More than 40 years after Robert Redford introduced the first Sundance Film Festival to the world, the annual celebration of independent film still maintains a singular goal, as festival director John Cooper elegantly put it during the 2019 edition: “We go out to find the most interesting, authentic voices from around the world.”
Polygon is on a similar mission, spotlighting and investigating the worlds of games, movies, streaming television, comics, and internet culture. If people are talking about it, we want to talk about it, too.
And that’s why, for the next week, we’ll be exploring the offerings of Sundance 2020 and putting the most interesting discoveries on your radar. Here are a few of the films we expect to catch along the way.
Director: Justin Simien (Dear White People)
Cast: Elle Lorraine, Vanessa Williams, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Blair Underwood, Laverne Cox
What Sundance says: When an ambitious young woman is pressured into getting a weave in order to succeed in 1989’s image-obsessed world of music television, her career flourishes though it comes at a cost much greater than money.
Why we’re anxious to see it: Simien’s first feature, Dear White People, was overpacked with serious ideas about race relations in America and about coming of age as a black student in a largely white environment. He expanded on those ideas in his Netflix series of the same name. But while there are comedic elements in both versions, he’s never gone as sharply into farce as Bad Hair appears to. The summary above is carefully worded, but let’s be clear: This is a movie about a murderous weave, in the spirit of all those horror movies about evil transplanted body parts with minds of their own. Simien is a serious cinema aficionado given to lofty visual references, so it should be fun to see him fully embracing his inner kitsch.
Director: Brenda Chapman (The Prince of Egypt, Brave)
Cast: Angelina Jolie, David Oyelowo, Jordan Nash, Keira Chansa, Reece Yates, Michael Caine
What Sundance says: Before Alice found Wonderland, and Peter became Pan, they were brother and sister. When their brother dies in an accident, they seek to save their parents from downward spirals until finally they’re forced to choose between home and imagination, setting the stage for their iconic journeys into Wonderland and Neverland.
Why we’re anxious to see it: Brenda Chapman was Pixar’s first woman director, but the company famously pushed her off her film Brave — a highly personal film, expressly designed to mirror her relationship with her daughter — and handed it over to a male consultant on the project. It was a controversial choice at the time, and even more so when word began to leak about the horrifically sexist culture behind the scenes at Pixar. Come Away is Chapman’s first solo directorial project — she previously co-helmed the animated film The Prince of Egypt — and her first major live-action project, but it still has some of Brave’s fairy-tale touch. It’s going to be fascinating to find out what her directorial voice is like when she’s at the helm solo for once.
Dick Johnson Is Dead
Director: Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson)
What Sundance says: With this inventive portrait, a cameraperson seeks a way to keep her 86-year-old father alive forever. Utilizing moviemaking magic and her family’s dark humor, she celebrates Dr. Dick Johnson’s last years by staging fantasies of death and beyond. Together, dad and daughter confront the great inevitability awaiting us all.
Why we’re anxious to see it: Johnson, a documentary cinematographer by trade, ventured into directing three years ago with Cameraperson, a dreamlike assembly of bits and pieces of her work from over the years. Dick Johnson Is Dead sounds more traditional ... but not, with Johnson tapping the similarities between film and memory to preserve her father’s mind in amber. Her eye for visuals should be on full display, and our eyes for movie-watching will probably be welled up by the end.
Happy Happy Joy Joy - The Ren & Stimpy Story
Director: Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood
What Sundance says: Exploring the rise and fall of the groundbreaking animated series Ren & Stimpy and its controversial creator, John Kricfalusi, through archival footage, show artwork and interviews with the artists, actors and executives behind the show.
Why we’re anxious to see it: In March 2018, after years of whispered stories and professional implosions, women who had been reportedly preyed upon by animator John Kricfalusi stepped out to tell their stories with the support of the #MeToo movement behind them. Two years later, Cicero and Easterwood, making their documentary feature debut, will dip a toe into the saga through the lens of Kricfalusi’s celebrated Nickelodeon cartoon. If Happy Happy Joy Joy can balance a nostalgic look back at the series with the creator’s personal history, it’ll be one of the festival’s great high-wire acts.
Director: Miranda July
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger
What Sundance says: Low-stakes grifters, Old Dolio and her parents invite a chipper young woman into their insular clan, only to have their entire world turned upside down.
Why we’re anxious to see it: It’s been nine years since July’s last feature film, The Future, and 15 since her debut film, Me and You and Everyone We Know. Both those films are quirky to a fault, individualized in a way that suggests a very specific, daring and strange sensibility behind the camera. For art house fans, it’s exciting to see her back in the picture, and working with a strong cast of reliables.
Director: Lee Isaac Chung (Abigail Harm)
Cast: Steven Yeun, Han Yeri, Youn Yuh Jung, Will Patton, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho
What Sundance says: David, a 7-year-old Korean-American boy, gets his life turned upside down when his father decides to move their family to rural Arkansas and start a farm in the mid-1980s, in this charming and unexpected take on the American Dream.
Why we’re anxious to see it: The pedigree behind Minari makes the low-key drama an unmissable Sundance debut: A24 and Brad Pitt’s company Plan B teamed up to make the film, while Yeun (The Walking Dead, Burning) came on board early as a producer. Each Sundance gets a fair share of coming-of-age dramas, but so often they’re from the same sliver of coastal American perspective. The clash at the heart of this movie, and the enthusiasm from two of the biggest indie studios in the business, gives the movie a welcome glow.
Director: Edson Oda
Cast: Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Bill Skarsgård, Tony Hale, David Rysdahl
What Sundance says: In a house distant from the reality we know, a reclusive man interviews prospective candidates — personifications of human souls — for the privilege that he once had: to be born.
Why we’re anxious to see it: Edson Oda’s short-form work, like the puckish short Malaria, about an assassin hired to kill Death, speaks to his creativity, humor, and willingness to experiment with form. This film’s premise seems like it should draw on all three. Plenty of people have made movies about the afterlife, usually by playing on cultural expectations for heaven, hell, or purgatory. But how many filmmakers have explored what before-life looks like, and asked what the qualifiers are for being born?
The Night House
Director: David Bruckner (The Ritual)
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Sarah Goldberg, Stacy Martin, Evan Jonigkeit, Vondie Curtis-Hall
What Sundance says: A widow begins to uncover her recently deceased husband’s disturbing secrets.
Why we’re anxious to see it: David Bruckner shocked crowds at the 2007 Sundance fest with his first chapter for the horror anthology The Signal, then mostly fell silent. He bounced back with a short in the 2012 anthology V/H/S, and finally seems to be finding a groove: In recent years, he’s contributed to Southbound, helmed the creepy monster movie The Ritual for Netflix, and directed a few great episodes of Shudder’s Creepshow reboot. The Night House is supposedly a fresh take on the ghost story, but Bruckner’s involvement is enough to pull us into the shadows. The guy has a lot to give the modern horror genre.
Promising Young Woman
Director: Emerald Fennell
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Connie Britton
What Sundance says: Everyone said Cassie was a promising young woman... until something abruptly derailed her future. Nothing in Cassie’s life is as it appears: she’s smart, cunning, and living a double life by night. Now, Cassie has a chance to right the wrongs of the past in this thrilling take on revenge.
Why we’re anxious to see it: Based on the first trailer for Promising Young Woman, Fennell, an actress, novelist, and the executive producer of Killing Eve, brings a bubblegum-snapping sense of glee to a tale of revenge-fueled noir. Carey Mulligan has long been underused in buttoned-up British roles, so her turn as a man-slaying femme fatale is already sparking like a live wire. Here’s hoping the finished product is as explosive as it looks.
Director: Alex Huston Fischer, Eleanor Wilson (Wobble Palace)
Cast: Sunita Mani, John Reynolds, Ben Sinclair, Johanna Day, John Early, Gary Richardson
What Sundance says: A young Brooklyn couple head upstate to disconnect from their phones and reconnect with themselves. Cut off from their devices, they miss the news that the planet is under attack.
Why we’re anxious to see it: The scoldy “people are too caught up in their phones!” messaging abounds in movies, which often have people too focused on their tech to notice what’s going on around them — but this is the first feature we’ve seen about people missing an entire alien invasion because they weren’t tuned into their phones when disaster struck. This “zany sci-fi comedy” seems worthwhile just for the way it flips a familiar script and acknowledges that maybe there are upsides to being plugged in.
Director: Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline)
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman
What Sundance says: A young couple moves in with the famed author, Shirley Jackson, and her Bennington College professor husband, Stanley Hyman, in the hope of starting a new life but instead find themselves fodder for a psycho-drama that inspires Shirley’s next novel.
Why we’re anxious to see it: Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline was an experimental portrait of youth and mental strife, dripping with sounds and visuals that refused to leave psychology out of the formal equation. The idea of her tackling anything in the orbit of horror icon Shirley Jackson should excite film buffs and genre fans alike.
Director: Matt Wolf (Teenage)
What Sundance says: In 1991, a group of countercultural visionaries built an enormous replica of earth’s ecosystem called Biosphere 2. When eight “biospherians” lived sealed inside, they faced ecological calamities and cult accusations. Their epic adventure is a cautionary tale but also a testament to the power of small groups reimagining the world.
Why we’re anxious to see it: With the Star Trek franchise set to reignite yet again with the premiere of Picard, documentarian Matt Wolf takes a look at a real science fiction initiative set right here on Earth. The rise and fall of the Biosphere 2 project was highly publicized in the early ’90s, but Spaceship Earth promises to dig deeper into the intrepid imagination that brought it all to life while still asking the tough questions.
Director: Eugene Kotlyarenko (Wobble Palace)
Cast: Joe Keery, Sasheer Zamata, David Arquette, Kyle Mooney, Mischa Barton, Josh Ovalle
What Sundance says: Kurt Kunkle, a rideshare driver thirsty for followers, has figured out a deadly plan to go viral. As his disturbing livestream is absurdly embraced by the social media hellscape, a comedienne emerges as the only hope to stop this rampage.
Why we’re anxious to see it: Joe Keery kicks the 1980s throwback vibes of Stranger Things for the modern horror show that is chasing retweets. Kotlyarenko has a background in strange comedy, so while the premise sounds outright disturbing, there may be a bit of a wink-wink attitude to Keery’s violent streak. The big question: Can the satire cut deep enough to say something meaningful about today’s plugged-in social norms?
Director: Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
Cast: Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin, Ahmad Cage, Krzysztof Meyn
What Sundance says: Lost on a mysterious island where aging and time have come unglued, Wendy must fight to save her family, her freedom, and the joyous spirit of youth from the deadly peril of growing up. The classic story of Peter Pan is wildly reimagined in this ragtag epic.
Why we’re anxious to see it: It’s odd to see two radical Peter Pan reimaginings jostling for space at the same Sundance, but given that Brenda Chapman’s Come Away has been sorted into the kids’ program, and Wendy is under Narrative Premieres, it’s safe to say they’ll have fairly different approaches and tones. Peter Pan seems like a natural enough subject for the director and co-writer of Beasts of the Southern Wild, which was also a dreamy, fairy-tale-adjacent fantasy. But it was also a thrilling, moving, visually rich film with a memorable child star, so it’s worth wondering whether Zeitlin’s second feature can capture the same magic.
Director: Janicza Bravo (Lemon)
Cast: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo
What Sundance says: 2015: @zolarmoon tweets “wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” Two girls bond over their “hoeism” and become fast friends. What’s supposed to be a trip from Detroit to Florida turns into a weekend from hell.
Why we’re anxious to see it: Before you roll your eyes and wonder why legitimate filmmakers — and Bravo, with a mix of Adult Swim-like comedy sensibilities and Burtonesque visual panache, is absolutely in that group — are adapting Twitter threads for screen, please remember that it is the year 2020 and more than 320 million people spend their time dumping their inner monologues on to the microblogging site. There’s gold to be found, and the 2015 viral thread is a classic in the platform’s short life span. The success of Zola could easily set a trend for where the next decade of screen dramas will be found.
The 2020 Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 23 to Feb. 2.