Sundance 2020

Sundance Boosts Women Directors

Radha Blank at work on The 40-Year-Old Version (2020)

As the Sundance Film Festival wrapped this weekend with the presentation of this year’s awards, it became immediately clear that the festival’s support for women filmmakers over the years has been a positive corrective to the industry’s ongoing reluctance to address its gender equality problem. Nearly half of the awards announced on Saturday night in Park City have gone to women. “At some events,” wrote Manohla Dargis in the New York Times on Friday, “female filmmakers sometimes seem to have been invited simply to check a box, a practice that, however well-intentioned, inevitably suggests that women are second-class talent. This year’s Sundance, by contrast, underscores that when women receive real opportunities—serious money and institutional support—the pool of work expands, bringing new stories, styles, and worldviews. For the 2020 edition, you didn’t need to dig to find female talent, make excuses for substandard work or politely yawn through another worthy endeavor. It was right on the screen, blissful and unbound.”

Before we take a look at what critics have been saying over the past two weeks or so about the award winners, let’s note that Sundance has a new director. Tabitha Jackson replaces John Cooper, who, after eleven years at the helm, becomes the festival’s first emeritus director. Jackson has been the director of the Sundance Institute’s documentary film program since 2013, and as Scott Macaulay points out at Filmmaker, she’s been championing women filmmakers for years. Working in London with Channel 4 and Film4, she was involved with such projects as Clio Barnard’s The Arbor (2010) and Sophie Fiennes’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012).

On to the awards. And there are a lot of them. Of the 128 features screened at Sundance this year, twenty-five will be taking home a total of twenty-eight prizes.

U.S. Dramatic Competition

Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s fourth feature as a solo director, has won the grand jury prize and an audience award, and midway through the festival, the Guardian’s Benjamin Lee declared it to be “the year’s first truly great movie, one we’ll be talking about for quite some time.” Steven Yeun (Burning) and Yeri Han (Sea Fog) play Jacob and Monica, a couple who arrived in the States from Korea in the 1970s. Now, ten years on, they have two children, one played by seven-year-old Alan S. Kim, who delivers “one of the most crucial and transcendently honest child performances since Jonathan Chang in Yi Yi,” according to IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, and the other played by Noel Cho. Jacob decides to move the family from California to rural Arkansas, where he plans to run a farm. “A beautiful example of cinema à clef done with little blustery sentimentality and a surfeit of grace notes,” Minari is “a textbook example of why that-summer-changed-everything movies are less about the tale than how it’s told,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Fear. Chung “understands exactly how to blend the specific and the universal—that combination of making his story feel like yours.”

Radha Blank has won a directing prize for The 40-Year-Old Version, in which she more or less plays a version of herself, a playwright and comedian whose career has stalled. She’s teaching drama at a New York high school when she decides to give rapping a try again. “Sharply written and shot on lustrous black-and-white 35 mm film,” this is an “emotionally generous comedy about art and aging,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. Chang also admires the “tricky structure that places the three stages of Radha’s artistic life—the class she teaches, the hip-hop scene she explores, and the theater community that may finally take a chance on her long-gestating play—into conversation with one another.” In the Hollywood Reporter, Beandrea July finds that The 40-Year-Old Version “lags a bit in the last act, but the pacing is rhythmic and the way the film builds to its conclusion and ties together its micro and macro narrative threads is impressive, especially for a first feature.”

The Waldo Salt screenwriting award has gone to writer-director Edson Oda for Nine Days, which David Fear calls a “cross between a Gondry-esque chin-stroker and a Zen Buddhist tweak on The Good Place.” In a pre-life purgatory, a reclusive man (Winston Duke) interviews five candidates vying for a chance to be born. Only one will go all the way. The others will cease to exist. “The philosophical cogitations are less profound than the movie thinks,” finds Steven D. Greydanus in the Salt Lake City Weekly. “Oda sticks the landing, though, a particular achievement in so offbeat a film.”

Angel Manuel Soto’s Charm City Kings, based on 12 O’Clock Boys, Lotfy Nathan’s 2013 documentary about dirt bikers in Baltimore, has won a special jury award for its ensemble cast. “At its best,” writes IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, “Soto’s serviceable adaptation suggests Boyz n the Hood meets the Fast and the Furious franchise.” The jury—Ethan Hawke, Dee Rees, Isabella Rossellini, and Wash Westmorland—has dreamed up two special awards for films we took a look at last week. One for auteur filmmaking has gone to Josephine Decker’s Shirley, and another for neorealism has been presented to Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always.

U.S. Documentary Competition

In Boys State, winner of the grand jury prize, Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (The Overnighters) capture the goings on at an annual event that has been taking place all over the country since 1935. Hundreds of high school students convene—in this case, in Austin—to set up a mock government. “In remarkably entertaining fashion,” writes Anthony Kaufman for Screen,Boys State skillfully manages to walk a fine line between irreverent and unsettling; on one hand, it follows in the footsteps of so many endearing documentaries that follow teens competing for victory (Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom, Science Fair, and on, and on); and yet on the other, it’s a timely and provocative look at America’s current political set up, from the bitter divisiveness of party systems to the dirty tricks and nefarious Internet memes that continue to capitalize on those divisions.” For Jordan Raup at the Film Stage, what makes Boys State so “compelling” is that “it appeals both to the most cynical and hopeful of viewers.”

This competition’s directing prize goes to Garrett Bradley, whose Time melds fresh footage capturing the life of Fox Rich, who spent twenty years trying to free her husband from prison, and the home videos Rich has shot throughout her struggle. “Bradley and editor Gabriel Rhodes (who corralled a similarly eclectic mix of source material in a portrait of another singular star, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.), imbue the film with the ebbs and flows of their lives before leading to a true climax,” writes Abby Sun for Filmmaker. “Many things in the film shouldn’t work—black-and-white stylization, rote use of music during archival sequences to make up for degraded aesthetics, rewinding the VHS tapes as an epilogue—but they all magnificently do.” Introducing her interview with Bradley for Film Comment, Amy Taubin expresses her admiration for the way that Time transforms “movie diaries into an intimate and epic film, where past and present flow together like memory, all time bound up in a single purpose—to reunite a family so they can love one another in freedom.” For Beandrea July at Hyperallergic, Time “absolutely sings.”

Crip Camp, Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht’s documentary about the roots of the disability-rights movement at a camp near Woodstock in the early 1970s, has won an audience award. “While tried and true elements of the documentary form are implemented—talking head interviews mixed with a wealth of archival material laid across a familiar structure with a rousing score—this is far from a clinical retelling of history,” writes Jordan Raup at the Film Stage. “The directors key in on the humanity of this struggle every step of the way with a few key members, including the charismatic codirector LeBrecht himself, a member of the camp.” And for the Hollywood Reporter’s Daniel Fienberg, this is a “truly non-partisan, humane, and significant” film.

Film Comment’s Devika Girish has conducted an outstanding podcast interview with Kirsten Johnson, whose first feature, Cameraperson (2016), has landed on several lists of the best films of the decade. In Dick Johnson Is Dead, winner of a special jury award for innovation in nonfiction filmmaking, Johnson works with her eagerly collaborative father, a retired psychiatrist whose mind has begun to give way to Alzheimer’s, to stage his death over and over again. “It’s not the dying that’s the point,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, “it’s the endless resurrections that bring him back to life each time, as if together father and daughter—self-identified best friends—can prepare each other for the time he won’t come back at all.” Dick Johnson is a “profoundly heartfelt cinematic eulogy,” writes Guy Lodge in Variety. “Uncowed by the gravity of their subject, filmmaker and subject are mutually happy to risk kitsch, bad taste and inky gallows humor in the process—because, well, whose death is it anyway?”

Arthur Jones has won an emerging filmmaker award for his directorial debut, Feels Good Man, which tracks artist Matt Furie’s efforts to reclaim his creation, Pepe the Frog, from right-wing haters. It’s “a strange and terrifying odyssey that says much about intellectual property, fringe groups, and the power of online imagery,” writes Nick Schager for Variety. An award for social impact filmmaking has gone to Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Despres for The Fight, which Vadim Rizov calls “a serviceable, not-unlikable portrait of four ACLU lawyers working various lawsuits against various vile [and/or] legally questionable Trump ‘policies.’” And editor Tyler H. Walk has won a special jury award for his work on David France’s Welcome to Chechnya, which, as Guy Lodge writes in Variety, “urgently lifts the lid on one of the most horrifying humanitarian crises of present times: the state-sanctioned purge of LGBTQ people in the eponymous southern Russian republic.”

World Cinema Dramatic Competition

Grand jury prize-winner Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness, the second fiction feature from film critic and documentarian Massoud Bahkshi, is “an ingeniously conceptualized, impeccably acted, and tightly shot single location piece” that “both buys into and subverts crucial elements of thriller, reality TV, and murder documentary tropes,” writes Vadim Rizov.

Twenty-two-year-old Maryam has been sentenced to death for killing her sixty-five-year-old husband. She claims it was an accident and her life may well be spared if she can convince her husband’s daughter to forgive her—during a live broadcast on Iranian television. “Bakhshi’s sure-handed assessment of Iran’s class struggle, a thoughtfully-parsed topic with universal implications, is the film’s most fascinating dimension,” finds Variety’s Peter Debruge. Yalda is one of the films discussed at length on last Monday’s Film Comment Podcast, with Abby Sun heartily recommending it and Devika Girish offering a few reservations.

Maïmouna Doucouré has won a directing award for Cuties, the story of an eleven-year-old middle school student in France who hopes to escape the oppressive traditions of her Senegalese family by joining a mean-girl dance troupe. No one has panned Cuties, but few reviewers are outright enthusiastic about it, either. The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney finds that this “captivating but structurally shaky first feature is stronger on setup than development or payoff.” In Variety, Amy Nicholson admires a few passages, but overall, Cuties is “as subtle as a headache.”

In Fernanda Valadez’s Identifying Features, winner of this competition’s best screenplay award as well as an audience award, a woman sets out across Mexico in search of the son she hasn’t heard from since he left for the U.S. months ago. Variety’s Dennis Harvey finds the narrative “frustratingly cryptic,” but Screen’s Wendy Ide disagrees. “Subdued in tone and stoic in its approach to the dangers that can decimate an entire community, Identifying Features is admirable in its restraint, and all the more powerful because of it,” she writes.

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