully roundabout way, to one of the great romances in cinema history — although maybe only we weirdos who identify as Miranda July fans will recognize it as such.”

The Nest
Drama | UK/Canada | Directed by T. Sean Durkin

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It has been nine years since writer-director Sean Durkin won the Sundance Directing Award for his debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene. He returned this year with his second feature, a family drama starring Jude Law as Rory, a former commodities broker who convinces his American wife (Carrie Coon) and children to relocate to England in the 1980s so he can rejoin his old firm. They move into a country manor, but when Rory’s scheme at work falls through, debts begin to mount and cracks begin to form within the family. The film doesn’t quite work for IndieWire's Eric Kohn: “In Durkin’s icy, slow-burn drama, every frame benefits from masterful composition. Carrie Coon and Jude Law deliver sizzling performances defined by mutual indignation, but it ultimately amounts to little more than talent spinning its wheels on both sides of the camera.” However, in her review for THR, Leslie Felperin claims this “beautifully modulated chamber piece” may not have “the same surprising newness that juiced the debut of Martha Marcy, but it casts an ineffable spell nevertheless.” That spell worked on Jessica Kiang as well. She gives the film an A in her review for The Playlist: “The Nest is a somber, grown-up sort of movie, made with remarkable poise and maturity, and a level of craft so compelling it can be difficult to tear your eyes from the screen.”

Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Drama | USA | Directed by Eliza Hittman
In theaters March 13

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After earning critical acclaim for her first two features (It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats, which earned her the Directing Award in 2017), writer-director Eliza Hittman returned to Sundance with what Mary Sollosi of EW calls an “urgent, extraordinary film.” The focus is on Autumn, a quiet teenager growing up in rural Pennsylvania who has no viable options to terminate an unintended pregnancy. When her cousin Skylar gathers up enough money to get to New York City, their predicament doesn’t get any easier. The Playlist's Jason Bailey believes this is Hittman’s “strongest work to date,” and Jordan Raup of The Film Stage agrees, writing, “While Never Rarely Sometimes Always is her most straight-forward film yet, it’s also her most powerful, culminating in a sensitive, stirring experience free from heavy-handed sensationalism.” Lastly, Kate Erbland of IndieWire praises the film as a “searing examination of the current state of this country’s finicky abortion laws and the medical professionals tasked with enforcing them,” as well as a “singular look at what it means to be a teenage girl today, and with all the joy and pain that comes with it.” Hittman received a special jury award (for "neo-realism") for her work as director and screenwriter of the film.

On the Record
Documentary | USA | Directed by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick

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Shrouded in controversy prior to its premiere due to producer Oprah Winfrey and distributor Apple TV+ pulling their support from the project, this documentary (from The Invisible War filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering) about the women who have come forward to publicly accuse hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual assault nonetheless earned excellent reviews from critics. Focusing on former music executive Drew Dixon’s story allows audiences to “come away with a more devastating understanding of the price extracted by sexual violence, and the insidious ways it can remain hidden from the world,” according to Owen Gleiberman of Variety. Also praising the film are Fionnuala Halligan of Screen Daily, who finds it “revelatory, moving, and honest,” and THR's Beandrea July, who believes it’s a “stunning feat of complexity that’s both contained and expansive.”

Palm Springs
Comedy | USA | Directed by Max Barbakow
Acquired by Hulu and Neon for $17.5 million (and 69 cents)

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A raunchy romantic comedy produced by the Lonely Island and starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti broke the record for the biggest sale ever at Sundance by a margin of 69 cents (for a total of $17,500,000.69 from Hulu and Neon). According to the AV Club's A.A. Dowd, it might actually be worth that price, for the film is “a sadly rare thing: a sweet, madly inventive, totally mainstream romantic comedy, buoyed by inspired jolts of comic violence.” Written by Andia Siara and director Max Barbakow (both making their feature debuts), the film riffs on Groundhog Day, placing both Samberg and Milioti in a time loop at a destination wedding. IndieWire's David Ehrlich doesn’t find the plot “especially novel” but “each scene is just sweet, funny, and demented enough to feel like a little surprise.” Writing for The Playlist, Robert Daniels claims this “fabulous adventure in love and growth” adds “meaning to the seeming meaninglessness of life, with infectious fun and introspective pleasure to boot.”

Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by Josephine Decker

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In 2018, Josephine Decker’s Madeline's Madeline premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to excellent reviews. In 2020, she has repeated that feat with this unconventional portrait of author Shirley Jackson. Based on Sarah Gubbins’s adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel, Shirley focuses on the relationship between Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), her husband (Michael Stuhlbarg), and the young couple (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) who board in their home. Along with immense praise for Moss’s performance, critics like The Guardian's Benjamin Lee believe the film is a “thrillingly perverse example of what happens when the shackles of biopic formula are cast aside.” And in his review for The Playlist, Jason Bailey declares this “spellbinding picture” to be “another fine vehicle for the strange and beautiful way” Decker sees the world. Decker received a special jury award for "auteur filmmaking."

Welcome to Chechnya
Documentary | USA | Directed by David France
Acquired by HBO prior to the start of the festival

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Following How to Survive a Plague and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, David France’s third feature documentary is an urgent look at the ongoing genocide of LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya. France embeds with an activist group trying to evacuate the persecuted and uses face-altering technology (not unlike that used in The Irishman) to protect the identity of those giving first-person accounts. Despite some misgivings about the “film’s graphic depictions of violence, which cross lines at times,” IndieWire's Jude Dry believes this is a “vital and urgent portrait of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.” In his review for THR, David Rooney describes it as “hard-hitting, emotionally charged and frequently distressing,” and Film Threat's Norman Gidney believes it is “tour de force documentary filmmaking on a level rarely seen.”

Other notable debuts (neither great nor terrible)

The 40-Year-Old Version
Comedy | USA | Directed by Radha Blank

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In her feature debut, Radha Blank writes, directs, and stars as Radha, a once-promising playwright who reinvigorates her creativity when she begins rapping. It’s a humorous, semi-autobiographical tale that looks at the way black artists compromise their work for white audiences. Writing for TheWrap, Candice Frederick claims it’s a “fresh, honest, entertaining, yet flawed look at a black artist—both Radha and Blank herself—in the process of defining herself. It’s invigorating to see.” While Indiewire's Eric Kohn suggests the film be edited down from its 129-minute runtime, he also admits, “Blank is so adroit at populating her story with shrewd observations and her own infectious personality that even its loose structure vibes with the nature of the movie, which maintains the rascally energy of an early Spike Lee joint while channeling a fresh new voice.” Blank won the festival's top directing award, and it looks like Netflix is close to acquiring the black-and-white film, though nothing was finalized at press time.

Documentary | USA | Directed by Ryan White

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The new documentary from filmmaker Ryan White (Ask Dr. Ruth, The Case Against 8) investigates the murder of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's half-brother, Kim Jong-nam. White introduces the two women duped into becoming assassins, Siti Aisyah, and Doan Thi, and then covers their trial. “It’s a Kafka-esque and sometimes darkly comic tale of deception and exploitation that makes for a smartly assembled and eminently topical film that arrives at a crucial juncture in world affairs,” writes Justin Lowe in his review for THR. Variety's Owen Gleiberman thinks it’s a "terrific true-crime story, but it’s also a documentary thriller about the new world disorder.”

Bad Hair
Horror/Comedy | USA | Directed by Justin Simien
Acquired by Hulu for more than $8 million (theatrical distributor tbd)

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Justin Simien’s debut feature, Dear White People, premiered at Sundance in 2014, leading to a Netflix series adaptation which will be entering its fourth season this year. His second feature, a horror-comedy set in 1989 Los Angeles, takes place at an MTV-like cable network. Elle Lorraine, making her feature-film debut in a universally praised performance, stars as Anna, an aspiring on-air host who has everything it takes to succeed—except the right hair. Taking a cue from her new boss, Anna grudgingly gets a weave, but she soon discovers that her new hair literally has a mind of its own. In her review for Variety, Amy Nicholson praises Bad Hair as a “delightfully macabre horror-dramedy,” and TheWrap's Monica Castillo claims it’s a “creepy movie with thoughtful political twists and thrilling supernatural turns.” A.A. Dowd of the AV Club believes the film has a solid emotional and satirical core but is “also lumpy and overlong.” THR's David Rooney is also ambivalent, concluding, “Despite many deliriously enjoyable sequences, this is thin material, only fitfully funny, messily executed and more silly than scary, which makes it bit of a disappointment.”

Beast Beast
Drama | USA | Directed by Danny Madden

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Writer-director Danny Madden expands his own short, Krista, to make his feature-length debut with this naturalistic look at two teenagers and their gun-loving neighbor living in a small southern town. Shirley Chen reprises her role as Krista, and TheWrap's Yolanda Machado thinks she is “remarkable.” Beandrea July of THR praises all three young actors for their “solid performances that make them effortless tour guides through their intersecting stories” in this “imminently watchable” film. However, Matt Cipolla’s review for The Film Stage claims the film has “no real point of view, no real specificity beyond its sense of atmosphere,” resulting not in a “bad movie” but an “empty one.”

Charm City Kings
Drama | USA | Directed by Angel Manuel Soto

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Inspired by the documentary 12 O'Clock Boys, this coming-of-age film set in Baltimore follows 14-year-old Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) as he’s pulled between the biker gang of the title and becoming a veterinarian. Directed by Angel Manuel Soto, the film is a “likable, if formulaic, charmer,” according to Amy Nicholson of Variety, and Screen Daily's Anthony Kaufman finds it "poignant and clichéd.” However, Robert Daniels gives the film A in his review for The Playlist, praising Winston’s performance and Soto’s ability to craft an “incredible empathetic narrative” full of “freedom and danger, love and grief, and the pitfalls of childhood heroes.”

Dream Horse
Drama | UK | Directed by Euros Lyn
In theaters May 1

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Based on the true story covered in director Louise Osmond’s Sundance Audience Award-winning documentary Dark Horse, this “thoroughly predictable but ultimately winning underdog sports movie” has “got spirit and finishes strong,” according to Tim Grierson of Screen Daily. Toni Collette stars as Jan Vokes, a Welsh bartender who creates a racing syndicate with a local accountant and racing enthusiast (played by Damian Lewis) and other locals to buy a horse they dub Dream Alliance. Directed by Euros Lyn, this crowd-pleasing adaptation is, in the eyes of /Film's Ben Pearson, an “entertaining, diverting little romp that will make you chuckle, cheer, and maybe even tear up.”

Drama | Canada/UK/Denmark | Directed by Viggo Mortensen

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Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut cuts between the past and the present to illuminate the relationship between John (Mortensen), a gay man living with his partner and daughter in California, and Willis (Lance Henriksen), his racist, misogynistic, homophobic father who’s suffering from dementia. Jordan Raup of The Film Stage finds the narrative “one-note” and “plodding.” And in his C– review for The Playlist, Robert Daniels calls the film “lurid and soulless.” But the positive reviews outweigh the negative ones, with THR's John DeFore deeming it a “masterful family drama taking a compassionate view of a father whose faults are impossible to ignore.” Writes TheWrap‘s Steve Pond, “The filmmaking is subtle, but the emotions it explores are not.”

The Fight
Documentary | USA | Directed by Eli B. Despres and Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman
Acquired by Magnolia and Topic Studios for an unreported amount between $1-$5 million

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In their new documentary, Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Despres, the filmmakers behind Weiner, profile four ACLU lawyers as they try cases in the wake of Trump’s election. The Playlist's Christian Gallichio feels the focus on four different lawsuits results in the film being “unable to give appropriate time to a single one,” and Amy Nicholson of Variety wishes the film went “deeper into how, exactly, these lawyers use the Constitution as a cape.” But IndieWire's Kate Erbland believes “what starts as a blandly divided documentary eventually finds its way to something inspiring, infuriating, and unbounded by old ideas.” The three directors were awarded a special jury award for "social impact filmmaking."

The Glorias
Drama | USA | Directed by Julie Taymor

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To tell the story of Gloria Steinem’s life, writer-director Julie Taymor (Across the Universe, Frida) takes an unconventional approach, using four actresses (Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Lulu Wilson, Alicia Vikander, and Julianne Moore) to portray the legendary feminist. Based on Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road, the film has the actresses interact with each other and finds time for Taymor’s imaginative visuals, but some critics like Clint Worthington of CoS believes the film tries to tackle too much: “As a well-acted, middlebrow history lesson of the feminist movement, there’s a lot to admire in the energy and passion of The Glorias. But it bogs itself down in trying to cover every single aspect of Steinem’s life.” Variety's Owen Gleiberman, while more positive on the movie overall, agrees, writing “The film is acted with great flair and emotional precision, and it’s been staged by Taymor with vividly detailed historical flavor, yet it tells Steinem’s story in a way that’s more wide than deep.” More enthusiastic are Tim Grierson of Screen Daily, who thinks Taymor has “crafted an exceedingly thoughtful portrait” and IndieWire's Kate Erbland, who finds the film “wonderfully inventive.”

Drama | Ireland/UK | Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Acquired by Amazon for an unreported amount

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Theater and opera director Phyllida Lloyd’s third feature film (following Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady) lacks her usual star Meryl Streep, but it might be the director’s best yet. Co-writer (with Malcolm Campbell) Clare Dunne stars as Sandra, a young single mother of two who must find a new home after another attack from her abusive ex-husband. With a housing crisis in Dublin, Sandra decides to build her own house, resulting in what The Playlist's Dilara Elbir believes is a “deeply empathetic, sharply observed” film with “terrifically moving performances.” In her review for THR, Leslie Felperin notes that Dunne’s performance is stronger than her script, but Peter Debruge of Variety believes the film is so good, “Lloyd could be the sixth woman to break the Oscars’ glass ceiling — that is, assuming the right distributor recognizes the niche this film fills, and how brilliantly Lloyd does it.”

TV/Documentary | USA | Directed by Nanette Burstein
Miniseries debuts March 6 on Hulu

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Hulu's upcoming four-part documentary tracing the life of Hillary Rodham Clinton (which debuts next month on the streaming service) made its world premiere at Sundance, where it screened in its entirety. Directed by Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture), who had access to the former secretary of state and presidential candidate throughout filming, Hillary "isn’t just a defense of Hillary Clinton, but a nuanced examination of why we don’t yet have a female president," according to IndieWire's Ben Travers. Several other reviewers also are finding it insightful, but THR critic Inkoo Kang is a bit less appreciative, warning that the documentary's timing and its rehashing of "deeply familiar territory" with "little new information" renders it mostly irrelevant. And Variety's Caroline Framke warns of problems with the episodic structure (which seems forced) and finds Hillary to be a "fittingly messy, compelling portrait of an equally messy, compelling person," but still "far more overwhelming than enlightening."

Horse Girl
Drama | USA | Directed by Jeff Baena
Streams February 7 on Netflix

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Co-written by director Jeff Baena (The Little Hours) and star Alison Brie, Horse Girl begins like a standard indie rom-com about a quirky girl and the new guy she meets, only to take a sharp turn to explore mental illness in an imaginative way. This shift worked more for some critics than others. The Playlist's Jason Bailey thinks Baena “just doesn’t have the visual acumen to pull off this kind of wild reinvention, or to take this narrative into the dark places they clearly want it to go.” But in her review for Variety, Jessica Kiang calls the film “rare and piercingly compassionate” with Brie’s “totally inhabited” performance making the film a “challenging but moving and valuable watch — and an uncompromising corrective to the kind of storytelling that uses a person’s (often a woman’s) psychological fragility as a wacky narrative device, or a problem to be solved (often by a man), or an interesting way to accessorize an otherwise dowdy personality.”

Drama | UK | Directed by Dominic Cooke
Acquired by Lionsgate for an unreported amount (likely in the $4-$6 million range)

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Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach) directs Benedict Cumberbatch in this based-on-a-true story spy thriller set during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cumberbatch plays Greville Wynne, a typical businessman who is recruited by British intelligence and a CIA official (Rachel Brosnahan) to make contact with a Soviet informant. Described as about as “meat-and-potatoes as its real-life hero” by John Defore of THR, and “dad cinema down to its core” by IndieWire's David Ehrlich, this slightly above-average political drama “has a ripping story to tell, but not always the most gripping way to tell it,” according to Tim Grierson of Screen Daily.

Lost Girls
Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by Liz Garbus
Streams March 13 on Netflix

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Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?, Bobby Fischer Against the World) makes the leap from documentary to narrative filmmaking with this adaptation of Robert Kolker’s true-crime book about the unsolved Long Island Serial Killer case. Amy Ryan stars as Mari Gilbert, a desperate mother whose eldest daughter, Shannan, goes missing. Her determination to find Shannan leads to the discovery of more than a dozen unsolved murders of girls like her daughter. THR's David Rooney thinks Garbus “struggles to find the pulse in the story and her skill with actors is not sufficiently developed to create much spark among the characters, despite some fiery speeches.” But other critics believe Garbus is successful in her first outing. Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com believes “she’s made a film with all the power of great non-fiction storytelling, and found a way to make the emotional message of this story hit home in a way that it wouldn’t have otherwise.” And Variety critic Owen Gleiberman calls the film “haunted and doggedly original” and praises the director, “As a storyteller, Garbus works with a no-fuss rhythm and flow, holding the audience in the palm of her hand.”

TV/Documentary | USA | Directed by James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte
Miniseries debuts February 3 on HBO

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Debuting Monday on HBO after premiering three of its six episodes at Sundance, this bizarre true-crime tale recounts the attempts of an ex-cop to build a nationwide conspiracy with the goal of rigging the Monopoly contest at McDonalds. He succeeded—for a while, at least—in stealing millions of dollars (and, we assume, countless hot fudge sundaes), but the fact that this miniseries exists should be your first hint that things don't end well for anyone involved. Critics note some generic filmmaking that is mostly overcome by a surprising, entertaining, and surprisingly humorous underlying story that plays like "it came from the keyboard of a Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard," according to Hollywood Reporter TV critic Dan Fienberg. But Variety's Daniel D'Addario worries more about the filmmakers' reliance on "artless devices" like reenactments that suggests they may be "making purposefully tacky and unappealing choices in order to convey their ideas of their subjects."

Mucho Mucho Amor
Documentary | USA | Directed by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch
Acquired by Netflix for an unreported amount

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Directors Cristina Costantini (Sundance 2018 Audience Award winner Science Fair) and Kareem Tabsch (The Last Resort) team up for this profile of Puerto Rican astrologer and psychic Walter Mercado, a legendary TV fixture for decades. THR's Stephen Farber thinks it’s a “vivid portrait of an unconventional astrologer” that could use some “sharper editing.” But in his review for TheWrap, Carlos Aguilar praises the “lucid editing job” of Tom Maroney and Carlos David Rivera, and deems this tribute “as inspired and jubilant as its majestic subject.”

The Night House
Horror/Thriller | USA | Directed by David Bruckner
Acquired by Searchlight for approximately $12 million

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Based on a script by Super Dark Times writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, this second solo outing for director David Bruckner really turns the volume up on its audience (several critics noted how loud the movie is) and its protagonist, a widow, played by Rebecca Hall, who believes she is being haunted by her recently deceased husband. Variety's Dennis Harvey believes the film is “ultimately somewhat muddled and unmemorable as storytelling, but it pulls off what’s arguably the most crucial matter of simply being pretty chilling.” In his review for Slashfilm, Chris Evangelista admits that Night House “wants to do a lot of things. It wants to be a compelling mystery-thriller; it wants to be a portrait of crushing, even existential grief; and it wants to scare the shit out of you. It’s mostly successful on all those fronts, primarily thanks to Hall’s performance and Bruckner’s direction.”

Nine Days
Drama/Fantasy | USA | Directed by Edson Oda

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Writer-director Edson Oda won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for his feature debut, a metaphysical tale starring Winston Duke as Will, a man tasked with testing five candidates for the privilege of being born. Arianna Ortiz, Bill Skarsgård, David Rysdahl, Tony Hale, and Zazie Beets play the souls. The execution of this concept didn’t wholly work for IndieWire's Eric Kohn, who writes, “It’s an enchanting fantasy bookended with genuine emotional beats. Somewhere in between them, however, it settles into a dreary slog bogged down by repetitive existential blather over the course of two hours, as if enmeshed in a soul-searching journey of its own.” But Peter Debruge of Variety sees something different: a film of “dizzying conceptual ambition” and a “rare work of art that invites you to re-consider your entire worldview.”

The Nowhere Inn
Comedy/Music | USA | Directed by Bill Benz

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The setup of this meta-mockumentary has musician Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, hiring her (real-life) friend Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia fame to make a documentary about her tour. The joke is that Clark is actually very boring when off-stage. For IndieWire's Eric Kohn, this conceit results in a “mesmerizing seriocomic descent into the madness of modern fame.” Other critics, however, were less enthusiastic. In her review for Variety, Amy Nicholson asserts that Clark and Brownstein’s “performing styles don’t mesh,” producing a “fun riff performed on flimsy strings.” And Clint Worthington of CoS claims the “ruse gets old fast, and by the millionth time Clark has frustrated Brownstein with one sub-Madonna stunt after another, we’re left wondering if this wouldn’t have been snappier as a half-hour Portlandia episode.”

The Painter and the Thief
Documentary | Norway | Directed by Benjamin Ree

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For his latest documentary, Norwegian director Benjamin Ree (Magnus) spent three years filming the evolving relationship between Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova and Karl-Bertil Nordland, one of two men who stole two of her paintings from an Oslo art gallery. After approaching Nordland at his criminal hearing, Kysilkova asks if she can paint his portrait, beginning a lasting bond that results in what Stephen Whitty of Screen Daily describes as an “intriguing tale of lost souls and found redemption.” THR's Todd McCarthy believes this “unusual look at the slipperiness of the human condition” represents “how messy life can be,” and in his review for Variety, Peter Debruge simply declares it an “astonishing documentary.”

Sci-fi/Thriller | Canada/UK | Directed by Brandon Cronenberg

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In a case of the apple not falling far from the tree, David Cronenberg’s son Brandon (Antiviral) directs this stylishly violent futuristic tale of assassins who inhabit other people’s bodies. Andrea Riseborough plays the agent of death, and Christopher Abbott is the man she tries to inhabit. With his sophomore feature, “Cronenberg seems paralyzed by all of the possibilities he wants to pursue,” writes David Ehrlich in his B– review for IndieWire. But Slashfilm's Chris Evangelista sees a “singular work—one so ghastly, so unique, and so brutal that it will awe some and disgust others.”

Promising Young Woman
Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by Emerald Fennell

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Emerald Fennell has written four novels, played Camilla Parker Bowles (née Shand) on The Crown, been the head writer for the second season of Killing Eve, and now has written and directed her first feature film. The latter is a twisty revenger thriller starring Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a barista by day and avenging angel by night. When a former classmate (Bo Burnham) re-enters Cassie’s life, she focuses her attention on those involved in the death of her best friend. THR's Todd McCarthy believes Fennell “shows real nerve and skill both as a storyteller and commentator on contemporary dynamics between women and men.” In her review for IndieWire, Kate Erbland agrees, writing, “Fennell’s panache for genre-bending absolutely rules, and Promising Young Woman manages to be funny and sexy and smart and absolutely terrifying, all in one stylish package.”

Drama/Comedy | USA | Directed by Carlos López Estrada

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Blindspotting's Carlos López Estrada has directed a “conceptually adventurous but sometimes rather exhaustingly earnest second feature, according to A.A. Dowd of the AV Club. The film captures the lives of 25 Angelinos on a hot summer day through López Estrada’s collaboration with 25 young poets, who express themselves in their own verse, creating a loose narrative tableau of Los Angeles youth. For some reviewers like THR's John DeFore, the result is a “hodgepodge” with “the occasional lovely or eloquent moment” overshadowed by “material that grates on all but the most forgiving ear.” However, other critics really fell for it. Tim Grierson of Screen Daily thinks it’s a “deeply touching tapestry that celebrates the diversity and cultural richness of LA,” and Carlos Aguilar’s rave review for TheWrap calls the film a “rapturous whirlwind of truth.”

Drama | USA | Directed by Michael Almereyda

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Writer-director Michael Almereyda (Marjorie Prime) reunites with his Hamlet star, Ethan Hawke, for what IndieWire's David Ehrlich describes as a “scientist biopic so anachronistic and unmoored that it makes his Experimenter seem like a Ken Burns documentary by comparison.” Narrated by J.P. Morgan’s daughter, Anne (Eve Hewson), who pursued a romance with Nikola Tesla (but most assuredly did not use a laptop as she does in this movie), and starring Kyle MacLachlan as Thomas Edison and Jim Gaffigan as George Westinghouse, the film is an “unapologetically ambitious, unwaveringly singular take” full of “messy creativity,” according to Dan Mecca of The Film Stage. And THR's David Rooney agrees, “The meeting here of Almereyda's scholarly side with a consuming interest in understanding Tesla on a human level makes for a character study charged with constantly surprising vitality, even when it's making loopy choices that don't entirely work.”

Drama | USA | Directed by Sara Colangelo

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For her third feature, director Sara Colangelo (The Kindergarten Teacher, Little Accidents) takes on a difficult true story: How did Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton) put a value on the lives lost on 9/11 and create the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund? Stanley Tucci plays Charles Wolf, Feinberg’s main adversary, and their scenes together are “worth the price of admission,” according to Dan Mecca of The Film Stage, noting “Colangelo is a strong director of actors, but Borenstein’s script lets her down a bit.” More enthusiastic about the film as a whole, The Guardian's Benjamin Lee calls it the “most effective film [he’s] seen to date on the tragedy of 9/11 while also being one of the most sensitive and restrained.”

Drama | USA | Directed by Janicza Bravo

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Based on A’ziah King’s tweet thread and David Kushner’s subsequent Rolling Stone article, and written for the screen by director Janicza Bravo (Lemon) and playwright Jeremy O. Harris, Zola brings to cinemas what began with one tweet: “You wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” “This bitch” is named Stefani, and she is played by Riley Keough. She invites King aka Zola, played by Taylour Paige, on a road trip to Florida to work at some strip clubs. What could go wrong in what Justin Chang of LA Times calls a “gleefully amoral firecracker of a movie”? If they haven’t read the tweets, viewers will discover why the girls “fell out,” and it’s a “bumpy ride but definitely one worth taking,” according to The Guardian's Benjamin Lee. Jessica Kiang of The Playlist believes the trip is “empowering, saddening, amusing and aggravating in roughly equal measure.” Less enthused, Peter Debruge writes in his review for Variety, “Sure, it’s fun to see a movie skewer the vapid soullessness of social media and the unregulated economy of male desire, but Zola ultimately rings hollow.”

The disappointments

Blast Beat
Drama | USA | Directed by Esteban Arango

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Colombian American writer-director Esteban Arango’s feature debut is based on his 2015 short of the same name. This coming-of-age story follows two brothers (real-life siblings Mateo and Moises Arias) and their parents as they immigrate to the U.S. from Colombia and discover the American dream isn’t what they imagined. THR's David Rooney finds it to be a “curiously uninvolving drama that attempts to mine contemporary reality but comes up only with something trite and formulaic.” But in his review for TheWrap, Carlos Aguilar embraces the film as a “rare work of art that viscerally understands the immigrant experience but is cerebral enough not to oversimplify it, allowing it to appear messy and imperfect, and all the more truthful for it.”

Drama/Comedy | France | Directed by Maïmouna Doucouré
Streams this spring (date tbd) on Netflix

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French director Maïmouna Doucouré's feature debut illustrates the collision of tradition and rebellion via an 11-year-old Senegalese Muslim named Amy. She becomes infatuated with joining her neighbor’s dance group, and once she does, she pushes them to perform a more sexualized routine at a local dance contest. Doucouré won the festival's directing award in the world cinema section, but reviewers were less positive than the jury. Variety's Amy Nicholson finds the film as “subtle as a headache,” and David Rooney of THR claims it’s “stronger on setup than development or payoff,” especially when it comes to the “unearned and disappointingly facile” last image. On the other hand, in his review for TheWrap, Carlos Aguilar lauds the film’s “infectiously reckless joie de vivre” and the final shot, which he describes as a “cinematic chef’s kiss that wraps Amy’s innocence in a safe embrace.”

Comedy/Drama | USA | Directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon
In theaters February 14

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This American adaptation of Ruben Östlund’s excellent Force Majeure still takes place at a European ski resort. But beyond the basic beats of the story, that’s about all it has in common with the incisive dark comedy of the original. Written by Jesse Armstrong (Succession) and co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Way Way Back), Downhill stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell as Billie and Pete, a couple whose family vacation takes a turn for the worse after Pete’s cowardly actions during a controlled avalanche disappoint Billie. Some critics seem to like it, to an extent. Jake Kring-Schreifels of The Film Stage thinks it’s a “fine movie—perceptive, sensitive, and inoffensive,” and Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson believes “Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell have a credible chemistry,” and it’s a “worthy enough film when one doesn’t compare it to its sterling predecessor.”

For critics that disliked the film, three issues repeatedly surfaced: Ferrell’s casting, the directors’ inability to control the tone of the picture, and the need for it to exist in the first place. Both The Guardian's Benjamin Lee and The Playlist's Jason Bailey ponder that last question, which Alonso Duralde succinctly explains in his review for TheWrap: “If you’re going to have the hubris to remake a good movie, you’d better be prepared to bring some exciting new ideas or fresh approaches to the material. The appropriately titled Downhill does neither.”

Drama | France/Luxembourg/Belgium | Directed by Zoé Wittock

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Here's one E-ticket ride you may want to skip. Zoé Wittock’s feature film debut explores objectophilia, the sexual or romantic desire for inanimate objects. Inspired by the story of Erika Eiffel, who “married” the Eiffel Tower, the film focuses on Jeanne (Portrait of a Lady on Fire breakout Noémie Merlant), a shy young woman who lives with her uninhibited mother (Emmanuelle Bercot) and works nights at the local amusement park. During one of her shifts, she finds herself attracted to a new Tilt-A-Whirl ride she names Jumbo. TheWrap's Robert Abele believes the “best one can say about Jumbo is that in its bid for a new romantic extreme it spins with abandon, which makes it watchable if not exactly compelling as something you can get swept up in, too.” However, in his review for IndieWire, David Ehrlich has slightly kinder words, noting that “none of Wittock’s rookie mistakes can stop her debut from being a ride worth taking,” thanks to the "evocative and beguilingly erotic” scenes between Jeanne and Jumbo.

The Last Thing He Wanted
Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by Dee Rees
Streams February 21 on Netflix

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Based on the strength of her previous Sundance films (Pariah and Mudbound), an impressive cast (Anne Hathaway, Willem Dafoe, Ben Affleck), and exciting source material (Joan Didion 1996 novel), expectations were high for Dee Rees’ latest feature. Unfortunately, this February 21 Netflix release left Sundance as the festival’s biggest disappointment. Hathaway plays a journalist and single mom who is pulled into an arms deal by her ailing father (Dafoe). Affleck plays a shady government official who shares a past with Hathaway. The Playlist's Jason Bailey admits the film is “a bit of a mess” but believes it’s also “compelling, energetic, and well-acted.” But few other reviewers are as kind. In her review for Variety, Tomris Laffly notes that “the filmmaker’s panache only goes so far here, failing to translate the unnecessarily complicated script into something coherent to watch.” And Jordan Raup of the The Film Stage is even harsher, calling the film “impossibly dull, gratingly lethargic, and utterly incoherent.”

Uncle Frank
Drama | USA | Directed by Alan Ball
Acquired by Amazon for approximately $12 million

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Alan Ball’s second feature as writer-director earned mixed reviews when it premiered. The writer behind American Beauty, Six Feet Under and True Blood sets his film in 1973 as Beth (Sophia Lillis), her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) and his longtime partner Wally (Peter Macdissi) travel from New York City to rural South Carolina after the passing of Frank’s father. Bettany’s performance as the struggling-to-come-out Frank is a strength of the film, and Variety's Dennis Harvey finds this “nuanced plea for loving acceptance” to be “well-cast and gracefully handled.” But in his review for The Film Stage, Dan Mecca writes, “Uncle Frank the character is a bit more compelling than Uncle Frank the film.” And that film is simply a “hot mess” according to THR's Leslie Felperin.

Drama/Fantasy | USA | Directed by Benh Zeitlin
In theaters February 28

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If you liked Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild then odds are you’ll also like his latest film, a reimagining of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan that finds Wendy and her brothers whisked off to an island without grownups. But if you didn’t fall for that 2012 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, then don’t expect to feel differently about this film, because one of the main complaints it that Zeitlin is repeating himself. The AV Club's A.A. Dowd claims it’s “insufferably precious and weirdly dull,” but it is “apropos subject matter, as Zeitlin is apparently something of a lost boy himself, stubbornly refusing to grow.” Similarly, Variety critic Peter Debruge writes, “What felt so revolutionary in 2012 is no less visionary today, but packs a disappointing sense of familiarity this time around.” While slightly more positive, Leah Greenblatt of EW complains that Zeitlin “tends to strip away nearly every necessary aspect of plot and character development in his strenuous pursuit of whimsy.” On the positive side, Steve Pond, in his review for TheWrap, finds the film “exhilarating and deeply moving,” adding “Maybe some people will think Zeitlin is revisiting the style and themes of ‘Beasts’ a little too closely, but that movie was thrilling and so is this one.”


All photos above courtesy of Sundance Institute.



Comments (1)

  • kayhamed  

    I feel none of them are worth watching!!!

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