Some have complained that Sundance 2018 was a lackluster festival: largely devoid of masterpieces—with few blockbuster sales. I have a different gripe. As always, this year’s fest had some truly excellent films; but for me, Sundance 2018’s greatest conflict was between the political and personal. Most films in the fest were politically charged—many of them so focused on ‘unheard voices’ that other aspects of the art felt forgotten. We’re in an era where simple human stories no longer seem to suffice. Suddenly, bold socio-political content has become both a necessity … and a shortcut up the industry ladder.
Don’t get me wrong: we desperately need change—and this year’s filmmakers are paving the way for both new social norms and for new kinds of films. But this also means that we’re in a transitional period, a changing of the guard. To get to higher moral ground, we’ll have to push hard, to redefine entertainment. And that doesn’t happen without trial and error. For some films, this has meant that artistic invention mattered less than the cause they’re espousing. For others—including some of the films on my list below—this has meant that they’ve been overlooked because they didn’t trumpet a cause. And that’s my gripe: I believe that small, interpersonal stories can hold even more truth—and create even more change—than some heavier-handed political messages. With all that in mind, here are my top 10 picks from Sundance ’18, adjusted for inflation.
Beirut: a foreign diplomacy thriller, set in guess-where, think Bourne Legacy meets Argo. Scribed by Tony Gilroy, directed by Brad Anderson, Beirut is not your typical Sundance premiere, nor is it as action-packed as you might expect, which makes it all the more interesting. The film starts in the ‘70s, then time jumps into the 80’s, after civil war has ravaged Beirut. Jon Hamm stars, likable as ever, playing Mason Skiles (the requisite American diplomat Bond-character). His tortured past has left him jaded; he even has an alcohol problem. Nevertheless, he’s still the best man for the job. Following an abduction of government personnel, he returns to war-torn Beirut to confront his demons and tie up loose ends. However: instead of kung-fu or sharpshooting skills, Hamm’s power is peacemaking … and here, Gilroy’s script is the highlight. It doesn’t miss a beat. In fact, it’s so airtight that your mind will be replaying dialogue from one scene well into the next one.
Beirut warrants repeat viewing—both because it’s so steeped in detail, and because it’s so smart. Not that it’s perfect: the villains are predictably Middle Eastern – and, frankly, humdrum. But even so, by the end of the film, it critiques all sides at play, subverting the ‘white savior’ mentality of American involvement overseas. Again, credit to Gilroy, who wrote the Bourne movies, directed the underrated Bourne Legacy, and came to the rescue of Rogue One for reshoots. He’s a true history nerd, and a writer that comprehends emotional heft. We need more like him in the cinematic sphere.
Carlos Lopes Estrada’s hyper-stylized Sundance opener Blindspotting is an audacious first feature. This semi-autobiographical, hip-hop-laced film was co-written over the past ten years by Hamilton star Daveed Diggs and his creative partner/real life buddy Rafael Casal; both are mixed-race, both star with irresistible chemistry. Diggs plays Collin, who did time for being the wrong race in the wrong place at the wrong time. Set in a grossly gentrified Oakland during Collin’s last three days of probation, he is treading on eggshells—trying desperately to contain his hotheaded best friend (Casal).
The film swivels its cannons on multiple hot button topics: race, police brutality, toxic masculinity, gentrification, cultural appropriation. But even more interesting than its themes is how boldly it chooses to convey them. The film’s look is sleek: part Kubrickian controlled-camera, part Edgar Wright kinesis, part Kendrick Lamar music video. Particularly memorable are the inventive dream sequences, including a courtroom rap battle and a play-by-play narration of a bar fight, both hilarious and disturbing. In its final third, Blindspotting loses momentum—especially because of a dubious twist—but ultimately it’s a strong early entry in 2018’s film lineup. You’ve gotta give Estrada, Diggs, Casal & Co props for their balls-to-the-walls take on survival: a daring attempt like this is bound to have uneven moments.
#8. MADELINE’S MADELINE
Our takeaway depends on how much we open our emotions and imagination to the poetry offered onscreen—and our assumptions are challenged. Decker’s film is not only a fascinating piece of art for intellectual viewers, but a positive exploration of the too-often stigmatized world of mental illness. As we follow Madeline—and ultimately become her—we realize that while she thinks differently, her feelings are completely normal. Just when we think our heroine is non compos mentis, she shifts into an insightful comment: “Are you insecure? I am. That’s why I want you to like me so much.” It’s a story that belongs to everybody in the room. Smarter-than- your-average experimental film, Madeline’s Madeline knows how far it can carry its ideas, and is mercifully short. This film is sick, in the good way.
#7. JULIET, NAKED
No one does offbeat family drama better than Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa—and no one pieces together the rom-com puzzle better than Judd Apatow. Juliet, Naked excels on both fronts. People expecting a Big Sick follow-up may be disappointed; while Juliet Naked possesses similar levels of personal depth, it takes a more eccentric direction with a touch more gravitas. But there’s still plenty to laugh at: adapted from a Nick Hornby novel, helmed by Jesse Peretz (Our Idiot Brother), this film dives headfirst into a Bermuda love triangle of interpersonal chaos and hilarity. Anna (Rose Byrne) and Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) have a tedious relationship; she longs for excitement, he obsesses over his fansite honoring one-time rockstar Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). When Anna leaves an online review lambasting Crowe’s new album to spite Duncan, Crowe inserts himself into their lives.
Like any real love story, Juliet, Naked is complicated: not in terms of its plot, but emotionally. The three leads are pitch perfect, melding silliness with believable depth of character. No one here is the ‘hero,’ no one here is ‘right.’ It’s not a question of who grows up or who saves the day; it’s more about how we choose to react to life. There’s a good deal of drama, yet the film stays light-footed—and the longer we watch, the less it feels like a movie. Instead, it feels like a life that we’re actually living: a juicy human story with universal appeal. If Juliet, Naked flies under the radar, it’s because it asks so little of its audience—and offers so much.
Aneesh Chaganty’s absorbing first-feature Search took home three awards at Sundance ‘18. Search follows a desperate father’s hunt for his missing daughter—set entirely on computer screens. The film is a technical tour-de-force. In order to get a high-res image, Chaganty’s team painstakingly animated the onscreen-onscreen action almost entirely from scratch. Even more impressive is how Chaganty managed to ground high-concept voyeurism in a story we care about. For 101 intense minutes, he uses tech to immerse us in his character’s lives: a father’s fumbled social media log-ins; texts messages nearly-sent; facebook ‘friends’ who aren’t really friends; folders of neglected videos and photos; a fight captured on YouTube, peppered with mean-spirited comments. His film is both compelling and cautionary—a warning that our tech dependence disconnects more than it connects. It’s also a film full of promise: this wildly inventive young director will surely surprise us in years to come.
#5. EIGHTH GRADE
In hyphenate-comedian Bo Burnham’s resonant directorial debut, he takes us into the headspace of Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), a 13-year old girl in her final week of Middle School: that unforgettable gauntlet of yearbook superlatives, awkward social functions and the dreaded high school Shadow Day. Previously unknown aside from her voice acting in the Despicable Me series, Fisher is a star-in- the-making. A big part of the film’s achievement lies in its specificity: the attention given to online posturing; the dopamine rush of sending the perfect Snapchat; the clueless arrogance of school administrators. Even the more stylized moments ring true: a pool party plays like a horror movie, but feels like cinéma vérité.
Kayla’s classmates are a justified cause for terror—but when her middle school crush arrives, thundering synth palpitations herald his entrance. Anna Meredith’s crazy, synth-heavy soundtrack is also worthy of note. Rooted somewhere between a video game and Giorgio Moroder, it turns Kayla’s trauma into an operatic journey. But this film also has subtlety: like Kayla’s emotions, it’s full of tonal shifts—and that makes for a great roller-coaster. Burnham excels at making us think something will go wrong, then surprising us with a laugh. A middle-school cross between Lady Bird and Superbad, this is a Sundance standout—and a promise of more great work to come from Burnham.
One of Sundance 2018’s biggest breakouts was a treasure hidden in the ‘Midnight’ section: first-time feature director Ari Aster’s Hereditary. Think The Shining meets Rosemary’s Baby meets The Exorcist meets Hereditary. And yes, Hereditary can be included in the “new wave” of socially-conscious horror flicks. The Grahams are a bafflingly dysfunctional family, yet somehow their foibles feel real. Annie (Toni Collette) is the overwrought matriarch, her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is the voice of reason, Peter (Alex Wolf of the Naked Brothers band) is the misunderstood teen, and Charlie (Broadway’s Milly Shapiro) the Damien-esque younger sister. Their source of horror comes from within their own minds. Troubled relationships with the people we don’t get to choose. Misunderstood actions and reactions.
Anxiety, grief, blame—all relatable feelings, amplified to a fever-pitch for a truly unsettling experience. Horror filmmakers, take note: nearly everything that horror has ever failed at, Hereditary gets right. It excels in horror-foreplay. It starts off steady, then teases, then leaves you wanting more. Prepare to be manipulated. Instead of prioritizing sudden jump-scares, this film will disturb you with what it doesn’t show: an off-screen blood-curdling scream; a horrified, extended reaction shot; a singular sound that inspires some of the biggest terrors in the film. Even better, these moments are subtle. None of them feel cheap—and they’re hard to resist. Helping you ‘get there’ is an unnerving, ambient score with bumping baselines and sleek sound design, plus an impressive set design: a creepy mansion filled with even creepier miniature mansions and mini-figures. See it on a big screen.
Over the past nine years, writer/director Sebastian Silva has completed his checklist, by premiering a film in all five categories of the Sundance narrative feature program. On top of that, this year’s TYREL is among his most mature and interesting films to date. Enter Tyler (Mudbound’s Jason Mitchell), a black 20-something urbanite whose real name you may well confuse with the film’s title. (Tyrel. Tyler. Get it?) Tyler ends up celebrating the birthday of a friend-of- a-friend in a remote Catskills cabin … where, as it turns out, he’s the only black dude. Cue comparisons to Get Out. However: while TYREL would make an excellent companion piece to Get Out, it couldn’t be more different.
Ever the provocateur, Silva toys with our expectations, all while crafting an elegantly authentic portrait of toxic masculinity. The onscreen relationships are genuinely funny and, at times, genuinely disturbing. Tensions build and dissipate like tides while Silva’s camera follows the group through a mesmerizing weekend of debauchery. Like a medical check-list for a really sick patient, TYREL holds up a mirror to our cultural wounds, and accomplishes more with subtlety and simplicity than most issue-driven films. Mitchell in particular gives us an accurate portrait of a millennial outsider, caught between trying to fit in and trying to figure out his own identity. Not to mention, it’s full of fun and surprises.
#2. WHAT THEY HAD
In a year where so many films feel politically charged, What They Had is refreshingly personal. At first glance, this tragicomic Alzheimer’s story by first-time director Elizabeth Chomko may seem basic; but as you penetrate the layers, you find finely rendered sensitivity. Shamefully overlooked by the Sundance audience because of its off-center placement in the fest’s ‘Premieres’ section (out-of- competition because it found distribution last spring), this award-worthy film will be released in March 2018 by Bleecker Street.
It begins with an unexpected walk in a snowstorm. The mother (Blythe Danner) has Alzheimer’s; her son (Michael Shannon) and daughter (Hillary Swank, who also produced) both want to send their mom to a home; their father (Robert Forster) rejects the idea, and will break before he bends. This film is both oddball … and incredibly moving. Chomko—who broke into tears when introducing the film’s premiere—tells a tonally balanced, deeply personal story. The family’s dysfunction is at once painful and riotous. Blythe Danner’s behavior in particular is cause for many laughs—but within seconds, she also brings us to tears. Michael Shannon, who sometimes verges on self-parody, showcases a range we haven’t seen since Take Shelter—or maybe ever. His offbeat humor and intimidating presence are offset by unexpected vulnerability; his scenes with Robert Forster drive the film forward. Kudos to the producers at Bona Fide (Little Miss Sunshine; Nebraska; Juliet, Naked—see above) who championed this Nicholl-winning script and first-time female director.
#1. MINDING THE GAP
Bing Liu’s first feature Minding The Gap is one of Sundance 2018’s best films, and winner of a Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking. This film is a doc, and a breakthrough, indeed. As director, DP, co-star and co-editor, Liu explores the down-and- out world he shares with his two best friends: all three have tumultuous family lives; all three cope by skateboarding. This is vérité, with artistic intentions: an intuitive mix of motion and emotion.
Liu’s elegant, gliding camerawork is worthy of Thrasher Magazine; his thoughtful use of montage (with co-editor Joshua Altman) manipulates subtext and tone. He makes funny moments disturbing, he fills darkness with light—and while he shifts seamlessly between life in the streets and family drama, we’re glued to our seats. It also helps that Liu knows his characters better than most fiction screenwriters: he coaxes, he captures—and even shares his own vulnerability by filming himself while he interviews his mom. She reveals details about his traumatic childhood; it turns into more of a gut-punch than if he told us himself. The result? Characters whom you care about more than any fictional trio. By the end of the film, you’re so attached that you want a sequel. Especially because one of the three friends has become an abuser himself. And the message? Skateboarding pun aside, the film’s title Minding The Gap draws attention to the generational divide between abusers and abused. The hope is that these adults can break the cycle.