Ten of the best from Sundance 2020

Our critics roundup some of the most exciting titles that premiered at Park City this year, from Josephine Decker’s haunting new film Shirley and Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama Nevery Rarely Sometimes Always to Kirsten Johnson’s poignant documentary about her dying father and Miranda July’s con comedy Kajillionaire.

Ela Bittencourt , Anjana Janardhan , Joshua Rothkopf
Updated:

Youth camp mock-election campaigners in Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s Boys Camp

Youth camp mock-election campaigners in Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s Boys Camp

Boys State

Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, US

This engrossing documentary looks at a youth camp in Texas, where 17-year-old boys gather to debate politics and run in mock party elections. The film follows them as they hone their messages, canvass teenage constituents, and face glorious victory or crushing defeat. Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine keep the pace brisk, and focus on charismatic candidates: Robert, a plucky Texan, whose cynical pro-guns and anti-abortion platform plays to his base (he even tries secession); Steven, an erudite Chicagoan who espouses a centrist agenda; and Bob, a spirited advocate for people with disabilities and a calculated social media wiz.

It all starts as sublime comedy: squirrels rampage in the garbage, boys propose silly bills to ban pineapple pizza. But infighting, zealous party-line adherence and manipulation of public opinion soon trump lofty ideals. And if it all seems like a harmless charade, we must remember that boys become men fast.

RB

 

Dick Johnson Is Dead

Kirsten Johnson, US

Dick Johnson is Dead (2020)

Veteran cinematographer Kirsten Johnson has been shooting documentaries, many of them acclaimed, for more than 25 years. And yet, by her own admission, she’s never encountered a subject as difficult the one she chose for her directorial follow-up to Cameraperson: to document her 82-year-old father’s decline after he has been diagnosed with dementia.

Equipped with foresight – her late mother had Alzheimer’s – Johnson sets out to make a double-portrait. One is fictive, as her father enacts his death many times over. Hit by a falling air-conditioning unit, falling down the stairs, stabbed: Dick Johnson gleefully anticipates his own demise, crowned with vaudevillian biblical fantasies. But the other part is 100 per cent true and its agony will wreck you: Johnson reminiscing with her father, and the growing awareness of all the Johnson siblings that the fire and memory of their happiest moments are rapidly fading. It’s a film about dying that profoundly manifests one man’s unbound desire to live.

Ela Bittencourt

Watching the watchers: how Cameraperson enriches the act of filming

 

The Fight

Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres, US

The Fight (2020)

Documentary The Fight focuses on the fierce assault on civil liberties in Donald Trump’s America. In the film, four lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) take on their government by filing immigration, census, LGBT+ and reproductive-rights cases. A briskly paced celebration of unsung heroes, The Fight begins as a high-spirited behind-the-scenes tale: offering a peek at the ACLU offices, with jokes about unwieldy gadgets and small talk about the peskiness of travel and the pressures on family time. But these are soon overshadowed by the enormity of human suffering in the cases themselves: a trans war veteran denied the ability to serve; a young rape victim fighting ultraconservatives for an abortion; a mother and child forcefully separated at the border; and a dangerous policy targeting non-citizens.

It’s impossible not to tear up during The Fight, whose final message is not so much that each era calls for new heroes, but that ours are very dark times indeed.

EB

 

Identifying Features

Fernanda Valadez, Mexico/Spain

Identifying Features (2020)

Headlines are flooded with statistics on immigration and nascent fears about the influx of so-called ‘illegal visitors’, but rarely is the curtain lifted on the personal stories of those left behind. Mexican director Fernanda Valadez employs fiction to illustrate the dark realities of the perilous journeys undertaken in her debut feature Identifying Features.

Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) is at the police station to report her son missing after leaving home to make his way towards the US border. Pressured into declaring him deceased after his belongings are found, she embarks on a journey to retrace her son’s steps and discover the truth. She meets Miguel (David Illescas) a recent deportee from US, and together they make their way across Mexico avoiding the dangers – both seen and unseen – along the way. Valadez combines stunning cinematography, evocative sound design and hints of magical realism to create a visionary work of devastating power.

AJ

 

Kajillionaire

Miranda July, US

Kajillionaire (2020)

After a nine-year absence from making features, Miranda July, the director of The Future (2011) and Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), is back with a bracingly strange and sweet indie: a comedy that recasts parenting as a Michael Mann-style criminal enterprise until romance interrupts, distracting all involved. Living on the poverty line, middle-age schemers Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger) have trained their mirthless, ultra-competent grown-up daughter (a revelatory Evan Rachel Wood) to be a master thief. The clan’s two-bit cons, like the movie itself, are just this side of ridiculous.

Not ridiculous at all, however, is the arrival of Melanie (Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez), a garrulous stranger who’s on to them – and wants in on the action. July used to traffic in pure uncut quirkiness; Kajillionaire sees her exploring welcome new registers of euphoria, sincerity, cynicism and even metaphysical awakening. Her latest could, in time, join the likes of The Big Lebowski (1998) and Inherent Vice (2014) as an off-the-grid, only-in-LA treasure.

Joshua Rothkopf

 

Minari

Lee Isaac Chung, US

Minari (2020)

For his latest film, Lee Isaac Chung draws upon his memories as a young boy in the 1980s. Named after a lush perennial herb found in East Asia, Minari is the tale of a Korean-American family who move from California to rural Arkansas, led by Jacob (Steven Yeun), who seeks a better life for his wife Monica (Han Yeri) and children Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan Kim).

Seen through the eyes of its youngest protagonist, the film is a moving reflection on the struggles of new beginnings and the exquisite pain of familial love. When David’s grandmother arrives from Korea, it appears as if her irreverent presence might be just the glue needed to strengthen the bonds between this family in flux. Imbued with rich detail and delightfully mischievous humour, this is a film whose emotional undercurrents sweep over you when you least expect it.

AJ

 

The Mole Agent

Maite Alberdi, Chile

The Mole Agent (2020)

The Mole Agent (2020)

Directed by Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi, The Mole Agent follows the exploits of unlikely spy-in-the-making Sergio: an 83-year-old retiree, hired by a detective agency to infiltrate a retirement home in Santiago, Chile. Prompted by concerns of possible abuse and neglect, a resident’s daughter has called upon the services of the agency to uncover the truth.

After being trained in the art of operating a smartphone and issued with strict instructions for regular dispatches from the inside, Sergio is unleashed into the wild. As one of the few male residents, Sergio, with his dapper style and attentive manner, swiftly becomes a favourite among the elderly female residents. But as he gets to know his new friends better, it appears the truth may be more mundane than meets the eye. The 007 franchise might have glamorised the art of seduction, but this ageing spy film has a beating heart.

Anjana Janardhan

 

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Eliza Hittman, US/UK

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

American director Eliza Hittman has a knack for portraying the pains and cruelty as well as the uncanny grace of teenagehood. From her accomplished debut It Felt like Love to her second feature Beach Rats (2017), photographed by the French cinematographer Hélène Louvart, Hittman has told nuanced, visceral coming-of-age stories.

Hittman and Louvart pair up again for Never Rarely Sometimes Always, in which a 17-year-old girl, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), who’s unable to get an abortion in her native Pennsylvania, travels to New York. Sidney’s anger at not being loved or heard spills over as she navigates the treacherous metropolis with her cousin (Talia Ryder).

As always, Hittman keeps her script attuned to the slightest drops in emotional temperature – a boy’s vulgar disdain, a father’s suave chauvinism or a pious doctor’s wilful ignorance. In Hittman’s taciturn jewel of a film, youth isn’t a wasteland that precedes adulthood; on the contrary, it’s the gateway to maturity.

EB

Film of the week: Beach Rats lights a fuse in the closet

 

Shirley

Josephine Decker, US

Shirley (2020)

It’s hard to capture what writers do without being a bore. Luckily, Josephine Decker’s seductive and intelligent new film Shirley draws a portrait of a brilliant woman not just hunched over her typewriter but also immersed in the thick of life.

Elisabeth Moss plays the abrasive true-life horror and mystery writer Shirley Jackson, author of The Haunting of Hill House (1959), whose seclusion is fuelled by agoraphobia and alcoholism. Shirley’s open marriage to the Bennington College professor Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) is her lifeline, but also her cross to bear. Needing academic help, Stanley offers lodging to a young man and his pregnant wife Rose (Odessa Young). Soon Jackson’s feverish imagination casts Rose as the heroine of her latest novel – a lonely girl whose illicit affair leads to her death.

Decker uses her habitual handheld-camera style to fabulous effects in this unlikely passion tale, in which the creative process emerges as a bit of witchery, and Jackson’s residence as a haunted house.

EB

Madeline’s Madeline first look: an unusually bold teen movie that bridges trauma and art

 

The Truffle Hunters

Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, Italy/US/Greece

The Truffle Hunters (2020)

Opening a window on an aromatic trade that’s dying off, this lovely, bittersweet documentary – directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, the inspired team behind The Last Race (2018) – is an introduction to the art of truffle hunting, practised by a cadre of greying northern Italians and the dogs they treat like lucky charms. These human-canine teams go into the woods to their secret spots, and dig up clods of heavenly stink that end up selling for thousands of euros. (To watch a week’s harvest being hyped-up by a whispering merchant in an alley, you’d think you were watching a drug deal go down – and, in a way, you are.)

Formally reserved and composed of medium-to-long shots, the film doesn’t trade in foodie porn. Instead, we attune our senses to subtler virtues: the indefinable companionship between man and beast, and the mystical quiet of the forest.

JR

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