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20 Best Movies and Performances at Sundance 2018

From a sexual-abuse survivor’s tale to a bone-chilling ghost story, broad social satires to free-form docs, the highlights of this year’s fest

Best Movies and Performances at Sundance 2018

The 20 best movies and performances of Sundance 2018 – from a sexual-abuse survivor's tale to a broad social satire and bone-chilling ghost story.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Every year, film fanatics – “film addicts” may be a more accurate phrase – head to Utah to see what Robert Redford, Sundance festival director John Cooper and his eclectic team of programmers, the alumni of the Sundance Institute’s workshops/programs, returning veteran filmmakers and any number of fresh new voices have concocted in the name of “independent” movies. (The word has taken on too many different meanings to count when it comes to cinema – yet you can find almost every good, bad and ugly variation of it at the festival.) And every year, we leave Park City having seen something that’s tickled our fancy, blown our mind, rocked our world. 

It was an odd lineup for Sundance 2018, if not a slightly off one; you couldn’t run into folks in screening rooms or shuffling down Main Street or hanging out in the Yarrow Hotel Bar – change the name all you want, people, we’re still calling it the Yarrow Hotel Bar – without someone commenting on how it was a slightly weak year. This was the type of fest where folks talked more about the new-ish distribution company Neon buying the Heathers-meets-The Purge mash-up Assassination Nation for $10 million rather than passionately discuss the quality of the movie itself. (Let’s just say that description above isn’t quite as good as it sounds.) That’s also a tradition, of course – the WTF-really?! deal – but the amount of vigorous shrugging that greeted the “what have you seen you’ve really liked” question felt like it had increased exponentially. Chiropractors, hopefully, are standing by.

That said, we most definitely saw things we loved – a satire of our curdled society here, an experimental doc there, an acting turn from an old hand or a new face that thrilled us to no end. Here are 20 movies and performances from this year’s Sundance that made the trek through rain, snow, sleet and more snow worthwhile. (Horror fans, wait until you see Hereditary – you are in for one hell of a treat.) All of them are worth checking out when they come to a screen near you. All of them prove that this festival is still a great place to sit in the dark.

‘Bisbee ’17’

On July 12th, 1917, the residents of Bisbee, Arizona (“the Queen of the Copper Camps,” per an opening disclaimer) rounded up a number of striking miners, loaded them on to a train and then left these unwilling passengers to die in the desert. The fact that many of the victims of what became known as “the Bisbee Deportation” were Mexican workers and European immigrants did not escape the attention of documentarian Robert Greene (Kate Plays Christine) – or that 2017 would be the centennial anniversary of the incident. So he ventured into town, interviewed contemporary residents about this historical atrocity and then asked them to participate in a dramatic recreation. With musical numbers. A haunting, surreal meditation on collective memory, social injustice and that notion about us being done with the past … but the past not being done with us.

Benjamin Dickey, ‘Blaze’

Director/co-writer Ethan Hawke’s biopic on the late, great songwriter Blaze Foley is blessed with a central performance by Little Rock singer and guitarist Benjamin Dickey, who lends this outlaw-country wildman and Townes Van Zandt drinking buddy an aura of tarnished-halo saintliness. It isn’t just that he has great pipes and can sing the hell out of Foley’s tunes (his rendition of “If I Could Only Fly” is heartbreaking); more importantly, Dickey knows how to give this bearded bear of a man both what-me-worry charm and sodden melancholy, the kind that says volumes about the man who made that music – his Foley is equal parts heart, soul and cirrhotic liver.

‘Eighth Grade’

To paraphrase a smarter writer: We have seen the future of coming-of-age films, and its name is Eighth Grade. Stand-up comic Bo Burnham’s directorial debut is so attuned to the life of its 13-year-old heroine Kayla (Elsie Fisher, a major find) and her social-mediafied, status-obsessed middle school world that it feels like a documentary at moments; you don’t have to be a preteen or the parent of one to recognize the misfit anxiety, the giddiness behind a mall hangout, the need to connect and the sense of being stuck in the middle of purgatory (or worse, puberty). No other Sundance movie genuinely moved us as much as this painfully authentic Tales of an Eighth-Grade Nothing, or felt more graceful in the way it cracked us up one second and made us tear up the next. And while the underrated Josh Hamilton (see also: his solid supporting work in Blaze) is gifted with a great paternal speech, this is Fisher’s show from the second she appears onscreen, recording a self-help YouTube video that brims with desperation. It’s great – or to quote Kayla, it’s 100-percent “Gucci!”

Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, ‘Blindspotting’

Yes, this movie about two guys – an ex-con named Collin and his Caucasian wannabe tough-guy best friend Miles – getting by on the mean gentrified streets of Oakland is rough, slightly unfocused and tries to take on too much at once. But damned if the two men at the center of this dramedy, Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, aren’t one of the funniest comic duos in ages. The former is, of course, the man who gave Jefferson his strut and flow in the original cast of Hamilton; the latter is a Bay Area poet. These longtime friends not only co-wrote and co-produced this decades-in-the-making labor of love, they play off each other in a way that brings to mind old-school tag-teaming screen comedians. (The film actually works better if you think of it as a NorCal Hope & Crosby Road movie.) Someone needs to find them a franchise ASAP.

‘The Guilty’

How much suspense can you wring out of one person manning the phones in a 911-emergency station? Danish filmmaker Gustav Möller has your answer: as much as your frayed nerves can stand and then some. A cop (Jakob Cedergren) who’s been busted down to desk duty takes a call from a woman who is apparently in the process of being abducted; he then tries to marshal forces in the outside world via his headset to save her. It’s safe to say there’s a twist involved. It’s also accurate to say that the movie revels in having a straight-up B-movie plot that, in the hands of this first-time feature director and his lead, becomes a pitch-perfect example of how to get more out of less. 

Andrea Riseborough, ‘Nancy’

The British actress Andrea Riseborough was everywhere this year at Sundance, showing up to the fest with no less than four films. (She was still a close second to Ann Dowd, who – and we need to double-check our math on this – was in roughly six million movies playing in the 2018 lineup.) It was Christina Choe’s dramatic-competition entry, however, that gave her the meatiest role: a New Jersey woman who believes she may be the long-lost abductee daughter of a well-to-do couple (J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi). We’re never sure whether she’s conning these two folks or genuinely thinks/hopes she is their offspring, given her own contentious upbringing; she may be a pathological liar, a person who thinks she’s helping them get over their decades-long loss or just another lost soul in search of kindness. And it’s to Riseborough’s credit that no concrete answer ever emerges; her performance consistently makes you rethink your opinion of her as things progress. All of that, and she still hits every emotional beat like a champ. Beyond impressive.

‘Hal’

Part cradle-to-grave profile and part cine-icon reclamation, Amy Scott’s look at the life and times of director Hal Ashby makes a case for the man behind such classics as Harold and Maude, Bound for Glory and Being There being a worthy New Hollywood pantheon member next to Scorsese, Coppola et al. You get loads of clips (between this and the fest’s stellar Jane Fonda doc, you’ll have technically rewatched all of Coming Home after viewing both) and talking-head interviews, along with a few read-aloud letters that brim with eloquence and bile. But mostly, you get to see how this maverick gave us one of the most incredible runs of Seventies masterpieces yet remains slightly eclipsed by his highly praised peers. Be prepared to start binging his movies the minute the credits of this doc stop rolling.

Dominique Fishback and Tatum Marilyn Hall, ‘Night Comes On’

18-year-old Angel has just been released from prison, in search of her ex-con dad so she can make him pay for murdering her mom; her 11-year-old sister, Abby, has been waiting for her sibling to rescue her from endless foster-care hell. Actress-turned-director Jordana Spiro’s drama starts out as a revenge story and turns into a road movie – and it’s impossible to emphasize how much these two young performers bring to the table here. The Deuce‘s Dominque Fishback plays the older girl as cagey and cautious, yet hellbent on caring for her even as she’s determined to settle an age-old score; Tatum Marilyn Hall turns the tween into a tough cookie who isn’t afraid to call Angel out on her shit. The rapport between the two of them, especially when they hit the pause button and spend a day at the beach together, couldn’t feel more heartfelt, or right on.

‘Hale County This Morning, This Evening’

Working as a coach for a youth basketball league in Hale County, Alabama, filmmaker RaMell Ross brought his camera along to document what he saw: births, burials, babies running around, teens looking to the future, folks going to games and church on Sunday, a community going about their business. The result is a free-form exploration of life in the region’s Black Belt, in which snippets of small everyday moments and occasional callbacks to the past – a drive by an antebellum house’s porch here, a clip featuring a silent movie actor in burnt-cork blackface there – create a mosaic of Southern life that feels quietly revelatory. It’s a hell of an achievement.

Kayli Carter, ‘Private Life’

After an 11-year absence from the screen, writer-director Tamara Jenkins follows up 2007’s The Savages with the story of a West Village couple (Paul Giamatti and Kathyrn Hahn) experiencing a series of late-act fertility fails. Both are wonderful per usual, but the person you should keep your eye on Kaylis Carter, the twentysomething actor who plays the twosome’s niece. Best known as Sadie Rose from Netflix’s Western series Godless, Carter plays this college dropout as one part entitled spoiled kid, one part wide-eyed creative type basking in the big city and several parts headfirst crusader high on her own righteousness. She thinks nothing of blithely reminding her hosts of their age and “complimenting” then on choosing boho struggling over mainstream riches. And when her character offers to be an egg donor for Hahn, Carter adds a desperate-to-please element into the mix that casually breaks your heart.

‘Hereditary’

It’s too soon to say whether director Ari Aster’s story of a family mourning the recent death of a grandmother – which leads to a series of strange, seemingly unconnected happenings and possible specter sightings – is the single scariest horror movie of the year. What we will say is this: This portrait of blood-relative dysfunction is chilling to the extreme; it requires a second viewing to see just how gracefully the film scatters the seeds of what’s really going on throughout; Toni Collette gives a performance that’s canon-worthy whether you’re talking about moms losing their minds inside or outside of the genre; you can’t believe that someone’s first feature-length film is this controlled, self-assured and so adept at fucking with your head; and the climax references its top-tier horror-movie ancestors without ever coming off as a rip-off. The colder you go into this gem, the better. Just be prepared to leave shaken.

Laura Dern, ‘The Tale’

Arguably the most buzzed about and debated movie of this year’s fest, Jennifer Fox’s semi-autobiograhical recounting of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of an adult – as filtered through an old, fragmented short story and some marquee-name actors – is one tough watch. (Hereditary was the most intense horror film we saw at the fest; this drama was easily the most horrific.) Laura Dern is a national treasure, as we’ve said before, and she shares an almost equal amount of screen time with Isabell Nélisse, who plays the 13-year-old version of Jennifer. But it’s the Blue Velvet-to-Big Little Lies etc. actress who is our guide through this maze of shifting memories and incriminating revelations, and as the adult version of the filmmaker, she’s the one who charts a map of denial, dread, dawning realization and, eventually, pure rage. 

‘Leave No Trace’

Nobody makes movies like Debra Granik – passionate, humanistic tales of outsiders, outcasts and down-and-outers struggling to get by or survive tough situations in insular communities. And her latest, which watches as a traumatized vet (Ben Foster) and his teen daughter (newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) live off the grid and on the sly in a public park in Oregon, demonstrates what a deft touch she has with actors. When the cops bust them, the duo are given a chance to work on a farm for room and board. Soon, they’re on the run again, in search of a new Garden of Eden. The single father + daughter dynamic was a recurring theme in this year’s Sundance – see also: Eighth Grade, Hearts Beat Loud – but Granik’s movie foregrounds how that filial bond both sustains these two and ultimately suffocates any attempt at stability. And with any luck, this movie will do for the extraordinary McKenzie what the director’s Winter’s Bone did for Jennifer Lawrence.

Rob Pattinson, ‘Damsel’

He’s done Brooklyn intense, jungle-tortured, postmodern ennui and postapocalyptic feral – now Robert Pattinson adds manifest-destiny dizzy and disturbed to his list of post-Twilight career-rehab specialities. A frontier suitor traveling West to rescue his lady love (Mia Wasikowska) from no-goodniks, the star initially lends Nathan and David Zellner’s warped horse opera a mock-heroic edge – he’s like Daffy Duck with a six-shooter, a miniature pony and a purpose. Then we start to wonder if this lovelorn dork with the badly parted hair is telling his traveling companion everything, and that’s when Pattinson really lets you see the cracks in this knight’s not-so-shining armor. 

‘Sorry to Bother You’

The debut feature from the Coup co-founder/Bay Area hip-hop legend Boots Riley charts the rise of a struggling telemarketer (Atlanta MVP Lakeith Stanfield) who suddenly finds himself blessed with a magically Caucasian over-the-phone salesman voice. Success vs. selling out debates follow, as do takedowns of corporate exploitation, billionaire bros, mass media, wage-slave labor, the celebrity co-opting of activists, racial strife, pretentious performance art, our viral age and anything else that wanders in to the movie’s crosshairs. If you took the scathing political satire of Putney Swope and filtered it through a series of rap album skits, it would look something like this – though it wouldn’t be anywhere near as funny as the fantastical, extended middle finger that Riley has come up with here. This is comedy-as-commentary that’s messy, mad as hell and all over the place, which somehow makes it the perfect fuck-you for our current moment.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, ‘The Kindergarten Teacher’

The thought of an American remake of a near-perfect 2014 Israeli movie about a teacher and her gifted student feels, at best, superfluous – until you see what Maggie Gyllenhaal can do with the former role. A frustrated writer and somewhat stifled wife and mother, her educator suddenly discovers that there’s a preternaturally poetic prodigy in her midst. First, she encourages the boy’s writing while passing his work off as her own. Slowly, she begins view him as goose laying golden eggs of free verse … and we start to realize we’re dealing with an unhealthy anti-heroine. Watch Gyllenhaal channel joy and jealousy at having found her own little Ezra Pound – which then transforms into protectiveness, possessiveness and eventually something like psychosis – you can’t imagine anybody else mining the part this deeply without relying on easy emotional pressure points. It’s the most impressive work she’s ever done, and yes, we’re counting her recent turns in HBO’s The Deuce and the miniseries The Honorable Woman.

‘Tyrel’

Sebastian Silva’s story of a young black man (Mudbound‘s Jason Mitchell) trying and failing to fit in during a guys weekend in the Catskills is a masterclass in racial alienation – the drunken dude trip reimagined as the Sunken Place. It’s not even like the filmmaker stacks the deck with nothing but closet racists and alt-righters; one gentleman is out and proud, another is Argentinian and the assembled visitors are all basically your run-of-the-mill bros. (Though Get Out‘s Caleb Landry Jones is present and accounted for in full twitchy-creepy mode, because of course.) But that only emphasizes the fact it doesn’t take burning crosses to make a person of color feel unwelcome in everyday situations, especially when masculinity and a benign sense of cultural imperialism comes into play. Who knew that singing along to R.E.M.’s “Stand” could be so microaggressive? And we apologize for sounding like a broken record, but Mitchell once again proves why he should be considered one of the best actors of his generation. This man is the real deal.

Jason Mantzoukas, ‘The Long Dumb Road’

You’ve seen Jason Mantzoukas in a million small, scene-stealing parts, from Neighbors to The Good Place (“Derek!”) – and this road movie finally gives the Greek-American UCB alumnus finally gets the opportunity to stretch out. Playing a mechanic who hitches a ride with a photographer (The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s Tony Revolori) heading to Los Angeles, the comedian deploys a tempered version of his patented enthusiastic douche-bro act; his gleeful response to discovering that there are more Fast and Furious than just Tokyo Drift (“And the Rock is in them too? The wrestler?!?”) is priceless. But he also gets a chance to be crushed over an old romance, regretful about his life decisions, protectively big brother-ish and even suggestively dangerous. We’ve always thought Mantzoukas could do more than just play alpha cluelessness and rock a first-rate beard. Now we have proof.