It may only be February, but these incredible films from Sundance 2020 have already earned their place in the upper echelon of this year’s unmissable movies.
BY: Olivia Hicks, Chris Teufel, and Quinten Sansosti
Dinner in America
Hide your kids and cut their hair, moms and dads, because punk rock isn’t dead and it’s coming for your homefront with Dinner in America, written and directed by Adam Rehmeier. It’s a misfit love story of two young people on the outskirts of society – Patty (Emily Skeggs), who prefers moshing and masturbating in her room to her favorite punk band to hide from awkward social exchanges, and Simon (Kyle Gallner), a pyro-rebel looking for quick money to fund his garage rock shows. The two collide as Simon runs from the police and Patty offers to shelter him, kicking off their shockingly hilarious relationship that takes them on mischievous adventures through the ordinary streets of the suburban Midwest. These two renegade lovers find themselves and each other through their obsession with music made by and for outcasts in a way that doesn’t leave behind audience members. I was thrilled by the consistent laughter that filled the background of this punchy film, and it’s not hard to find glimpses of yourself in the characters that are realer than real. You’ll definitely leave singing “fuck em all, but us” on your way out of the theater, so get excited for the original soundtrack to drop from these talented actor-musicians.
Run Sweetheart Run
As a young woman actively in the dating scene, Run Sweetheart Run is one of the most terrifying horror-thrillers released in a long time. Director Shana Feste calls upon her own experience with dangerous dates to bring us a fantastical yet real depiction of the ultimate first-date-gone-wrong. When Cherie (Ella Balinska) realizes her charismatic partner Ethan (Pilou Asbæk) is going to kill her, she takes off across LA on foot in the middle of the night, with her only hope being to survive until morning. As we follow Cherie, we learn that nowhere and no one is safe – danger lurks in the heart of the spaces we expect to find protection in. Feste drags us into the chase and holds us captive alongside Cherie as we wait with bated breath until morning, taking us through the panic, confusion, and bad-ass bitchery needed to survive this date from hell. The horror genre is a powerful arena for women to explore the depths of their trauma, much of which comes at the hands of violent men. Run Sweetheart Run brings the fears of a woman’s unjust vulnerability in a man’s world to the surface in a different light than most films that approach the issue, but instead of leaving us hopeless, Feste gives us a female protagonist that came to fight.
Sandra (Clare Dunn is an Irish, single mother of two young girls, who escapes her abusive partner only to find herself trapped in the confines of a system that is unsympathetic to her situation. The Dublin housing crisis has left her at the mercy of an inefficient government agency intended to help survivors find new homes, and poverty has left her with few other options. With the fate of her children’s future in flux, Sandra digs deep and literally builds a new home for her family, which is only possible through the help of the selfless people around her. It’s simultaneously heart wrenching and heartwarming – in a world that is filled with bitter cruelty, we find solace in the kindness and love of people who start as strangers and end as something akin to community. The Sundance theater was full of watery eyes, sniffles and flowing tears, whether it was from deep sadness and disappointment, hopefulness, hopelessness, frustration with a broken system, anger at the brutality of mankind, or the fulfillment of experiencing beautiful things happen to beautiful people. Herself not only reminds us to be better citizens in a global society, but it also highlights how empowering it can feel when we offer love to the world around us.
Director Alan Ball sends audiences on an emotionally-charged road trip seated beside Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), his teenage niece Beth (Sophia Lillis), and his longtime partner Wally (Peter Macdissi) that’ll leave you laughing, crying, and emotionally drained in the best way possible. In 1973, Frank is a queer literature professor at NYU, where Beth is in her first semester of studies. Estranged from his family, Frank is content with his life until he gets the call that his father has died, and the three of them have to embark on a journey home for the funeral. But Frank is from the bible-belt south, where queer rights are nonexistent and acceptance (much less love and positive affirmation) is difficult to come by. In this tale of what it means to come home when “home” has never felt like the place you belong, Frank searches for his own path to healing from the trauma of the past and seeks to create space to love and be loved by family. Ghosts never die and secrets can’t be kept forever, but forgiveness, love, and an endearing cast of characters dominate the emotional landscape of this powerful and timely film.
Director, writer, and co-lead Viggo Mortensen brings an genuine liveliness and emotional energy to the screen in his evocative directorial debut. Mortensen plays John Peterson, husband to Eric (Terry Chen) and father to their young daughter, who takes on the responsibility of caring for his aging father Willis (Lance Henriksen) as he loses his independence and his memories. This sorrowful tale of the aging mind places us in an effectively muddled timeline that blends the past and present, where the stories of John and Willis intermix. Mortensen combines the history and perceptions of father and son to weave a bitter, yet soft narrative of their shared life. Falling is not always a healing piece, though. At its core lies sadness and trauma that is never fully quelled or forgiven. As his father loses his mind and lashes out, John is faced with the universal pain of choosing to love and care for people who never cease to inflict pain. He crafts the messiness of family in a way that feels terrifyingly real, and Mortensen’s emotionally vulnerable performance allows us to mourn alongside John. Although peace is difficult to hold onto, Falling shows the multi-dimensional emotional plane of family that leaves us feeling tender and exhausted.
Carlos Lopez Estrada returns to Sundance after his highly successful directorial debut Blindspotting made headway at the festival in 2018. With Summertime, Estrada cements his voice as a unifying body for the many disparate lives of LA’s youth in a city that is at best ambivalent to their existence. Throughout this beautifully woven mosaic of emotions, we see how the lives of 25 young poets overlap, intertwine, contrast, and ultimately collide in this 21st century tale of heartache and hope. The only downfall of having 25 equally talented artists to showcase is, of course, having to showcase 25 equally talented artists. At times this becomes apparent when the viewer is left wondering what happened to several characters, but in the end, the fast paced, whimsical interactions are enough to intriguingly whisk you away on their journey. For a fantastically honest snapshot of a day in the life of these young angel city citizens, Estrada delivers a touching love letter to the beautiful weirdos of LA.
In this new age comedy-sci-fi extravaganza from director Max Barbakow, co-leads Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) provide an hour and a half of pure laughs, love, and all out ludicrous adventures. While Samberg has achieved copious amounts of praise from modern day audiences due to his star role in TV series Brooklyn Nine Nine (now in its 7th season) and previous comedy powerhouses like Saturday Night Live and his own production company The Lonely Island, Milioti is a much welcomed, somewhat unfamiliar face as his counterpart. However, she matches Samberg’s ridiculous humor and fast paced comedic jabs with an equally strong performance that should land her many more roles to come. While Sarah and Nyles appear at odds from the start, through epic wedding speeches, spontaneous dance routines and what can only be described as a truly magical day, the two find solace in each other’s instability.
Based on a true story, Worth explores the personal impact of a nation reeling from the horrific September 11th terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. With standout performances from Michael Keaton, Amy Ryan, and Stanley Tucci, this ode to the lives lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks truly conveys the invaluable essence of human life. Throughout the ensuing years after the attacks, one man and his team of uniquely qualified legal Director Sara Colangelo relies heavily on Keaton to bring this true tale to life, as he time and time again struggles to empathize with the many Americans devastated by the loss of their loved ones, and the unimaginable task of equating their lives with a monetary value. While it is at first difficult to relate to such a cold and calculating character, extenuating circumstances in many of the 9/11 fund cases show just how complex a case-by-case situation the real project embodied. By the end, you are inevitably cheering for Keaton’s team to reach their deadline and save the American economy as well as pay respects to the fallen.
Rarely outside Sundance will you find a movie that so perfectly encapsulates both the intense and real scares of fantastical horror with an equally poignant and powerful fear surrounding such a modern and real world issue as seeking asylum from your own home country. In his directorial debut, writer/director Remi Weekes tells the story of a family desperate for salvation. Bouncing between gut wrenching flashbacks and the struggles of adapting to a vastly different and at times intolerant new country, the terror doesn’t stop outside the walls of this incredibly well directed tale of a haunted halfway house. In this way, just as Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) find themselves in increasingly traumatic levels of despair that dip in and out of the paranormal, they nail the horror trifecta of real scares, amazing plot, and a phenomenal ending right on the head.
Typically when seeing films at Sundance, the three of us would try to sit together and after the screening we would wait for a little while longer and talk about our thoughts as the credits rolled. The more movies we saw the more I noticed a pattern begin to develop. If it was a light-hearted, interesting, intellectual, comical, or even at times unemotional film, we would talk right away. About once a day though — after experiencing a particularly emotional film — we would remain silent for a while before discussing our thoughts. Never was this more apparent than after departing a screening of The Father at the Rose Wagner Theater in Salt Lake on the backend of the festival. We didn’t just stay silent until we left the theater, but it wasn’t until we realized we had walked about a quarter mile in the wrong direction from the restaurant we were headed to that anyone broke the silence. That’s how powerful Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman were in this harrowing tale of dementia, heartache, love, and loss. Florian Zeller not only does an incredible job adapting his play for the big screen, but makes an amazingly mature directorial choices surrounding Hopkin’s character such as retaining certain real attributes like his name and birthday between the film and real life in order to make a truly relatable character that comes to life and expires before your very eyes. When people ask what my favorite film of Sundance 2020 was, I usually teeter around and say “there were too many… such vastly different categories…” before ultimately caving and ending with “well if I had to choose…” and wind up professing my newfound love and appreciation for this phenomenal film. PSA: remember to not only bring a few extra tissues, but an entire box…or maybe two.
In Brandon Cronenberg’s daring sci-fi thriller, Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) is a top-notch agent working for a covert organization that uses brain-implant technology to transport her consciousness into other peoples’ bodies and perform hired assassinations. However, her sanity begins to slip when her new host fights back for control of his body, sending both Tasya and the host on a crash course towards disaster. Drawing from the style of classics like Blade Runner (1982) and Persona (1966), Cronberg’s mind and body bending thriller is a pristinely directed and voraciously edited assault on the senses that doesn’t let up for a single second, and ultimately comes to a close with a palm-sweating ending that will leave audiences questioning what their takeaway should be for days to come. Drawing on our timeless societal fears of artificial intelligence and futuristic surrogate technology, Possessor delivers the goods that fans of the genre expect to receive without feeling cliché or uninspired in any way shape or form. The saying “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” rings true, as many scenes depicting incredibly graphic violence appear more than a few times in the same vein which Brandon’s father’s films are famous for. If close ups of blood pools seeping out of necks and faces being smashed to bits might be too intense, you’ll know if you’re headed for the exits rather quickly. If you can handle it, however, Possessor makes for one hell of a ride.
The Killing of Two Lovers
Cut in to military veteran David (Clayne Crawford) hovering over a bed with an outstretched arm pointing a revolver at a woman fast asleep and the sound of a shower running offscreen. We will soon find out the mysterious woman is David’s wife, Nikki (Sepideh Moafi), who is sleeping with another man in an open relationship as her and David sort out their marriage. The opening may promise violence, but if you’re expecting gunshots, you’ll be disappointed. Beautifully shot on grainy 16mm in a world-restricting 4:3 aspect ratio, David Machoian’s newest feature is a work of the utmost maturity. By grounding his camera with mostly static shots and limiting cuts to let David’s suppressed emotional turmoil speak for itself as he tries to stay connected with his three kids and save his marriage, Machoian has crafted perhaps the least flashy, but most poignant thriller of the year (and I know, it’s only January). The Killing of Two Lovers utilizes its small, country town setting — where the rundown, but still sufficient cars, houses, and stores reflect a marriage gone dry but not necessarily sour — in a refreshing way that goes overlooked in many mainstream thrillers of this day and age. Carried by a lead performance that is at times stoic but also crazed when it needs to be, Crawford generates empathy for his character on such a personal level that you couldn’t blame somebody for wanting to see him finally pull the trigger, and questioning if the last scene points to violence on the horizon.
By taking home the U.S. Audience Award as well as the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic films, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari proved to be a festival favorite for both critics and fans alike that is sure to be one of the year’s best indie darlings moving forward. Set in the 1980s, the film tells the semi-autobiographical story of a young Korean boy, David (Alan S. Kim), coming of age and developing an unexpected friendship with his grandmother after his family moves from California to rural Alabama. To put it simply, Minari is probably the most solid top-to-bottom filmmaking exhibition to emerge from Sundance this year. Based on the director’s own childhood, Chung obviously knows the material inside and out, and there is an unmistakable authenticity that the film embodies because of it. Carried on the backs of a stellar cast — which includes Steve Yeun, Han Yeri, Yuh Jung Yuon, and Will Patton — the familial bonds and struggles at the center of Minari never feel contrived for even a single moment, and it’s impossible not to find yourself wrapped up in their lives to the point that you feel as if you experienced their struggles right alongside them. Minari may not be the most daring film from Sundance 2020, but it is certainly one of the most personal, touching, and important American films we saw.
The Evening Hour
A breathtaking wide shot pans across a pristine valley somewhere in the Appalchian mountains, bathed in the warm glow of golden hour. It seems like a slice of heaven until explosions shake the beautiful landscape to its core in the belly of the valley. In a very Lynchian way, this thoughtful opening shot speaks to the larger themes of the film, and the seemingly innocuous small town that has deep seeded horrors bubbling below the surface. The film follows Cole (Philip Ettinger), a caretaker at a retirement home, who resells prescription painkillers to those in need. While Cole has a heart of gold and only acts with the best intentions, he is inadvertently passing his “patients” along to Everett (Marc Menchaca), a small town gangster who runs a lucrative meth business. When Cole’s old high school friend Terry (Cosmo Jarvis) catches wind of the drug-related business opportunities, Cole’s life slowly falls apart from the inside-out, and he is forced to reckon with the consequences of his benign desire to help those in pain. Director Braden King’s film tackles the opioid crisis in a way that few other films have thought to examine what has become one of the most talked about issues in the United States. The doctors who prescribe these pills are often portrayed as soulless, money hungry monsters with no regard for the lives they are ruining, but Cole is truly a sweetheart with the best form of character an audience could ask for in a protagonist. In a great twist of storytelling conventions, most of the conflicts Cole must face are not necessarily because of his own wrongdoing, but rather his inability to refrain from helping anybody who asks for a helping hand. In the end, The Evening Hour proves to be another reminder of how “just one time” is all it takes to ruin not only one life, but the well-being of an entire town.
Yalda, A Night for Forgiveness
Inspired by real Iranian television programs, Yalda tells the story of Maryam (Sadaf Asgari), a young girl who accidently killed her husband and must convince the man’s daughter, Mona (Behnaz Jafari), to spare her life on a nationally broadcast television special. Reminiscent of Sidney Lumet’s news station classic Network (1976), Yalda is not only an emotional journey as a teenage girl fights for her life in a society where the odds are already stacked against her, but also a stark takedown of the twisted nature of what society calls “entertainment.” In order to sway Mona to decide one way or the other, the network tallies viewer votes in response to the question of whether Maryam should live or die, and shares them with the audience. Though the producers ensure Maryam that Mona has already agreed to spare her life before the show even began, they play news clips and interviews that are filled with false information to portray her as a heartless murderer in order to keep viewers hooked. As the show progresses, dark secrets are uncovered that truly put Maryam’s life in jeopardy as Mona questions whether she can ever truly forgive the girl who killed her father. Yalda comes to a head in an intense, decision-time sequence which tells us that there can be no forgiveness without honesty.