The heartland of US indie filmmaking, Sundance celebrated its 36th year with another flurry of work from independent cinema’s finest filmmakers. The big winner at the fest was ‘Minari’, Lee Isaac Chung’s much-loved drama, which picked up the Grand Jury Prize. But there were plenty of other highlights in Utah this year and we feel they’re worthy of some awards recognition too.
Let’s start with the big one. Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical story ‘Minari’ astonished both audiences and the Sundance jury, becoming the first film since 2016 to capture both the Grand Jury Prize as well as the Audience Award in the US Dramatic category. The story of a Korean family’s move to Arkansas is largely in Korean, however ‘Minari’ is an A24 film, the same company that handled a predominantly non-English movie at last year’s Sundance, ‘The Farewell’. Expect very big things.
Movie with the most demanding fanbase
Taylor Swift kicked off the 2020 Sundance Film Festival – on screen and in person. The new Netflix documentary ‘Miss Americana’, an intimate look at the pop superstar’s career, held its world premiere in front of an unusual audience of industry professionals and highly dedicated Swifties. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, director Lana Wilson and Swift received a standing ovation.
Surprise indie-film lover
Taylor Swift wasn’t the only headline-maker in attendance at Sundance. Hillary Clinton came to the fest for the unveiling of ‘Hillary’. The four-part documentary from filmmaker Nanette Burstein (‘American Teen’) covers her life story up to and including the 2016 Presidential campaign. Apparently the former Secretary of State is a movie fan, too: she was rumoured to have taken in a screening of ‘Worth’ starring Michael Keaton.
Hottest ticket in town? Easy. A24’s ‘Zola’ was the screening to be at during the festival’s first weekend. The movie, adapted from a raunchy 144-tweet thread by A’Ziah King (aka @_zolarmoon), was one of the wildest rides in the festival’s competition. Featuring pole dancing, kidnappings and an extended penis montage, ‘Zola’ inspired both walkouts and wild applause.
Searchlight Pictures (née Fox Searchlight) acquired the worldwide rights to Midnight movie ‘The Night House’ for a whopping $12 million. Director David Bruckner’s jump-scare-laden thriller stars Rebecca Hall as a widow who begins to learn disturbing truths about her recently deceased husband. Additionally, A24 Films and Apple acquired documentary ‘Boys State’ for a cool $10 million. Possible awards heat may make that seem like a bargain later in the year.
In a festival full of personal stories, ‘Palm Springs’ stood apart as a piece of pure entertainment. This joke-dense existential comedy, in which Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg get trapped together at a wedding in the titular California town, managed to sneak another laugh from its sales announcement when it was snapped up for $17.5m and 69 cents – a Sundance record. This beat the fee paid for ‘The Birth of a Nation’ in 2016 by, you guessed it, 69 cents.
Sundance has been a proving ground for first-time filmmakers, but 2020 was full of directors on their second go-round. Janicza Bravo (‘Zola’) brought her first film ‘Lemon’ to Sundance in 2017. Justin Simien, whose haunted weave horror-comedy ‘Bad Hair’ was an early must-see, previously debuted ‘Dear White People’ here in 2014. Benh Zeitlin’s Peter Pan adaptation ‘Wendy’ saw the Oscar nominee back at the fest after an eight-year hiatus, and Sean Durkin was back after nine years with his icy ’80s-set drama ‘The Nest’.
Sundance hasn’t debuted an Oscar-nominated narrative film since ‘Call Me by Your Name’ in 2017. So, will this year’s line-up see the festival registering at next February’s Academy Awards? Possible breakout candidates include ‘Minari’ and ‘Shirley’, Josephine Decker’s movie starring Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg. But more likely candidates emerged from the documentary field, where Directing Award winner ‘Time’ and ‘Boys State’, which won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize for documentary, both impressed.
The scariest, most disturbing films to play a festival are typically assigned to the Midnight category, which is why it was so odd to see Brandon Cronenberg’s ‘Possessor’, the goriest and most violent film at Sundance, grouped in World Cinema. On the upside, everyone got IDed and immediately felt ten years younger. Brandon, son of David Cronenberg, has clearly inherited his father’s panache for disturbing imagery.
For all the latest film festival news, sign up to the Time Out newsletter.