The 13 Best Movies of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival

If you care about cinema, you take the Sundance Film Festival for granted at your peril. Despite some early-in-the-festival grousing, though (“Oh no! The first day has gone by without a masterpiece!”), this was the kind of year that didn’t allow you to take the festival for granted. The sheer range of vibrant filmmaking on display — extraordinary dramas about a Korean American family in Arkansas, or exotic dancers on a wild ride of a descent, or an old man caught in the throes of dementia, or one woman’s visionary revenge against rape culture — was too powerful. And the documentaries, as always, were eye-opening and enthralling. Will these movies have as vibrant a life on the outside world? Stay tuned. What’s inarguable is that they confirmed the festival as a launchpad for artistry of the most up-to-the-minute excitement.

Here are Variety critics Peter Debruge and Owen Gleiberman’s choices of the 13 best films at Sundance this year.

“The Dissident”
Bryan Fogel, director of the Oscar-winning Russian-doping documentary “Icarus,” has now made a gripping investigation into the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian Washington Post journalist whose gruesome murder, on October 2, 2018, was in all likelihood conceived and ordered by the highest levels of the Saudi monarchy. When it comes to edge-of-your-seat intrigue, this is a documentary thriller that has everything. It’s got mystery and conspiracy coalescing around men of unfathomable power. It’s got a freedom-fighting martyr-hero — Khashoggi himself, a worldly and ebullient but increasingly isolated 60-year-old man who occupied a precarious middle ground between the Saudi regime, which for years he claimed loyalty to, and the freedom of the West, which he breathed in like oxygen. And, at its sinister center, it has a political murder carried out like a Mob hit. “The Dissident” is as riveting as it is disturbing (it suggests that the Saudi leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is maneuvering to become the Vladimir Putin of the Middle East), but the film is also a moving testament to a man whose courage burned too brightly to die with him. — Owen Gleiberman

“The Father”
Anthony Hopkins, in a brilliant, mercurial, and deeply touching performance, plays 80-year-old Anthony, who is charming and cantankerous and sliding into dementia. As he fights his daughter (Olivia Colman) over whether or not he should go into a nursing home, the French playwright Florian Zeller, making his debut as a feature-film director, finds a way to place us right inside the mind of someone who is losing his. The film’s ingenious gambit is to engross us in perfectly realistic and plausible scenes that turn out to be events that Anthony has hallucinated. As the solidity of what we’re watching turns to quicksand, “The Father” does something that few movies about mental deterioration in old age have brought off. It reveals the landscape of dementia to be a place of vividly rational and coherent experience. At times, the film seems to be putting King Lear in the Twilight Zone. — OG

The Glorias
In Julie Taymor’s pinpoint-timely yet rousingly old-fashioned biopic about the life and times of Gloria Steinem, the legendary feminist leader is portrayed by four different actresses at four different stages of her life. Alicia Vikander plays her as a young woman planting her flag as a writer in the insanely male-centric world of 1960s New York journalism, and in her formative days as an organizer and rising star of the women’s liberation movement. Julianne Moore plays her in her activist and celebrity-spokeswoman-of-the-movement 1970s heyday and beyond. As much a biography of second-wave feminism as it is of Steinem, “The Glorias” is an almost startlingly conventional movie, told with the sprawl — and, at times, the paint-by-numbers psychology — of a sidewinding cradle-to-grave biopic. Yet the approach, at its best, works stirringly well, since the spirit of radical invention is there in every step of Steinem’s journey. — OG

Herself
When the patriarchy fails, sometimes a woman has to take matters into her own hands, as “Mamma Mia!” director Phyllida Lloyd demonstrates in this timely, empowering Irish movie about a battered wife (Clare Dunne) who builds her own house, and the decent folks who come to her aid in that endeavor. Many filmmakers mistakenly think that exploiting tragedy is the way to jerk tears from their audience, when in fact, gestures of spontaneous kindness shown by near-strangers can be most moving. Don’t be surprised if people are still talking about “Herself” this time next year, when Lloyd could be the sixth woman to break the Oscars’ glass ceiling. If the story sounds tiny, think of it instead as a kind of metaphor for all the single women struggling against a system that’s tilted against them — which is as true today of Ireland as it is of the film industry, and the world at large. — Peter Debruge

“Kajillionaire”
In her third feature, “Me and You and Everyone We Know” director Miranda July finds a fresh way to explore the universal human craving for connection, focusing on 26-years-young Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), the oddly named daughter in a dysfunctional family of scammers. A metaphor for homeschooling gone horribly wrong, Old Dolio has been raised so far outside the acceptable mold of American parenting that it was all bound to backfire one day. Her parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) are con artists, who’ve enlisted her in their small-time hustles. But after meeting a relatively extroverted new friend, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), Old Dolio slow-motion short-circuits, finally expressing the desire to experience all that she’s been denied, sparked in part by a relatively extroverted new friend, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). It all builds, in a wonderfully roundabout way, to one of the great, albeit unconventional romances in cinema history. — PD

“The Killing of Two Lovers”
Nobody dies in Robert Machoian’s piercing relationship drama, not literally, although the movie concerns a marriage on life support, and sets audiences on edge with an opening scene in which a man looms over an unidentified couple’s bed, revolver drawn. David (Clayne Crawford) is desperate, trying to keep it together after agreeing to a trial separation from his wife Niki (Sepideh Moafi), though the movie’s own sense of icy neutrality — with its long shots, rigid Academy ratio and atonal anti-score — reinforces the surrealism of the arrangement, wherein a father of four becomes an outsider to his own family. Though Machoian’s style can feel distancing at times, his characters are unusually candid when it comes to communicating. A major breakthrough played in a minor key, “Killing” wrestles with tough questions about when to call it quits. How do we, when confronted with love on the rocks, reconcile ourselves with the potential of reconciliation? — PD

“Minari”
Not a coming-of-age movie so much as a deeply personal and lovingly poetic rendering of growing up Korean American in small-town Arkansas, “Minari” benefits from the maturity and perspective writer-director Lee Isaac Chung brings to the project. Waiting until his early 40s to make sense of memories from when he was 6, the year his grandmother came to live with them in the U.S., Chung transforms the specificity of his upbringing into something warm, tender and universal. Like Sean Durkin’s “The Nest,” which premiered the same day at Sundance, “Minari” examines how, a short generation ago, a father might uproot his family and oblige them to move somewhere only he wants to be — although unlike “The Nest,” there’s nothing sinister underlying Chung’s approach. Rather, there’s a gentleness to “Minari” that makes the entire film, even the setbacks, feel refreshing, like a catnap taken in full sun. — PD

“On the Record”
Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s shattering documentary, which presents the former music executive Drew Dixon’s accusations of sexual harassment and rape against the hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, is a searing, at times shocking exposé of alleged criminal acts. Not just the facts but the meaning of these crimes comes scarily alive in the emotional details of their telling. Dixon’s testimony is powerfully convincing, and the film is sophisticated enough about the social import and sexual braggadocio of the hip-hop world to celebrate its bad-boy artistry and, at the same time, to call its bitches-and-hos misogyny on the carpet with an honesty you rarely encounter in music documentaries. “On the Record” plunges deeper than perhaps any #MeToo narrative we’ve seen into the tortured ambivalence that women who’ve been victimized feel about calling out their abusers. But the movie also looks at the particular conundrum that black women face in spotlighting predatory behavior by black men. — OG

“Palm Springs”
The rare Sundance crowd-pleaser that’s truly crowd-pleasing, because it’s actually a terrific movie. Andy Samberg, as funny as ever but displaying a newly smooth leading-man command, plays Nyles, who is caught in a time loop, just like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.” Each morning, he wakes up in a motel room with his ditz of a girlfriend and heads off to a wedding in Palm Springs; then he does it again, and again, and again. The difference is that Nyles, unlike the Murray character, is just coasting through it all — a weirdly invulnerable existential party clown in a Hawaiian shirt. Then Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the dissolute sister of the bride, gets stuck in the loop along with him. Written by Andy Siara and directed by Max Barbakow with an antic spirit of popping invention that never lets up, “Palm Springs” is the best romantic comedy to emerge from Sundance since “The Big Sick.” — OG

Promising Young Woman
How’s this for change: Harvey Weinstein, once the biggest newsmaker of the Sundance Film Festival, spent this year’s edition generating headlines halfway across the country, in court. Meanwhile, in Park City, first-time writer-director Emerald Fennell delivered a shock to all the bad hombres (so many of whom identify as “nice guys”) who’ve so far escaped the #MeToo reckoning: Her heroine, Cassie (played by “An Education” star Carey Mulligan), has dropped out of med school and spends her weekends “educating” douchebags on the principles of consent. What begins as a high-concept revenge thriller grows increasingly provocative as it unfolds, challenging a system in which misogyny and victim shaming appear to be the norm. No one would mistake Fennell’s film for subtle, and yet, it may surprise you to learn that, if anything, her ultra-stylized, in-your-face revenge thriller doesn’t go far enough. If you’ve ever wondered, “What would it take to ‘trigger’ a predator?” here’s your answer. — PD

“Shirley”
If “The Lottery” author Shirley Jackson’s gift was to burrow her way into those corners of the brain one typically keeps under lock and key, then Josephine Decker (“Madeline’s Madeline”) seems like pretty much the ideal director to find the cinematic equivalent. Sure to confound that segment of the filmgoing public who likes their mysteries with no loose ends, this is an itchy sweater that’s unraveling as you watch it, thanks in large part to Elisabeth Moss’s wild-eyed turn as the tortured genius. Less a biopic than a séance, this queer, hard-to-quantify psychological study offers a variation on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” wherein a naive young pair find themselves tossed like kindling onto the raging bonfire of a long-running marital row. Told from the vantage of newlywed Rose (Odessa Young) and her oblivious husband (Logan Lerman), the film follows the couple into Shirley’s lair, where reality bends to the author’s formidable imagination. — PD

“Time”
Sixty years. That’s how long a Louisiana judge sentenced Rob Richardson to serve for armed bank robbery. Director Garrett Bradley covers roughly a third of that in “Time,” interweaving nearly two decades of home videos with footage of Rob’s seemingly tireless wife, Fox Rich, as she appeals to the judge for her husband’s release. No one is arguing for the couple’s innocence (Fox pled guilty, too, for her part as the getaway driver), and yet, the film challenges the assumption that incarceration makes the world a safer place. Where does compassion fit into the picture? Bradley’s approach brings this seemingly overwhelming problem down to a personal level. The director presents Fox and Rob’s case in black and white for poetic effect, and yet the issue is anything but, as this impactful doc explores the consequences of not just crime, but also a criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes African Americans. — PD

Zola
The most audacious film at Sundance this year, and maybe the most powerful. Based on a true story that came to prominence through a notorious tweetstorm, Janicza Bravo’s hypnotic drama tells the story of Zola (Taylour Paige), a stripper who’s got her head screwed on straight, and Stefani (Riley Keough), a stripper who doesn’t. The two ride down to Tampa for a weekend engagement at an exotic-dance emporium, crowding into an SUV along with Stefani’s doltish boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) and her imperious pimp (Colman Domingo), and the film takes a slow dive through the looking glass into the mind-bending tawdriness of the sex-industry inferno. Yet this is no mere spectacle of voyeurism. It’s a profound study of a world — ours — in which everything has been commodified, and where role-playing is now the coin of the realm. Bravo invests each scene with such an electrifying sense of discovery that she emerges from Sundance as the new minimalist Scorsese.  — OG

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