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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.

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.


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. 

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