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Top 5 Movies of Sundance 2020

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What indie darlings are sure to take over this year

The landscape of Sundance has changed dramatically over the past years thanks to the emerging world of streaming. The Netflixs, Amazons, and Hulus have allowed for so many opportunities for indies to be seen and shared across the world. 

In the past there seemed to only be about three to five movies a year that had a chance to get a platform to be released and experienced. But now, thanks to such an increase in competition to get content, the best of Sundance is always going to get seen. 

The following five movies all have distributors, for good reason obviously because they are awesome and I say so. But, the tremendous achievement of these films making it into Sundance is just the start for these incredibly different, original, and highest class of films from Sundance 2020. 

Sundance 2020

Honorable Mention:

I know it was one of the best Sundances in recent memory by how much trouble I had narrowing it to five movies. It broke my heart to leave these two movies out, but at least I am throwing them a little bone.

Wendy

Wendy

Plot:
A modern retelling of Peter Pan, focusing on a girl named, yep, Wendy, and her brothers as they board a train to a fantasy island where children never get old... unless they lose their sense of adventure and youth. 

What Made it so great: The return of Benh Zeitlin definitely did not disappoint. He is definitely an auteur whose films have a sense of youthful adventure and spark to them unlike anything else out there. Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of my favorite Sundance discoveries of all time, and while Wendy might not be as groundbreaking as Beasts, it certainly is a great second feature for Zeitlin. 

Why Did it NOT make the list? This film will be out in theaters by the end of this month and my expectations were already set so high. Sundance is about the discovery and shock, and while Wendy was great, it didn't provide either. 

Ironbark

Ironbark

Plot: Benedict Cumberbatch portrays a real-life salesman who decides to go undercover in the former Soviet Union to help both the US and England prevent the Cold War from escalating to a Nuclear Holocaust.

What Made it so great: Typically when Sundance movies delve into espionage or foreign turmoil you get a slow burn and methodical film. This was neither. Ten minutes in, I felt like I was watching a 2021 Best Picture nominee. Director Dominic Cooke handles this true story with an incredibly tense pace and pulls out one of the best Cumberbatch performances of his career. Cumberbatch is definitely a very early frontrunner for an Oscar nomination next year. 

Why did it NOT make this list? While the movie kept me on the edge of my seat for its entire two hour run time, it just felt like a really great version of a movie I have already seen. I hope it gets the release it deserves and I would love to see Cumberbatch get a nice Oscar run, but sorry Ironbark, you just missed my top 5!

Top Five Movies of Sundance:


5) The 40-Year Old Version

Plot: Radha Black produces, writes, directs and stars as a struggling New York playwright who is, yes, 40, and trying to make her way back on top. After experimenting with hip-hop and flirting with selling out, Black must decide what legacy she wants to leave behind. 

What made it so great: If there is one person who could be the singular winner of Sundance, my vote would be Radha Black. This film is a stunning portrayal of culture, identity, and art. It tells a story that has been told before but with a perspective seldom seen. Black's voice, acting, and direction all work perfectly together and create the most unique, personal movie of the entire festival for me. And finishing the festival with a Netflix deal was definitely the way her Sundance deserved to end.

Why #5? From the opening black and white frame to the final colorful conclusion I enjoyed every minute. It is what Sundance movies are meant to be: A fresh voice, a discovery, and a sign of things to come. The only reason it doesn't rank higher for me is the struggling artist arc is just too common. 

Zola

4) Zola

Plot: The "real life" tale based on a series of a 148 twitter thread. We follow Zola, played by Taylour Paige, as she travels with her new friend Stefani (Riley Keough) and finds herself trapped in the weekend from hell.

What made it so great: Imagine a slightly trashier version of Spring Breakers... that doesn't seem possible right? Well if any film could do it, it is Zola. Paige and Keough are 100 percent committed to this tripped out fantasia of drugs, prostitution, stripping, and crime. The film is masterfully directed by Janicza Bravo, who co-wrote it with the real life Zola, A'Zaih King. The film plays out like a fever dream with stunningly colorful and beautiful cinematography, a bumpin soundtrack, and manic, anxiety driven editing that I will always welcome! A24 purchased this film and I can guarantee you college kids are going to be eating this up in their door rooms next fall! 

Why is it #4? This film is definitely original, bold, and daring and that will always land it on a top 5 list of mine. It definitely was meant to shock and at some points it seems to go big just for the sake of trying to push the line farther, even if it didn't need to. I found myself a few times going... "yikes, was that necessary!?" and I never ask myself that. Was that an accomplishment? Perhaps. Was it overkill? Maybe. But I have never seen anything like Zola before and the performances of Keough and Paige alone make this film deserve a spot on this list. 

Palm Springs

3# Palm Springs

Plot: I have tried to not write about this movie because I want people to get the same experience out of this movie that I did. So excuse me for being so vague. Andy Samberg plays Nyles who meets Sarah, played by Cristin Milioti, during a wedding. Both have a very cynical view on love and the two find themselves trapped in a situation where they must reevaluate their stance on if two people can actually love each other.

What makes it so great: From the first minute until the last frame I never stopped smiling. It takes two genres that are usually unoriginal and cliche and delivers a movie that never stops feeling fresh, exciting, and thrilling. Samberg was born to play this role, and Milioti unveils herself as a true comedy star. J.K. Simmons shows up as well and I loved every minute of it. I didn't laugh harder at any other movie than this, and yes, this movie also made me cry. I can not wait to see it again! I hope the marketing team can figure out a way to get people to want to see this movie without showing the twist. So please, avoid all trailers, and just see Palm Springs

Why is it #3? This movie checks all the boxes. A funny movie in a festival slate full of tragedy and depression? Check. A film unlike any I have seen before? Check. One that I feel comfortable suggesting to anyone I know? Check. The only reason it isn't higher is because I believe the top two movies on this list will win Oscars and leave some sort of lasting impact on the world. But this film has the potential to be a massive hit and that is why Hulu and Neon purchased it for a record breaking total.

Just remember... no trailers! 

Boy's State

2) Boy's State

Plot: A documentary crew follows several young high schoolers as they travel to Austin, Texas for Boy's State. An annual seven day "experiment" where kids take over the State Capitol and create their own State government. What unravels is a fascinating study on the divisive nature that is politics, the hope for our future, and how far we have to go. 

What made it so great: The strength of a documentary is always on the subjects. The best docs follow people that are larger than life characters that you would never believe if they were written. This film mirrors that as we follow several young men who are all so incredible and brilliant in their own way. We follow them as they all strive to be the best version of themselves and enter a make believe world where they can be and do whatever they want for seven days. What it turns out to be is a chance for the audience to see where our country is today. How the recent landscape of politics and a two party system has affected the young minds and how issues like abortion, religion, and gun control can pit our society against each other. This documentary made me laugh, it made me cry, and at times it terrified me. 

Why is it #2? Boys State is definitely the most engaging, fascinating documentary I have ever seen at Sundance. Apple and A24 joined forces to acquire this film and I expect a massive release and an Oscar nomination next year. You grow so close to the kids in this film and I legitimately believe this film might catapult them into politics and opportunities to make a real difference in this country. Boy's State is a beautiful capsule on where this country is today and I believe this doc will be taught in history classes for decades to come. 

Nine Days

1) Nine Days

Plot: A quiet, somber man alone in his house is greeted by several people hoping to make an impression. Over the course of nine days and several interviews the man must decide who he will grant the greatest gift of all, life on earth. 

What made it so great? I can not remember a movie so ambitious, so creative, and so perfect from beginning to end. Writer and director Edson Oda creates a world and a concept so original and inspiring I was captivated from the first second of the film. Winston Duke announces himself as a leading man of the future as the main character Will. Will has earned the role of a man who gets to grant the gift of live to one of several applicants. The film follows these interviews and captures the mystery and beauty of the unknown adventure that is existence. Duke is outstanding and Zazie Beetz goes step for step with him thanks to an incredible performance. The rest of the cast is so great too, thanks to performances from Bill Skarsgard, Tony Hale, Benedict Wong, Arianna Ortiz and more. This film won the Jury prize for Best Writing, and I am predicting now it will be nominated next year at the Oscars.

Why is it #1? This movie is why I come to Sundance every year. The feeling of filing into a theater with almost a thousand people and having no idea what you are in for is exhilarating.  Filmmakers like Tarantino and Aranofsky and Chazelle all showed their films here when people had no idea who they were. But the lights went down and the crowd got to experience something unlike anyone had ever seen. With every new film premiering at Sundance we could be about to make the next great discovery. 

As Nine Days played out I had this overwhelming joy take over my entire soul. I was witnessing something so beautiful, and so different. It felt like I was a part of a moment. Only time will tell how this film is received by the public. If the academy does take it seriously and if people even get the chance to see it. But for that stretch in a theater is was an incredible moment. One that I wish everyone has the chance to experience someday. 

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Nathan McVay
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