Hollywood Reporter Critics Pick the 20 Best Films of Sundance 2020

7:00 AM 1/31/2020

by Todd McCarthy, Leslie Felperin, David Rooney, Beandrea July, John DeFore, and Jon Frosch

Faves include a shocking #MeToo thriller with Carey Mulligan, a masterful 'abortion drama,' an Andy Samberg comedy, the latest from Miranda July and docs about Russell Simmons' accusers, Jamal Khashoggi and Chechnya's gay purge.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Promising Young Woman, Time and On the Record - Publicity Stills - Split - H 2020
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

  • 'The 40-Year-Old Version'

    Writer-director Radha Blank's coming-of-age-in-your-40s tale — about a burnt-out playwright (played by Blank herself) who turns to rap to get inspired again — is a love letter to the people of pre-gentrified Harlem, to old-school hip-hop, to struggling artists, to young folks with big dreams and to black women who dare to live outside the box. With carefully crafted visual language and a funny yet thought-provoking script, the film creates a world you want to soak up frame by frame. — BEANDREA JULY

  • 'Crip Camp'

    Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht's stirring Netflix documentary about Camp Jened (an upstate N.Y. camp for children with disabilities, run by hippies), and the birth of the disability-rights movement at large, boasts smart focus, remarkable archival footage and inspiring subjects. Barack and Michelle Obama are among the executive producers, though this is a story that is truly non-partisan — humane, significant and told with impressive emotional heft. — DANIEL FIENBERG

  • 'Dick Johnson Is Dead'

    Ace documentary maker and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) has crafted what might be called a playful, anticipatory filmed obituary of her very lovable aging, and ailing, father — including staged sequences that kill him off, then bring him back to life — who willingly goes along with the gag. Brilliantly original in every way, this Netflix venture is full of gallows humor, as well as deep mutual adoration between parent and child. — TODD MCCARTHY

  • 'The Dissident'

    As comprehensive and sobering an account of the murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi — killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 — as one could want is offered up by Oscar winner Bryan Fogel (Icarus) in this doc. It's a riveting work, both tragic and poignant, not to mention maddening in that only a few underlings, not the perpetrators, will pay for the crime. — T.M.

  • 'Falling'

    Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut is a deeply intelligent and sensitive drama taking a compassionate view of a father whose faults are impossible to ignore. Playing the married gay son who must now care for him through bouts of dementia while absorbing his insults, Mortensen co-stars with Lance Henriksen, a character actor who has never had such a meaty part and who undeniably rises to the occasion. — JOHN DEFORE

  • 'The Father'

    This outstanding directorial debut by Frenchman Florian Zeller, based on his own play, takes a bracingly insightful look at encroaching dementia and the toll it takes on those in close proximity. Fronted by a stupendous Anthony Hopkins as a proud Englishman in denial of his condition — he’s backed by a fine Olivia Colman as his daughter — it’s a penetrating work that could be a significant title for Sony Classics later in the year. — T.M.

  • 'I Carry You With Me'

    Documentarian Heidi Ewing's ambitious narrative debut traces the decades-spanning, border-crossing romance between two Mexican men with almost Malickian impressionistic flair and a stealthily innovative mix of fictional and nonfictional elements. It's a poignant, urgently — though never stridently — political film that builds toward a hushed stunner of a conclusion. — JON FROSCH

  • 'Into the Deep'

    Sometimes journalists and documentary filmmakers stumble into circumstances that produce unforeseeably fascinating results, while occasionally they fall into disaster. Tragically, the latter was true for Swedish writer Kim Wall when Danish inventor Peter Madsen murdered her on his submarine, while the former is the case for Emma Sullivan, who has made this breathtaking account of the entire grievous affair. Netflix has a sensational work in this one, in both senses of the word. — T.M.

  • 'Kajillionaire'

    Miranda July's third feature centers on a family of grifters, played by Evan Rachel Wood, Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins, whose horizons are broadened by a stranger (an ideally cast Gina Rodriguez). It's a prickly gem about the need for human connection, and Wood is especially remarkable, finding the soul beneath her character's layers of armor. — J.D. 

  • 'The Killing of Two Lovers'

    Examining the agonizing uncertainty of a punctured union skidding along the edge of definitive blowout, this transfixing drama has not a wasted word or inessential scene. Driven by a viscerally raw performance from Clayne Crawford as a man’s man working through some fragile feelings as he and his wife test out a trial separation, it marks a knockout first solo narrative feature for writer-director Robert Machoian. — DAVID ROONEY

  • 'Minari'

    A rare look at a Korean family trying to make a go of it in 1980s Arkansas, Lee Isaac Chung's autobiographical feature is modest, warmly observant, gently humorous in the vein of Ozu and not shy about the awful strain the struggle places on the adults in the clan. A winning Steven Yeun (Burning) stars. — T.M.

  • 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always'

    Slated for a March release through Focus Features, writer-director Eliza Hittman's latest is a transfixing, bracingly honest and exquisitely observed portrait of a small-town Pennsylvania teenager who chooses to terminate her unplanned pregnancy. Star Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, as the protagonist's loyal cousin, are deeply impressive young screen discoveries. — D.R.

  • 'On the Record'

    Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering's emotionally revealing, powerfully haunting doc spotlights women — in particular Drew Dixon — who have publicly accused hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual assault and misconduct. It's a stunning feat of complexity, both contained and expansive, that lays bare how systemic sexism and misogyny deprive people of their livelihoods. — B.J.

  • 'Palm Springs'

    More sincerely philosophical than most fellow Groundhog Day descendants, Max Barbakow's thoroughly enjoyable rom-com — in which Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti play wedding guests trapped in a time loop — doesn't simply use its conceit as a pathway to redemption; it gives serious consideration to the question of how one could live with one's own damaged self if stuck in eternal stasis. The result is a surprising, laugh-filled heartwarmer. — J.D.

  • 'Promising Young Woman'

    "Promising" is indeed the word for Emerald Fennell in the wake of her startling debut feature, a thriller in which a 30-ish screw-up (a terrific Carey Mulligan) seeks to avenge the traumas of her past. The British writer-director shows real nerve and skill both as a storyteller and a fearless commentator on contemporary dynamics between women and men. — T.M.

  • 'The Reason I Jump'

    Inspired by the book by Naoki Higashida, Jerry Rothwell’s elegant, luminous doc offers a glimpse into the way people "on the spectrum" see the world. Documenting the experience of five young people with autistic spectrum condition who either don't speak at all or don't use conventional language to communicate, this is nonfiction filmmaking at its most enlightening and ravishing to behold. — LESLIE FELPERIN

  • 'Time'

    Garrett Bradley combines new footage and video diaries in her gripping, concise and impressionistic portrait of a Louisiana woman's 20-year effort to secure her husband's release from jail. The doc's refusal to explain away the crime — its focus on the intensity of love, both familial and carnal — is radical. — SHERI LINDEN

  • 'The Truffle Hunters'

    Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw follow a handful of men and their dogs into the forests of Northern Italy in search of the white Alba truffle, craved at the world's best tables. The result is a doc of infectious humor, charm and poignancy — this year's Honeyland. — D.R.

  • 'Welcome to Chechnya'

    This HBO doc from David France (How to Survive a Plague) is a searing probe into the government-directed persecution and killing of LGBTQ citizens from the Russian republic, chronicling the selfless work of rescue activists. Hard-hitting, emotionally charged and frequently distressing in its first-person accounts of detention and torture and its glimpses of vicious anti-gay violence caught on video, it's an essential watch. — D.R.

  • 'Zola'

    The extent to which cellphones, social media and the internet shape our communication informs every aspect of this wildly entertaining cautionary tale about fast friendship and premature trust. It’s been ingeniously adapted by director Janicza Bravo and Slave Play dramatist Jeremy O. Harris from a viral 2015 barrage of 144 tweets in which Detroit exotic dancer A'Ziah King shared details of a nightmarish Florida road trip. Taylour Paige and Riley Keough are divine in the lead roles. — D.R.