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25 Movies We Can’t Wait to See at Sundance 2018

From a doc on Joan Jett to corporate satires, gritty indies and a psycho Nic Cage – our picks for this year’s must-see Sundance titles

25 Movies We Can't Wait to See at Sundance 2018

25 movies we can't wait to see at Sundance 2018 – from docs on Joan Jett and M.I.A. to gritty indies, gross-out comedies and Nic Cage losing his cool.

Mark Weiss/Getty, Sundance, Harry Langdon/Getty

Back in 1978 – just a hair short of 40 years ago, in fact – Robert Redford and a handful of fellow Utah residents decided to start a film festival in Salt Lake City. The focus, they said, would be on American “independent” movies; “what the hell is an independent movie, exactly?” was the reply. There had been a thriving filmmaking underground for decades, as well as various folks who’d made work outside of the studio system. But the idea of the adjective becoming a catch-all term divorced from economics or patronage – something that would also encompass an aesthetic, a sensibility, a community and a dozen different D.I.Y. subgenres, the cinematic equivalent of “college rock” – was not on anybody’s minds. They just wanted to provide a focal point for the free-radical mavericks floating around and a forum for voices that weren’t getting heard in the mainstream. The faith was that if they built it, filmmakers and fanatics would come.

One significant name change, one major locale switch to Park City, dozens of tweaks/additions (brand-name sponsors and other red-carpetbaggers, beefed-up foreign-film sections, “New Frontier” and V.R. sidebars) and several thousand movies later, it’s safe to say that yes, they built it – and yes, four decades later, we’re still coming. When the Sundance Film kicks off its 2018 edition on January 18th, everyone from critics to cinephiles to the celeb-spotting curious descend on the ski-resort town in the hopes of catching the next Reservoir Dogs, or The Blair Witch Project, or Little Miss Sunshine, or Boyhood, or Call Me By Your Name. And by the time the annual event closes up shop on the 28th, there’s a huge chance that we will have seen a smattering of movies that we’ll be talking about for the rest of the year and/or the rest of filmgoing lives. 

Here are 25 from this year’s lineup that have us salivating – from docu-profiles on musicians, artists and iconoclasts to left-field biopics on raunchy comedians, black metal Norwegians and paraplegic cartoonists, postapocalyptic character studies to sociopolitical satires. Oh, and one in which Nicolas Cage totally loses his cool and flies into a bloody rage. 

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

Adam Stone

‘Damsel’

Robert Pattinson continues his quest to work with every indie-film brother team by hooking up with David and Nathan Zellner (Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter) for this warped Western about a man going to meet his true love (Mia Wasikowska). Along the way, preachers, drunks, very small horses and other old-timey trappings turn his journey into an odyssey. Even by the standards of the actor’s beautifully bizarre post-heartthrob roles, this particular career choice sounds especially wacky.

‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot’

Is this real-life story of John Callahan – an Oregon-based cartoonist who was left paralyzed from the waist down by a car accident – the movie that will get Gus Van Sant his mojo back? The three films he’s made since Milk back in 2008 have left us a little, shall we say, underwhelmed. But the man is a top-notch director of actors, and there’s something about the story plus the fact that he’s reuniting with his To Die For star Joaquin Phoenix that gives us hope. Jonah Hill, Jack Black, Rooney Mara and a smattering of musicians (Carrie Brownstein, Beth Ditto, Kim Gordon) lend their talents as well. 

Nanu Segal

‘An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn’

All hail Aubrey Plaza, an actress who’s been proving she’s far more than human embodiment of a deadpan glare – and someone isn’t afraid to take things far, far out there. (See, for example, this.) She’s at the center of this Jim Hosking’s mondo absurdist tale of a woman named Lulu Danger searching for a “mysterious man from her past” (played by Craig Robinson) who is mounting a one-night-only theater piece called “An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn.” Should you think this isn’t wacky enough, her Legion costar Jemaine Clement shows up to steal back some missing loot from Emile Hirsch’s con man. We feel duty-bound to remind folks that Hosking’s did The Greasy Strangler, a gag-reflex test of a movie that’s suggests the filmmaker has studied early John Waters flicks like Torah scrolls. That could be a bug or a feature here.

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

‘A Futile and Stupid Gesture’

In which David Wain, he of Wet Hot American Summer fame, takes on the life of Doug Kenney (played by Will Forte and, in his omniscient-narrator state, Martin Mull), a Harvard man who’d co-create the National Lampoon, co-write Animal House and inject much-needed vulgar irreverence into American comedy before mysteriously falling off a cliff in 1980. The trailer suggests it has everything a rise-and-fall biopic needs: friendships, success, money, betrayal, cocaine, comedians imitating other comedians, meta-references, proctology, food fights, funerals and a total disregard for the truth if it gets in the way of good story. 

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

‘Hal’

He started out as an editor, a rebel who worked his way up the Sixties studio food chain by associating with fellow mavericks and winning an Oscar for cutting In the Heat of the Night. Then, starting with 1970’s The Landlord, Hal Ashby became a director – and went on a seven-film run that was responsible for some of the most trenchant, touching and borderline transgressive movies to come out of Tinseltown in the Seventies. Armed with collaborator interviews and archival conversations with the man himself, documentarian Amy Scott paints a portrait of a New Hollywood iconoclast who still hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves for leaving a major impact on American filmmaking.

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

‘I Think We’re Alone Now’

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and a reclusive library worker (Peter Dinklage) feels fine – he’s content to tidy up his bucolic, if empty small town and methodically bury the bodies left by some sort of world-crippling epidemic. Then a young woman (Elle Fanning) breezes into his postapocalyptic life and the new dynamic invites friction … as well as a few other unforeseen elements. Filmmaker Reed Morano has already established herself as a first-rate dystopian storyteller – she directed some of the strongest episodes in The Handmaid’s Tale‘s first season – and cinematographer (everything from indie films to Beyonce’s Lemonade); her take on a classic two-hander scenario finds her pulling double duty and lending the proceedings the perfect moody, melancholy vibe. 

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

Everett Collection/Sundance

‘Jane Fonda in Five Acts’

Hollywood royalty, ingénue, activist, Oscar-winner, social pariah, movie star, trophy wife, aerobics guru, feminist éminence grise – there have been a lot of Jane Fondas over the years, and documentarian Susan Lacy (the recent HBO portrait Spielberg) lets each of these iterations have their say via a treasure trove of archival clips. Friends, costars and ex-spouses offer their two cents, but it’s really Lady Jane herself who does the bulk of the talking, guiding viewers through a tour of traumas, detours, identity crises and high points. It’s as much a longform therapy session as a biodoc – and all the better for it.

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

Alex Bailey

‘Juliet, Naked’

Annie (Rose Byrne) loves Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), not wisely but too well. He is obsessed with a once-popular singer-songwriter named Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). Anne, it so happens, got to know the musician way back when, in a very biblical sense of the world. So when the troubadour happens to come back in to her life, guess who’s freaking out with glee? And who in this relationship is just plain freaking out? Jesse Peretz – the man behind the Paul Rudd comedy Our Idiot Brother, too many wonderful TV episodes to count and that Foo Fighters’ Mentos-flavored music video – sets up what sounds like a perfect scenario for a fanboyism-run-amuck cringe-dramedy. And who doesn’t love those?

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

Scott Green

‘Leave No Trace’

After Winter’s Bone, we are pretty much onboard for whatever writer-director Debra Granik wants to do. (You should check out her compelling character-study doc Stray Dog if you haven’t already, by the way.) Her latest sounds incredible: A father (Ben Foster, because yes) is dedicated to living off the grid and sustaining a life free from society’s rules in a Portland, Oregon park. Everything is peachy until someone informs the authority that this may not be the most stable situation for his teenage daughter (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) and the two are split up. Eventually, the they reunite and head “home,” though any thought of a permanent happily-ever-after is a merely a pipe dream. The story is just the kind of class-conscious, outsider-friendly story that Granik has made her niche. And we should remind you that the filmmaker was the one who turned a young Jennifer Lawrence from who’s-that-girl to It-girl, so don’t be surprised if people are buzzing about McKenzie by the end of this festival.

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

‘Lizzie’

Because who does not want to see Chloe Sevigny play Lizzie Borden?! Craig William Macneil’s historical romance takes us back to the Borden household, where the future axe-murderess is already having some serious family issues. Then an Irish housemaid (Kristen Stewart) is hired, and Lizzie finds a kindred spirit in, shall we say, more ways than one. To say that there will be blood is a given – we know how this story ends – but Macneil & Co. seem less interested in true-crime salaciousness and far more focused on how forbidden desires left stifled in repressive-to-a-fault environments can lead to tragedy. And, yes, occasionally mass murder.

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

‘Lords of Chaos’

Throw your sign-of-the-horns hands up in the air for Mayhem – a Norwegian black metal band that pioneered the subgenre’s look and pulverizing attack of downtuned guitars, double-bass rolls and throat-shredding shrieks. They were the corpse-painted poster boys of the scene. Then the group’s singer shot himself, the guitarist and bassist began burning churches … and things started to get weird and violent. Music-video godhead Jonas Akerlund (The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up,” Madonna’s “Ray of Light”) gives their story the music biopic treatment, and something tells us this is going to be a little gnarlier than, say, Walk the Line.

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

‘Mandy’

Nicolas Cage versus a homicidal religious cult … you know who our money is on, naturally. Panos Cosmatos – the gent behind the Seventies head-trip/sci-fi homage Beyond the Black Rainbow – puts the actor through his paces in this story of a man and his lady love Mandy (British actress Andrea Riseborough, who has no less than four films at the fest) living in their own personal paradise. Then a killer sect comes a-callin’, someone gets murdered and guess who’s out for bloody, bloody revenge? Out of all the festival’s Midnight lineup, this is the one we’re gunnin’ for the hardest.

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

Steve Loveridge

‘MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A.’

She was born Mathangi Arulpragasam; she was nicknamed “Maya”; she created the multiculti musical persona known as M.I.A. Filmmaker and cohort Stephen Loveridge charts her evolution from London art-school student to chart-topping rapper to controversy magnet and back again, complete with loads of candid footage and behind-the-scenes drama. Speaking of which, the fact that we get to see this long-gestating doc at all – it was planned for a 2013 release around her album Matangi, before Loveridge leaked a trailer and quit the project; he returned to the fold a few mon ths later – is a minor miracle. 

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

Covert Media

‘Ophelia’

We’ve seen Shakespeare’s play about the melancholy Dane retold from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s perspective; now it’s time for Ophelia’s revisionist turn. The Last Jedi‘s Daisy Ridley stars as the young woman who realizes something smells rotten in the state of Denmark regarding her revenge-seeking suitor; as she begins to navigate a path between her family and her hand-wringing beau, the once-peripheral character steps into the spotlight and begins to lend the Bard’s emo-bro play a more feminine bent. Clive Owen and Naomi Watts show up to lend additional star power to filmmaker Claire McCarthy’s Hamlet 2.0 project, but this is Ridley’s show – she’s the one likely to make this worth a month of grace o’ Sundays.

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

Zachary Galler

‘Piercing’

If you were lucky enough to catch Nicolas Pesce’s stunning, sickening 2016 debut The Eyes of My Mother, you couldn’t shake the feeling that horror had just gained a bold, original new voice. So we’re extremely curious to see how his follow-up to that minor Southern Gothic masterpiece plays. The fact that he’s adapting cult novelist Ryū Murakami’s novel about a everyman (Christopher Abbott) indulging some nagging homicidal impulses and the escort (Mia Wasikowska) who may not be the “victim” he’d bargained for suggests the young director is both squarely in his comfort zone and gleefully pushing his own limits. And we’re going to assume that [gulp] it’s not called Piercing for nothing.

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

Mark Sennet

‘Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind’

Give Robin Williams a stage – or simply an audience of one or more people – and the comedian would give you rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness jokes/rants that were breathtaking in its scope and sheer manic energy. In front of crowds and onscreen, the Juilliard-trained performer released a barrage of jokes, voices, characters that pummeled you into hysterics; offstage, he could sometimes be moody, distant, desperate to stave off depression through the drug of cracking people up (and during the Seventies, through actual drugs). No stranger to profiling volatile stand-ups, Marina Zenovich (Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic) curates clips of his act and interviews with everyone from fellow stand-ups to Williams’ first wife Valerie Velardi to examine what made this comic force of nature tick.

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

Doug Emmett

‘Sorry to Bother You’

Co-founder of Bay Area rap legends the Coup and political activist Boots Riley makes his directorial debut with this satire involving an African-American beta male named Cassius (Atlanta‘s Lakeith Stanfeld) who’s stuck in a dead-end job as a telemarketer. Them almost overnight, our hero finds that he’s developed the power to sell anybody virtually anything – and becomes the company’s most valuable player in record time. His art-provocateur girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) is suspicious; his dude-bro boss (Armie Hammer) is, like, stoked; and Cassius, well, he’s in a moral free-for-all. This sounds like the sort of left-field, sucker-punch take on corporate life and the almighty power of the buck that we need right now – and the sort of project that’s the reason we go to the festival in the first place. 

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

‘Studio 54’

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Two friends from college decide to go into business together. Their endeavor becomes way, way more successful than either could have possibly imagined. And then power, prestige, greed, drugs, money and some less-than-legal activities turn their American dream into a waking nightmare. In the case of Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, their little business that could was Studio 54, the single most famous discotheque ever and a place where the famous, the infamous and the very, very lucky could pretend they were in a Broadway production of Caligula. Matt Tyrnauer’s doc looks at the whole sordid rise and fall, with Schrager finally breaking his silence about his late partner, the club’s glory days, the celebrities, the raids and the various hedonistic shenanigans that happened on the dancefloor and behind closed doors.

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

‘Tyrel’

It was a year ago that Sundance premiered Mudbound and had us leaving with the notion that Jason Mitchell could be one of his generation’s major actors – and this simmering, character-based social thriller sounds like it’s about to give him a plum paranoid-as-fuck role. His title character has accepted an offer to go away with a buddy for a weekend up in the Catskills, where a bunch of dudes are going to relax and drink beer. Once he gets there, a few things become immediately apparent: 1) he is the only African-American there; 2) a lot of booze often means loose inhibitions; and 3) you know how there are folks that don’t seem obviously racist sometimes can reveal their true colors once they’re in groups (see: the last presidential election)? Fillmaker Sebastian Silva (Crystal Fairy) is working with a hell of a set-up here. Not to mention that he has the best director’s bio in the fest’s catalog this year.

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

Pierre Verdy

‘Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist’

You don’t get punk – the music, the ethos, the culture and its ripple effects – without Vivienne Westwood. The fashion designer was at the ground zero of the movement when England’s dreaming turned into a bona fide disruptive phenomenon; she virtually created the spirit-of-’77 look (torn garments, spiky hair, permanent sneer) that’s associated with U.K.’s first wave and later brought her subversive ideas to the haute couture runways. Filmmaker Lorna Tucker dives into Westwood’s legacy and eventual embrace from the snooty fashion world, but never mind the usual trapped-in-amber tributes; the doc also looks into how the 76-year-old provocateur is still calling the shots on her collections, protesting environmental neglect and giving the patriarchy a two-fingered salute. Every word in that subtitle is earned.

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

Jim Judkis

‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’

Anyone who grew up between the late Sixties and the early Aughts is likely to feel a pang of nostalgia watching this documentary on one Fred Rogers – an ordained minister who decided that mass media could teach the children well, and set about making show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, that helped generations of youngsters navigate a confusing adult world. Filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom, Best of Enemies) traces the PBS superstar’s life from a bullied kid to an oft-imitated, cardigan-rocking pied piper that used puppets, songs and kindness to do everything from explain national tragedies to guide underage viewers into emotional maturity. Has there ever been a better time to revisit the career of a public figure with such profound respect for the notion of loving thy neighbor?

Best Movies at Sundance 2018

Alex Bailey

‘Yardie’

Idris Elba makes his directorial debut with this adaptation of Victor Headley’s cult-pulp novel about a Jamaica-born gangster (Aml Ameen) who’s in London on a mission for his boss. While he’s there, the young man discovers that the guy who killed his brother way back when is now living in the city, and quicker than you can say “bloodbath,” shit gets extremely real. We’re really curious to see how the man who turned a Baltimore drug dealer into a cutthroat capitalist does behind the camera with this 1980s period piece about violence, family and justice.

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