Auteurs and rising stars: Films from 2020’s most promising directors

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

Now that 2019 is well in the rearview and growing faint as we move forward, it is time to get psyched about the rest of 2020 has in store for us. After a year that saw Disney strangle the box office market with seven out of the top nine highest-grossing films (yes, I’m counting SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME), the studio looks to be taking it easy. And by easy, I mean not accounting for 40% of the total U.S. box office before it came time to go door-to-door and ask, “Trick or treat?” Yeah, that’s how dominant Disney was in 2019. 

Rather than drum up anticipation for 2020’s crop of superhero movies (as if you need me to promote how rad it’s going to be to see Wonder Woman in the ‘80s), or sequels (yay, a ninth FAST & FURIOUS movie!), or remakes (OK, I am curious to see what becomes of DUNE), here are some selections where established auteurs, rising talents, and new avenues are the overriding themes:

LOST GIRLS (Netflix)
March 13 (Premiered at Sundance)

Liz Garbus, the filmmaker behind the wonderful documentary WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?, makes the transition to narratives with LOST GIRLS, a drama where a mother starts investigating her own daughter’s disappearance after inaction by Long Island police. Her search brings attention to over a dozen murdered sex workers. 

Considering Garbus’s involvement with this project, I suspect this won’t be a by-the-numbers procedural. Plus, the casting of rising actress Thomasin Mackenzie (JOJO RABBIT) and Amy Ryan adds to my interest.  

BAD HAIR
TBA (Premiered at Sundance)

Now how’s this premise: It’s 1989, and a woman gets a weave to help her image as she aspires to be a music television VJ. However, her new weave starts to derail her career aspirations because it has a mind of its own! Since BAD HAIR is from Justin Simeon (of DEAR WHITE PEOPLE fame), expect a high concept with a satirical edge when it comes to appearance and success. 

The comedy stars Michelle Hurd along with Vanessa Williams, Laverne Cox, Blair Underwood, and Jay Pharoah.

Could one of these be this year’s THE FAREWELL?

‘TIGERTAIL.’ Courtesy Photo.

MINARI (A24) and TIGERTAIL (Netflix)
TBA (TIGERTAIL rumored to release in March)

The success of Lulu Wang’s THE FAREWELL sees A24 trying to strike lightning once again with Lee Isaac Chung’s MINARI. The story involves a Korean family that moves to Arkansas to start a farm in the 1980s. Steven Yeun of THE WALKING DEAD series and BURNING stars. 

From Arkansas to New York, with TIGERTAIL Alan Young (creator of the hit Netflix series MASTER OF NONE) presents a multi-generational tale of one family as it crosses decades and the oceans going from 1950s Taiwan to present-day New York. 

Two new projects from Michael Showalter deal with love and eyelashes

THE LOVEBIRDS (Paramount)
April 3 (Premieres at SXSW)

GAME NIGHT was a surprise comedy about a mystery game that went horribly wrong. Then, we had the recent success of KNIVES OUT and the return of the whodunit. With THE LOVEBIRDS, we’ll get to see how one couple’s relationship can survive after the two become unintentional participants in a strange murder mystery. Kumail Nanjiani reteams with director Michael Showalter (THE BIG SICK) for a comedy that looks to hit that post Spring Break sweet spot for audiences. Along for the laughs are Issa Rae and Anna Camp. 

THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (Searchlight Pictures)
TBA

Later this year, Showalter will return with a docudrama about the rise, fall, and redemption of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. Jessica Chastain is Bakker, with an indelible set of eyelashes. She and her husband, Jim (Andrew Garfield), create the largest religious broadcasting network in the 1970s and ’80s. It’ll be interesting to see Chastain’s portrayal of Tammy Faye and how she handles the televangelist’s eccentric singing.

ANTLERS (Searchlight Pictures)
April 17

When your resume includes films about a washed-up country music star, a brother hellbent on revenge, a notorious gangster, and a revisionist western, I guess the only things left are comedy and horror. Scott Cooper does the latter with ANTLERS. Based on Nick Antosca’s short story “The Quiet Boy,” Cooper’s latest centers on a young boy with a dangerous secret with deadly consequences as a teacher, her brother, and the local sheriff get involved. With Guillermo del Toro producing, consider me intrigued. 

Courtesy of Focus Features.

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (Focus Features)
April 17

If the theatrical trailer is any indication, Emerald Fennell’s first stint behind the camera may help in a career resurgence for its star Carey Mulligan. Great in ensembles but rarely the central character, Mulligan leads PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN as a woman who seeks vengeance against men who meet her. With an intriguing tone and a cast of familiar faces (including Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Molly Shannon, Alison Brie, Adam Brody, Connie Britton, Alfred Molina, Max Greenfield and Clancy Brown), keep this one on your radar.

COVERS (Universal Pictures)
May 8

A love story set in the Los Angeles music industry – OK, that’s not much of a description. But Universal Pictures must see potential in slotting it the weekend after Marvel drops BLACK WIDOW in theaters. It could end up being a modest earner like CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE, or it could be an underseen miss like LONG SHOT. 

Perhaps Dakota Johnson can pull a Kristen Stewart. The further she gets away from red rooms and shades of grey, her career will only get better. Helping her get there in COVERS, we have June Diane Raphael (also from LONG SHOT), Bill Pullman, Eddie Izzard, Ice Cube, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (LUCE, WAVES). 

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (Paramount Pictures)
October 2

Aaron Sorkin knows how to write. Simple as that. From stage plays (A FEW GOOD MEN) to Emmy-award winning shows (THE WEST WING) and Oscar winners (THE SOCIAL NETWORK), Sorkin has done it all. When he decided to take a crack at directing, I had my reservations. But he surprised with MOLLY’S GAME, and he’s looking to do the same this year. His latest at the helm is a docudrama about the seven men who were on trial for their anti-Vietnam War and countercultural protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the subsequent court trial. 

I can’t wait to see how the likes of Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Mark Rylance, and Frank Langella handle the Sorkin dialogue. 

THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD (New Line Cinema) 
October 23

Taylor Sheridan has been a rising talent for some time now. He penned SICARIO and pulled double duty as the writer and director of both HELL OR HIGH WATER and WIND RIVER. His latest, THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD, finds the filmmaker adapting a mystery novel from Michael Koryta. The story revolves around a teen who witnesses a murder that finds himself pursued by a pair of assassins in the Montana wilderness. This project interests me because I am both a fan of Koryta and curious to see what attracted Sheridan to want to adapt as opposed to writing and directing original work. 

Angelina Jolie stars along with the ever-reliable Jon Bernthal, Nicholas Hoult, Aidan Gillen and Tyler Perry. 

Cinematograper Dan Laustsen and Director Guillermo del Toro on the set of ‘THE SHAPE OF WATER’ (2018)

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (Searchlight Pictures)
TBA

Guillermo del Toro remaking a classic film noir? Shut up, and take my money! Noir may be my favorite non-genre genre that cinema has to offer. The look and production design of del Toro’s Oscar-winning THE SHAPE OF WATER was incredible, and I suspect NIGHTMARE ALLEY to have similar treatment. Replace the “Fishman” and janitor with a corrupt con-man and a female psychiatrist to trick people into giving them money, and now we’re cooking. Oh, and it would seem del Toro was able to cast everyone he wanted that wasn’t already committed to appearing in DUNE. 

Seriously, this casting sheet is bananas: Toni Collette, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, Holt McCallany (Netflix’s MINDHUNTER) and Richard Jenkins.

FONZO
TBA

After killing any goodwill he may have had with 20th Century Fox, by publicly acknowledging how bad his FANTASTIC FOUR movie was, director Josh Trank returns with FONZO. Getting away from a bungled Fox/Marvel property and a found footage flick (CHRONICLE), Trank gives us a period crime drama about a notorious gangster in the later stages of his life. Tom Hardy stars as Al Capone after he is released from prison for tax evasion. Capone starts suffering from dementia and is haunted by crime-riddled past. 

Considering Todd Phillips’s success with JOKER, if Hardy delivers a compelling performance as the elder Capone, it could give a much-needed boost for the filmmaker. Joining Hardy in the period drama are Linda Cardellini, Jack Lowden, Noel Fisher, Matt Dillon and Kyle MacLachlan.

PASSING 
TBA

Two years after appearing in Christopher Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE, actress Rebecca Hall had her breakout role in Woody Allen’s VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA. After a strong turn in 2015’s CHRISTINE, the actress takes a crack at directing her first feature. It involves a reunion of two high school friends whose renewed acquaintance ignites a mutual obsession. The film stars Tessa Thompson (CREED, THOR: RAGNAROK) and LOVING’s Ruth Negga. Alexander Skarsgard co-stars. 

With Greta Gerwig’s transition from actress to filmmaker, I am very curious to see if Hall can also find success behind the camera and continue the push for more films written and directed by women. 

THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (Netflix) 
TBA

Speaking of Hall, the man who directed her in CHRISTINE (Antonio Campos) is back with an Appalachian thriller set after the end of World War II in rural southern Ohio and West Virginia. Bill Skarsgard plays a tormented veteran who tends to his cancer-stricken wife (Haley Bennett). Additionally, we have a husband-and-wife team of serial killers (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough) and a preacher running from the law with his crippled virtuoso-guitar-playing sidekick in tow. Oh, and our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man (Tom Holland) grows up and turns to violence. 

The cast also includes Eliza Scanlen (LITTLE WOMEN’s Beth March), Robert Pattinson, Sebastian Stan and Mia Wasikowska. 

NOMADLAND (Searchlight Pictures)
TBA

Also known as the Chloe Zhao 2020 release not named ETERNALS, NOMADLAND gives us Oscar-winner Frances McDormand as a spinster who, after losing everything during the Great Recession, decides to venture through the American West, living as a van-dwelling nomad. You had me at Zhao and McDormand. I am hoping for something akin to Sean Penn’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s INTO THE WILD.

Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Evan Rachel Wood star in ‘KAJILLIONAIRE.’ Courtesy photo.

KAJILLIONAIRE (Annapurna Pictures)
TBA

Bad promotion and money issues notwithstanding, Annapurna Pictures has delivered some of the best films in recent years. Currently, the studio has one title on its release calendar for 2020, and it’s a title that marks Miranda July’s return to directing features in nearly a decade. Having tackled contemporary life with 2005’s ME, YOU, AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, and a change in perspective and testing faith with 2011’s THE FUTURE, now she looks to show what happens to a criminal family when an outsider joins them on a heist. 

KAJILLIONAIRE will likely be one of those idiosyncratic musings of a family in the guise of a heist flick, but I’m game to be swindled by the likes of Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Debra Winger, Da’Vine joy Randolph (breakout star of DOLEMITE IS MY NAME) and Richard Jenkins.

MANK (Netflix)
Fall TBA

For many, CITIZEN KANE is the greatest film ever made. Its director and star, Orson Welles, labeled a genius. But what about Herman J. Mankiewicz – the man who shares credit with writing the film? We’ll find out as David Fincher directs MANK, his first feature since 2014’s GONE GIRL. It’ll be a family affair as the film comes from an old screenplay written by Fincher’s father. Though Erik Messerschmidt is the cinematographer, this will be his first feature as chief photographer. He’ll be in good company, since Fincher’s cult hit, FIGHT CLUB, was also handled by a first-timer. 

Said to be shot in black and white, Gary Oldman stars as Mankiewicz and is joined by Lilly Collins, Amanda Seyfried and Joseph Cross. 

BLONDE
TBA

Can BLONDE finally be the film where filmmaker Andrew Dominik has some success? I am hoping that Dominik’s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ fictional account of Marilyn Monroe will be the ticket. He’s got a talented lead on the rise with Ana de Armas (KNIVES OUT), Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, and Julianne Nicholson, and he’s got more than 700 pages of material to pull from. Hey, if THE IRISHMAN can get more than three hours of screen time, Norma Jeane Baker deserves more than two.

ANNETTE (Amazon Studios)
TBA

I have little information on what ANNETTE will be. All I know is that this will be Leos Carax’s English-language debut, and it involves a stand-up comedian, his opera singer wife, and their two-year-old daughter with a surprising gift. 

Now his last film, HOLY MOTORS, blew me away. Knowing that he’s working with Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, I can only imagine this is going to be some gonzo-style musical like he toyed about in MOTORS. 

‘WENDY.’ Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

Other rising talents and established auteurs that have forthcoming projects:

  • Benh Zeitlin – WENDY (Searchlight)
  • Christopher Nolan – TENET (Warner Bros.) – July 17
  • Edgar Wright – LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (Focus Features) – September 25
  • Kogonada – AFTER YANG (A24)
  • Sofia Coppola – ON THE ROCKS (A24)
  • David Lowery – GREEN KNIGHT (A24)
  • Joel Coen – Macbeth (A24)
  • Taika Waititi – NEXT GOAL WINS (Searchlight)
  • Wes Anderson – The French Dispatch (Searchlight)
  • Charlie Kaufman – I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS (Netflix)
  • Paul Thomas Anderson – UNTITLED PTA PROJECT (Focus Features)
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