The Best of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival

The 2020 Sundance Film Festival held it’s award ceremony on February 1st, after a ten day exhibition that featured over 100 independent films. This is one of the most anticipated and exciting film events held in Utah each year.

This was a big year for Sundance, with major public figures including Taylor Swift, Hillary Clinton, and Lin-Manuela Miranda joining the scene. The awards ceremony was marked by the announcement that Tabitha Jackson would be taking over John Cooper’s role as director of the festival, the first female director in Sundance history. The festival received a record high of 15,100 submissions and hosted the most diverse lineup of films and talent yet.

This event is a chance for aspiring indie filmmakers to showcase their work and launch their careers. Recognized as the mecca for discovering breakout documentaries, it’s an authentic opportunity for independent storytellers to come together and share the ideas that are inspiring and shaping cinema today. 

Sundance Film Festival, Park City Utah; Photo from Flickr

Here are the most memorable films from the festival that you should keep an eye out for in 2020:

The winners of the Four Grand Jury Prizes include Minari, Boys State, Epicentro, and Yalda, A Night For Forgiveness. Minari won two of the highest honors, the U.S Dramatic Prize award and the Audience U.S. Dramatic award. This autobiography tells the heart-wrenching story of a Korean immigrant family struggling to adjust to rural Arkansas and live the American dream. The film was secured and funded by A24 prior to Sundance, and was among the most well-reviewed entries this year.

Boys State won the U.S. Documentary Prize, another honorable film bought by A24 and Apple for a record-breaking $12 million. This coming-of-age documentary follows a group of Texas high school boys who attend politics camp and create their own mock government over the summer. The premier struck a chord with viewers because it gives a first-hand look into the cut-throat nature behind American politics and the struggle for these teens to come together, rather than let their views divide them. An entertaining yet emotional parallel of the challenges our country faces today, this film shouldn’t be missed.

Audience-Voted Awards went to Minari, Crip Camp, The Reason I Jump, Identifying Features, and I Carry You With Me. The Festival Favorite Award went to Giving Voice, which follows six high school students competing in the August Wilson Monologue Competition in New York City. Other notable premiers included The 40 Year Old Version, Kajillionaire, The Killing of Two Lovers, Palm Springs, Shirley, Zola, and Time. What movies are you excited to see from the festival?

2020 Golden Globe Nominations Announced

The full list of nominations for the 2020 Golden Globes has been released, and much like every other year, the reaction from the general public has been a mix of excitement and disappointment.

The nominees for best dramatic film include Marriage Story, which clinched a whopping six nominations overall. Other nominations for Noah Baumbach‘s story of a couple in the midst of divorce proceedings include best screenplay, best original score (Randy Newman), best supporting actress (Laura Dern), best actor (Adam Driver), and best actress (Scarlett Johansson).

Adam Driver & Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story; Photo from Screen Rant

Other cinematic heavyweights include Martin Scorsese‘s three-and-a-half-hour epic The Irishman and Quentin Tarantino‘s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, which each received five nominations.

The Irishman tells the story of a truck driver who becomes involved with a Pennsylvania crime family, becomes a mob hitman, and eventually becomes entangled with Jimmy Hoffa. The movie is nominated for best drama, best director, best screenplay (Steve Zaillian), and best supporting actor for both Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. The lack of a best actor nomination for Robert De Niro, however, was one of the most shocking snubs on the list.

Meanwhile, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood explores the efforts of a has-been TV actor and his stunt double to find fame in the 1969 Los Angeles film industry, set against a backdrop that includes the Manson Family murders. Tarantino picked up nods for best director and best screenplay, while Brad Pitt was nominated for best supporting actor, Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for best actor, and the film itself was nominated for best musical or comedy.

Leonardo DiCaprio & Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood; Photo from Screen Rant

As for the television side of things, HBO’s Chernobyl (four nominations), Netflix’s The Crown (four nominations) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge‘s Fleabag (three nominations) were all popular with the voters, but it appears that the final season of Game of Thrones was just as disappointing to the Globes as it was to fans of the show. Kit Harington was the recipient of the show’s only nod.

Besides De Niro, another notable snub was Greta Gerwig‘s absence from the best director category, which makes it the fifth consecutive year without a female director nominee. In fact, despite Little Women‘s rave reviews and 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the film was left out of the best drama category as well. Florence Pugh, who received praise for her role as Amy March, failed to clinch a nomination for best supporting actress.

Will you be tuning into the Golden Globes this year? Which nominations and snubs were you most surprised by?

Disney+ Launches Amid Glitches

After months of heavy advertising, Disney has entered the streaming sphere today with the official launch of Disney+ today. However, not everything was smooth sailing for the entertainment giant. In the early hours of the launch, there were a number of reports and a storm of Twitter complaints citing technical glitches. Users said they were having difficulty logging into and streaming content on the platform. The East Coast appeared to have borne the brunt of most of the technical difficulties, many of which were reported between 7:00 and 8:00 Eastern Time.

Disney+
Photo from Deadline

Now that things are up and running, though, it will be interesting to see how this new platform from such an imposing brand as Disney will affect the business of its competitors, such as Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video. Will customers decide to take on the additional cost of yet another streaming platform while continuing to pay for others, or will they choose to make Disney+ their one and only?

Streaming services were initially introduced and marketed as an improved alternative to cable, but consumers have increasingly complained that it’s impossible to keep up with the sheer growing number of services. If one were to pay for all the existing streaming platforms, the cost would equal or exceed the cost of a cable package. Over the next couple years, I think we’re going to watch customers decide to either return to cable or to stick with just the one or two streaming services that best align with their entertainment preferences.

Dinsey Plus
Photo from Deadline

As for the content on Disney+, the most highly-anticipated show has to be The Mandalorian,Star Wars spinoff about “the travels of a lone bounty hunter in the outer reaches of the galaxy, far from the authority of the New Republic.” In particular, been atwitter with buzz over the adorable (and highly meme-able) Baby Yoda.

In addition to original content, Disney+ will obviously also feature Disney’s massive nostalgic catalog that will no doubt serve to entice young and old alike. There are sure to be plenty of diehard Marvel fans binging the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, which is another major draw for the platform.

Disney has an undeniably tight grip on the film, TV and entertainment industry. Today’s step will almost certainly improve that prowess, but how will the multitudes of other streaming services stand to compete against a company with so much intellectual property? Only time will tell.

Disney Teams with Geena Davis To Check Scripts for Bias Using AI

Last week, at New Zealand’s Power of Inclusion Summit, Oscar-winner Geena Davis announced her Institute on Gender in Media will partner with Disney to use a new AI tool to help “spell check” its scripts for potential bias. The tool, called GD-IQ: Spell Check for Bias, helps identify opportunities for filmmakers to increase representation by women and girls as well as other underrepresented groups in movie scripts. (GD-IQ stands for Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient, if you’re wondering.) 

In the closing keynote of the summit, Davis said, “I’m very proud to announce we have a brand new partnership with Walt Disney Studios using Spell Check for Bias. They are our pilot partners and we’re going to collaborate with Disney over the next year using this tool to help their decision-making, identify opportunities to increase diversity and inclusion in the manuscripts that they receive. We’re very excited about the possibilities with this new technology and we encourage everybody to get in touch with us and give it a try.”

The Spell Check for Bias tool uses technology developed at the University of Southern California to scan scripts and identify opportunities for inclusion. The tool can determine how the characters’ gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability status, and other characteristics that are underrepresented on film stack up to real-world population metrics. It can also provide data on how many speaking lines each group has, the sophistication of the language each uses, and social hierarchy of the characters.

Geena Davis poses with Minnie Mouse in front of Cinderella’s castle; Photo from Screen Rant

Davis made it clear that her goal is not to “shame and blame” well-meaning screenwriters, but rather to uncover potential opportunities to increase audience exposure to underrepresented groups. Davis has been an ardent advocate for inclusivity in film, specifically for female representation. In 2004, she started the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. The institute’s mission is to work with the entertainment industry to “engage, educate and influence the creation of gender balanced onscreen portrayals, reducing harmful stereotypes and creating an abundance of unique and intersectional female characters in entertainment targeting children 11 and under.”  

In her keynote, Davis went on to say, “There’s one category of gross gender inequality where the underrepresentation of women can be fixed absolutely overnight — and it’s onscreen. The very next project somebody makes — the next movie, TV show — can be gender-balanced. We can make this change happen very fast. In the time it takes to create a new show or a new film, we can present a whole new vision of the future. Yes, there are woefully few female CEOs in the world, but half of them can be female onscreen immediately. How are we possibly going to get the number of women and girls interested in STEM careers that we need for science, technology, engineering and math? There can be droves of women in STEM careers now on TV and in movies, and then it will happen in real life.”

“In the Tall Grass” Premiers at Austin’s Fantastic Fest

The screen version of the 2012 novella In the Tall Grass by Stephen King and his son (Joe Hill) debuted at Austin’s Fantastic Fest last week to rapt audiences. The novella is the third work of King’s to get the big-screen treatment in 2019, making it a memorable year for his massive fanbase. 

The film kicks off with two siblings, Becky (played by Laysla De Oliveira) and Cal (Avery Whitted), on a road trip to California. The trip takes a turn as they pull over near a tall, grassy field in Kansas when Becky, who is pregnant, suffers a bout of nausea. When they hear the cries of a boy coming from the grass, Becky and Cal follow them, unknowingly embarking on a horrific venture.   

Laysla De Oliveira in the tall grass; Photo from Screen Rant

Vincenzo Natali, who directed In the Tall Grass and wrote the screenplay, is also responsible for 1997’s cult classic, sci-fi thriller Cube. In an interview with SyFy Wire, Natali talked about the challenges of working in this single-location set. “There was a lot of horticultural R&D involved in this,” said Natali. “The grass itself is an organism that we can’t control, but we had to schedule the movie around the optimal period to shoot in it. It obtains a certain height, but then after that it starts to brown and flower and do all kinds of things we don’t want. So we had this window and the whole production had to be built around this very specific time that was based on hearsay. We were basically just listening to the farmer.”

In terms of direction, Natali took the lead from King: “We begin the movie much like Stephen King writes, where you feel like this is a real place with real people that we can relate to, and then we go down the river and it’s going to get weirder and weirder and weirder, until by the end it’s utterly psychedelic. That was obviously part of the visual design and the fun of it.”

The cast of In the Tall Grass; Photo from Screen Rant

In the Tall Grass comes to Netflix on October 4. 

“Good Boys” Breaks Record in Opening Weekend

Good Boys had a stellar opening weekend, bringing in $21.4 million and blowing its $11 to $12 million projection out of the water. It’s also the first R-rated comedy to reach the coveted #1 spot in the charts since 2016’s The Boss.

The movie stars three seasoned young actors Jacob Tremblay (Max), Keith L. Williams (Lucas), and Brady Noon (Thor) as the “good boys.” Delighted audiences get to laugh along as these sixth-graders skip school to embark on mission (chock full of hijinks, of course). Over the course of their hooky day, the boys find themselves (accidentally) in possession of narcotics and being chased by girls. The sometimes-raunchy, sometimes-sweet comedy is a modern coming-of-age tale audiences are loving. Rotten Tomatoes’ audience score is sitting at 86%, with its Tomatometer at 79%.

The boys of Good Boys; Screen Rant    

The movie was directed and co-written by Gene Stupnitsky, known for his writing and producing credits on The Office and 2011’s Bad Teacher. Lee Eisenberg co-wrote the script with Stupnitsky and was also a producer on the film. 

In a review for rogerebert.com, film critic Christy Lemire praised the movie’s portrayal of adolescence, saying, “It’s a time in your life that sucks no matter who or where you are—you’re not a kid anymore and you’re not yet a teenager, but you are a jumble of confusing hormones. Stupnitsky and Eisenberg have created a trio of distinct characters to navigate this minefield, and the actors playing them bring them refreshingly to life.” 

Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, and Brady Noon in Good Boys; Screen Rant

Heavy hitters Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and James Weaver rounded out the production team. Executive producers included John Powers Middleton, Jonah Hill, Nathan Kahane, and Josh Fagan. What will this power team produce next?

Awkwafina Shines in “The Farewell”

Following a successful film festival run, writer and director Lulu Wang’s new movie The Farewell opened in select theaters earlier this month. The movie is based on real events from Wang’s life (or, more accurately, “based on an actual lie” as we’re told in the first frames of the film). 

The story focuses on Wang’s relationship with her family after her grandmother (Nai Nai) is diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer. In keeping with Chinese tradition, the family keeps the diagnosis from Nai Nai to help preserve her quality of life. As Wang’s mom character tells her daughter, Billi (played by Awkwafina), at one point early in the film, “People don’t die of cancer—they die of the fear.” (If the premise of the movie sounds familiar, it may be because Wang’s story was featured on This American Life in 2016.) 

Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen in The Farewell; Screen Rant

Following her breakthrough roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight, critics are raving about Awkwafina’s performance in The Farewell. The New York Post proclaimed, “Awkwafina has gone from rapper to comedic powerhouse, and now, most powerfully, to indie darling in ‘The Farewell.’ It’s one of the year’s sweetest films.” 

First-time actress Zhao Shuzhen, who plays Nai Nai, was another bright spot in the dramedy. Awkwafina took to Twitter to praise her performance and thank her for her mentorship, “This amazing woman’s name is Zhao Shuzhen, but I call her Teacher Zhao. Her performance in @thefarewell is beyond incredible, and working with her was a privilege and an honor. Our movie is out today, and go see it for our incredible ensemble, helmed by the GOAT @thumbelulu.”

The cast of The Farewell; Screen Rant

Really, though: Is there anything Awkwafina can’t do? It doesn’t sound like she’s planning on slowing down anytime soon. With several films and TV shows in post-production, we’ll be seeing a lot more of Awkwafina’s brilliant range of talent in 2019 and 2020. Jumanji: The Next Level, Breaking News in Yuba County, and The Spongebob Movie: It’s a Wonderful Sponge are just a few of her next sure-to-be-hits.