Sundance 2020 preview

Films we're looking out for in the coming days

by Amber Wilkinson

Once Upon A Time In Venezuela
Once Upon A Time In Venezuela Photo: John Marquez
Mark Twain once said: "Prophesy is a good line of business, but it is full of risks." I've said before that trying to predict what will break out from Sundance is a tricky business - just as Amazon, Netflix and other film distributors, who don't always back the right horse even when they've seen the film in question, would surely testify. For every Manchester By The Sea and Call Me By Your Name, there's a Brittany Runs A Marathon or Late Night - films which, incidentally, I have no particular beef with but which could be said to have under-performed at the box office in comparison to the millions spent to acquire them.

Still, as the festival gears up to run from January 23 to February 2, I can't resist a having a punt - plus there's a couple that I have seen and which I am eager to recommend.

All eyes will, as ever be on the Premieres section, where the big names hang out - and there's no shortage his year, including Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander in Julie Taymor's The Glorias - a biopic of Gloria Steinem - and Anne Hathaway and Ben Affleck in Dee Rees' The Last Thing He Wanted, which sees a journalist find herself mixed up in the story she is trying to break.

For me, though, the two most intriguing titles are from two former US Dramatic section prize-winners - Sean Durkin and Benh Zeitlin. Durkin - who took home the directing gong back in 2011 for his last film Martha Macy May Marlene - returns (and about time, too) with The Nest, which sounds as though it is going to offer plenty of psychological tension to tell the tale of an entrepreneur (Jude Law) and his wife (Carrie Coon), who find their marriage under pressure after they relocate to England.

Beasts Of The Southern Wild Grand Jury Prize winner Zeitlin, meanwhile, comes back with Wendy, a reimagining of Peter Pan, which given his excellent work with children in his previous film, which made a star out of the then-unknown Quvenzhané Wallis, bodes well. Oddly enough, it's not the only film to partially use JM Barrie's film as source material and I'll also be looking out for Brenda Chapman's Come Away in the Kids section, which reimagines Alice, from Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan's Peter as brother and sister.

The 40-year-old Version
The 40-year-old Version Photo: Eric Branco
Over in the US Dramatic Competition, the crisp monochrome stills of The 40-Year-Old Version have more than sold me on trying to catch Radha Blank's New York set comedy, which has been shot by Eric Branco (Clemency) entirely on 25mm black and white film. It tells the story of struggling playwright, who finds herself torn between her new career and a former passion for rapping.

It'll also be interesting to see what Josephine Decker does with an adaption rather than an original script. She's shown real skill for generating emotionally charged mood pieces with her previous films Madeline's Madeline, Butter On The Latch and Thou Wast Mild And Lovely but has a tendency to push multiple boundaries at once to an exhaustive degree. Perhaps working from a script by I Love Dick writer Sarah Gubbins (adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell's novel) will help her find the sweet spot of art and story as she tells biopic of horror writer Shirley Jackson. Decker's certainly got the cast for it, with Elisabeth Moss in the lead and Michael Stuhlbarg as the author's husband. She also has top cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen on board, who shot Wendy and whose previously films include Rams and the audacious single-take Victoria.

There's also plenty to attract interest in the World Cinema Dramatic competition, not least Brandon Cronenberg's Possessor, which sees festival regular Andrea Riseborough star in a thriller about brain implant technology and assassination. I'm most looking forward to catching Ben Whishaw in Surge, Aneil Karia's directorial debut. Whishaw's back catalogue is nothing if not eclectic, including the likes of Paddington, Lilting and A Very English Scandal - but one thing they all have in common in addition to great acting from him, is their well-made feel and solid storytelling. In Karia's film, he plays a who man goes on a bold and reckless journey of self-liberation through London. Hopefully it will be another winner to add to his CV.

The Painter And The Thief
The Painter And The Thief Photo: Benjamin Ree
And so then, to the Next section, which has always felt a bit like US Dramatic Competition overspill in terms of content - but which has sometimes contained stronger films. Movies including Madeline's Madeline, Columbus, The Fits and A Ghost Story have all started their festival lives here. This year, I'm going to be looking out for Blindspotting director Carlos Lopez Estrada's experimental sounding Summertime, described as "A love letter to Los Angeles written and performed by a collective of young spoken word poets".

It's always hard to find a weak spot in the Spotlight section - and so it should be given that it's a cherry pick of favourites form other festivals, but this year, I'd particularly recommend the supernaturally inflected La Llorona, which blends the wailing woman myth with the bloody history of Guatemala to gripping effect.

Finally, on the fiction front, lies the Midnight section, whose breakout hits have included Hereditary, What We Do In The Shadows and The Babadook. There's a strong showing by British directors here this year, including Remi Weeke's feature debut His House, which sees life take a sinister turn for a refugee couple and actress-turned-director Romola Garai's Amulet, in which a homeless man (God's Own Country star Alan Secearanu) gets more than he bargains for when he takes up an offer of accommodation.

In the various documentary sections, I recommend The Painter And The Thief - full review coming soon - which unfolds in unusual ways to tell the story of the unexpected friendship that grew up between an Czech artist and the drug addict who stole one of her paintings. Benjamin Ree's film is structurally interesting and packed with raw emotion and humanity. The eye-catching beautiful composition of the stills for Anabel Rodriguez Rios' Once Upon A Time in Venezuela suggest this debut about the disintegration of a once-prosperous fishing village is also going to be worth a watch. Both are screening in the World Documentary Competition.

Whether these films are hits or misses, we'll soon find out but one of the great things about Sundance is that the festival always feels as though it's looking to the future, not just trying to rest on its laurels or wallow in past successes. There's little doubt that some people nobody has heard of yet will go on to become household names in a few years time. I'm looking forward to finding out who they are and reporting back.

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