What Critics Are Looking Forward to at Sundance 2020

The annual film festival will kick off a new year in independent cinema this week.

A still from Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Sundance / Focus Features)

With Oscar nominations out and the awards season drawing to a close, the moviemaking industry will descend on Park City, Utah, on January 23 for the Sundance Film Festival. Although the event is dominated by independent film rather than by studio heavyweights or middle-of-the-road awards contenders, it usually manages to set the tone for the year. Beyond producing surprise box-office hits, such as Get Out, The Big Sick, and Manchester by the Sea, Sundance also offers a preview of the strategies that newer distributors such as Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and A24 are favoring as they seek out their own ways around mainstream competition.

In the past, longer-lived streamers like Netflix would sweep into Sundance and buy up as many big movies as possible, outbidding everyone else by millions in exchange for an online release strategy that largely bypassed theaters. Last year, with custom content such as The Irishman already in the bag, Netflix scaled back its acquisition ambitions, leading to a feeding frenzy among other studios; movies like Late Night, Blinded by the Light, and Brittany Runs a Marathon were bought for eight figures apiece, but failed to recoup that investment at the box office. Sundance in 2020 should be a less feverish affair as a result. Still, dozens of noteworthy films will be drumming up excitement over the next two weeks.

Some of the biggest names at the festival are directors who first established their reputations amid Utah’s snowy banks. Dee Rees, who debuted 2011’s Pariah and 2017’s Oscar-nominated Mudbound at Sundance, is unveiling her new feature, The Last Thing He Wanted, based on Joan Didion’s 1996 novel of the same title. It follows a journalist (played by Anne Hathaway) who becomes embroiled in the world of arms dealing while trying to help her dying father (Willem Dafoe). The film was produced by Netflix, which also distributed Mudbound; Rees has praised the company as a necessary change agent for the industry.

Shirley (Killer Films / Sundance)

Other returning Sundance favorites include Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline), whose Shirley is an unconventional biopic of the horror writer Shirley Jackson, with Elisabeth Moss as the title character and Michael Stuhlbarg as her husband Stanley. In the film, the couple’s young houseguests become inspiration for Jackson’s next story. Decker loves to explore the liminal area between art and reality, which makes this premise all the more exciting. Eliza Hittman is also back this year after screening Beach Rats at Sundance in 2017. Her new project, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, is similarly bold and intimate, but comes with a political thrust: It’s a magnificent, hard-hitting portrayal of a Pennsylvania teenager who treks to New York for a safe and private abortion.

The Sundance veteran Miranda July (who screened her previous two films, Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, at the festival) is returning for the first time since 2011 with Kajillionaire. This project, more high-concept than her earlier work, stars Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger as veteran con artists whose daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) runs afoul of their next mark (Gina Rodriguez). There’s been an equally long wait for new work from Sean Durkin since his stunning debut with the cult thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene. Durkin’s follow-up is The Nest, about an American entrepreneur (Jude Law) and his wife (Carrie Coon) who move to an isolated British manor; what happens next is mostly secret, but the movie should thrive on tension and atmosphere.

Zola (A24 / Sundance)

Plenty of offerings by less well-known filmmakers are already drawing attention as well. One of the most hyped titles is A24’s Zola, an adaptation of an extremely viral Twitter thread about a wild trip to Tampa taken by two exotic dancers (Riley Keough and Taylour Paige). Janicza Bravo (Lemon) wrote and directed, with the acclaimed playwright Jeremy O. Harris co-scripting; if this film breaks out as anticipated, no tweet will be safe from Hollywood development agencies. Buzz is swirling around Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, also from A24, which stars Steven Yeun as the patriarch of a Korean family that moves to Arkansas in the 1980s to start a farm. Yet another appealing project is Bill Benz’s delightful The Nowhere Inn, a mockumentary in which Carrie Brownstein attempts to make a concert movie about the musician St. Vincent.

On the documentary side, it will be tough to eclipse the intensity of last year’s four-hour Michael Jackson exposé Leaving Neverland. However, this year’s spotlight will surely be aimed at Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick’s On the Record, which follows the experiences of the music executive Drew Dixon after she accused the music impresario Russell Simmons of rape and abuse in 2017 (he has denied the allegations). The film drew headlines when the producer Oprah Winfrey withdrew from the film at the last minute, reportedly under pressure from Simmons; its premiere should mark a major moment in a complex, still-unfolding narrative. Laurent Bouzereau’s Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind is a portrait of the legendary actor and an exploration of her mysterious death. The Fight, from the creators of Weiner, goes behind the scenes at the American Civil Liberties Union in the years since the election of Donald Trump.

The nonfiction work stirring up the most critical excitement, however, is Dick Johnson Is Dead, the latest film from the daring documentarian Kirsten Johnson. Her 2016 project Cameraperson was a stunning collage of footage she’d taken over the years, including some material involving her father, Dick. In this more focused portrait of him confronting mortality, Johnson is aiming to craft a complete filmic representation of the man who raised her; the end result could be among the best movies of the year. It’s only January, of course, but at last year’s Sundance I saw films that ended up on my top-10 list; 2020 will likely prove no different.