Throughout the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, members of the MovieBabble staff will share their initial thoughts on premieres, panels, and any other experiences they have. Prepare for some hot takes, sleep-deprived musings, and everything in between.
Thursday, January 23rd
Over the course of a hot summer day in Los Angeles, the lives of 25 young Angelinos intersect. A skating guitarist, a tagger, two wannabe rappers, an exasperated fast-food worker, a limo driver — they all weave in and out of each other’s stories. Through poetry, they express life, love, heartache, family, home, and fear. One of them just wants to find someplace that still serves good cheeseburgers.
Nick Kush: Carlos López Estrada’s follow-up to Blindspotting doubles down on the spoken word from that film by creating what is essentially a spoken-word musical. It sounds awesome in theory. In practice, it’s most definitely half-baked, with many vignettes coming across as very contrived and overly sentimental. I knew I was in trouble when the first shot was gentle ocean waves overlayed with spoken-word voice-over. It many instances, it has the same emotional resonance as someone saying, “that’s just life, man.”
Collin Willis: Conceptually, Summertime has a lot to offer. The film is made of a series of vignettes, driven by poems written by the film’s principles actors. There is a musical rhythm to it that keeps things interesting, even when the vignettes fall flat. There is a constant shuffling of characters and the depth of each individual is lost as another character scrambles past them to the forefront. The film has some fun moments and some emotional beats that do work really well, but overall it’s surface level and gauche.
The Painter and the Thief
An artist befriends the thief who stole her paintings. She becomes his closest ally when he is severely hurt in a car crash and needs full-time care, even if her paintings are not found. But then the tables turn.
Nick Kush: I appreciate how this doc plays with perspective, showing the connection between the painter and the thief from multiple points of view as their connection blossoms. It creates a strangely enthralling relationship with psychosexual ramifications. Ultimately, it looks at why we create, and what truly inspires our art.
Collin Willis: There are several interesting dynamics in play here. The juxtaposition of documentary vs narrative, plaintiff vs defendant, and art vs artist blend together in an incredibly satisfying experience. Though it doesn’t always feel plausibly real, The Painter and the Thief always feels down to earth and personal.
Friday, January 24th
Cinema Cafe with Ron Howard (Panel)
Collin Willis: Ron Howard’s Panel kicked off Sundance’s Filmmaker Cafe with a bang. During his first time at Sundance, Howard spent most of the panel discussing his doc, Rebuilding Paradise. The documentary, which premieres at the festival this weekend, takes a harrowing look at how an entire town and its citizens recover from total infernal decimation. Howard wasn’t afraid to get deep into his creative process and his personal identity he found through the documentary. Overall, the panel was very informative and a lot of fun.
When British aid worker Hana returns to the ancient city of Luxor, she comes across Sultan, a talented archaeologist and former lover. As she wanders, haunted by the familiar place, she struggles to reconcile the choices of the past with the uncertainty of the present.
Nick Kush: For people that like visceral movies, Luxor is not the one for you. It spends most of its time following Andrea Riseborough gaze at Egyptian architecture, without words. Though this movie has a lot to discuss about the flattening of culture over time, and how we’ve reduced it to bland simplifications rather than fully understanding it. There’s definitely something here for the right audience.
Nick Kush: La Llorona > The Curse of La Llorona.
Collin Willis: This movie is tense, despite not featuring much in the way of carnage, death, or destruction. La Llorona manages to tackle some pretty hot topics and tackles them head-on with little in the way of interference. The movie balances an ensemble cast against each other as it dives into the demons of a former fascist General with plenty of Genocide on his hands. The movie is surprisingly still, but never slow. What I liked best about it is how far out of its way it goes to divert from the typical tools of horror.
Peter Pan and his sister, Alice, embark on adventures to Neverland and Wonderland.
Collin Willis: This is an adult movie told through the lens of a child. It takes a swing at some dense thematic material and while it never says anything profoundly original, it says everything in such a sincere and unique way that it feels like you’re hearing these themes for the first time. The movie feels very alive and walking out of it, I’m shocked that I’ve never wanted to see Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan put together before. The sandbox that the two classical entities build is rich with potential and Come Away lives up to every ounce of it.
Ironbark tells the true story of British businessman Greville Wynne, who helped the CIA penetrate the Soviet nuclear program during the Cold War. Wynne and his Russian source, Oleg Penkovsky (codenamed Ironbark), provided crucial intelligence that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Nick Kush: I have a feeling that, if given the right campaign, Ironbark could be a hit at next year’s Oscars. It’s super slick and well-crafted — even if it doesn’t take on many timely themes. It’s the kind of thrilling, straightforward period piece that all the boomer voters could love. It has a great Cumberbatch performance too, which I imagine will get a lot of praise.
Saturday, January 25th
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
A pair of teenage girls in rural Pennsylvania travel to New York City to seek out medical help after an unintended pregnancy.
Nick Kush: With movies like Never Rarely Sometimes Always, there’s always a tendency for the film to overplay its hand, speechifying the importance of its subject matter. There’s hardly any of that here. This movie is brutally honest, lacking any sort of frills in an attempt to portray a stark reality that many teenage girls face. One of the highlights of the festival.
Collin Willis: Never Rarely Sometimes Always is uncomfortable, and it needs to be. Rather than diving head-on into the forefront of the debate surrounding abortion, this feels chooses instead to spend time with someone who finds themselves struggling with the decision. The film puts its character first and finds its message through her, rather than the other way around.
An attorney in Washington D.C. battles against cynicism, bureaucracy and politics to help the victims of 9/11.
Nick Kush: Re: my thoughts on Never Rarely Sometimes Always — this is one of those films that falls into the trap of films about important subjects making sure you understand their importance. Regardless, I still thoroughly appreciate this movie as a discussion of compromise, and how sticking to the letter of the law in an extreme circumstance isn’t always practical. A FANTASTIC Michael Keaton performance.
Collin Willis: The cast carries what could be a very emptily ringing script and turns it into a message worth hearing. The subject and thematic material aren’t easy to adapt, but Worth handles it all pretty well.
Promising Young Woman
A young woman, traumatized by a tragic event in her past, seeks out vengeance against men who cross her path.
Nick Kush: Honestly, I don’t want to spoil anything about this movie. Trust me when I say it’s twisted, exceptionally smart, and subverts plenty of revenge tropes.
The Nowhere Inn
St. Vincent sets out to make a documentary about her music, but when she hires a close friend to direct, notions of reality, identity, and authenticity grow increasingly distorted and bizarre.
Nick Kush: A mockumentary that turns into a Nicolas Roeg movie, The Nowhere Inn is a movie for 1% of moviegoers, and I am squarely in that 1%. It is so strange, surreal, funny, offputting, and so much more. I love seeing these kinds of movies in the Midnight section of Sundance — they’re one of a kind.
Collin Willis: Hannah Montana, but written on heavy amounts of LSD and Indie filmmaking. This movie is strange but is a complete blast.
Sunday, January 26th
A Thousand Cuts
A look at how Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte uses social media to spread disinformation.
Nick Kush: A very insightful documentary about the increasing struggles of the press against authoritarian regimes. It’s also a good profile of Maria Ressa of Rappler, even if it meanders due to too many story threads.
Collin Willis: There’s a lot going on here, but A Thousand Cuts juggles its threads with extreme precision. It’s a very timely documentary, which I guess is something that people say about every documentary, so I’ll say it here.
The Night House
A widow begins to uncover her recently deceased husband’s disturbing secrets.
Nick Kush: This is a wild ride from start to finish. Possibly the loudest horror movie I’ve seen in years. Rebecca Hall grounds the entire movie with a great grief-stricken, but also oddly funny performance. Best to go in as blind as possible — I imagine this will be a crowd favorite when it finally gets released.
Possessor follows an agent who works for a secretive organization that uses brain-implant technology to inhabit other people’s bodies — ultimately driving them to commit assassinations for high-paying clients.
Nick Kush: I’m unwell after seeing this, but in the right ways. All the buzz you’ve been hearing about Possessor is true — it’s a graphic, kaleidoscopic horror freakout that is destined for an NC-17 rating. Brandon Cronenberg (son of David) has crafted one of the more distinctive movies in a long time, even if it doesn’t all work.
Barely escaping an avalanche during a family ski vacation in the Alps, a married couple is thrown into disarray as they are forced to reevaluate their lives and how they feel about each other.
Collin Willis: This movie doesn’t really do anything new or inventive, but it does almost everything well. It features Will Ferrel and Julia-Louis Dreyfus in top form by playing to Dreyfus’s dramatic strengths and playing against Will Ferrel’s typical leading antics.
During a power outage, two strangers tell scary stories. The more Fred and Fanny commit to their tales, the more the stories come to life in their Catskills cabin. The horrors of reality manifest when Fred confronts his ultimate fear.
Nick Kush: The lowlight of the festival for me thus far. The joke wears thin after about 10 minutes, and the movie does absolutely nothing to change up the formula.
Collin Willis: Lots of tell, not enough show.
Monday, January 27th
A Korean family moves to Arkansas to start a farm in the 1980s.
Nick Kush: What a stunning movie from start to finish. I’ll be shocked if this isn’t in my top 10 of the year in December. It’s a simple story about a Korean family moving to Arkansas to build a farm, but its rich characters and imagery make it so much more. Another win for A24.
Charm City Kings
Fourteen-year-old Mouse desperately wants to join the Midnight Clique, an infamous group of Baltimore dirt-bike riders who rule the summertime streets.
Nick Kush: Unquestionably one of the bigger fan favorites of the festival. Charm City Kings has a lot going for it, including some great commentary on disenfranchised kids in Baltimore (and around the country, for that matter) as well as a killer performance from Meek Mill. I suspect this will do great business when it hits theaters.
A socially awkward woman with a fondness for arts and crafts, horses, and supernatural crime shows finds her increasingly lucid dreams trickling into her waking life.
Collin Willis: It’s inventive, quirky, and about what you’d expect a Sundance film to be. This movie worked for me on every level, and the Jeff Baena/Alison Brie partnership continues to become a dominant artistic force with each collaboration.
The Last Thing He Wanted
A veteran D.C. journalist loses the thread of her own narrative when a guilt-propelled errand for her father thrusts her from byline to unwitting subject in the very story she’s trying to break. Adapted from Joan Didion’s namesake novel.
Nick Kush: Shoosh — cue every critic sharing a tweet or zinger in their reviews that says something to the effect of “this was the last thing that I wanted!” The Last Thing He Wanted is an unmitigated disaster from Dee Rees. It’s incomprehensible, empty, and shoddily edited, wasting its talented cast on a movie that basically amounts to nothing.
Collin Willis: There’s a lot that happens in this movie, but it’s hard to tell how (if at all) they interconnect. Characters phase in and out, with absences so long that you forget they’re supposed to be a part of the story.
Run Sweetheart Run
When a first date takes a dark turn, Cherie finds herself on the run from a force that’s too large for this world.
Collin Willis: Like most of the midnight movies, I had a lot of fun with this. But the story feels a little repetitive and the cat and mouse aspect feels like three similar rounds of catch and release. The film broaches some topical themes, but it needs a little more refinement to effectively get its message across.
Tuesday, January 28th
A feature film based on feminist icon Gloria Steinem’s best selling autobiography, My Life on the Road, telling the story of her itinerant childhood’s influence on her life as a writer, activist, and organizer for women’s rights worldwide.
Nick Kush: This movie received a standing ovation during my screening, so perhaps you may have more appreciation for it than I did. I can see why — it tells an entirely well-intentioned biography of Gloria Steinem and her life’s work, the core ideas of which are absolutely vital. But this is yet another biopic that plays the hits of person’s life without offering anything particularly insightful. Each choice made to distinguish itself from other biopics is either unsubtle or cheap-looking when effects come into play.
A former soldier finds himself under the care of a nun and her mysterious assistant… that and a demonic old lady in the attic.
Collin Willis: Amulet has a lot of plot, but it doesn’t have much story. The twist is fine, but you never really find yourself caring for who the characters are or where they’re at. Coupled with some troubling thematic implications, Amulet isn’t horror’s finest exercise.
Maya with her best friend, Dini, tries to survive in a city without a family. She realized that she might inherit a property from her rich family. Maya returns to the village with Dini and unaware of the danger was waiting for her.
Nick Kush: This may win my award for the most okay movie at the festival. It’s neither gory or thoughtful enough to cater to either branch of horror fan, and its plot is merely functioning, never thrilling.
A woman’s life is turned upside down when her criminal parents invite an outsider to join them on a major heist they’re planning.
Nick Kush: Its extended metaphor for what the movie is really about isn’t very nuanced, but Kajillionaire wins brownie points for being so creative.
Collin Willis: The most fun I had watching a movie at Sundance. It’s wild and zany, even if it doesn’t do a ton thematically.
A stripper named Zola embarks on a wild road trip to Florida.
Nick Kush: Possibly the most entertaining movie at Sundance. It doesn’t necessarily amount to much in the end — it’s more of a retelling of the famous Twitter thread and less of a comment on it — but this stranger-than-fiction tale is unquestionably a must-see. Everyone needs to finally recognize how great Riley Keough is.
Collin Willis: There’s no real point to this movie, but that’s the point.
In 1989 an ambitious young woman gets a weave in order to succeed in the image-obsessed world of music television. However, her flourishing career may come at a great cost when she realizes that her new hair may have a mind of its own.
Nick Kush: This movie had me at “killer weave.” Although it works better as a comment on black culture than an actual horror movie, there’s far too much creativity to ignore here.
Collin Willis: Solid B-Movie material and a great midnight send-off for my time at the festival.
Wednesday, January 29th
Dick Johnson is Dead
A daughter helps her father prepare for the end of his life.
Nick Kush: Maybe the best way to end this year’s festival. Kirsten Johnson documents the final years of her dad’s life by killing him over and over again via Hollywood-grade stunts. It’s as hilarious as it sounds, but also heartbreaking and sorrowful. An ingenious way to discuss the death of loved ones.
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