The 2018 Sundance Film Festival might just be remembered as the festival that preceded the incredible 38th edition, where some of the best movies of 2017 had their debut (“Call Me By Your Name,” “Get Out,” “The Big Sick,” “Mudbound,” “A Ghost Story,” “Columbus,” “Wind River.”) This 39th edition has, more or less, been seen as a disappointment for many, there was no movie that could unite all journalists attending this year’s edition. And yet, if you could burst out of that bubble, and look beyond the major premieres that disappointed, you would find gem after gem. This is the year the midnight section came to be more than an excuse to shock, horrify or disturb. There was all that and so much in more in artfully rendered midnight entries such as “Hereditary,” and “Mandy,” which has Nic Cage avenging his wife’s murder in ways that are too good to reveal.
No, if Sundance 2018 proved anything it was that the festival had reached a point in its history where it was damn near impossible not to find great movies scattered through its program. If you were adventurous enough to look beyond the premieres at the 1500 capacity Eccles theater, you would find incredible independent cinema, made by tomorrow’s visionaries, stamped all over the festival’s NEXT section, or even the Documentary sections which have become a hotbed for Oscar-nominated non-fiction, just this year 3 of the 5 Best Documentary nominees made their premieres at Sundance in 2017 (“Icarus,” “Strong Island,” and “Last Men in Allepo). This year’s crop of Docs that will surely make waves include Robert Greene’s “Bisbee ’17,” Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap,” RaMell Ross’ “Hale County,” Tim Wardle’s “Three Identical Strangers,” Alexandria Bombach’s “On Her Shoulders,” and Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” which told the touching, humane story of Fred Rogers.
I saw close to 50 movies at this year’s festival, many were inconsequential and non-starters, but that’s always been the case here, as Sundance is a festival which aims to give first-time filmmakers a shot, despite the rookie mistakes that may arise from such a venture. More than 32% of this year’s films were made by women, a festival high and you could feel the difference everywhere you went. The cinematic female voices that were being shown on-screen resonated throughout town. In fact, eight of the ten movies I included in my top ten of the festival were led by a female performance, five of the ten films were directed by women.
1) The Tale
Jennifer Fox won the grand jury prize at the 1988 Sundance Film Festival for her documentary “Beirut: The Last Home Movie.” The Tale comes as her first narrative feature. However, any thought that this would be a by-the-books movie would be sorely mistaken. Driven by a soulful, brave performance from Laura Dern as Jennifer Fox, she has to give so much of herself here that this damn near qualifies as one of the bravest female performances ever given onscreen, who else could pull this off? This is a messy and ambitious effort about the traumatic sexual experiences Fox had when she was just 13-years-old, raped by a man she thought she was in love with. Memories blur which makes this bold and brave movie always a step ahead of us as it feels like a confessional from someone that is discovering herself through art. The trauma buried deep in Fox’ subconscious has been there for many years. You have never seen anything quite like Jennifer Fox’ “The Tale.” Sure, the film has relevance due to today’s #Metoo and Time’s Up-driven zeitgeist, but the artfulness that comes with this movie is second to none. This is a film that is indescribable, something that is all too rare these days which is why it is by far the best movie I have seen at Sundance 2018. “The Tale” is a masterpiece.
Sometimes a horror film comes along that you just feel will change the game. Ari Aster‘s “Hereditary” is just that movie – a spooky, hypnotic film that feels like the culmination of the last 50 years of horror. Aster gives us a melange of “The Shining,” “The Exorcist,” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” three of the greatest of the genre, and creates his own masterpiece in the process. This is a remarkable, triumphant, and confident picture by Aster, who gives the film an almost meditative-like sensation, as you feel every space you’re in, every emotion, every moment of grief. “Hereditary” refuses to employ cheap thrills, creating its cinematic scares with atmosphere, and continuously reinventing itself at every turn. Best of all, it’s anchored by an incredible performance from Toni Collette who is so good that, believe it or not, people were already chattering Oscar towards her direction. She’s that good.
3) Eighth Grade
Bo Burnham‘s “Eighth Grade,” an altogether impressive debut from the comedian, follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher), whose constant self-reflectiveness is familiar enough to make you cringe at every stutter. Kayla’s dad (Josh Hamilton) is as good a single dad as you can be, given the fact that he has to contend with his teenage girl entering the most awkward and uncomfortable phase of her life. What Burnham tries to give us with this movie is a snapshot of history in the making. This is a generation like no other, one that will most-likely grow up to be very different adults than anyone could have ever imagined. The zombie-like student body in “Eighth Grade” are slaves to technology, almost robot-like in their movements.
4) Leave No Trace
Eight years ago, director Debra Granik along with a then-unknown Jennifer Lawrence premiered “Winter’s Bone” to a stunned Sundance audience. Granik has given us another outstandingly talented young actress by the name of Thomasin McKenzie. She plays the teenage Tom who, along with her dad Will (Ben Foster), tries to live off the grid in a state park in Oregon. The 17-year-old cinematic debutante has so much talent that she carries this film in the palm of her hands. The charisma, authenticity and grace she displays is incredibly mature and restrained. “Leave No Trace” is a lovely film to behold, unspooling very much in the tradition of David Lynch‘s humane, good-hearted Americana masterpiece “The Straight Story. It is about an rarely depicted on-screen. They are the lost voices and they make “Leave No Trace” a universal, unforgettable experience.
“Search” has been dubbed as the movie “that’s completely set on a computer screen.” Ok, fine. However, an inventive gimmick can only go so far if the story doesn’t involve or make you care for the stakes at hand. Making his feature-debut, Aneesh Chaganty, a former Google commercials creator, overcomes those hurdles with this touching and tense movie worthy of Hitchcock. As a father tries to scramble and find his missing daughter, “Search” uses all the technological forms of communication to make a taut, tense and terrific thriller. If this is in fact how some stories will be told in the eventual future then so be it, the potential is there.
In Jason Reitman’s beautiful love letter, a fairy tale of sorts, Charlize Theron is Marlo, a mother of three, whose hesitance towards hiring a night nanny Tully (Mackenzie Davis)by her brother quickly turns into a truly heavenly experience once the aforementioned nanny is hired. Marlo and Tully form a bond that feels so touching and heavenly that it effectively works as the driving force of the whole movie. Not much happens in Tully except for conversation, this is screenwriter Diablo Cody’s ruthless, authentic love letter to women all over the world, those that have to go through all the obstacles that man don’t. They say you have to experience to fully know what it feels, Theron, in a performance of immense honesty makes you feel every ache, every strain, of her character’s everyday struggles. This is the fiercest of feminism portrayed on-screen.
7) The Kindergarten Teacher
Maggie Gyllenhaal is a Staten Island early-childhood educator who starts obsessing over a gifted student, which leads to problems too good to reveal in this capsule. Sara Colangelo’s American remake of the similarly-titled Israeli drama maintains its own unique identity. However, the movie belongs to Gyllenhaal, who keeps playing with our heads throughout the film. The fact that she maintains the sympathetic nature of her character makes this brilliant film all the more mysterious.
From its first elegantly shot frame, you know “Puzzle” is going to be something special. When we meet Agnes (a remarkable Kelly Macdonald, riveting even in her quietest moments), she’s in her comfort zone, readying her home for a party, meticulously vacuuming and cleaning every inch of dirt in the living room. Even when the party begins she is still at work, focusing on what might be “off” in the living room, but here’s the kicker: she emerges from the kitchen carrying a birthday cake filled with candles and her guests starts to singing “Happy Birthday” to her. Eventually, things do get somewhat complicated in Moverman’s script, with a struggle to tie things up, if they should be tied-up at all, but Agnes’ dilemma to pursue her personhood is never overdone. Just like her own personality, the film is restrained enough to always leave a mystery lingering behind every decision. Turtletaub does have a hard time finding a way to conclude Agnes’ story, but he ends “Puzzle” on such a delightful note of simplicity, that this near-perfect movie nevertheless stuns.
9) Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Oscar-winning documentarian Morgan Neville decided to tackle Mister Fred Rogers, America’s favorite neighbor, in a way that we had never seen him before. Moving past the zip-up cardigans, Neville’s film is about kindness and compassion. The film manages to take such a beloved show for children to tell us why it mattered. Shows like “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” don’t exist anymore. Programs would rather go for the ads and marketing than maintain their integrity. Not Rogers, he refused to be bought, there were no toys, no lunchoxes, just the message.
10) On Her Shoulders
Sundance has been known to include many films about what’s happening in the middle east throughout its yearly Documentary competition and premieres sections. However, Alexandria Bombach’s documentary “On Her Shoulders” is a unique addition. With the well-honed eyes of her camera lenses, Bombach tackles the incredible story of Nadia Murad, a 23-year-old Yazidi woman who was kept as a sex slave for ISIS when she was just 19. The terrorist group had invaded her village of Kojo in Sinjar, Iraq and cause a genocide of her people. As Bombach’s camera follow’s Murad around the world advocating help for the Yazidi people she gives interview after interview, speech after speech, describing her people’s plights and her own experiences. Reliving her trauma, over and over again in order to help her people, Nadia tries to keep herself on track despite the toll this has taken on her. The film’s final image, which has Nadia returning to her homeland, is nothing short of stunning.