Piers Marchant’s Sundance Preview

January 22, 2020


for blood, dirt & angels and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Earlier in the month, as I frantically made my selections for the limited public tickets Sundance generously makes available for the press, I was struck by just how much of a crapshoot the whole process was. That’s the thing about this particular festival, virtually no one outside of the filmmakers and Sundance programmers have seen the films yet. It’s a great unknown (and, yes, Cannes is also similar in this way, but whereas Sundance is selecting primarily indie films, the festival on the French Riviera gets to choose anything they damn well please, from big Hollywood studio fare, to auteur International work), which leads to lots of hunch choices, based on gut feeling as much as anything else. 

As you might imagine, one’s hit rate on such matters is volatile. I looked back to previous years’ selections, and found, on rough average, choosing solid (or better) films at about a 45% clip. That is to say, of the films I deemed most worthy of my attention, about half of them were less  —  or even far less  —  than I hoped. To be fair, randomly watching regular studio films opening from week to week at home in Philly, I would imagine that percentage would be a good bit lower, so there’s nothing inherently wrong with Sundance’s percentages. 

Still, it does speak to the embracing-of-the-unknown ethos that this festival instills in you. We pays our money, we takes our chances, etc. Having said all that  —  and perhaps having chiseled down the enormous boulder of salt with which to read this piece  —  here are our best guesses for what looks like (on paper, at least) some of the more interesting films in this year’s fest. We’ll see how it turns out. 

Downhill: The U.S. remake of Ruben Östlund’s 2014 Swedish film about a family on a skiing trip in the Alps, who experience serious disruption when a controlled avalanche terrifies the father of the clan to ditch his family in order to save himself. Normally, I would steer far clear of American remakes, but this indie remains intriguing, even if it is directed by a pair of actors (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash). Casting Will Ferrell and Julia Louis Dreyfus together as the parents is also a draw. We can only hope the film retains the razor-sharp acerbity of the original.  

Falling: Viggo Mortensen, best known for all time as Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings triad, has many talents  —  he speaks French fluently, writes poetry, and paints with some apparent aplomb  —  but we’ll see how he handles writing and directing for the first time with this film, in which he plays a gay man living with his family in L.A., whose arch-conservative farmer father (Lance Hendrickson) comes to live with him. The set up sounds on the definite hokey side, but any film that casts David Cronenberg as a proctologist has got something going for it. 

Horse Girl: An awkward loner of a woman (played by Allison Brie), with a predilection for crafts, crime shows, and, yes, horses, endures a series of lucid dreams that infiltrate her day-to-day existence. Sounding just so perfectly Sundanecian, Jeff Baena’s film nevertheless holds some attraction, especially because the director (whose previous film was the well-received The Little Hours) has a solid track record. He co-wrote this effort with Brie, a collaboration that might well lead to something more compelling than its initial description. 

Kajillionaire: I guess you could call writer/director/actress Miranda July something of an acquired taste. Her previous films, including Me and You and Everyone We Know, and The Future are filled with a kind of creative whimsy, along with intense character insight. Her new film is about a pair of grifter parents (Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins) who throw together a big heist at the last second, convincing a newcomer (Gina Rodriguez) to join them, only for the newbie to disrupt their relationship with their daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), whom they have been training her entire life. 

The Last Thing He Wanted: Working from a novel by the resplendent Joan Didion, Dee Rees follows up her 2017 Sundance rave Mudbound with another literary adaptation. Anne Hathaway plays a journalist obsessed with the Contras in Central America, whose father (Willem DaFoe) unexpectedly bestows her with proof of illegal arms deals in the region. Suddenly, a player in a much more complicated game, she connects with a U.S. official (Ben Affleck), in order to make it out alive. It’s a particularly well-heeled cast, which at Sundance doesn’t necessarily mean a good thing, but Rees has proven herself more than up to the challenge. 

Lost Girls: At this point, I will literally watch Amy Ryan in anything  —  her exquisite bitchiness absolutely stole last year’s Late Night  —  so Liz Garbus’ film would have already been on my radar, but here, with Ryan playing a Long Island mother whose daughter goes missing, my interest is sorely piqued. Based on a true-crime novel by Robert Kolker, Ryan’s character discovers her daughter was part of an online sex ring, and goes through heaven and earth to draw attention to her plight, taking on the local authorities in the process. 

Never Rarely Sometimes Always: Eliza Hittman has a way of adding lustre and temporal beauty to the otherwise roughneck scenes of the teens she depicts. Her latest film is about a pair of young women living in rural Pennsylvania, who find the means to escape their repressive town after one of them becomes unexpectedly pregnant, making their way to New York City. With a storyline eerily reminiscent of Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Hittman, as is her want, has cast two relative unknowns (Talia Ryder and Sidney Flanigan) as the leads. 

Palm Springs: Lightening things up a smidge, Max Barbakow’s off-beat comedy stars Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg as reluctant wedding guests, who somehow find each other at the same time as some kind of surrealistic episode leads them to recognize that nothing really matters in the first place, allowing them to lay havoc upon the proceedings for their own amusement. Barbakow’s debut feature is stockpiled with strong castmembers, including J.K. Simmons and Peter Gallagher, and it’s always a treat to watch the continuing evolution of Samberg from mop-haired SNL performer to certified big-screen actor.  

Promising Young Woman: The #metoo movement begets this revenge thriller about a once-victimized woman (Carey Mulligan) who works by day as quiet barista, but spends her nights seducing men in order to punish the living hell out of them for trying to take advantage of her. When she runs into a seemingly sweet old classmate (Bo Burnham), it would appear as if salvation is at hand, but apparently it’s not quite that simple. Filmmaker Emerald Fennell, whose outstanding work on the series “Killing Eve,” earned her a pair of Emmy nominations, makes her feature debut with a film that sounds appropriately searing. 

Shirley: There were those critics at the 2018 festival who found Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline one of the best films of the year. While I wasn’t among them, there was still much to appreciate with the writer/director’s improvisational visions. Her entry into this year’s Sundance promises to be at least somewhat more grounded, if not still effervescent. It concerns famed author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), writer of “The Lottery,” whose literary inspiration is stirred after she and her husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) take in a young couple to liven up their household. 

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