Not a Jason Statham nor Tyler Perry were in sight at Park City’s 2020 installment of the Sundance Film Festival. Not that there’s not a place for the Stathams and Perrys in the film world — it’s just that this generally isn’t that sort of crowd. Sundance is a cinema-lover’s Nirvana, with films screened at countless theaters back-to-back from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. for two straight weeks. As your trusty Funkhouser representative, I spent the past four days at the festival straining my eyeballs to the limit in the name of entertainment. It’s logistically impossible to see them all — no matter how doggedly one may try — but I’m happy to share what I did see. Please to enjoy, then, Funkhouser’s own 2020 Sundance Coverage.
The Forty Year-Old Version
Produced by Lena Waithe (Master of None, Queen & Slim) playwright Radha Blank triple-threats this black-and-white ode to NYC by writing, directing and starring in the semi-autobiographical tale of a struggling writer who turns to hip-hop to help break her slump and finds fulfillment in warehouse bar rap battles and dive bar showcases. Blank anchors and steadies a slightly uneven film with her own voice (alternately sardonically funny, self-deprecating and scathing), winning the audience over by the time credits roll.
Seek it out? Sure. Enjoyable and unique.
Will it hit the multiplex? Probably not.
Think Waking Ned Devine meets Seabiscuit: The always-reliable Toni Collette stars as a grocery store cashier who rallies her small welsh town to purchase a mare and breed the village’s own racehorse. It’s one of those quirky English comedy-dramas with a cast of loony regulars (the town drunk, the sassy old woman, the toothless ex-rugby player) and Homeland’s Damian Lewis as the likeable money manager who helps fuel the operation. No huge surprises — you’ve seen this type of English comedy AND this type of horse racing movie before; it reinvents neither, but that’s fine. It’s engineered to be a light crowd-pleaser and, as that, it works.
Seek it out? Eh. I mean, if it’s on your flight or you’re looking for a fine Saturday night stream.
Will it hit the multiplex? I could see it showing up, but not staying long. Although never underestimate a good racing underdog story.
Now this is what Sundance is all about. Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead) stars as a Korean father who transplant his reluctant family to an Ozarks, where he bets the [literal] farm on creating an agricultural future. It’s touching and often very funny — an elderly grandmother and 5 year-old son steal the show in scenes both separate and together — and it won both the Grand Jury Prize (the highest judged honor) and the dramatic audience award (the highest crowd-bestowed honor) at the festival. Add to that fact that it’s already been purchased by A24 and backed by Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B and you have a recipe for a pretty good sized splash if it finds its mainstream audience.
Seek it out? Definitely; best film I saw all week, playing to great ovations.
Will it hit the multiplex? If Parasite rakes ’em in at the Oscars as it’s supposed to, that might really help open the door to get this Korean-American feature in front of more middle-America audiences. I hope it does; it deserves it. Lotta heart, this one.
Sometimes you’ll see a Sundance film which makes you think “That was good, but it also probably wasn’t for me.” I’m not saying Shirley is terrible, I’m just saying it wasn’t my cup of tea. Not that I couldn’t dig what director Josephine Decker’s doing here — a biopic of “The Lottery” writer Shirley Jackson imagined as a creepy psychosexual drama is a pretty bold direction, to be sure — I’m just not sure I enjoyed it all that much. It’s nuanced and well-acted (Elisabeth Moss is pretty mesmerizing as the temperamental and often devious Jackson), and it keeps its audience off-balance for most of the running time. Moss’ performance is really the show here.
Seek it out? If what I just described sounds like your bag, you’ll love it.
Will it hit the multiplex? Probably not on any major-league level, unless it gets some award buzz. This will kill on the indie circuit, though. For sure.
The Last Shift
Not all of them are winners, folks. Make no mistake about it — for as many good films to be discovered as there are at Sundance, there are some dogs. Take The Last Shift, for example, a film with good bones that suffers from indie-syndrome at the highest level. Veteran actor Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under, Stepbrothers) stars as an aged fast-food worker closing out his career of running the late shift at an all-night restaurant by training his replacement, a young, bright and cynical African-American man on probation. What follows is a hamfisted attempt at cultural relations that rings false and goes nowhere, a weird rumination on being “phased out” and several subplots that mean nothing and often aren’t resolved. I can see what the aim was here — it missed the mark hugely.
Seek it out? I don’t see any reason why you need to.
Will it hit the multiplex? Honestly, outside of finding an unheralded spot on a streaming service, I’d be surprised if any of us hear anything about this film again.
If you’re a documentary fan, Sundance is an ever-providing Garden of Eden. Some are morose and depressing; some, like the Kerry Washington-produced The Fight, are simultaneously engrossing, funny and meaningful. The Fight follows four ACLU lawyers taking on the President in varying cases (transgender rights, census law, abortion, immigrant family separation) as they work to protect our civil liberties. It’s not all admirable, either — the film’s approach also spotlights that the ACLU must also defend white supremacists’ views as well — but the four teams of lawyers followed are endearing, rootable and entertaining to watch. You won’t know how each of their cases work out until the third act, but you’ll admire the passion with which these perpetual underdogs face Trump’s America. It’s spunky, positive and enjoyable, even if the subject matter lies on the most volatile battlefronts in the current environment.
Seek it out? Definitely. The audience LOVED this film and a Q&A with the directors afterward hinted they’d even work with you to have it screened in your own community.
Will it hit the multiplex? I don’t know if The Fight will make it to that level, but it will likely be on a streaming service this election season at some point and it’ll definitely find its place in joints like the Kentucky Theater.
Starring Andy Samberg and produced by the entire Lonely Island team, Palm Springs was the hardest ticket to score at the 2020 festival; in fact, it broke records by being the highest paid acquisition in Sundance history. While it’s not as absurdist as the team’s Popstar (completely undersung, if you ask me), it’s still fun — Samberg as a nihilist stuck at a never-ending destination wedding — and the less you know about Palm Springs going in, the better. Don’t expect usual Lonely Island wackiness; it’s more in the rom-com vein, but Samberg and co-star Cristina Milioti (best known as the “mother” from the undercooked ending to the How I Met Your Mother series) turn in surprisingly touching performances considering the film’s odd premise.
Seek it out? Yeah. It’ll make a great date night movie. Both “rom” enough and “com” enough.
Will it hit the mulitiplex? It was bought by Neon/Hulu in conjunction, so chances are high it’ll show in theaters; based on its Sundance reception, it probably will, and it’ll do well there before moving to Hulu.
Ron Howard’s documentary on the California Wildfires — specifically the one which destroyed almost the entirety of Paradise, California — is a tough watch but carries a lot of weight. The first ten minutes are especially disturbing, a montage of cell-phone videos from citizens trapped and surrounded by flames as they struggle to escape the doomed town, and the story of the area’s recovery leads to FEMA red-tape and eventually a surprise bureaucratic culprit. It’s not hard to think there might be a more encouraging story in here somewhere, but the film tends to bring you crashing back down just after moments where you begin to feel like hope is possible.
Seek it out? The first ten minutes is abject terror. You’ll never consider wildfires the same again.
Will it hit the multiplex? No, it’s been bought by National Geographic. But you’ll surely be able to find it on NatGeo at some point, certainly.