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14 Movies To Get Excited About In 2020

The best films out of Sundance 2020 include a feature based on a viral Twitter thread and a time-warp rom-com starring Andy Samberg.

Posted on February 7, 2020, at 11:10 a.m. ET

1. Dick Johnson Is Dead

Courtesy of Sundance Festival

Kirsten Johnson, who made 2016's extraordinary Cameraperson, is back with a shockingly funny, intimate, and devastating portrait of her father, Dick, who over the course of the last few years of his life has fallen further into the depths of dementia. Equal parts personal documentary and fantastical metafiction, the film, which won the US Documentary Special Jury Award for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling at Sundance, follows Kirsten's experimental efforts to "kill" her father onscreen in variously appalling scenarios: He's struck by an air conditioner; he's thwacked with a piece of construction detritus on the streets of New York; he simply crumbles and falls on the sidewalk one day. And then he magically comes back to life.

The project is Kirsten's way of reckoning with the fact that someday, her father will die — and so will she, and so will everyone she loves. So will all of us.

Dick is a particularly special man — warm and charming, silly and kind — who, out of pure love and adoration for his daughter, throws himself willingly into a very public exploration of his own mortality. The relationship between them, rendered beautifully in this boundary-pushing film, had me weeping, smiling, and laughing long after I'd left the theater. —Shannon Keating

Distribution: Dick Johnson Is Dead will be streaming on Netflix sometime later this year.

2. Assassins

Courtesy of Sundance Festival

In Assassins, director Ryan White (The Keepers) investigates what might be the strangest crime of the 21st century: the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of Kim Jong Un, in Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017. You might remember images of the two young women rushing away after overtaking the North Korean dictator’s brother, smearing the deadly VX nerve agent in his eyes and face among throngs of people in broad daylight, one clad in a sweatshirt with the letters "LOL" emblazoned on it. White carefully reconstructs how these two young women — Doan Thi Huong from Vietnam and Siti Aisyah from Indonesia — came to be a part of the shocking attack that was caught on CTV video.

While watching the surreal story unfold, it’s up to the viewer to decide whether they believe the women, who say they thought they were acting in a prank video destined for YouTube, or if, as the trial’s prosecutors argued, they were a pair of sophisticated assassins sent to eradicate a potent threat to Kim Jong Un’s dictatorship. Equal parts confounding and infuriating, perhaps the biggest takeaway from this intricately woven film is how the quest for virality has completely changed the way people act and the risks they’re willing to take to become internet famous. —Karolina Waclawiak

Distribution: Assassins will be released by Magnolia Pictures.

3. Palm Springs

Courtesy of Sundance Institute / Via Chris Willard

Existential dread meets comedy meets romance in this Lonely Island–produced feature, Max Barbakow's directorial follow-up to The Duke. Cristin Milioti plays Sarah, the self-described family fuckup, who's in Palm Springs for her younger sister's destination wedding. Andy Samberg is Nyles, who's attending the same wedding as the plus-one of his vapid girlfriend. Sarah thinks at first that Nyles is a sentimental schmuck, but it turns out he's a cynical nihilist — a lot like her, actually. They get along, and the pair stumble their way into a casual hookup in the California desert before they're interrupted by cosmic intervention.

While Palm Springs could have easily have been another lackluster, underbaked time-warp movie, the Groundhog Day premise quickly gives way to something much more interesting. Plus, it's a lot of fun. Milioti and Samberg are lovely together, both performers who excel in conveying the realities of millennial angst about love, forgiveness, and, of course, the purpose of life. —S.K.

Distribution: Hulu and Neon scooped up Palm Springs for somewhere between $17 million and $22 million, the biggest Sundance deal of all time.

4. Saudi Runaway

Courtesy of Sundance Festival

In her second feature documentary, director Susanne Regina Meures tells a story of a young woman from Saudi Arabia who’s secretly planning to escape the country while on her honeymoon and seek asylum. Using two smartphones, the cinematographer is the subject herself, Muna. She offers a rare glimpse into life under her country’s oppressive regime, where women have long lived entirely under the thumb of their appointed male guardians, be it a father, husband, brother, or sometimes even a son. (Certain guardianship rules have eased recently, though tradition — if not law — may continue to uphold them.)

Films shot entirely on phones are often a PR gimmick or a last resort done due to budget limitations, but here it’s a necessary safety precaution, emphasizing the gravity of the situation; Muna cannot be caught. Hers is the only face we see — others are blurred out — and footage is often shot surreptitiously, through her veil or otherwise undercover, stealing private moments to reveal her innermost thoughts.

Meures and Muna — whose last name is withheld — have together created a gripping, high-stakes thriller with anxiety-inducing moments that materialize right up until the film’s final minutes. As Muna wrestles with the reality of leaving her family, Saudi Runaway becomes an impressive work deeply rooted in the subject’s perspective, artfully turning what could be described as an hour and a half–long vlog into something poignant and powerful. —Sandi Rankaduwa

Distribution: Saudi Runaway is seeking distribution.

5. Time

Courtesy of Sundance Festival

Director Garrett Bradley had just finished shooting footage for her new documentary, Time, when her subject, Fox Rich, presented her with nearly 20 years' worth of home video footage. Rich had been filming the day-to-day struggles and joys of family life — she's the mother of six sons — for her husband, Rob, who was at the time serving a 60-year prison sentence. Fox thought Bradley might find the footage helpful — and, indeed, the way he masterfully interweaves scenes of Rich as a young mother to a bunch of rambunctious baby boys with present-day scenes of Fox and her grown children results in an extraordinary portrait of a family that has spent decades fighting for justice.

Fox Rich is a monumental and unforgettable character: a powerhouse entrepreneur and devout churchgoer who's spent every single day since her husband was first incarcerated working toward his freedom, all while raising children and seeking her own path to redemption. Bradley, who won the US Documentary Directing Award at Sundance, has crafted a movie that's infuriating in its depiction of our appallingly racist prison system, as well as gloriously affirming in its depictions of love, devotion, and sacrifice. I don't remember the last time I've cried so hard, and for so long, watching a film — and since I love a good cry, that's the highest compliment I can give it. —S.K.

Distribution: Time is currently seeking distribution. What are you waiting for, people!!!!

6. Kajillionaire

Matt Kennedy / Via Courtesy of Sundance Festival

Fans of Miranda July — whose style is understandably polarizing — won’t be disappointed with her latest film, Kajillionaire. Doubling as a low-stakes heist flick and a latent coming-of-age story, the film follows Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), the 26-year-old only child in a family of emotionally challenged grifters (Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger). When an alluring stranger — and, for all intents and purposes, manic pixie dream girl — named Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) wants in on their latest con, Old Dolio’s world is upended.

There’s been a push in the industry to subvert typical women roles, creating more “strong female characters,” but Kajillionaire embraces a character type that remains far too rare for women: that of the no-holds-barred weirdo. During a post-premiere Q&A, Wood said she drew inspiration for Old Dolio from Edward Scissorhands — an emotionally stunted outsider longing for connection, but who's clueless how to process or articulate that. It’s this aspect of the film that’s especially endearing. While not for everyone, if you blindly accept the absurdity of the universe July has created, Kajillionaire becomes a sweet and slow burn with a surprisingly satisfying ending. —S.R.

Distribution: Kajillionaire will be released by Focus Features.

7. Zola

Courtesy of Sundance Festival

One of buzziest titles this year at Sundance is based on A’Ziah “Zola” King’s viral 2015 Twitter thread about two strippers who head to Florida together on a trip that goes so wildly out of control that it begged for a screen adaptation. The resulting film, helmed by director Janicza Bravo and cowritten by Bravo and Jeremy O’Harris, is part screwball comedy and part disturbing roller coaster, featuring forced sex work and a possible murder (?).

While it has elements of other great Florida films, like Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, Bravo shows us a Florida all her own. Her gaze lingers on scenes that would feel exploitative in lesser hands and takes care to make sure the film goes well beyond easily trafficked tropes about sex work. Taylour Paige as Zola is absolutely mesmerizing to watch as the film's moral center as stripper Stefani (Riley Keough, who purposely leans hard into cultural appropriation) convinces her to travel south to make a boatload of money, and plunges our heroine — and herself — deeper and deeper into a Floridian nightmare.

Come for the chemistry between Zola and Stefani as they try to survive the weekend, and stay for Nicholas Braun (Succession’s Cousin Greg) playing a hapless cuckold named Derrek who just can’t catch a break. — K.W.

Distribution: Zola will be released by A24 this summer.

8. Minari

Courtesy of Sundance Festival

Director Lee Isaac Chung grew up on a small farm in the Ozark mountains, and he captures elements of his own story in his most personal film to date. Minari, winner of both the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the Dramatic Audience Award at Sundance, follows David, a 7-year-old Korean American boy (Alan Kim, Sundance's small but mighty breakout star), and his family on their move from California to rural Arkansas. His father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), dreams of running his own farm and being his own boss after spending far too long sorting baby chicks by sex at a poultry plant. So he makes the daring and possibly reckless move of buying a mobile home on a nice chunk of land — to the bitter frustration of his wife, Monica (Yeri Han). The only bright spot on Monica's horizon is that her mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) will soon arrive from Korea to live with them.

Youn is incredible as a zany, warmhearted, and rather untraditional grandmother ("You aren't a real Grandma," David constantly tells her soon after she moves in) and provides most of the film's laughs, as well as its tears. Minari is a beautiful rendition of the pursuit of the American dream and how far some will go to achieve it. —S.K.

Distribution: Minari will be released by A24.

9. Shirley

Courtesy of Sundance Festival

There’s something really spectacular about watching Elisabeth Moss going at full intensity as she slowly comes apart at the seams. In Shirley, Moss plays the queen of American Gothic horror, author Shirley Jackson, who is trapped in an unhealthy marriage with Bennington professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg); he needs her as much as she needs him as she struggles with writing a new book.

Based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, the film isn’t exactly a biopic. Instead, it follows a young, bright-eyed couple as they move in with Jackson and Hyman. Inevitably, Shirley’s cantankerous personality infects young wife Rose (Odessa Young), and their mutual unhappiness is the engine that drives in this smart period piece. Directed by Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline), who won this year's US Dramatic Special Jury Award for Auteur Filmmaking at Sundance, the film resembles Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in its marriage-unraveling intensity. That’s probably due to playwright and I Love Dick co-creator Sarah Gubbins’ moody and sometimes uncanny script. Moss is at her best opposite Young, and together they form an erotic union against a backdrop of dissatisfaction and husbands who prove to be far less interesting than their partners. —K.W.

Distribution: Shirley will be released by Neon.

10. On the Record

Courtesy of Sundance Festival

Oscar-nominated filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering have made their names with meaty investigative projects about sexual harassment and assault, such as The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground. They mine similarly fraught territory in On the Record, the story of music executive Drew Dixon, who says her personal and professional lives were horrifically derailed by men in the industry she'd dearly loved. Dixon, along with two other women, told the New York Times in 2017 that influential music mogul Russell Simmons had raped her, which ultimately resulted in her leaving a dream job and, perhaps even more tragically, losing her passion for music.

On the Record has been the subject of a lot of gossip and controversy since Oprah and Apple, who'd initially backed the project, decided to pull out shortly before the Sundance premiere, seemingly having faced pressure from Simmons. Luckily, the film has found a home with HBO Max — and thank goodness, because it deserves to be seen. Dixon, alongside a number of other black women — including fellow survivors, music journalists, social theorists, and academics — brilliantly and heartbreakingly documents how difficult it can be for black women to seek justice in the aftermath of sexual assault and abuse, particularly at the hands of black men, because of the US's racist past and present system of mass incarceration. Dick and Ziering incorporate histories of everything from lynching to hip-hop to give crucial context to the abuse these women suffered, as well as to their remarkable stories of resilience. —S.K.

Distribution: On the Record will be released on HBO Max.

11. Tesla

Cara Howe / Via Courtesy of Sundance Festival

Writer-director Michael Almereyda’s film Tesla may have earned the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at Sundance, but it’s bound to leave some viewers scratching their heads. I was skeptical I’d like it, expecting a typical biopic of the Serbian visionary, and I was already bored by the idea of men butting heads over power, even if it’s of the electrical kind. But I was pleasantly surprised; Tesla ends up being decidedly experimental in its approach, embodying the unconventional spirit of its subject.

Sure, there are the expected tense interactions between the brooding titular character (Ethan Hawke) and a superbly smarmy Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), not to mention will-they-won’t-they flirtations with Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) and Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of financier J.P. Morgan. But this pseudo period piece is playful and anachronistic, with Anne doubling as an occasional narrator, using a MacBook and Google Images to prove her points. Almereyda takes other whimsical liberties (ice cream fights, a smartphone cameo, and a karaoke cover of Tears for Fears, to name a few) but even with these oblique moments of levity, Tesla earnestly depicts an underdog story, illuminating the man’s radical passion and pathos without cheapening either. —S.R.

Distribution: Tesla is currently seeking distribution.

12. The Nowhere Inn

Courtesy of Sundance Festival

For his feature directorial debut, Bill Benz teamed up with Annie Clark and Carrie Brownstein, who are cowriters and costars in this zany and multilayered mockumentary. Carrie endeavors to make a film about her best friend, rock star St. Vincent — but in her downtime, the mysterious star is just Annie: an ordinary person who plays Scrabble and does regular ab workouts. But who is Annie really? Carrie wants to capture something raw, something real. What darkness might lie beneath the surface? What excitements? What does she do when she's not being a sexy rock god? “We snack on radishes,” one bandmate talking head tells us. “Anything that tastes like dirt. We go to farmers markets.”

Once Carrie starts shooting, she becomes frustrated that the project lacks any drama or tension. Not wanting to disappoint her friend, Annie decides to inject her personal life with some oomph, and the film within the film unfolds into absurdity and chaos.

Clark is excellent in the role as not quite herself; both she and Brownstein lean into the wackiness of it all with aplomb. The resulting film is a fun, smart critique of the public's endless appetite for both "authenticity" and drama from celebrities. Of course, at the same time, the film manages to promote St. Vincent in much the same way that "real" music documentaries, like fellow Sundance premiere Miss Americana, aim to advance their own stars. But I can't say I'm too bothered about it this time. —S.K.

Distribution: The Nowhere Inn is currently seeking distribution.

13. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Courtesy of Sundance Festival

Eliza Hittman, who directed 2017's Beach Rats, is a master at discovering talent. In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, striking newcomer Sidney Flanigan plays Autumn, a 17-year-old with a beautiful singing voice who doesn't say much when she's offstage. In her rural Pennsylvanian hometown, Autumn doesn't have a lot of options when she discovers she's pregnant; the first clinic she goes to gives her a test from the supermarket, then later makes her watch an anti-abortion propaganda video. With the help of her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), a fellow clerk at the town grocery store, Autumn heads for New York to seek the health care she can't get at home.

Cinematographer Hélène Louvart, shooting on 16 mm film, brings a gritty sense of quiet wonder to the New York cityscape; she also captures, in stunning close-ups, Autumn's heartbreaking vulnerability. Both girls are used to the casual preying behavior of boys and men, but in the city, everyday dangers seem far closer at hand. Together, they lean on each other to find the money and the willpower to get Autumn what she needs and set her free. The dialogue is sparse, in typical Hittman fashion, which means the few times the characters touch — a hand falling on a face mid-sleep; pinkies clinging to each other for dear life — are imbued with so much love and care they nearly brought me to tears. —S.K.

Distribution: Never Rarely Sometimes Always will be released by Focus Features on March 13.

14. Charm City Kings

Courtesy of Sundance Festival

Directed by Angel Manuel Soto and shot primarily in West Baltimore, Charm City Kings is both a love letter to the city’s dirt bike culture and a spirited coming-of-age drama.

A fictionalized retelling of the 2013 documentary 12 O’Clock Boys, Charm City Kings takes somewhat of a vérité approach by featuring real riders from Baltimore, heightening the more exhilarating scenes and camerawork. But the film also lends a sense of humanity to a community and culture not always quick to get it. Giving a standout performance, Jahi Di’Allo Winston radiates charisma as the 14-year-old protagonist, Mouse, and elevates a story about black boys reckoning with different ideals of masculinity.

It isn't note-perfect — some moments in the script veer toward heavy-handed — but any weaknesses seem easily forgivable in what’s overall a winsome film with grit and heart. —S.R.

Distribution: Charm City Kings will be released by Sony Pictures Classics on April 10.

CORRECTION

Neon is releasing Shirley. An earlier version of this post misstated the distribution company.

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