Sundance 2020: My 10 Favorite Films - The Best Discoveries This Year
by Alex Billington
February 5, 2020
The 2020 Sundance Film Festival has finally come to an end and to put a wrap on the fest and finalize our nearly two weeks of coverage, it's time to present our Best of the Fest list. I was able to see a total of 40 films across 10 days, but I couldn't catch everything and missed a few films getting lots of good buzz from critics (e.g. Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Kajillionaire, I Carry You with Me). I saw a good chunk of documentaries this year, so instead of separating docs and features, I am presenting one big list of my 10 favorite films - a mix of docs and features. All of these below are worth watching, and I highly recommend seeking them out. I'm glad Sundance continues to program some of the best films all year, as well as more innovative, unique, challenging, fascinating, and thrilling features from all around the world. Below are my favorites, the films that connected with me and have remained on my mind throughout the festival. Dive in.
The theme in all of the films at Sundance this year was connection - examining how we connect and what these connections mean between different people. Many films mined our relationships and connections with other people and showed how they effect and change us. There were a number of important, life-changing friendships in films (Ironbark, The 40-Year-Old Version, Summertime, The Painter & The Thief, Herself); a selection of bad friendships (Zola, Promising Young Woman, Bad Hair, Into the Deep); numerous stories about romantic relationships and both their good & bad sides (Downhill, Save Yourselves!, Palm Springs, Sylvie's Love, Minari, Time); and quite a few films about how people relate to and influence others (Nine Days, Summertime, The Last Thing He Wanted, Spaceship Earth, Welcome to Chechnya, Shirley). It seems the festival wants to remind us that, even though we may not always agree, it's still extremely important to mind our relationships and connections. So much to learn from watching these stories about unique people.
While I saw many films that I enjoyed (my full list of 40 here), there were quite a few I missed even though I heard good things about them. But these are my favorite films from this year's festival that I did get to see.
Alex's Top 10 Favorite \Sundance 2020/ Films:
Directed by Edson Oda
The best of the festival. This is the film that moved me to tears, multiple times, and filled me with hope and love and optimism. It reminded me to keep living boldly, with determination, no matter what happens. It's inspired by religion, but isn't overtly religious, it examines the meaning of life through honest, emotional storytelling. The tweet I wrote as soon as it ended sums up my thoughts: "This is it. This is the film we were waiting for. Soul-stirring, life-affirming cinema. A magnificently moving, original work of art. A film that dares us to re-examine our lives, and rediscover all the little moments that matter. My heart is pounding." This film establishes Edson Oda as an incredibly talented filmmaker, not only with a one-of-a-kind visual aesthetic, but with an innate understanding for humanity and the indescribable feelings hiding deep inside all of us. And best of all - Winston Duke is god level phenomenal in this, with a performance for the ages.
Directed by Lee Isaac Chung
The winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and Audeince Award at Sundance this year, and certainly deserving of both prizes. A heartwarming, lovely film about the challenges of farming and the immigrant experience in America. It's refreshing to see something so encouraging and supportive and not cynical at all. That's what makes this film really stand out from the crowd. There are struggles, and there are depressing scenes, but the lightness and cheerfulness of this film makes all the difference in the end. The little boy, Alan S. Kim, is so amazing and everyone will fall in love with him. And the grandma, played by Yuh-Jung Youn, is the best, too. Another new film that instantly establishes a filmmaker as an outstanding talent, and showcases their personal expression above all. It's also nice to see a film about farming and how hard it is. Not often we ever see films about farming, but this is one of the best. This should break out big outside of the festival.
Feels Good Man
Directed by Arthur Jones
This documentary blew me away with its scope and scale, and with its fantastic animated sequences worked in to the film throughout. The doc is about (internet meme icon) "Pepe the Frog" and its creator, comic artist Matt Furie, and it's one of the best films (not just doc) at the fest this year. A deep dive into internet culture, modern society, and how crazy things are these days, featuring some great interviews. This really impressed the hell out of me. Not your average doc, it includes a massive amount of context along with tons of footage of Furie, plus excerpts and discussions to make you think about how this modern digital world twists things and does whatever they want with whatever they want. There's no "putting the genie back in the bottle", as they say in this. And that's what makes it so stark and so revelatory - it's brutally honest but also contemplative, making us wonder how we're all sucked in and how we can change things for the better.
The 40-Year-Old Version
Directed by Radha Blank
So dope!! One of the very last films I saw during the festival, and I loved it. Show in B&W on 35mm, The 40-Year-Old Version is hilarious and honest, an uncompromising, fearless story of a woman who's voice we all need to be listening to. Radha Blank knocks this one out of the park!! She not only wrote and directed this, but also stars in it, expressing herself in a courageous way. It's totally original and authentically awesome. It made me so happy to see Radha buck the tropes and trends of black cinema and flip everything over by calling out the bullshit and being authentic when so few are. I laughed so much during this, and it's the kind of hearty laughter that gives you a dopamine rush and makes you feel good when you leave the theater. I also need to shout out Peter Y. Kim in the role of Archie, casting him was not only a smart choice, but he brings a different dynamic to the film to round it out. Please let Radha make any other film she wants now.
Amore!! The defining doggie documentary of Sundance this year. Made by filmmakers Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw, The Truffle Hunters is an exquisite, lovable, utterly sublime documentary that takes us deep into Piedmont to meet some of the finest truffle hunters in the entire world. This doc is the BEST!! I absolutely adore this film, and I have been telling everyone about it after catching it. A perfectly shot and perfectly presented love letter to the great truffle hunters and truffle dogs of Italy. There is really nothing to change about it, nothing to seriously criticize or nitpick. Just bask in the glory of this doc. Not only did the filmmakers spend three years filming this, earning the trust of the local truffle hunters, but they let all of their footage speak for itself. Which makes a difference because this film feels a bit like a painting more than anything. Even if you're not a big fan of docs, this is a good one to go out of your way to discover and enjoy.
Directed by Max Barbakow
Laughed my ass off at this, just the dose of comedy goodness I needed this year. Lonely Island's time loop comedy is brilliant. Really. One of the most entertaining films premiering at Sundance, extremely satisfying in a number of ways. Andy Samberg & Cristin Milioti are so damn good together in Palm Springs. It's hilarious and heartfelt and fresh despite the time loop concept being something we've seen plenty of times before. The film is so charming and genuinely funny and messes around with the time loop concept in smart ways. There's so much I enjoyed about this, no matter how cheesy it gets. The performances keep the film energetic, with heaps of earned laughs throughout. And I'm already excited to watch it again, one of those films that you could rewatch right away after the first screening, and still enjoy it just as much. That's the mark of something truly superb. I expect this to go on to become a comedy classic, so watch out for it soon.
Directed by Dominic Cooke
An unexpected but extremely satisfying spy thriller. Ironbark isn't really the kind of indie discovery you go to Sundance to see, but that doesn't matter. It's better film than so many other films at the festival anyway, a meticulously crafted, affecting film about two friends who change the world. Benedict Cumberbatch is at his best in years, with an excellent performance as a British civilian who gets recruited for a spy operation providing info on the Soviet Union's missile installations in Cuba. He's matched by Georgian actor Merab Ninidze, who gives a phenomenal, heartfelt performance as the Russian spy who befriends him. There's a delicate balance of humor and seriousness. I also love the score by Abel Korzeniowski in this. And the performances from everyone, including Rachel Brosnahan, are impressive. Sometimes the films that are the best are ones that stick with you, even if they're not the typical Sundance indie darling they're still great.
The Painter & The Thief
Directed by Benjamin Ree
I saw this early on at the festival and it's an outstanding documentary, one that has stuck with me even after watching 30 other films. A very complex, intimate, supremely smart film that flips entirely half way through. It's a mind-boggling, intelligent examination of relationships and how we change when we meet others - the way we feed off of each other and influence each other. Makes you really think about how we connect, what we give to others (not just our time, more than that), and the great depths inside all of us. When you start watching this, you think it's one thing; then as it starts to play out, you realize it's not that - it's something else. And when you get a sense of what's really going on, thanks to tricky editing, you'll flip out. Filmmaker Benjamin Ree is a remarkably empathetic craftsman, and put together one of the most humanistic films at the festival. A documentary that is worth your time getting into, and hopefully it will stick with you as well.
Directed by Eugene Kotlyarenko
This is the "HOLY FUCK" film of Sundance 2020. It's Death Race 3000 updated for the streaming / social media age. The most authentic, accurate villain origin story of these modern times. An extremely brutally honest cautionary tale, and that's what is excellent about it. Spree thrilled the hell out of me. It's supposed to be a dark comedy to make you laugh, but it's intense, I was nervously gripping my chair the entire time watching this. Of course the main guy in this is bad and bat shit crazy and evil, but that's the point. And if you're still wondering how things have become this bad and how the madness of the internet is allowing people to get even more toxic every day, this film shows it very clearly. It's a real wake-up call for ALL of us. Listen to what Sasheer Zamata as comedian Jessie Adams says in this film, take her advice to heart. Don't write it off. I admire how unfiltered and bold this is, and I think filmmaker Eugene Kotlyarenko deserves major credit for crafting everything - not only the footage, but all the comments / replies you see on screen.
The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me
Directed by Cedric Cheung-Lau
Oh my goodness, this is such a beautiful film. It's one of the best films about Nepal ever made, and about how majestic and alluring and life-changing the Himalayas are. The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me is one of the most poetic films I've ever seen, featuring shot after shot of long, slow 3-minute pans across mountain ranges. It is the epitome of breathtaking. There isn't much dialogue in this film, despite the fact that it's about two people (an elderly Australian woman, and a young Nepali man) crossing paths (literally) and connecting. But you can feel the conversations happening, with the mountains themselves. I am totally smitten with this film. It's a meditative story on the power of nature, a work of art by filmmaker Cedric Cheung-Lau. And it literally shows us why "the mountains area a dream that call to me", and many others, with so many luxurious slow shots that soak in all the natural splendor of the Annapurna range. I hope more people take a chance to discover it and sit with it and soak it in. Maybe it will inspire you to visit Nepal, too.
To find all of Alex's Sundance 2020 reviews and updates: Follow @firstshowing
For other Sundance 2020 best of the fest lists mentioning more films we didn't see or didn't include here, check out: The Film Stage's The Best Films of Sundance Film Festival 2020, Polygon's What we discovered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Vulture's 12 Movies We Loved at Sundance, AV Club's The Best Movies of Sundance 2020, SlashFilm's The Best Movies of Sundance podcast discussion, LA Times' 15 of the best films of the fest, The Guardian's Risky turns and buried treasure: the best of Sundance 2020, Thrillist's The Best Movies from Sundance, and Indiewire's annual Critics Survey of the Best Movies. Our list isn't the only list of favorites from Sundance! There are many other fine indie films from this year that deserve your time & attention whenever they show up in your neighborhood. Keep an eye out for all these films at other fests.
You can find all our Sundance 2020 coverage and reviews in this category. This wraps up our coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, my 14th year in a row in Park City. We'll be back again next year. You can also find my thoughts on every film I saw posted on my Letterboxd. Always love to discover new filmmakers.