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The Most Talked-About Films From Sundance 2020

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | February 1, 2020 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | February 1, 2020 |

Sundance Shirts Getty.jpg

The Sundance Film Festival is the first major event on the movie calendar that isn’t directly related to awards season. The iconic Utah-based event is seen as the epitome of indie cool, long after the Hollywood establishment stepped in and started running the show. Nowadays, a lot of the most hotly anticipated titles arrive in town with a big-name distributor already attached, allowing them to use the glow of Sundance as a way to build excitement for the coming year and awards season, because yes, we are already preparing for the 2021 Oscars, powers above help us all. This year was no different, with plenty of major acquisitions, some highly-hyped premieres, and a few notable flops that were dead on arrival. For those of us who weren’t lucky enough to attend the festival (shut up, I’m not jealous), let’s take a look at ten of the most talked-about films from this year’s event.

Director: Max Barbakow
Starring: Andy Samberg, Christin Milioti, J.K. Simmons

2020 saw the biggest acquisition in Sundance history thanks to Hulu and Neon’s deal to buy Palm Springs. The rom-com stars Andy Samberg and comes courtesy of the Lonely Island trio, although it’s written by Andy Siara, who worked on Lodge 49. It’s been described as the modern Groundhog Day, as Samberg takes on the Bill Murray role of a man stuck in a time loop at a destination wedding in Southern California. Critics enjoyed this one but the distributors will need to work hard to justify that price tag of over $17.5 million and 69 cents (nice.) Sundance buzz is super insulated and fickle. Remember Late Night and Brittany Runs a Marathon from last year? Amazon paid top dollar for both but couldn’t get the buzz to transfer to the box office. Palm Springs has a great hook and a lot of mainstream appeal, so we’ll have to wait and see if it breaks the curse.

Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Starring: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn

Underrated internet boyfriend Steven Yeun stars in this Brad Pitt-produced drama about a Korean-American family who move from the West Coast to a mobile home in rural Arkansas. Following on from his major critical breakout in Burning, Yeun received some of the best reviews of his career in this story that’s inspired by director Lee Isaac Chung’s own childhood. Young star Alan Kim also delighted Sundance audiences thanks to his irrepressible charm and cowboy attire. This one has Plan B and A24 in its corner, so the Sundance buzz was really the icing on top of an already appetizing cake.

Director: Janicza Bravo
Starring: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo

Everyone was waiting for Zola from the moment that Twitter thread went viral and sent Hollywood scrambling to see if social media hype could translate to cinematic success. As noted by reviews, director Janicza Bravo managed to walk a very fine tightrope of comedy, drama, thriller, and social realism, depicting the staggeringly true story of a stripper, a sex worker, a weekend in Florida, and the trap that had to be tweeted to be believed. A24 is behind this one so expect a whole lot of Film Twitter frenzies this year.

Director: David Bruckner
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Sarah Golding, Stacy Martin

Being called the scariest film at Sundance can be a great gift. After all, it worked out pretty damn well for Hereditary. Reviews were somewhat split with this one, nowhere near as unanimously rapturous as they were for Ari Aster’s chilling debut, but the buzz was still there and The Night House, a story of a widow, played by Rebecca Hall, discovering her late husband’s horrifying secrets, clearly benefited from it. It was certainly enough to get Searchlight to fork out a reported $12 million for worldwide distribution rights. Now that the indie giant has dropped Fox from its title and is wholly Disney’s responsibility, I’m curious to see how much films like this become a priority for the blockbuster giants. They didn’t exactly rush to put Jojo Rabbit front and center this awards season, after all.

Director: Dominic Cooke
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley

There’s nothing like a classy British period drama to get the blood pumping, especially for distributors on the lookout for awards season potential. Hey, this industry isn’t exactly built on risk. Dominic Cooke’s Ironbark is based on the true story of a British businessman, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who helped the CIA to infiltrate the Soviet nuclear program during the Cold War with the help of his Russian source, Oleg Penkovsky. Critics didn’t rave about this one, and a lot of focus fell on the underwritten female parts, as played by Jessie Buckley and Rachel Brosnahan, but there will always be a hunger for this sort of classy, robust historical drama and the particular strain of Anglophilia it evokes. Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions made a deal for a reported mid-seven-figure price tag.

Director: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss

It’s always exciting to see a documentary break out in a big way at a film festival, and Apple teamed up with A24 (of course) to make a serious splash with Boys State. Thanks to its alleged $12 million deal, it became the biggest documentary sale in Sundance history, soaring past the reported $10 million paid for Knock Down the House. Directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, Boys State is receiving lofty comparisons to the now-Oscar nominated American Factory, thanks to its political drama and coming-of-age story of 1,000 17-year-old boys from across the state of Texas who gathered together to try and create a representative government from the ground up.

Director: Miranda July
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Richard Jenkins, Gina Rodriguez

Miranda July is one of those artists whose work you either love or loathe, but her latest work as a director, Kajillionaire, seemed to win over many doubters. Evan Rachel Wood plays the daughter of lifelong criminals who invites an unwitting outsider, played by Gina Rodriguez, to join them on their latest heist. A24 acquired this one, which feels like the natural fit for such material and a director like July (her husband Mike Mills’s latest film will also be an A24 joint, so expect lots of indie power couple chatter). If you remember, Kajillionaire is also an Annapurna production, but the embattled company decided to hold onto this one after they Dropped both Hustlers and Bombshell from their roster. Smartly, the company seems to be taking a step back from distribution duties.

Director: Alan Ball
Starring: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Judy Greer

Amazon has made a lot of risky bets at Sundance and it feels like few of them are paying off. On top of the double flops of Late Night and Brittany Runs a Marathon, their relatively muted $5 million deal with Honey Boy failed to break even domestically despite strong reviews. They seem happy to splash Jeff Bezos’s cash around but the glory has not followed the pain. They’ll be hoping their reported $12 million purchase of Alan Ball’s Uncle Frank can turn things around. The drama stars Sophia Lillis from It as a young woman who accompanies her uncle and his boyfriend on a road trip to bury his father. Paul Bettany received strong reviews for a film that was described as having a lot of crowd-pleaser potential, but those were also the claims made about Amazon’s big 2019 investments.

Director: Josephine Decker
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg

Elisabeth Moss has had arguably the best and most interesting acting career out of the entire Mad Men ensemble, thanks to work in shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and Top of the Lake, as well as critical darlings such as Her Smell, The Square, and Us. Now, she’s playing the legendary horror writer Shirley Jackson in a fictionalized drama of her life with her husband, professor Stanley Hyman, and a naive young couple who move in with them and inspire her next novel. Josephine Decker garnered serious indie acclaim with 2018’s Madeline’s Madeline and Shirley sees her rise to new heights. This one hasn’t been picked up for distribution as of the writing of this post but keep an eye out for it. Moss is certainly primed for awards attention and we all know how the industry feels about a biopic.

Director: Eliza Hittman
Starring: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin

Following on from 2017’s Beach Rats, director Eliza Hittman takes on the topic of abortion access in this hard-hitting drama about two teenage girls who travel from rural Pennsylvania to New York City to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. Hittman admitted that she was inspired by Savita Halappanavar, a woman who died in Ireland as the result of a septic miscarriage after being denied an abortion. It’s obvious, however, why such a story would be prescient in America of 2020. The movie had already been picked up by Focus Features for a March 2020 release, and it will make its European premiere in competition at the Berlin Film Festival next month.

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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.

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