This image released by the Sundance Institute shows Radha Blank in "The 40-Year-Old Version," an official selection of the U.S. dramatic competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, running from Jan. 23 thru Feb. 2.
The Sundance Film Festival, coming at the start of a new movie calendar, is an annual rite of renewal. New movies. New filmmakers. New voices. And that feels especially welcome this year.
Sundance always rolls around just as the worst movies are being dumped in theaters ( see: “Dolittle” ) and Hollywood’s long-running awards season is petering out. This year, the run-up to the Oscars has been dispiritingly homogeneous, coalescing around a field of nominees lacking in diversity both behind and in front of the camera. With some notable exceptions, it feels like the same old.
Sundance, though, is a different story.
This year’s festival, in Park City, Utah, is not only its most inclusive edition yet — 44% of its 118 feature-length films were directed or co-directed by women, 34% were directed or co-directed by a person of color — but features a dynamic slate of proudly unconventional narrative and documentary films.
“Zola,” from director Janicza Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris, is based on a viral 148-tweet thread from 2015. “Nine Days,” the feature directing debut of Edson Oda, is set in a surreal pre-life realm where an interviewer (Winston Duke) is selecting souls to be born. The documentary “Boys State,” by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, is a story of American democracy in microcosm, told through an unusual experiment in which a thousand teenage boys build a government from the ground up.
“We do think of it as the new year of culture where people have to sit up and take notice,” says John Cooper, the director of Sundance. “Audiences have changed, too. They’re more hungry for different. That’s not just from the Oscars. That’s from, let’s face it, the world we’re living in right now. It’s the urgency of thinking outside of old normalities.”
Sundance, which kicks off Thursday and runs through Feb. 2, will bring plenty of established names. Taylor Swift will be there for the opening day premiere of Lana Wilson’s documentary on her, “Miss Americana.” The Hulu documentary series “Hillary” will bring Hillary Clinton to Park City. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell will be attendance for the premiere of the “Force Majeure” remake “Downhill.” And Lin Manuel-Miranda will be there with several films, including “Siempre, Luis,” about his father Luis Miranda, and “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme,” about his pre-“Hamilton” improvising hip-hop group.
But many go to Sundance looking for discoveries of filmmakers like Radha Blank, a New York playwright who stars in her black-and-white directorial debut, “The 40-Year-Old Version.” She plays a slightly fictionalized version of herself as a middle-aged woman who, after the death of her mother, rededicates herself to rapping.
“My protagonist, her passion is speaking truth through hip hop. For me, my passion is filmmaking. It just took me a little bit longer to articulate that for myself,” says Blank. “I know that people have labeled me a late bloomer but I’ve been writing for years. I don’t think I’m the person who’s late.”
Like many others premiering films this week in Park City, Blank has been through the lab programs of the Sundance Institute, the nonprofit founded by Robert Redford that also puts on the festival. “I’m a Sundance baby,” says Blank. “I started in the lab.” Those workshops have been a breeding ground for American filmmakers (Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino are among their many former participants), but the distribution landscape awaiting those filmmakers has often been fraught.
Some in the industry are predicting less ravenous buying at Sundance this year after several of the high-priced acquisitions fizzled at the box office, including the Amazon titles “Late Night” and “The Report.” But streaming services have undoubtedly helped sales at Sundance, adding an influx of buyers looking to beef up their digital libraries.
Disney Plus has a movie in this year’s children’s slate (Tom McCarthy’s “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made”). Apple had one of the festival’s most anticipated movies’ in “On the Record,” about women who have accused music mogul Russell Simmons of sexual abuse, but backed out of the film after executive producer Oprah Winfrey departed it. WarnerMedia, which is preparing the launch of HBO Max, will for the first time have a presence at the festival.
Kim Yutani, director of programming at Sundance, believes streaming services have been an unquestionable positive to the post-festival lives of Sundance films.
“I remember reading the press coverage of Sundance back in the day, and I would think: How will I ever see these films?” says Yutani. “You would see a handful of them in theatrical distribution. The rest of them were almost impossible to see. So, it’s such an exciting time to release our program and know the majority of these films will get seen.”
Netflix already has at least nine films at Sundance, including “Miss Americana,” another opening-day documentary in “Crip Camp,” about the disability rights movement, and Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” follow-up, “The Last Thing He Wanted,” a Joan Didion adaptation starring Anne Hathaway and Ben Affleck.
Rees, who will also serve as a juror, has deep ties to Sundance, where she first attended workshops and later premiered both her debut, “Pariah,” and “Mudbound.” She says it was “a validating force” in her development as a filmmaker. But Rees would like to see the industry embrace more daring films. It’s not just about Netflix, she says.
“The better question to ask is: What studios didn’t make this film? We took this film all over and no studio wanted to make it. Am I not supposed to make it because Netflix is the only one raising its hand?” says Rees. “I hope people will ask: Why didn’t Universal make this film? Or why didn’t Paramount make this film?”
“Audiences are smart,” Rees adds. “People want interesting, complicated, not-happy-ending films, and I think it’s up to the industry to meet the audience’s taste. If we were doing ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and ‘Panic in Needle Park,’ people would show up.”
At Sundance, some of the most urgent movies may be more likely to be documentaries. Among those at this year’s festival are “The Dissident,” about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; “The Fight,” about the American Civil Liberties Union’s legal battles with the Trump administration; “Us Kids,” about the survivors of the Parkland, Florida, high-school massacre; and “Welcome to Chechnya,” about activists secretly saving LGBTQ Chechens from a government crackdown.
Regardless, Sundance remains the pre-eminent launching pad of new talent in American cinema and a place where little-known dreamers become established filmmakers. Oda, the Brazilian-born “Nine Days” director, had a successful career in advertising before quitting his job to study film at the University of Southern California.
“I don’t know how but I’m now making this movie and it’s at Sundance,” said Oda, chuckling. “This is surreal to me. All my favorite filmmakers screened at Sundance and still screen at Sundance. Sundance was the goal. That’s the top of the mountain. Of course, there’s no top of the mountain — my movie’s about that — but you still have that in your head.”