Sundance 2020 Capsule reviews


Every year I see 30-40 movies at Sundance and I only get the chance to write about a few of them. So this year I thought I would capture everything I’m seeing in short capsule reviews. Here’s the first half of the week!

CUTIES is a movie about a recent immigrant girl from Senegal who finds herself out of step with her other Middle School classmates. Joining their dance team, she finds herself drawn further and further away from her own traditional culture. This is a solid film with good performances and an interesting set up. However, I was troubled by the ridiculous over-sexualization of 11 year olds. There’s such a fine line between making a movie about over-sexualization of 1 years olds and over-sexualizing 11 year olds.

MISS AMERICANA, the Taylor Swift documentary, captures Taylor redefining herself as a feminist and political icon, especially fighting for the rights of the LGBTQ. While the film doesn’t go as deep as some might like, it’s the perfect way to introduce the most important artist working today to a wider group of people who maybe haven’t figured out why she is so important. Plus the music is just great and the film allows us to see inside the studio as she works on her new album LOVER.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

COLLECTIVE is a documentary about the aftermath of a fire at a concert venue in Romania, which led to even more deaths due to poor Hospital conditions. The film works best as we are thrust into the investigation led by journalist and forcing the resignation of many political figures. Unfortunately, at 110 minutes the documentary sort of runs out of steam by the end, not because of any of the material being covered but just because it took too long to tell the story.

EXIL  is a German drama about an Albanian working in corporate Germany, and feeling the spectre of xenophobia around him. Despite the lead’s performance as he spiraled into paranoia, clocking in at 120 minutes the film just didn’t have enough to keep my attention. I think there’s a solid 90 minutes film in here but it wants to make the same point over and over again and slow pacing does not help. Another thing working against the film is that the twist — which I don’t even really want to call a twist but it is a bit of a turn in the plot line at the end – was sort of obvious early in the film and therefore made the third act underwhelming

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

LA LlORONA is an atmospheric Guatemalan ghost story dealing with guilt in the wake of the Mayan genocide. This beautiful piece manages to be both scary and tell a socially relevant story. The film features amazing cinematography and a stillness the seeps into your soul and will keep you up at night. This is one of my top films at Sundance.

AND THEN WE DANCED is a  Swedish film set in the Georgian national dance ensemble about two male dancers who develop a relationship which must be kept secret. Another basically perfect film, this heartbreaking love story manages to tell an LGBTQ story without it overwhelming the plot. Great Performances, a confident script, lush cinematography, and fascinating dance. I knew nothing about Georgian dance walking into the film and caught myself crying during the central character’s audition at the end of the picture.

BLACK BEAR is an American indie dark comedy that puts substance over meaning, a very clever plot device. The first half of the film is a story about 3 millennials batting opinions back and forth in a cabin, leading to an illicit affair. The second half is the making of a movie featuring the same three actors, similar but not exactly the same plots as the first half. It would work better if the story really was the same film, maybe not the same scenes but at least people would be playing the same character, because the shift is somewhat unbalanced. Also, the film really stinks of being written and directed by man, as all the female characters are stupid, naggy, or slutty. Not a bold step forward for Sundance.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

THE EARTH IS BLUE AS AN ORANGE  is a Ukrainian documentary about a family dealing with the ongoing conflict as their eldest child makes her first film to get into Film School. I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of fly-on-the-wall Cinéma vérité and this film was just like being trapped in the house with his family, so I didn’t really find all that interesting.

THE FIGHT is the US documentary about the ACLU’s current fights with the Trump Administration, focusing on four cases. We spend quality time with the lead lawyers handling Reproductive Rights, immigration law, voting rights, and the transgender military ban. It seems like that might be too much, but the film is more about the process of how the ACLU handle cases of this nature, the mentality of the people who work there, and plays a bit like being part of the team. I found it very inspiring.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

SPREE is an American dark comedy thriller about a vlogger who uses his rideshare job to go on a murderous killing spree while live vlogging, all in search of likes and shares. Obviously a little on-the-nose with this message, there was  a lot to like about the film which had great pacing and really made use of the full frame. I don’t know if I was the only one who was reading all the comments as they flew by the screen capture of the vlogging app. I also really enjoyed surprise appearances by David Arquette and Kyle Mooney, but the true star of the film Sasheer Zameta who plays a comedian with a large social media presence. While there’s nothing wrong with the lead character, the film does essentially ask us to root for an antihero on his murder binge, which just didn’t give me enough to cheer for. I wanted some sort of “save the cat” moment so I could like him or at the very least he should have been more diabolically charming.

THE DISSIDENT is a documentary about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi information wars. I enjoyed the film although not as much as I think I would have if I wasn’t a loyal watcher of The Rachel Maddow Show and many other MSNBC news program. Other than a really great interview with Turkish authorities, I didn’t really see anything new, until the last 20 minutes of the film which focuses on the Saudi attempt to hack phones – and of course Jeff Bezos. Apparently there’s a major company in Israel that is on the hook for this for selling them the software. I did hear that something came out about the film in which there was a little bit of Photoshop work so I definitely want to read up on how accurate people are finding it.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

POSSESSOR, the Canadian sci-fi thriller from Brandon Cronenberg, on of the genius of Body Horror. My favorite moment during the Q&A was when someone asked him what sort of influence his father had on him and he said he ‘didn’t know what they were talking about,’ his father ‘owns a pet store.’ The setup of the film is nothing original, basically a mind transplant into another body to turn somebody into a puppet assassin, but the effects used to get the person inside the other person as well as the interactions and different experiences the secret agent experiences while inside were very fresh. There’s also a bit of gender swapping that plays out – the agent’s gender does not always match the vessel. And of course, Andrea Riseborough is amazing as she always is.


PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is currently my favorite film of the festival, not surprisingly because it is the one that feels most like something I would have written myself. Starring Carey Mulligan as a coffee shop worker who goes out to bars and pretends to be drunk in order to teach male predators a lesson, the set up takes a nice shift when an acquaintance from med school comes back into her life and they begin to develop an actual relationship. Unfortunately this also allows her access to the people who are responsible for why she is the way she is. I don’t really want to say too much because the film has a lot of twists and turns and it is a really fun ride. The cast, which also includes Chris Lowell, Jennifer Coolidge, and Alison Brie is really fantastic. Full voice shout out to the producers for casting Laverne Cox in a role that has nothing to do with her being transgender and which she nails with with perfect comic timing.

A THOUSAND CUTS, a US documentary about the current state of Journalism in the Philippines focusing on Duterte’s attempts to shut down opposition voices,especially at Rappler where Maria Ressa, former Time person of the year, is unafraid to rattle cages. This is a fairly frightening documentary because it feels like it is on a timeline that is one year ahead of our own country’s. Duterte is just getting things done faster than Trump, who seems to be following his lead. No one ever accused Trump of being original, and this film certainly brands Trump as dangerous. Another film that focuses on control of information and social media, A Thousand Cuts is only partially effective because there are several storylines that are followed that don’t really seem to add to the point of the film and of course, at a hundred and ten minutes, it’s too long.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

THE NOWHERE INN  a U.S. midnighter, is a hard film to describe. A mock documentary about Annie Clark, aka St Vincent, hiring her filmmaker friend Carrie Brownstein to document her current tour and show a little bit of herself to her fans. When ‘herself’ doesn’t appear to be all that interesting, Carrie encourages Annie to tap into her on-stage eccentricity when she’s off, basically creating a bizarre weirdo who tries to take over the film. I was with it for a while but then the last 10 minutes really went off the rails. I also don’t really know why they asked a man to direct this film, as it really is about female friendship. It seems like the primary artists could have co-directed like they co-wrote.

DISCLOSURE: TRANS LIVES ON SCREEN, a US documentary about the history of transgender representation on film and television is a groundbreaking work that should be a historical document that people will watch for years to come. Interviewing everybody that you could wanted to have interviewed, Sam Feder, who is transgender themselves, really nails all the facets of this issue activating history in a way that was both inspiring and triggering for someone who grew up transgender in a house where I could never admit it.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

THE GLORIAS, a U.S. drama about Gloria Steinem, uses four different actresses to play Gloria throughout her life. This is an essential film that is both inspiring and fun. Julianne Moore gives an amazing performance, but the real star here is director Julie Taymor who manages to take 80 years of history and toss them in a blender. The Glorias play out Steinam’s life in a series of vignettes out of time but foretelling, commenting on, and answering just as the four different Glorias do.

SCARE ME, a U.S. midnighter, sees two writers in a cabin during a power outage decide to compete at telling each other scary stories. I like the setup of this film but nothing really happened. There were no stakes, and it was too much of the same shots – the cabin as well as the selection of mostly head and shoulders shots of both actors simply talking really wore me out. I really don’t think the writer-director should have also starred in the film  but shout out to Chris Redd, who has a great supporting role as a pizza delivery guy who gets pulled into their competition.

That’s Thursday through Sunday. I’ll try to have my last 3 days by the time I’m on a plane.


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