These days, the chatter that circulates at the Sundance Film Festival keeps returning to the same questions: Are this year’s indie hopefuls good, or are movies dead?
In Sundance terms, quality stems from a sense of discovery. When there’s nothing as singular and galvanizing as “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Boyhood” or “The Farewell,” the whole thing can feel like a dud. That’s especially true when the festival devotes so much of its slate to titles already acquired by streaming services. The films that played Park City, Utah’s largest theater on opening night last week were “Crip Camp” and “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana,” two Netflix documentaries using Sundance as little more than a promotional launchpad. Meanwhile, the biggest headline-maker has been the Hillary Clinton docuseries that hits Hulu in March. Movies are by no means dead, but they don’t feel particularly alive either.
Even without one or two overwhelming discoveries at Sundance this year, no one can claim there weren’t gems sprinkled throughout the 11-day festival, which concluded on Sunday. In fact, I saw more hits than misses, although there were plenty in the latter camp, too (“Wendy,” “The Glorias,” “Nine Days”). We’ll certainly be talking about “Promising Young Woman,” “Minari,” “Zola” and others in the months to come. Furthermore, a record-setting 46 percent of the films in competition were directed by women.
Here’s something amusing that happened along the way: Neon and Hulu tacked an extra 69 cents onto the $17.5 million price tag for “Palm Springs,” allowing the Andy Samberg comedy to top 2016’s embattled “Birth of a Nation” as the costliest purchase in Sundance history. Amid the existential quandaries floating across the Utah mountains, at least someone had a sense of humor.
Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to see “Palm Springs,” so I can’t say whether it merited such a lofty sum. Of the few dozen movies I did catch, here are the best of the bunch, starting with two that shined especially bright.
The highlights of Sundance 2020:
Best in Show: "Promising Young Woman"
If a more electric movie opens in the first half of 2020, it will be a miracle. The bracing, audacious “Promising Young Woman” is the sort of thing Hollywood should be making all the time, a scorched-earth treatise with massive entertainment value that twists and turns from one shock to the next. Even more astounding, it’s a directorial debut. Emerald Fennell served as the showrunner on Season 2 of “Killing Eve” and has acted in “Call the Midwife” and “The Crown,” but this film plays like the work of someone with half a dozen features under her belt. Leaving the theater, I felt giddy.
The subject matter sounds tough, and at times it is. The promising young woman in question is Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan), a fashionable 29-year-old café server still living with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown). For complex reasons, Cassie has turned an elaborate rape-revenge scheme into her cherished pastime. Pretending to be sloshed, she lets sleazy guys take her home, knowing they will violate the boundaries of consent. Before they can go too far, she unclothes her sobriety and launches mind games that expose them for the degenerates they are. But that’s only the beginning of Cassie’s story. What follows is best left unspoiled. In drips and drops, Fennell reveals Cassie’s history and expands her world, including a charming new love interest (Bo Burnham) who tests her aversion to romance.
Given that synopsis, you might be surprised to hear that “Promising Young Woman” is as hilarious as it is furious. Cassie sports a pastel manicure that matches the film’s poppy color scheme, both offering a telling wink at the audience: Nothing is as it seems. The longer “Woman” lasts, the more it subverts where you think it’s headed.
Fennell, who also wrote the script, isn’t satisfied with concrete notions of heroism and villainy. Some of her bolder choices will be polarizing, but that’s what makes this film a treat. It’s unpredictable and cleverly cast (look out for a parade of crush-worthy actors like Adam Brody, Max Greenfield and Sam Richardson), with a soundtrack that peaks with Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” and a piercing instrumental cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” I can’t wait to see it again, and again, and again.
“Promising Young Woman” opens in theaters April 17.
Best in Show, Runner-Up: "Dick Johnson Is Dead"
The world is hardly hurting for movies about death, unless they’re as inventive, illuminating and heart-bursting as “Dick Johnson Is Dead.” Documentarian Kirsten Johnson (“Cameraperson”) trains the camera on her father, an effervescent 86-year-old whose fading memory forces him to retire from his psychiatry practice and move in with his daughter.
The premise sounds bleak, yet the results are anything but. In fact, this may have been the funniest movie at Sundance. Exploring the contours of mortality, the Johnson duo find humor wherever they go, from a $666 coffin to Dick’s potentially fatal chocolate-cake obsession. Leaping in and out of fantastical sequences that simulate Dick’s idea of heaven, the film offers a rare life-is-beautiful message that doesn’t feel cloying or manipulative. It’s a snapshot of grief overflowing with joy.
“Dick Johnson Is Dead” premieres on Netflix this year.
In 2018, “Burning” marked Steven Yeun’s first major Korean-language role. He played a shifty cipher, quite the opposite of what he does in “Minari,” a Korean beauty directed by Lee Isaac Chung. Here, he’s an ambitious but stubborn immigrant attempting to build a farm to provide for his family in 1980s Arkansas. His wife (Yeri Han) wants to trust that he’ll pull it off, but things are looking dire for her and their two kids (adorable newcomers Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho). What’s more important: sticking it out or keeping everyone together? She recruits Grandma (Yuh-Jung Youn) for backup, leading to a comedy of manners that questions the validity of the American dream. Handsome and tender, with skies so blue they suggest infinite promise, “Minari” chronicles what it takes to build a new life.
“Minari” opens in theaters this year.
"The Nowhere Inn"
In the age of social media, music documentaries tend to play the same notes. They strive for the authenticity of Bob Dylan's “Dont Look Back” and Madona's “Truth or Dare,” but artists' prudence gets in the way. What results are safe, calculated pseudo-profiles designed to appease admirers (see: “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana”).
That disconnect forms the thesis of “The Nowhere Inn.” Annie Clark, better known as the singer St. Vincent, plays herself in a quest to make a doc that strips away her stage persona to reveal the real person underneath. She hires a friend (Carrie Brownstein, also playing herself) to direct the project, and together they realize Annie has lost sight of where St. Vincent ends and Annie begins. A clever commentary on rock-star mythologization and the gray area that arises when someone is marketed for mass consumption, Bill Benz’s hypnotic film is one for the real fans.
“The Nowhere Inn” does not yet have a distributor.
The version of ourselves that we present on social media is pure performance, even when we’re documenting true events. “Zola” taps into that dichotomy with panache, dramatizing a viral Twitter saga about the titular Detroit stripper (played by Taylour Paige) who accompanied a virtual stranger (Riley Keough) to Florida on a harried weekend road trip that devolved into sex trafficking and murder.
Online, Zola’s chronicle was spirited, even when things turned dark. It later came to light that some of what she'd described had been embellished. But director Janicza Bravo (“Lemon”) values her protagonist’s perspective enough to accept it as truth, making “Zola” a fun, slightly eerie thrill ride that adopts the internet’s muddled mix of fact and fiction. A less lascivious “Spring Breakers” and a sassier “Hustlers,” the film is a postmodern romp that underscores just how bizarre reality has become.
“Zola” opens in theaters this year.
The Sundance movie we’re likeliest to be talking about when next year’s Oscar race rolls around, “The Father” is a wrenching drama reminiscent of “Amour” and “Away From Her.” Florian Zeller adapted and directed it from his Tony-nominated stage play of the same name, casting Anthony Hopkins as an 80-year-old dementia sufferer named Anthony who resents the care his daughter (Olivia Colman) must provide him day to day. She never knows how uppity his mood will get or which memories might slip away next.
Delivering his richest performance in well over a decade, Hopkins captures the anguish of a man whose disintegrating cognition robs him of autonomy. His whole body wears the effects of his condition. Zeller melds illusions and reality to dramatize Anthony’s fractured mind, giving the film a haze peppered with spurts of dark comedy.
“The Father” opens in theaters this year.
"Welcome to Chechnya"
In Chechnya, a republic of Russia, queer people are being systematically shunned, tortured or killed. David France, the documentarian who charted the American AIDS crisis in “How to Survive a Plague,” explored these brutalities firsthand by embedding himself with an activist group helping LGBTQ folks flee to other countries. The result is “Welcome to Chechnya,” a devastating doc about refugees risking their lives to find solace after being persecuted by their government and often abandoned by their families. It’s gripping, essential viewing.
“Welcome to Chechnya” premieres on HBO in June.
Elisabeth Moss continues her rage streak by playing Shirley Jackson, the gifted horror author who battled depression and addiction while her literary stardom soared. But “Shirley” could hardly be called a biopic. It’s more like an impressionistic psychodrama, with some elements based on Jackson’s life and others fabricated. (“Better Things” scribe Sarah Gubbins adapted the script from Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2015 novel of the same name.) Moss’ Jackson is a cross between Nicole Kidman in “The Hours” and Elizabeth Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — both of which share genes with this film directed by Josephine Decker (“Madeline’s Madeline”).
Struggling to start her second book, Jackson learns that her professor husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) has given a young couple (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) temporary shelter in their large, brooding home. The cohabitation is fraught, thanks largely to Jackson’s mood swings. She launches a domestic war, finding unlikely artistic inspiration along the way. Caustic and hallucinatory, “Shirley” is a feast of words and images blurring together in one poetic cesspool.
“Shirley” does not yet have a distributor.
"Never Rarely Sometimes Always"
In 2017’s “Beach Rats,” director Eliza Hittman told the story of a Brooklyn teenager compartmentalizing his sexuality by hooking up with older men he meets online. Her follow-up, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” revolves around another reticent teen going out of her way to avoid the damnation of her parents and peers, as 17-year-old Autumn (newcomer Sidney Flanigan) treks from rural Pennsylvania to New York City for an abortion.
This coming-of-age tale omits the genre’s typical flourishes. Hittman is a naturalistic filmmaker who shoots in frequent close-ups that speak to Autumn’s withdrawn nature, tracking the emotional and physical journey she takes with the aid of a loyal cousin (Talia Ryder, who will also appear in this year’s “West Side Story” remake). A quiet but riveting look at the lengths one girl must go to find relief, “Never Rarely” is a political screed that manages to center empathy in every frame.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” opens in theaters March 13.
Plus a few must-see performances:
“The Nest” is a welcome return for director Sean Durkin, who hasn’t made a movie since 2011’s hypnotic “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” As a chic equestrian whose husband (Jude Law) uproots their family from America to London, Carrie Coon seethes her way through domestic paranoia, confronting a haunted marriage decaying inside a possibly haunted house.
Miranda July’s work is an acquired taste. “Kajillionaire,” a wry comedy about a family of grifters living on the economic and social fringes, is more ambitious but no less idiosyncratic than her previous efforts. Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins are stellar as the parental figures who don’t do much conventional parenting, but it’s Gina Rodriguez — playing a naive chatterbox joining their cons for kicks — who steals the show.
The psychodrama “Black Bear,” which has shades of “Persona,” “Contempt” and “Her Smell,” stars Aubrey Plaza as a film director who finds inspiration during a peculiar rural retreat.
In “Worth,” a drama about the lawyers who handled the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund, Stanley Tucci plays a grassroots activist who lost his wife in the Twin Towers and fights against the legal team’s impersonal tactics.
“Bad Hair,” a horror satire about a murderous weave directed by “Dear White People” maestro Justin Simien, is crawling with killer performances, particularly those of Elle Lorraine (“Insecure”) as an eager producer at a BET analogue in 1989 and a campy Vanessa Williams as the menacing executive who takes her under her wing.