Best of Sundance 2020

From the first Twitter feature film to Steven Yeun in a tank-top, Letterboxd selects our top ten Sundance 2020 premieres.

More so than any other film festival, Sundance has a reputation for being the starting point for films that get elevated by the kind of buzz that a festival premiere can generate. It’s what every film that premieres at Park City hopes for (to the extent that the calculation involved in going for that Sundance buzz can actively undermine the organic evolution of said buzz).

Combine that riddle with the fact that more than 120 films premiered this year, and determining what was hot at Sundance 2020 can seem a little overwhelming. But this hasn’t stopped us picking festival top tens before.

Throughout the festival, certain films rise above the conversation, elevated by a variety of factors: audience reaction in the moment, talk amongst festival-goers, distribution deals that may arise, awards that may be given, and of course your Letterboxd reviews and ratings.

Employing all of those factors, and in no particular order, here are our top ten Sundance 2020 world premieres; the films we (and you) predict will play a significant part in this year’s cinema conversation.

Palm Springs

Directed by Max Barbakow

This conceptual comedy starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti got a lot of attention for the peculiarly specific dollar amount it sold for during the festival: $17,500,000.69. Nice. The number also represents the highest amount ever paid for a film at Sundance (by 69 cents), showing that the people with the check-books clearly have a lot of faith in this one. They’re now saying the distribution deal, with Hulu and Neon, is worth even more.

Talk was kind for the movie around Park City, with audiences responding warmly to its contemporary take on a familiar sci-fi movie setup, one the filmmakers have attempted in vain to keep secret, as most reviews can’t help but call it a modern riff on Groundhog Day. As Edge of Tomorrow proved, it can be a fertile starting point.

“A thoughtful and hysterical romantic comedy,” writes Letterboxd member Matt Neglia in his review. “Contemplates the meaning and meaningless of life with humor and a fun sci-fi concept. It’s Groundhog Day for a new generation. Reminded me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind at times, in all the best ways.”

Boys State

Directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBain / Winner, US Grand Jury Prize: Documentary

Many of the high-profile docs that premiered this year at Sundance (miniseries McMillion$, Hillary, Miss Americana) arrived at the festival with imminent predetermined premiere dates on TV or streaming (HBO, Hulu and Netflix, respectively), but few were talking about Boys State ahead of time. Now everybody is talking about it, especially since Apple and A24 teamed up to acquire the film for the record-breaking (for a documentary) sum of $12 million. The film chronicles a project in Texas where 1,000 teenage boys are tasked with building a representative government from the ground up.

“One of my absolute favorites out of Sundance 2020,” writes Tasha Robinson in her review on Letterboxd. “A riveting look inside one year’s Boys State, an annual, state-by-state civics project where seventeen-year-old boys create their own government from scratch. The filmmakers focus on a few kids who emerge as key leadership players, giving speeches and crafting policy, but the event turns surprisingly quickly into a nail-biting fight that underlines all of the problems with America’s current political environment.”

Shirley

Directed by Josephine Decker

Elisabeth Moss delivers another stunning performance as iconic horror novelist Shirley Jackson in this chamber drama (based on a 2014 novel by Susan Scarf Merrell) that presents a fictional scenario in which the agoraphobic Jackson and her professor husband “welcome” a young couple (played by Logan Lerman and Odessa Young) into their home, and proceed to both torment and bond with them. Moss’s awesomely messy turn here will surely figure prominently in next year’s awards conversation, and Young more than holds her own in a film teeming with tension.

Letterboxd member Dilara writes that “Elisabeth Moss going sapphic madness erotica is everything I wanted from 2020”. Hulburd observes: “Moss/Stuhlbarg/Young a trifecta not to be fucked with.”

Kajillionaire

Written and directed by Miranda July

All three of indie darling Miranda July’s films have premiered at Sundance. Her newest, Kajillionaire, follows a family of inept con-artists—played by Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Evan Rachel Wood—as they contend with a new addition (Gina Rodriguez) to their odd little tribe.

As in July’s previous work, the plot isn’t as important as the utterly specific tone, but unlike her previous two films, this is the first one she hasn’t also starred in. July told Letterboxd at the film’s premiere that she no longer has to get in front of the camera to set that tone, as the cast knows what she’s aiming for from her other works.

“Lonely, awkward Evan Rachel Wood warms my heart,” writes Casey Lee Clark on Letterboxd. “Awkwardly funny, as is July’s MO, but I truly did not expect this to be quite so tender. I guess 2020 really is going to be the year of the lesbian,” says Josh.

The 40-Year-Old Version

Written and directed by Radha Blank

Blank, a producer on the TV version of She’s Gotta Have It, writes, directs and stars in this reportedly autobiographically inspired tale of a once-promising playwright who never quite fulfilled her potential. Facing the prospect of irrelevance, Radha turns to rapping, and finds self-affirmation in the art form.

“Frisky, messy and funny as hell, Blank’s film is its own best evidence for an artist to take full control of their creative life,” is Letterboxd member Scott Renshaw’s assessment. “This feels like a true Sundance film. Truly independent, and truly special,” writes Orli Spierier.

Promising Young Woman

Written and directed by Emerald Fennell

This one certainly had the crowds at Park City talking, with equal amounts of shock and celebration peppering the conversations. Carey Mulligan stars as a… well, it’s in the title… who trawls bars pretending to be drunk, luring opportunistic rapists to their doom. All the talk bodes well for the film’s April release by Focus Features.

On Letterboxd, Erik Nordgren called it “absolutely fucking devastating. Carey Mulligan is *chef’s kiss* and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time”. Another Letterboxd writer, Marinermc, previewed the potential discourse that will accompany the film’s wider release: “Cue incel rage; cue cis white dudes pooping their pampers; cue me not giving a shit and loving this movie.”

Zola

Co-written and directed by Janicza Bravo

The subject of much pre-festival hype, Zola may not have been exactly what we were expecting. But then, considering it’s the first movie based on a Twitter thread: what were we expecting? What we get: wild shenanigans, a day-glo aesthetic, copious amounts of full-frontal male nudity and an insane “blaccent” from co-star Riley Keough. The plot concerns two recently acquainted strippers who head down to Tampa for the weekend, ostensibly to make money from pole dancing, where things escalate.

“Searing critique of whiteness in America through the lens of Twitter melodrama,” writes newly minted Letterboxd member IraTheThird (podcaster and TV writer Ira Madison III). “A wild fucking ride. I loved every minute of it. Colman fucking Domingo, man,” offers Sydney Lou Who.

The Night House

Directed by David Bruckner

Bruckner’s follow-up to his well-regarded Netflix horror The Ritual, which deserved a bigger audience, is one of the more commercial offerings on this list, and is a great example of how much fun it can be to see genre movies at a festival when you know nothing about them. It also received attention for garnering a $12-million distribution deal with Searchlight Pictures.

Rebecca Hall is pretty darn great as a recently widowed woman living in a beautiful but apparently haunted lakeside house built by her dead husband.

“Good fucking horror movie!” exclaims Letterboxd member Cnnrfly. “Really solid in its direction and build of tension. This felt like Personal Shopper mixed with House of Leaves and a dash of Haruki Murakami thrown in for good measure.”

Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always

Written and directed by Eliza Hittman

This drama generated many comparisons to the 2008 Best Foreign Language Oscar-winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Like that Romanian film, it follows two young women attempting to procure an abortion. In this case, it’s two teenagers from rural Pennsylvania who have to travel to New York.

As Lauren Mendoza writes in her five-star Letterboxd review of the film: “Eliza is brilliant and this movie is so tangible and visceral and I think all men need to watch it because it gives a glimpse into what it means to exist in a young female body and that is powerful thank you bye.”

Minari

Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung / Winner, US Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic

Coming out of Sundance with a staggering 4.2 average Letterboxd rating—not to mention the festival’s top prize—Lee Isaac Chung’s film has been embraced by everyone who sees it. Set in the 1980s, it concerns a Korean-American family attempting to adjust to life in rural Arkansas after moving there from the West Coast. Rising star Steven Yuen (from Letterboxd fave Burning) and young actor Alan S. Kim are both getting raves playing father and son.

IndieWire critic David Ehrlich was effusive in his praise on Letterboxd: “Told with the rugged tenderness of a Flannery O’Connor novel but aptly named for a resilient Korean herb that can grow wherever it’s planted, Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical Minari is a raw and vividly remembered story of two simultaneous assimilations; it’s the story of a family assimilating into a country, but also the story of a man assimilating into his family.”

Evan forsees big things for the film, writing: “I’m not saying this is the best movie at Sundance just because it won the best dramatic film award. It is a truly amazing film and has a very good chance of [becoming a] Best Picture nominee. I have yet to comprehend everything that has happened but all I can say is god damn.”

Or perhaps Alynna best summed up the response to the film when she wrote: “Oh you’re telling me A24 just blessed me with another tender Asian-American immigrant family drama about cute grandmas? Bonus: this one stars a ridiculously adorable Asian baby boy (Alan Kim in the best child performance I’ve ever seen!) and Steven Yeun in a tank top! We love to see it.”


Check out Sundance 2020’s full slate, sorted by average Letterboxd rating, and catch up with our red carpet filmmaker interviews here.

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