Tantalizing Features Lined Up for Sundance 2020

Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young in Josephine Decker’s Shirley (2019)

Announcing a lineup of 118 features for its 2020 edition, the Sundance Film Festival notes that fifty-two of them are directed or codirected by women. One of the most anticipated of these is Josephine Decker’s Shirley with Elisabeth Moss taking on the role of Shirley Jackson, author of the supernatural classic The Haunting of Hill House.

The screenplay for Shirley, written by Sarah Gubbins, is an adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel, which Carol Memmott, writing for the Washington Post, calls a “dazzling yet dark tale.” In 1964, a young couple, Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman), move in with Jackson and her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). While Fred helps to lighten Stanley’s teaching load at the local college in North Bennington, Vermont, Rose spends her days with Shirley. “At first it seems an odd choice, to filter the flamboyant character of Shirley Jackson through the timid gaze of a naïve, pregnant nineteen-year-old,” writes Ivy Pochoda for the Los Angeles Review of Books. “But it soon becomes clear that Rose’s perspective prevents Shirley and Stanley from running rampant and dominating the story as they dominated their dinner guests.”

Also slated to premiere in the U.S. Dramatic Competition is Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the third feature from Eliza Hittman after It Felt Like Love (2013) and Beach Rats (2017). The new film focuses on two teenage girls from rural Pennsylvania, (Sidney Flanigan) and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), who head to New York City to deal with an unintended pregnancy. Janicza Bravo’s Zola promises to be a road movie of an entirely different sort. Bravo’s second feature, after Lemon (2017), is based on a somewhat true story of prostitution and murder told over the course of 148 tweets in 2015 by Aziah “Zola” Wells, a waitress in Detroit who set off for Florida with a “white bitch” she’d just met. The tale “reads like Spring Breakers meets Pulp Fiction, as told by Nicki Minaj,” wrote David Kushner one month later in a piece for Rolling Stone.

Variety’s Peter Debruge talks with festival director John Cooper and director of programming Kim Yutani about some of the highlights of the features lineup, and Yutani singles out Lee Isaac Chung and his fifth film, Minari. Chung’s debut, Munyurangabo (2007), premiered in Cannes and was dubbed a “masterpiece” by Roger Ebert. “He’s been around for a while,” says Yutani, but she’s betting that Minari, with Alan S. Kim as a seven-year-old and Steven Yeun as his father, will be Chung’s “big breakout film.”

One of the titles in the U.S. Documentary Competition that many will be looking forward to most is Dick Johnson Is Dead, the renowned cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s follow-up to Cameraperson (2016). “With the magic of fiction, and the help of stunt people, my dad will die unexpectedly in each scene of the movie, until he dies for real, and then nothing will be able to help us,” Johnson told Film Comment’s Chloe Lizotte in the summer of 2018. Eighty-six and coping with the onset of dementia, Dick Johnson was eager to work with his daughter on the project. “I think of this film as a form of pre-traumatic therapy,” said Kirsten Johnson. “Both of us coped with my mother’s Alzheimer’s with much sadness and grieving, so we decided we wanted to attempt to cope with what is happening to my father with as bold a sense of humor and as great a respect for his capacities as a remarkably emotionally open person as we can manage.”

In October, the Brooklyn Academy of Music built a series around Garrett Bradley’s America, a short film about “the construction of Blackness in American cinema.” Bradley has spent the last two decades working on Time, a documentary feature about Fox Rich, whom the festival describes as an “indomitable matriarch and modern-day abolitionist.” David France, whose How to Survive a Plague premiered at Sundance in 2012 and was nominated for an Oscar, returns with Welcome to Chechnya, which tracks a group of activists as they go up against the often violent anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the Russian republic. Bill and Turner Ross, who won a special jury prize at Sundance for Western (2015), are back with Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, which captures the scene at an old watering hole in Las Vegas.

Hubert Sauper, another winner of a special jury prize—for We Come as Friends (2014)—is bringing Epicentro, a journey through Cuba and a meditation on globalization, to the World Cinema Documentary Competition. Premiering the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, Charter, Amanda Kernell’s follow-up to her award-winning Sami Blood (2016), is the story of a woman who, in the wake of a nasty divorce, abducts her children and heads off to the Canary Islands. Komplizen Film, the company behind such films as Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (2016), Valeska Grisebach’s Western (2017), and Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman (2018), will present Visar Morina’s Exil, in which a bullied chemical engineer undergoes an identity crisis. Toni Erdmann star Sandra Hüller appears alongside Mišel Matičević. And Brandon Cronenberg imagines a future in which companies can steer people’s minds and have them carry out assassinations in Possessor, starring Andrea Riseborough and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Moving beyond the four competitions, look to the Next program for discoveries. Speaking of the directors bringing their debut features to Sundance, John Cooper tells Peter Debruge that he and Kim Yutani are “seeing a lot more of how they tell a story, even if it’s an old story, with a lot more creativity.” Premiering in the Midnight section will be actress Romola Garai’s first feature as a director, Amulet, which is set in a spooky house in London; Bad Hair, a horror satire from Dear White People director Justin Simien, starring Vanessa Williams, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, and Laverne Cox; and Bill Benz’s The Nowhere Inn, cowritten by Annie Clark, known to most as St. Vincent, and Carrie Brownstein. Spotlight is a selection of favorites that the programmers have spotted at other festivals, and there are three features lined up for the Kids program, including Brenda Chapman’s Come Away, which will put Angelina Jolie and David Oyelowo in a world where Alice’s Wonderland meets Peter Pan’s Neverland.

Neverland is also reimagined in Wendy, Benh Zeitlin’s long, long awaited follow-up to Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). And in general, it’s the Premieres and Documentary Premieres that will likely generate the most headlines and draw the most stargazers to Park City. Lana Wilson’s documentary Taylor Swift: Miss Americana, for example, may bring its subject to the festival on opening day. Dee Rees (Pariah, Mudbound) directs Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, Willem Dafoe, and Rosie Perez in The Last Thing He Wanted, an adaptation of Joan Didion’s 1996 novel about a journalist who inadvertently becomes an arms dealer. Miranda July, who hasn’t made a feature since she brought The Future to Sundance in 2011, is back with Kajillionaire, which focuses on a family of grifters and stars Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, and Debra Winger.

Another all-star cast—Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Bette Midler, Janelle Monáe, Timothy Hutton, and Lorraine Toussaint—appears in Julie Taymor’s The Glorias, a film based on the life of feminist crusader Gloria Steinem. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have cast Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell in Downhill, a remake of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (2014). Carrie Coon, whom the A.V. Club has dubbed its “actor of the decade,” stars alongside Jude Law in The Nest, the story of a family’s struggle stay afloat in the London of the 1980s. The Nest is the first film that Sean Durkin, a prolific producer, has directed since 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Michael Almereyda directs his Hamlet star, Ethan Hawke, in Tesla, the story of Nikola Tesla’s attempt to invent a new form of wireless energy. Anthony Hopkins plays an aging loner being cared for by his daughter, played by Olivia Coleman, in Florian Zeller’s The Father. And Glenn Close and Mila Kunis star in Rodrigo Garcia’s Four Good Days, in which a mother aims to help her daughter break her addiction to opioids. In all, it looks as if the new year will be off to a promising start when 2020 edition of Sundance opens on January 23 and runs through February 2.

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