City So Real Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Steve James

Since 1985, the Sundance Film Festival has fostered independent voices, and 2020 is notable for having a large number of films celebrating diversity and inclusion, a few with a Chicago connection. This year featured films showcasing a wide range of topics including disability rights, sex work, LGBTQ+ themes, mid-life crisis, politics, #MeToo, artificial intelligence, and murder.

Of 15,100 submissions, 244 accepted projects premiered to an audience of more than 10,000 people over the course of the festival, which ran from January 23 through February 2. The festival showcased features, docs, short films, and episodic content from 44 countries. Forty-four percent were projects led by women, 37 percent were created by people of color, and 19 percent were created by LGBTQ+ identifying filmmakers. Below are some recommended films releasing this year on streaming services and the big screen.

And Then We Danced
It is a testament to the power of art when a fictional film can change how an entire country addresses LGBTQ+ rights. Such is the case with And Then We Danced, whose screening in the country of Georgia led to antagonistic riots and ultimately shed light on marginalized communities. Director Levan Akin’s beautiful love story is set to traditional Georgian dance and music, as Merab, a young competitive dancer, puts his future in jeopardy when he falls for a talented fellow male dancer. The direction and cinematography focus more on showing than telling in this sumptuous, passionate, and joyful story of discovery and rebellion.

City So Real
Two-time Academy Award-nominee Steve James casts a wide documentary lens on Chicago during the tumult of the 2019 mayoral election and trial of Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted of the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald. Spanning nearly every neighborhood, this mosaic of the city of big shoulders follows James’s thoughtful eye through interviews with a variety of Chicago residents and explores big questions: Who will lead us? How will we educate our children? Who benefits from gentrification and development? And how will we feel safe from police and each other?

Coded Bias
While not a horror movie, Coded Bias might be the most terrifying film on this list. MIT Media Lab researcher and wunderkind Joy Buolamwini initially embarks on a what is supposed to be a light-hearted project involving facial recognition technology, until she discovers that it doesn’t work well on dark faces. Pulling that thread unravels the underworld of AI technology currently utilized without oversight or legislation and could potentially deny access to credit, jobs, and freedom. Explained in easily digestible language that even the most computer illiterate could follow, Buloamwini and director Shalini Kantayya introduce complex concepts, like the “black box.” Coded Bias takes you to the front lines of the digital revolution—a revolution that may have, unfortunately, already been won by the wrong side.

<i>Crip Camp</i>
Crip CampCredit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Steve Honigsbaum.

Crip Camp
Sundance 2020 kicked off with Robert Redford introducing the opening night film, inspiring documentary Crip Camp, directed by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht, produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, and distributed by Netflix. Crip Camp explores Camp Jened, a summer camp for disabled individuals near Woodstock, New York, that ran from the 1950s through 1977. Thanks to amazing archival footage by the People’s Video Theater, the film captures the joy of summer camp set to a rocking soundtrack. As one camp participant pointst, one of the major setbacks to equal rights came not from how people with disabilities viewed themselves, but how the rest of the world viewed them. The film portrays the joy, frustrations, and magic moments that only summer camp can offer—like first sexual experiences, something not usually shown in narratives about disabled individuals—with great honesty.

The Father
Florian Zeller writes and directs the big-screen adaptation of his play The Father, starring Academy-Award winners Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. Hopkins taps an honesty and vulnerability portraying a man suffering from dementia that, when paired with Zeller’s ingenious writing, gives audiences an authentic experience of losing ones faculties. Olivia Colman’s outstanding performance as a daughter struggling to manage the changes, generates deep empathy which, peppered by Hopkins’s combination of humor, frustration, and despondency, makes for a very real and tragic look at growing old.

The 40-Year-Old Version
This breakout feature from Sundance and directorial debut of Radha Blank (who is also the star and writer of the film) is a hilarious and sensitive midlife crisis film about a struggling playwright who, in a moment of spontaneity and desperation, invests in a career as a rapper. Her biggest hurdle turns out not to be talent, but her own mental limitations of what a middle-aged woman should and can be. As her career takes an unexpected positive turn, she is forced to make some hard choices about her desires and goals. The midlife crisis is well-worn territory and easily given to hoary cliches, but when told through the voice of a Black woman, the genre is given new life and is filled with delightful surprises. Shot in black and white, the film is mature, sophisticated, nuanced, beautiful and lush, and a strong contender for an Oscar nod.

This new four-part miniseries by Nanette Burstein follows Clinton’s emergence from her days as a young schoolgirl in the Chicago suburbs to being the first woman to be nominated for president of the United States by any major political party. This history is intercut with unseen footage from the 2016 election and interviews with friends and family. For those who lived through her impressive and historical life, the series offers her unvarnished personal reflections on extremely public moments. Her candor extends even to the most intimate and vulnerable moments of her life, such as Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and his subsequent impeachment. For those who are too young to know Clinton’s history, they may be surprised to see footage of her championing universal health care and being viciously attacked, for decades, in the media for being too progressive until the 2016 election. Hillary painfully reminds us that perception is very often reality.

Into the Deep
This heartbreaking documentary outlines the final days of Swedish journalist Kim Wall before she was brutally murdered by Danish inventor Peter Madsen on his homemade submarine. Filmmaker and director Emma Sullivan had been in the process of filming Madsen, who was a noted celebrity for his quirky projects. She unexpectedly captured harrowing and heart-wrenching footage that reveals his madness. Madsen was surrounded by a group of young idealists who assisted him in his adventures and acknowledged that he was “unique,” yet had no clue as to the depths of his depravity. Into the Deep excavates their emotions as they begin to come to terms with exactly who he was and what he was capable of. This is the kind of film that will make you second-guess yourself and your perception of the world.

<i>The Perfect Candidate</i>
The Perfect CandidateCredit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The Perfect Candidate
Continuing the theme of political intrigue is the work of Saudi Arabia’s first female director, Haifaa Al-Mansour. The light comedy The Perfect Candidate follows Sara (Nora Al Awadh), a doctor working in a small village. As if being a female doctor at times dressed in full niqab in a male-dominated society was not challenging enough, through a series of unfortunate events she finds herself in the running for local city council against a man in order to fix the dilapidated road leading to her clinic. Al-Mansour introduces a variety of women pursuing their dreams, providing a window into a world often a mystery to Americans. Scenes involving her sister’s wedding planning business are especially charming. Al-Mansour balances showing the misogyny of some Middle Eastern men with the kindness and unfulfilled musical aspirations of men like Sara’s father—a nod to The Band’s Visit, that reminds us it’s not only the young who hold onto dreams.

Scare Me
This three-person ensemble cast features the extraordinary comedic chops of writer-director Josh Ruben, Aya Cash, and Chicago-comedian-turned-Saturday Night Live star Chris Redd. Framed as a Mary Shelley-inspired night of ghost stories, writers Fred (Reuben) and Fanny (Cash) allow their imaginations to run away with them to dark and unexpected corners. Redd, an innocent pizza delivery man, finds himself unexpectedly sucked into their dark game to hilarious effect. The lights go out in a creepy cabin in the woods, and the smart script takes several wildly unpredictable turns. In addition to delivering legitimate scares, Scare Me also reveals some even darker truths about the limits of male fragility and sexism in the shadow of a strong female character. This master class in improvisation and character work makes one eager for the outtakes.

Uncle Frank
Set in the mid-70s, Paul Bettany stars as Frank, a college professor in Manhattan who travels with his 18-year-old niece Beth (Sophia Lillis)to Creekville, South Carolina, for his father’s funeral. Frank’s lover Walid (Peter Macdissi) tags along for this funny and often poignant portrayal of a man confident in the new world he created, coming out to his family while also coming to terms with his past pain and regrets.

ZolaCredit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Anna Kooris

This film was adapted from a legendary series of viral tweets by Aziah Wells that begins “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this here bitch fell out??????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” From there, a stripper tells an unbelievable darkly comedic tale of adventure and intrigue. Beautifully shot in Florida with a vibrant, surreal color palette and clever sound design, director Janicza Bravo’s adaptation is a revelation. Much more than an absolutely hilarious road-trip movie, Zola also delivers a deep dive into the world of sex work, sex trafficking, abuse, and consent, while amazingly still celebrating women’s autonomy. Bravo’s directorial choices smartly flip the script on the traditional male gaze, zooming in on the sexy and powerful bare bottoms of the women when they are in positions of power, almost as if inviting the audience to literally “kiss their asses.” The camera also turns and languidly lingers on the imperfect bodies of the Johns who line up for sex, reminding us that even though women tend to bear the brunt of the blame and shame for sex work, it is the insatiable appetites of men and their money that keep the industry afloat.  v