20 Movies We Can't Wait to See at Sundance 2020 - Rolling Stone
Home Movies Movie Lists

20 Movies We Can’t Wait to See at Sundance 2020

From a Taylor Swift doc to a movie based on the most epic tweetstorm ever — our picks for the best bets at this year’s fest

The 20 best movies to catch at Sundance Film Festival 2020.

From left: 'The Glorias,' Miss Americana,' 'Tesla'

Daniel McFadden/Sundance Institute; Netflix; Cara Howe/Sundance Institute

Go West, young men and women — no, not to California, you’ve gone too far west now, head back a bit — and seek your fame and fortune in the quaint town of Park City, Utah. For 10 days every January, this ski town becomes the center of the American moviemaking, moviegoing, movie-loving universe: the home of the Sundance Film Festival. What once started as a modest affair under an unassuming name (the U.S. Film and Video Festival) has morphed into the major kickoff event of the calendar year for cinephiles eager to discover the next big thing, dip into interesting docs, dig into genuinely independent work … or, at the very least, provide something to distract argumentative Twitter folks in between kvetching over the Oscar-nomination announcements and fighting about the Oscar ceremony itself. (We’re kidding. Kind of.)

Last year, Sundance gave us The Farewell, The Souvenir, American Factory, Honeyland, Honey Boy, Apollo 11, Clemency, Luce, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Monos, The Report, One Child Nation, and a handful of other faith-restoring works of art. And once the 2020 edition starts on January 23rd, we’re likely to get a first look at another handful of works that will generate praise, affection, and no shortage of chatter over the next 12 months. Here are 20 films we’re anxious to see at this year’s Sundance.

Yaani King Mondschein, Elle Lorraine, and Lena Waithe appears in Bad Hair by Justin Simien, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.rrAll photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

‘Bad Hair’

Anna (Elle Lorraine) is an aspiring veejay at a BET-like video channel circa 1989, but keeps getting passed up for promotions. A business card leads her to an upscale salon that specializes in weaves — and suddenly, Anna has the sort of long, gorgeous locks that open doors. But is there some sort of connection between her 2.0 look and a centuries-old story from the slave era? And what, exactly, are the … special needs her new do requires to stay so luxurious? Dear White People’s Justin Simien returns to the festival with a follicular-folklore horror film that doubles as a satire about beauty’s double standards, the New Jack Swing era of R&B, old-school music-video aesthetics, and climbing the corporate ladder. Co-starring Vanessa Williams, Lena Waithe, Laverne Cox, Jay Pharoah, Blair Underwood, and the scariest lanky black hair this side of the original Ring movies.

Bruce lee in the ESPN documentary 'Be Water.'

Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

‘Be Water’

Enter the Dragon’s life story: Bao Nguyen’s doc on the late, great Bruce Lee follows the martial-arts godhead from his early days as a precocious child actor in Hong Kong, to the Chinese American ambassador that introduced the U.S. to kung fu, to an international movie star and much-mourned celebrity. Fans will lose their minds over the abundance of archival footage (screen tests, home movies, and prefame film clips, oh my!), while cultural pundits will note how Lee’s journey acts as a miniature history of anti-Asian racism in Hollywood and America at large.

Sundance_Dick Johnson Is Dead

‘Dick Johnson Is Dead’

To be more accurate: Dick Johnson is dying. And his daughter — filmmaker Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) — isn’t ready to let him go just yet. So she has decided to “kill” her elderly father within the parameters of a very unusual project, as a way of inoculating herself against the eventual grief and sorrow. We’ll let the award-winning documentarian speak for herself — here’s how she described it in 2018: “With the magic of fiction, and the help of stuntpeople, my dad will die unexpectedly in each scene of the movie … until he dies for real, and then nothing will be able to help us.” We’re laughing (and, frankly, sobbing) already.

Julianne Moore appears in The Glorias by Julie Taymor, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Daniel McFadden.rrAll photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

‘The Glorias’

What’s better than a biopic about Gloria Steinem that stars an award-winning actress as the magazine publisher, activist, author, former Playboy bunny, and icon? How about one featuring several much-lauded performers portraying her? Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander are but two out of the five women playing the Marvelous Ms. Steinem, which turns the spotlight on several different phases of her life — from her fellowship days in India to becoming the media-friendly face of second-wave feminism and the éminence grise of the fight for equal gender rights. Say what you will about director Julie Taymor’s work (Frida, Titus, Across the Universe) — she’s never made a boring movie, and this mix-and-match approach to tackling Steinem’s life sounds intriguingly off the beaten path.

A still from The Go-Go’s by Alison Ellwood, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Paul Natkin.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Paul Natkin/Getty Images

‘The Go-Go’s’

It starts with the drums, then those shimmying guitars meet up with a shiny, happy keyboard line — and with the opening few bars of “Our Lips Are Sealed,” the Go-Go’s immediately establish a particular Eighties sound: a little sunny, a little spiky, and 100-percent insanely catchy. Documentarian Alison Ellwood charts the band’s ascent from SoCal punks to pixie-cut New Wavers, early MTV stars, and, finally, a band coming apart at the seams. Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock, and Kathy Valentine all weigh in on their version of the rise-fall-and-rise-again rock narrative. And for the record: They still have the beat.

A still from Happy Happy Joy Joy - The Ren & Stimpy Story by Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Kimo Easterwood.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

‘Happy Happy Joy Joy — The Ren & Stimpy Story’

One was a high-strung Chihuahua with severe anger issues. The other was a dopey cat with a love of bodily functions and a fierce loyalty to his stressed-out canine buddy. These codependent pets — both the brainchild of animator John Kricfalusi — helped revolutionize TV toons in the ‘Nineties and turned a tiny, misfit animation house into the hottest thing in town virtually overnight. Then, just as quickly as The Ren & Stimpy Show became a cultural phenomenon, everything fell apart. Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood’s doc looks back on a rise-and-fall story that has everything: a charismatic leader, a cultlike atmosphere, against-the-odds success, boogers, farts, father issues, throwback deco artwork, arguments with execs and censors, falling-outs among best friends, and one huge personal flameout. It also, regrettably, contains a story of pathological and somewhat predatory behavior that’s cast what may be a permanent pall on the series.

A still from the Hulu docuseries 'Hillary.'

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

‘Hillary’

Ah, yes, Hillary Rodham Clinton: the former first lady, the ex-secretary of state, and ex-senator from New York, the woman the right love to hate, the political hopeful, the polarizing public figure, the Democratic candidate for president in 2016 who won by 3 million votes yet somehow does not occupy the Oval Office. We know her. Or do we? This four-part docuseries from Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture, On the Ropes …, both of which could have been alt-titles for this portrait, actually) goes the cradle-to-concession-speech route, tracing HRC’s history from her early gravitation toward civic duty as a child to her college days, meeting Bill, stumping for the ERA, standing by her man during scandals, dealing with the 21st century’s particularly toxic brand of sexism — the whole nine yards. But it’s the candid scenes of her on the 2016 campaign trail that will likely raise eyebrows, as we get an unfiltered (or “unfiltered”) look at what was going through her head as history was being made.

Evan Rachel Wood, Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger appear in Kajillionaire by Miranda July, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Matt Kennedy.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Matt Kennedy

‘Kajillionaire’

Miranda July is back! The Me and You and Everyone We Know writer-director’s first feature in almost a decade follows a family of con artists (led by Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) prepping for their next big scam. It’s a bit of a rush job, however, so they bring in a stranger (Gina Rodriguez) to help out — a move that throws the youngest member of the group, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) for a bit of a loop. But this new addition to the clan also suggests that there may be another way of living beside the same ol’ sleight-of-hand–to–mouth routine. To say that we’ve missed July’s singular voice would be an understatement. Welcome back.

Anne Hathaway appears in The Last Thing He Wanted by Dee Rees, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

‘The Last Thing He Wanted’

A Reagan-era journalist (Anne Hathaway) has been following a story on the Contras’ activities in Central America and keeps running up against obstacles in terms of getting her reporting out there. Then she gets an assist in the oddest possible way: Her arms-dealer father (Willem Dafoe) becomes too sick to finalize some professional transactions involving the rebel group, and his daughter has to step in to finish what he started. Which, we can all probably agree, puts this member of the fourth estate in quite the sticky situation. We’re also assuming that this adaptation of Joan Didion’s novel from the estimable Dee Rees (Pariah, Mudbound) is going to use this story of yesteryear’s political intrigue, personal existential crises, and the media to comment on our own precarious moment in time.

Oona Laurence, Amy Ryan, Thomasin McKenzie, Miriam Shor in 'Lost Girls.'

Netflix / Jessica Kourkounis

‘Lost Girls’

Who likes a good true-crime yarn? The answer: Filmmaker Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?) and an all-star cast — Amy Ryan, Jojo Rabbit’s Thomasin McKenzie, Lola Kirke, Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Corrigan — she’s enlisted to adapt Robert Kolker’s novel about a series of young women murdered by a figure known as “the Long Island serial killer.” Tackling her first narrative feature, the longtime documentarian puts the focus on the mother (Ryan) of one of the victims, and how her determination to investigate her daughter’s death connects the dots between class structures, Craigslist, a prostitution ring, and the sex workers that the killer targeted.

Steven Yeun in 'Minari.'

Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

‘Minari’

It wouldn’t be Sundance without a handful of coming-of-age movies — and this addition to the that-was-the-year-everything-changed genre from writer-director Lee Isaac Chung immediately seems like the closest to a sure thing out of this year’s batch. A boy named David (Alan S. Kim) is trying to adapt to his new home in rural Arkansas; his dad (Burning’s Steven Yuen) has moved the family from the West Coast to the Southern state in order to try his hand at farming. The endeavor begins to take a toll on the entire family, and the arrival of David’s grandmother from South Korea only heightens the tensions and sense of cross-cultural dislocation. It’s how you tell these kind of oft-told tales that makes the difference, and those of who us who still remember Chung’s stunning 2007 debut, Munyurangabo, can’t wait to see what he does with this semi-autobiographical material.

A still from Taylor Swift: Miss Americana by Lana Wilson, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Netflix

‘Miss Americana’

It was only a matter of time before Taylor Swift got her own Truth or Dare/Part of Me-style docuportrait — the surprise was that it took this long to get made. But this look at the singer-songwriter from filmmaker Lana Wilson (After Tiller) comes at an interesting phase in T-Swift’s career, not to mention a period in her life that feels ripe for the closer-look treatment. Word on the street is this Netflix-sponsored project deals a lot with her growing sense of empowerment as a woman and as an artist, as well as her willingness to be more vocal about social and political issues. Which, frankly, sounds a lot more interesting than your run-of-the-mill “candid” moment/concert footage/rinse/repeat style of music doc.

the nest sundance carrie coon

Mátyás Erdély

‘The Nest’

Martha Marcy May Marlene fans, rejoice! Writer-director Sean Durkin returns to the festival with the story of a businessman (Jude Law, on a break from antihero-pope duties) who thinks the place to be in the go-go 1980s is Thatcher’s Britain. So he, his wife (Carrie Coon), and their brood settle into a posh country estate to live like gentry. Three guesses as to whether everything starts to fall apart. Three more guesses as to whether this dark family drama doubles as the sort of allegory on the corrosive effects of class aspirations and capitalism that we admittedly have a soft spot for.

Annie Clark and Carrie Brownstein appear in The Nowhere Inn by Bill Benz, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Minka Farthing Kohl.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

‘The Nowhere Inn’

There’s St. Vincent, the singer/songwriter/guitar virtuoso/performance artist who collaborates with David Byrne and sells out tours — and there’s Annie Clark, the mundane woman who likes farmers markets and quiet Sunday afternoons. The latter is not exactly the perfect fodder for the thrilling documentary that Clark’s best friend, Carrie Brownstein, was trying to make, however. So if she had to “create” conflict and divalike behavior, and attempt to channel the subject’s wild alter-ego during the most mild of circumstances, so be it. This dispatch from the musicians-getting-meta department sounds like the perfect midnight movie for the sort of Portlandia fans who can sing every word to “Digital Witness” and really wish Spike Jonze made movies more often. The sketch-comedy and Adult Swim pedigree of director Bill Benz is a plus.

A still from Untitled Kirby Dick/Amy Ziering Film by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Omar Mullick.rrAll photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

‘On the Record’

Perhaps you’ve heard about this documentary from longtime cinematic muckrakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (The Invisible War, The Hunting Ground), the one that examines the accusations of sexual misconduct by music mogul Russell Simmons and suddenly lost its celebrity backer. (The patron saint? Her name is Oprah.) Whether external pressure or simply a mysterious loss of faith at the last minute is responsible for this turnaround, the duo’s look at the allegations, backed by interviews with numerous women — notably former Def Jam executive Drew Dixon — who have accused Simmons of predatory behavior, is already causing ripples. The filmmakers’ track record speaks for itself. And something tells us this will merely be the first shot in a long battle between the subject and those asking for accountability.

palm springs

Jessica Perez

‘Palm Springs’

Boy meets girl — or more specifically, the dude (Andy Samberg) who showed up to a wedding as a bridesmaid’s date meets the bride’s sister (How I Met Your Mother’s Cristin Milioti). Neither of them really want to be there; both of them are attracted to each other; and after he helps her get out of giving a speech, the two decide they’re going to dedicate the rest of their time together to causing chaos at the ceremony. Why do we think there’s a dark edge to director Max Barbakow’s nuptials-run-amok comedy? Maybe it’s the use of the word “nihilism” and the phrase “embracing the idea nothing really matters” in the program notes …

Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss appear in Shirley by Josephine Decker, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Thatcher Keats.rrAll photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

‘Shirley’

Take one young couple (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young). Pair them with an older couple with a rather dysfunctional, enabling relationship; be sure you cast this second set of spouses accordingly, like, say, Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss. Put them all in one household, with the caveat that the older woman needs looking after. Just for kicks, make said older woman the legendary horror writer Shirley Jackson. Lastly, give it to a director like Josephine Decker, whose previous movie, Madeline’s Madeline, was a highlight of the 2018 festival. Boom! You’ve got Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? filtered through a biography of the woman who gave us The Haunting of Hill House. You’re welcome.

surge

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

‘Surge’

“Committed” doesn’t adequately describe Ben Whishaw’s performance in this story of an airport security officer who, after a chance encounter, begins to lose his mind. (Or maybe he’s the only one of us who’s actually sane? Discuss.) Whishaw has always been an intense actor — see Bright Star or Perfume or Little Joe or a half-dozen other examples of his stellar work — but there is a certain type of gusto that the slim Brit displays as he dives into a character that decides he no longer has any use for the usual niceties of the social contract. Like, for example, the unspoken rule that you don’t randomly spit water on people when they’re talking to you. Or for the very-much-spoken rule that you’re not supposed to compulsively rob banks. And, man, does director Aneil Karia’s feature debut give this anarchic bull a stage on which to rage.

Ethan Hawke in 'Tesla.'

Cara Howe

‘Tesla’

Why, yes, we recently have had a drama about the fight to bring electricity to the masses, now that you mention it — and Nikola Tesla was indeed a featured player. But this biopic on the tortured inventor doesn’t relegate him to the sidelines; it puts the Serbian immigrant right in the spotlight, diving into his attempt to fend off competitors, get a foothold in the burgeoning Energy Inc. game, bring his ideas to market, and not lose his shirt (or his marbles) in the process. Ethan Hawke plays the title character, complete with a helluva mustache; Kyle MacLachlan is Thomas Edison; Eve “Bono’s Daughter” Hewson is Anne “J.P.’s Daughter” Morgan, who worshipped and worked alongside Tesla. More important, director Michael Almereyda is calling the shots behind the camera — if this is half as interesting as the version of Hamlet set on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that he and Hawke made in 2000, we should be in for quite a jolt.

zola

Anna Kooris/Courtesy of A24

‘Zola’

From the minute we read about the extraordinary tweeted-out saga of a Hooters waitress, a road trip, an exotic-dancing scheme, some unsavory characters, and one long, crazy weekend in Tampa, Florida, we demanded that someone turn this modern-day Odyssey into an appropriately epic movie. And lo, director and co-writer Janicza Bravo (Lemon) heard our cries and answered our prayers. A’ziah “Zola” King (Taylour Page) meets Stefani (Riley Keough). They decide to fund a trip across the US of A by pole-dancing at every possible opportunity. Things go south, literally and figuratively. A boyfriend (Succession‘s Cousin Greg himself, Nicolas Braun) and a pimp named “X” (Colman Domingo) also play key parts. The names may have been changed to protect the innocent, and the not-so-innocent, but it sounds like the sheer insanity of this true-life story has remained intact.

Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.