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Sundance 2020 Preview

It's that time of year again when the Sundance Film Festival rolls around! Lots of titles have caught my eye, but here are the ten I'm most excited about seeing and will do my best to try and catch!

10. Tesla

Sundance Summary: Brilliant, brooding inventor Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) fights an uphill battle to bring his revolutionary electrical system to fruition. Increasingly displeased by the greed of fellow inventor Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), Tesla forges his own virtuous but arduous path toward creating the innovative alternate-current motor. His European nature is at odds with budding American industrialism, and the landscape of intellectual property is treacherous—and Tesla slowly becomes jailed in his overactive mind. His associate Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) analyzes and presents his story as it unfolds, offering a distinctly modern voice in this scientific period drama.

Sundance Film Festival veteran Ethan Hawke returns in this informative and engaging historical piece directed by Michael Almereyda (A Hero of Our Time, Marjorie Prime). With Tesla's controversies, legal battles, entrepreneurial clashes, and romantic interests, Almereyda weaves together a portrait of a man struggling against the interests of his time. The profundity of his electrical mind is unearthed through this rediscovery of the development of electricity in the United States, ultimately posing existential questions about invention, industry, greed, love, and lightning.

Why I'm interested: I think Nikola Tesla is a fascinating historical figure and if anyone can bring him to life properly it's Ethan Hawke. Over the last few years Hawke has been really consistent in picking his roles, so I have no doubt this one will be great too.

9. The Night House

Sundance Summary: Reeling from the unexpected death of her husband, Beth (Rebecca Hall) is left alone in the lakeside home he built for her. She tries as best she can to keep together—but then the dreams come. Disturbing visions of a presence in the house call to her, beckoning with a ghostly allure. But the harsh light of day washes away any proof of a haunting. Against the advice of her friends, she begins digging into his belongings, yearning for answers. What she finds are secrets both strange and terrible and a mystery she’s determined to resolve.

Returning to the Sundance Film Festival with his latest descent into psychological horror, genre innovator David Bruckner’s new vision teems with superior craftsmanship and ghastly precision, proving him an integral voice in his field. Grounded by an absolutely impeccable performance from the peerless Rebecca Hall, who carries each frame with a weight and nuance that feels effortless, The Night House offers a stunningly effective take on the traditional ghost story, one that lingers with chilling grace.

Why I'm interested: If there's one thing I've learned about Sundance over the last decade, it's that you can count on them to have discovered one really great horror film each festival. All of the Midnight Selections this year look great and I would easily include them all on the list, but my gut tells me this one has the greatest chance of being this year's Hereditary.. or at the very least The Lodge.

8. The Assistant

Sundance Summary: The Assistant, Kitty Green’s follow-up to her acclaimed Casting JonBenet, premiered at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival and impressed audiences with its tightly framed, quietly devastating, and intense portrayal of oppression in a workplace.

Jane (Julia Garner) is a junior assistant to a prominent entertainment executive, a man whose face we never get to see, though whose character is clearly inspired by the #MeToo testimonies surrounding Harvey Weinstein. There is nothing glamorous or rewarding about her job, yet she’s often reminded that any young aspiring film producer would kill to take her place. Over the course of 24 hours we witness as Garner’s superbly understated Jane faces a multitude of degradations and hostilities (from both men and women), which she continues to bear stoically. She quietly goes about her mundane tasks with an attitude of someone who is used to this type of treatment. Just when we think that nothing can be done about her growing discomfort in this land of self-importance, Jane takes action—and what follows is a fascinating depiction of the mechanics that lead to abuse of power.

Why I'm interested: This is a perspective in the Harvey Weinstein #metoo era whose story I'm really interested in being told. How did the people (particularly women) who helped him take advantage live with themselves every day just so they could get a foot in the industry?

7. Possessor

Sundance Summary: Tasya Vos is a corporate agent who uses brain-implant technology to inhabit other people’s bodies, driving them to commit assassinations for the benefit of the company. While she has a special gift for the work, her experiences on these jobs have caused a dramatic change in her, and in her own life she struggles to suppress violent memories and urges. As her mental strain intensifies, she begins to lose control, and soon she finds herself trapped in the mind of a man whose identity threatens to obliterate her own.

Writer/director Brandon Cronenberg’s splendid mindfuck cinema pushes this pulpy thriller—his second feature film—to startling new heights. Cronenberg scripts an efficient mystery that is colored rich and grotesque in the depths of his imagination. While Possessor dazzles with impeccable design and ambitious world building, the film remains grounded by the haunting lead performances of Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. If you are willing to accept the assignment, this violent shocker will be impossible to shake.

Why I'm interested: For starters, the plot sounds wild and fantastic. If done right, this could be one of the most exciting films of the festival. Plus I'm really intrigued to see Brandon Cronenberg's (son of David Cronenberg) directorial debut.

6. Nine Days

Sundance Summary: What if being born is not the beginning but the goal? In a house distant from the reality we know, a reclusive man named Will interviews prospective candidates—personifications of human souls—for the privilege he once had: to be born. Five contenders emerge. During the course of nine days, Will tests each of them, but he can choose only one. The victor will be rewarded with a coveted opportunity to become a newborn in the real world, while the others will cease to exist—nine days is everything they’ll ever experience.

Supernatural, metaphysical, and packed with the deepest, most human emotions, this spiritual child of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry will hit you in the head and the heart. Propelled by an extraordinary performance from Winston Duke as Will and buoyed by a stunning supporting cast of highly accomplished actors, Nine Days marks not only the feature debut but the cinematic birth of writer-director Edson Oda, a singular, visionary artist.

Why I'm interested: The concept of this film is so fascinating to me. We've seen a lot of movies set in the afterlife, but not many with what happens before humans make their way to earth. Plus anything that gets compared to a Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry collaboration immediately has my attention!

5. Downhill

Sundance Summary: Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Pete (Will Ferrell), and their sons are on a balcony during an idyllic family ski vacation in the Alps when an avalanche suddenly strikes. While they all emerge physically unharmed, Pete’s actions during the avalanche reveal a side of him that leaves his family in a state of shock. The aftermath of this moment permeates the remainder of the trip, and the harder Pete tries to avoid the truth and gloss things over, the more Billie and her sons are forced to re-evaluate their lives and, more specifically, how they feel about Pete—as a husband, father, and man.

Inspired by the 2014 film Force Majeure by Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, Downhill is fiercely observational of modern masculinity and human frailty. Co-directors and writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash make Billie the heart of this relationship drama, and Louis-Dreyfus delivers a brilliant performance that captivates and delights in every searing, cringe-inducing scene. As wickedly funny as it is mercilessly truthful, Downhill is the story of a natural catastrophe that prompts a metaphorical landslide within a family.

Why I'm interested: I've actually (shh don't tell anyone) never seen Force Majeure, so I'm not nearly as outraged at this remake as all of Film Twitter... BUT I do love the pairing of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell and hope that he channels more of the type of nuanced performance he gave in Stranger Than Fiction. But probably the biggest reason I'm excited for this is because it is Nat Faxon and Jim Rash bringing this to screen. Their last was one of my all-time Sundance favorites The Way Way Back.

4. Promising Young Woman

Sundance Summary: Suspiciously unambitious Cassie (Carey Mulligan) leads a quiet existence as a barista who lives in her parents’ house since dropping out of medical school. She and her friendly boss, Gail (Laverne Cox), gab away days at the cafe. The way she spends her evenings, however, reveals a boiling vendetta. Men who cross her path are in serious danger, as beautiful and brutal Cassie seeks to heal from past trauma by doling out scathing lessons. When Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate, re-enters her life, so does the possibility of healing—until new details about the death of her best friend infuriate Cassie and inspire her most potent confrontation yet.

Killing Eve’s Emerald Fennell brings her debut feature to the Sundance Film Festival after premiering Careful How You Go in the Shorts Program in 2018. Her signature bite, wit, and re-imagined femme fatales make Promising Young Woman a daring but dark inspiration. Fennell and her team paint a perversely heroic portrait and a eulogy to the loss of potential that occurs when male cruelty claims yet another promising young woman.

Why I'm interested: The trailer for this looks great and I'm excited for Carey Mulligan to play something really different than the roles she normally takes on. This movie looks dark and full of twists and turns. I'm excited for the ride!

3. Scare Me

Sundance Summary: Fred (Josh Ruben), a frustrated copywriter, checks in to a winter cabin to start his first novel. While jogging in the nearby woods, he meets Fanny (Aya Cash), a successful and smug young horror author who fuels his insecurities. During a power outage, Fanny challenges Fred to tell a scary story. As a storm sets in, they pass the time spinning spooky tales fueled by the tensions between them, and Fred is forced to confront his ultimate fear: Fanny is the better storyteller. The stakes are raised when they’re visited by a horror fan (Chris Redd) who delivers levity (and a pizza) to the proceedings.

Writer-director Josh Ruben’s debut feature is a metafictional horror comedy about the pleasures and perils of storytelling and the genre’s power to exorcise social demons. Scare Me is a clever and chilling hybrid of humor and horror that subverts the cabin-in-the-woods trope. Propelled by Cash and Ruben’s comedic chemistry, Scare Me ventures into darker territory, drawing dread and pathos from the gender hostilities driving Fanny and Fred’s game of ghost stories.

Why I'm interested: I think this premise is full of potential. I'll be interested to see if it leans more into the comedy or the horror, but I think there's a lot of places this movie could go and as a horror fan I couldn't be more excited.

2. Save Yourselves

Sundance Summary: Jack (John Reynolds) and Su (Sunita Mani) are a hip Brooklyn couple who, like many of their friends, find themselves dependent on technology and unable to put down their phones. Fearing their mindless scrolling may impact their connection with each other, they seize the chance to head to an isolated cabin in the woods, vowing to unplug from the outside world for a week. Sheltered from texts and push notifications, they are blissfully unaware when aliens attack the earth. As strange events unfold, the couple must figure out a way back to civilization—or what’s left of it.

Writer-directors Eleanor Wilson and Alex Huston Fischer (Snowy Bing Bongs) have crafted a zany sci-fi comedy as hilarious as it is thrilling, taking a millennial worst-case scenario and lighting it on fire. Reynolds’s and Mani’s engaging performances bring to life razor-sharp writing that affectionately satirizes modern life and love. Ultimately, Save Yourselves! is an ode to an internet-savvy generation that has never known connection without autocorrection.

Why I'm interested: The plot of this movie sounds hilarious. (Seeing a pattern? Every movie on this list I'm basically drawn to its story.) I love the idea of two oblivious millennials being totally cut off to an apocalyptic threat and having no idea what to do once it catches up to them.

1. Palm Springs

Sundance Summary: Stuck in Palm Springs for her younger sister Tala’s destination wedding, family black sheep and reluctant maid of honor Sarah meets carefree Nyles, the date of a vapid bridesmaid. After Nyles bails Sarah out of giving a wedding toast, she quickly realizes that he is actually not a sentimental fool at all and feels drawn to his offbeat nihilism. After their impromptu tryst is thwarted by a surreal, unexpected interruption, Sarah joins Nyles in embracing the idea that nothing really matters, and they begin wreaking spirited havoc on the wedding celebration.

Director Max Barbakow’s ambitious and playful dramatic feature debut, Palm Springs is a lighthearted romp peppered with thoughtful realizations about the nature of love and loneliness. Cristin Milioti gives a winsome and soulful performance as Sarah, matching Andy Samberg’s impressive comedic chops as the jaded Nyles step for step. A terrific ensemble cast, including Peter Gallagher and Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons alongside rising stars Camila Mendes and Meredith Hagner, deliver memorable supporting turns as the colorful guests at the seemingly endless wedding.

Why I'm interested: I'm a sucker for romantic comedies done right. They're a dying breed, so if I can find one that exists and is actually good I gotta find a way to see it. My all-time favorite movie (500) Days of Summer was a Sundance rom-com after all! This one happens to have a really fun premise and a great cast. Andy Samberg is a goofball, but shows some real tenderness too in Brooklyn 99 so I think he's more than ready to play a leading man. Cristin Miliotti was fantastic and totally wasted in How I Met Your Mother so it would be great for her talents to finally break through! Plus JK Simmons is great in anything. Sign me up!!

Well that's a wrap. Look for my review round ups to trickle in soon!!

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