Sundance 2020: My 10 Most Anticipated Films - Let's Start Watching
by Alex Billington
January 21, 2020
Back to Sundance we go for another year of discovery. What's on the line-up this year? Out of the 120+ films showing at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, I've chosen 10 that I'm looking forward to seeing the most. To keep things well balanced, I've chosen 5 feature films and 5 documentaries from the line-up. There are so many films playing at the fest, and so many I'll end up seeing (30+), that this is a quick list to get everyone acquainted with some of the work premiering in 2020 (I just want to go see everything). There are new films from filmmakers like Dee Rees, Benh Zeitlin, and tons of fascinating documentaries that are also worthy of attention, plus many other films. You never really know what will good or bad, but here's my first few picks.
To see the full line-up of films playing at Sundance 2020, click here. Follow my fest reviews on Letterboxd. This is my 14th year in a row returning to Sundance, starting back in 2007. I'm so excited to be attending Sundance once again, and can't wait to dive into the films more than anything. There's so many I am curious to watch from this year's line-up. For now, here's my Top 10 most anticipated films before the fest begins.
Alex's Most Anticipated \Sundance 2020/ Feature Films:
Directed by Eugene Ashe
Who doesn't love a good romance? Sylvie's Love is a jazz-infused love story set in the 1950s about a woman working at her father's record store in Harlem who meets an aspiring saxophone player. The lead is played by one of my favorite actors: Tessa Thompson. Her love interest, the sweet saxophonist Robert, is played by Nnamdi Asomugha, a former All-Pro NFL defensive back from Los Angeles turned actor who has been in a few small roles but this is his big breakout moment. Everything about this sounds wonderful, and I've already got that feeling in my gut it's going to be something special. Sundance says that the film "delicately melds romance and music into a sweeping romantic story that transcends changing times, geography, and professional success." Ohh my, I'm swooning already… "With exquisite costumes and a timeless soundtrack, Sylvie's Love is an ode to the unstoppable force of love in our lives." I have my ticket for the world premiere.
Directed by Edson Oda
This one caught my eye simply from the one-line description: "In a house distant from the reality we know, a reclusive man interviews prospective candidates—personifications of human souls—for the privilege that he once had: to be born." I'm not exactly sure what the title, Nine Days, refers to but I'm very curious to find out – perhaps the amount of time before the soul must be chosen. I always enjoy watching experimental, conceptual films like this at Sundance, and this sounds especially intriguing. "Supernatural, metaphysical, and packed with the deepest, most human emotions, this spiritual child of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry will hit you in the head and the heart." Say no more! I'm sold. It also has a fantastic cast: Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Bill Skarsgård, and Tony Hale. While he has made many other short films, this is director Edson Oda's first feature film and it seems like it's going to be memorable debut.
Directed by Julie Taymor
Its been six years since filmmaker Julie Taymor last made a film (A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2014). She's back with something that sounds innovative and vital - a feature called The Glorias. The film profiles iconic women's rights activist / feminist / journalist Gloria Steinem, by taking a similar approach as I'm Not There and casting a few different actors to play her. Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, and Lulu Wilson all play Gloria Steinem. The film is based on her best selling memoir, My Life on the Road, telling the story of her childhood's influence on her life as a writer, activist and organizer for women's rights worldwide. "Taymor makes her own rules in this dazzling ode to self-reflection, exploring the importance of forging your own path and embracing the challenge of the open road." I have always been impressed by Taymor's distinct style, and I'm hoping she's returning with a film we'll all be cheering about.
Directed by Benh Zeitlin
I was there! I was there at Sundance in 2012 when Benh Zeitlin rocked the festival with his feature debut Beasts of the Southern Wild. It was the talk of the town, the film of the festival. And it ended up breaking out big time, earning over $12 million at the box office and four Oscar nominations, including for young star Quvenzhané Wallis. After eight long years, New Orleans-based filmmaker Benh Zeitlin is finally returning to Sundance with his second feature film - Wendy. A re-imagining of Peter Pan, the film focuses the character Wendy, instead of Peter, being played by newcomer Devin France. She's whisked away with her brothers to Peter's island. It's described as a "friendship-love story-adventure of her and a joyous, reckless, pleasure-mongering young boy as they swirl in and out of youth and as the ecosystem around them spirals toward destruction." I really can't wait to see this, I've already got a terrific feeling about it. Watch the first trailer.
Directed by Lee Isaac Chung
This is one of the films that I worry might be overlooked by many festival-goers, but could possibly be one of the best discoveries at this year's festival. Not to mention that A24 has already picked it up for distribution. Minari is the latest feature film from a relatively unknown Korean-American filmmaker named Lee Isaac Chung, telling a very personal story from his own upbringing of a family that moves from the West Coast to rural Arkansas. Their father goes all in trying to start a farm, while a mischievous 7-year-old named David navigates the boring rural life with his sisters. It's described as "a gorgeous, delicate American Dream story [infused] with Korean melodrama and the playful charm of a Yasujiro Ozu film, as the Yi family embraces their highs and endures their lows." Steven Yeun stars as the father Jacob, and Alan S. Kim plays the young boy David. Here's hoping this is much more than just a story about rural farm life; I expect it will be.
More Feature Films I'm Looking Forward To Seeing: Carlos López Estrada's Summertime, Janicza Bravo's Zola, Dominic Cooke's Ironbark, Miranda July's Kajillionaire, Eugene Kotlyarenko's Spree, Florian Zeller's The Father, Angel Manuel Soto's Charm City Kings, Alex Huston Fischer & Eleanor Wilson's Save Yourselves!, Sean Durkin's The Nest, Radha Blank's The 40-Year-Old Version, Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman, Viggo Mortensen's Falling, Cronenberg's Possessor, Dee Rees' The Last Thing He Wanted.
Alex's Most Anticipated \Sundance 2020/ Documentaries:
Directed by Bao Nguyen
"Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water… Water can flow or it can crash." We all know that famous quote. Be Water is a brand new documentary about Bruce Lee - easily one of my most anticipated. The focus in this doc is on Lee's split "between the West and the East", leaving behind the racist American film industry while juggling his life in both worlds. In 1971, before his superstardom, Bruce Lee returned to Hong Kong to complete four films. Examining his life on both sides of the Pacific, director Bao Nguyen's Be Water explores questions of identity and representation. "Through rare archival footage, memories of family and friends, and his own words, the story of that time and Lee's prior experiences are told with an intimacy and immediacy that have infrequently been used in earlier tellings of his legend." Sounds like a can't-miss.
Dick Johnson is Dead
Directed by Kirsten Johnson
Kirsten Johnson's major breakout as a director, a documentary titled Cameraperson from 2016, is regarded by many critics as one of the best films of the previous decade. She has worked for years as a documentary cinematographer before moving into directing, and her latest feature is a very personal film. "Dick Johnson is Dead is Kirsten Johnson's delirious and desperate attempt to keep her aging father alive. In this effort she turns to the magic of cinema to kill him, resurrect him, and celebrate his last years on earth." I don't think this is a film that can be described well in text, but knowing it's from the mind of Kirsten Johnson means it's pretty much guaranteed to be brilliant. If you read further into the words, it sounds beautiful. "Utilizing moviemaking magic and her family's dark humor, she celebrates Dr. Dick Johnson's last years by staging fantasies of death and beyond. Together, dad and daughter confront the great inevitability awaiting us all."
Directed by Matt Wolf
Based on the hit 90s comedy Bio-Dome. Wait, that's not right! This is a doc about the events that inspired that movie. Spaceship Earth tells the true story of a scientific experiment in the 1990s that was the actual inspiration behind Bio-Dome. In 1991, eight capable men and women were sealed into "Biosphere 2", an airtight terrarium in the Arizona desert containing a miniature replica of Earth's environment. Yep – this really did happen. And of course, it was a disaster (just like in the movie!). Need I say more? "Using archive material and present-day interviews with surviving Biospherians, director Matt Wolf brings us this spirited documentary that follows the gregarious and visionary countercultural collective over half of a century, as they conducted experiments around the globe… If Spaceship Earth is a cautionary tale about the forces that threaten our planet, it is also an inspirational tribute to what a small creative group can achieve." I'm ready.
Welcome to Chechnya
Directed by David France
From the director of the Oscar nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague. This is bound to be one of the most talked about, and potentially revolutionary, documentaries screening at this year's festival. David France has made a film about a group of activists who risk unimaginable peril to confront the ongoing anti-LGBTQ+ crisis in Chechnya, Russia. We've all heard the horror stories in the news, but this doc tries to remain positive and remind us there are good people fighting to make a difference. Early rumors are that the film shows how an Underground Railroad-esque movement is working to the save the lives of many in Chechnya still living in secrecy. Sundance states that France is "a warrior with a camera and the ultimate purveyor of the imperative of documentary to expose atrocity and ignite change. With scorching power that will leave you quaking in your seat, Welcome to Chechnya dares to confront genocide in the making." Damn.
Into the Deep
Directed by Emma Sullivan
Another harrowing story of a killer examined. Into the Deep dives into the story of the murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall. She was killed on a submarine built by Danish inventor Peter Madsen, just outside Copenhagen, while interviewing him for an article. The filmmaker behind this doc had already been filming Madsen a year before this happened, providing a unique perspective and remarkable insight. "Through this shocking sequence of events and astonishing filmmaking by Sullivan, the horrible truth of what happened to Wall can be told as never before." Madsen was an eccentric inventor and engineer, and was planning other projects including building a rocket to become the first amateur astronaut. Now he will spend life in prison. "Terrifying in only the way reality can be, Into the Deep shows you a human monster hiding in plain sight."
More Documentaries I'm Looking Forward To Seeing: Benjamin Ree's The Painter & The Thief, the Untitled Kirby Dick/Amy Ziering Film, Jerry Rothwell's The Reason I Jump, Mark Manning's The Cost of Silence, Kim A. Snyder's Us Kids, Arthur Jones' Feels Good Man, Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw's The Truffle Hunters, Maite Alberdi's The Mole Agent, Ron Cicero & Kimo Easterwood's Happy Happy Joy Joy - The Ren & Stimpy Story, Iryna Tsilyk's Earth is Blue as an Orange, Jeff Orlowski's The Social Dilemma.
For all of Alex's Sundance 2020 reviews and updates: Follow @firstshowing
For more Sundance 2020 previews around the web, highlighting early picks and potential breakouts, see: The Film Stage's 20 Most-Anticipated Premieres, Indiewire's 20 Must-See Films and Series At This Year’s Festival, RogerEbert.com's 20 Films We Can't Wait to See in Park City, Nerdist's 8 Most Anticipated Movies. You never know what might be a big hit, and it's vital to have a pulse on the buzz – even before the festival starts. There's plenty of exciting and hopefully amazing gems hidden in the 2020 line-up, bring on the films.
You can follow our Sundance 2020 coverage and updates in this category. The festival kicks off January 23rd and runs until February 2nd, with lots of films to see every day. Let's kick this off and start watching.