If you’re any kind of film fan, you have a mad degree of reverence for major film festivals. While Europe has the royalty of Cannes and Venice, in the U.S. you don’t get much more prestigious than Park City, UT’s annual Sundance Film Festival. The 2020 iteration was the 36th under the Sundance name, but it was the first for your ol’ pal Kyle. Since I got into film writing and criticism, I’d always wanted to attend, I just never did. It definitely didn’t disappoint; the roster of movies on offer from all over the world displayed exactly what I hoped I’d find in the snowy winter clime.
Park City is gorgeous, first of all. It’s a ski resort town, so everything is as picturesque as can be. And cold. It’s the mountains in January. But that’s why it’s great we get to sit inside and watch movies! I knew Sundance took over the town, but it was an impressive site to see all kinds of structures and businesses—rec centers, libraries, high school auditoriums—transform into movie theaters for the purposes of supporting and loving new voices and favorites alike.
For my part, I saw 11 movies. That at once felt like a lot and not nearly enough. You’re never going to get to see everything you want to. I got to see three movies that are coming out wide in the very near future. First of these was Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, a crowd-pleasing, darkly comedic tale of a woman getting revenge on the people who wronged her friend. But Kill Bill this is not, and I got to speak to Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham about how the movie truly empowers those with stories to tell.
The second of these is Jim Rash and Nat Faxon’s Downhill, a reinterpretation of the 2014 Swedish film Force Majeure. The film stars Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a married couple on a ski vacation in Europe with their kids. Everything seems fine until an avalanche calls in to question the different parents’ values and wants. It’s a funny movie, but one that has pretty deep things to say about adulthood in the 21st Century.
Last of the big releases is Ironbark, a Cold War-era true story. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as an English salesman who agrees to go into Moscow to meet with a Soviet general who wants to defect. The general, codenamed “Ironbark” (Merab Ninidze) has information that could hopefully avert a nuclear war between the U.S. and the USSR. Dominic Cooke’s movie has plenty of thrills but reaches its apex with its central story of friendship between the two men from completely different backgrounds.
I saw two documentaries about completely different things but ended up feeling very similar. The first, Happy Happy Joy Joy, discussed the production of The Ren & Stimpy Show at Nickelodeon. It became a massive hit; but the show’s creator, John Kricfalusi, was a verbally abusive perfectionist who eventually alienated all of his collaborators. Then there was Whirlybird, the story of Zoey (then Bob) Tur who in the ’80s and ’90s along with wife and partner Marika Gerrard revolutionized on-the-spot reporting. They became massively successful for their helicopter coverage of Los Angeles events; but Tur was an abusive perfectionist who alienated his collaborators.
Being a big horror nut, I was stoked to catch some scary movies at Sundance as well. First up was La Llorona, a harrowing real-world take on the Guatemalan folktale of the Weeping Woman. A general who perpetrated atrocities during the Mayan Genocide of the ’80s believes La Llorona is haunting him. His family, trapped in their home surrounded by protesters, has to contend with his crimes, and possibly the haunting.
Next is The Night House, a fantastic take on the haunted house story. Rebecca Hall stars as a grieving widow who starts to believe her husband’s spirit remains in their home. But the more she looks for pieces of him, the more she finds evidence he might have had a double life. I got to speak to the film’s director David Bruckner and screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski about how they created the architectural horror of the house.
The last horror movie was a hoot called Scare Me, written, directed by, and starring Josh Ruben. People stuck in a cabin during a power outage tell each other scary stories, and the stories get very elaborate and the lines between reality and fiction blur. But in a very fun and unique way.
I also got to catch Come Away, a delightful and magical family movie about the power of imagination in the face of the horrible real world. It’s a kind of origin story of sorts for both Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. The film, from Oscar-winning director Brenda Chapman, feels like the kind of family movie I grew up with but with a wholly new point of view and things to say about race, class, and societal norms. Cast includes Angelina Jolie, David Oyelowo, and Michael Caine.
And finally, maybe my favorite movie I saw at the entire Sundance Film Festival was Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always. It’s a powerhouse of a film following two teenage girls on their journey from Pennsylvania to NYC so one of them can get an abortion without telling her parents. It’s a deeply moving and heartbreaking movie and the two lead actresses (Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder) are young talents to watch. They’re absolutely dynamite. I got to speak to Hittman, Flanigan, and Ryder as well.
The Sundance Film Festival 2020 reaffirmed my love of movies of all kinds, and the joy of discovering new stories and storytellers you might not get to see otherwise. I consider it a mark of the festival’s quality that all of these movies were good. I didn’t see a single dud. And most of these were chosen at random or based on scheduling. That’s the beauty of something like Sundance. You’re always going to find a gem. I hope I get to go back next year and every year after. It’s a truly magical place for movies.
Featured Image: Sundance Institute