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The best of Sundance 2018
Looking back, last year’s Sundance Film Festival was a banner year not only for great films like Get Out, Call Me By Your Name, Mudbound, and The Big Sick, but also a bellwether for the upcoming Oscars. It may be too early to predict whether this year’s class will have the same long tail a year from now, but there were plenty of excellent — and timely — movies that hit the mark. Here’s a look at the 11 best films we saw at Sundance 2018…
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Thirteen-year-old Kayla Day is your typical suburban American eighth-grader: Shy, insecure, and trying so hard to please the popular crowd that she can’t see her own specialness. In writer-director Bo Burnham’s poignant and perceptive coming-of-age story, the awkward but upbeat Kayla (played by newcomer Elsie Fisher in a spectacular, star-is-born performance) shows us the post-millennial perils of social media and the hard-won lesson of marching to your own drumbeat. It’s impossible not to root for her because, chances are, you were her. Josh Hamilton is superb as Kayla’s single dad, who grapples with being her biggest cheerleader while constantly mortifying her despite his good intentions. Eighth Grade is heartbreaking, heartwarming, and a total charmer.
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Three Identical Strangers
The best documentaries reveal to us the ways in which truth can be stranger (and wilder and weirder) than fiction. Tim Wardle’s tale about identical triplets who were separated at birth, adopted by three different families, and reunited in their late teens by dumb luck is so unlikely and twist-filled that you keep picking your jaw up off of the floor. If this just sounds like oddity fodder for daytime talk shows, well, it was that in the ‘80s. But the story has so much more up its narrative sleeve in the second half that it would be cruel to give too much away.
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Sorry to Bother You
Musician-filmmaker Boots Riley delivered the most outlandishly surreal, straight-up WTF movie at this year’s festival, hands down. Get Out’s Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius Green — a young, underemployed African-American man in Oakland with a performance-artist girlfriend (Thor: Ragnarok’s Tessa Thompson) who gets a job working for a telemarketing company that’s a front for a nefarious scheme to turn its workforce into….well, it’s probably better not to say too much. But it’s bonkers. And Armie Hammer, as an amoral tycoon in a sarong, somehow manages to keep a straight face through all of the insanity. Riley’s film feels like the bastard child of Repo Man and The Twilight Zone filtered through the brain of Spike Jonze. When you’re not convulsing with laughter, it’s also a biting satire about being black in America and trying to get ahead while keeping it real.
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Laura Dern continues her magical recent run in this devastatingly raw drama about sexual abuse and the tricks of memory. After her mother (Ellen Burstyn) uncovers some confessional letters that Dern’s Jennifer wrote when she was 13 and entered into a special relationship with a pair of trusted athletic coaches (Elizabeth Debicki and Jason Ritter), she sets out to get to the bottom of what really happened. Writer-director Jennifer Fox interweaves the past and the present seamlessly, turning The Tale into a harrowing investigation that proves once again that while we may be done with the past, the past is never done with us.
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Jane Fonda in Five Acts
Few movie icons have lived lives as public, as political, and as provocative as Jane Fonda. In director Susan Lacy’s riveting HBO bio-documentary, Fonda also proves to be a surprisingly honest and introspective subject as she reflects on the various stages of her career on and off screen. The legendary actress spares no one (least of all, herself) as she discusses what it was like to grow up with a famous and icy father, an unhappy mother who died by suicide, her torrid string of famous lovers, her political awakening during the Vietnam War, and, yes, her movies too. Jane Fonda in Five Acts feels like a cross between the most revealing celebrity memoir you’ve ever read and a two-hour session on a shrink’s couch.
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You could argue that Nicolas Cage has been embracing his inner weirdness for a while now. But that still won’t prepare you for the extreme, psychedelic over-the-topness of Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy — a fever dream of a film that was appropriately slotted into Sundance’s Midnight section. About half of the audience I saw it with walked out; the other half seemed to be in gonzo heaven. In what is essentially a gory revenge flick on angel dust, Cage plays Red — a logger whose girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) is terrorized by a posse of lunatic Jesus freaks and the half-man, half-monsters who do their blood-spattered bidding. When people describe certain movies as “not for everyone,” this is exactly what they’re talking about. I loved it and can’t wait to see it again.
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Paul Dano has been one of the most interesting actors in movies for a while. Now, he’s stepped behind the camera with his directorial debut, Wildlife, which was based on a Richard Ford novel and possesses real heartbreaking depth beneath its somewhat conventional ‘60s surface. Fourteen-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is a bit of a loner whose parents (Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan, both superb) both harbor resentments and yearnings that are pulling them apart. Set in Montana, the movie has a wide-open look that only emphasizes how claustrophobic each of its characters feel inside. Wildlife is a quiet film that slowly reveals itself to be something far richer and more complex than it seems at first. It’s a slow burn with the force of a sucker punch.
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One of the most anticipated films of the festival thanks to Hamilton star Daveed Diggs, who co-wrote and costars in it, Blindspotting is a timely meditation on what it means to be black and presumed guilty in America. The film, which like Hamilton includes some rhyming rap arias, takes place in Oakland and has a unique sense of place, examining how hipster gentrification affects the people who grew up there. But mostly it’s about a pair of childhood friends (Diggs and co-writer Rafael Casal) growing in opposite directions. Blindspotting is a film with a lot of ideas on its mind (maybe a few too many), but its power is undeniable.
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You know the story. Or at least you thought you did. What makes Matt Tyrnauer’s giddy, go-go documentary about New York City’s most infamously Caligulan ‘70s disco such a revelation is discovering how much about our culture (the drugs, the music, the sexuality, the celebrities) seems wrapped up in one nightclub that lasted a mere 33 months. Thanks to the rare on-the-record cooperation of co-owner Ian Schrager, what’s old feels vibrantly alive and new again. The film’s archival footage almost drips with sweat, cocaine, and glitter as the roster of regulars look back at what they all seem to regard as the greatest time of their lives. While the film’s music cues could have used a few more surprises, this is an infectious time capsule of when New York was dangerous and fun, fun because it was dangerous, and the party seemed like it would never stop.
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Won't You Be My Neighbor?
Morgan Neville’s documentary about the cardigans-and-kindness kids’ TV host Mr. Rogers is like a balm for our troubled times. Neville, who also made the Oscar-winning doc 20 Feet From Stardom, tells the story of the ordained Presbyterian minister-turned-TV icon in a straightforward way. But the film full of feel-good nostalgia whose underlying message (“I like you just the way you are…”) can’t be repeated often enough.
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For a director who had one of the greatest cinematic runs in Hollywood history, Hal Ashby deserves to be a household name like Steven Spielberg and Francis Coppola. With any luck, Amy Scott’s fiery documentary about this one-of-a-kind anti-studio renegade sporting his signature love beads and shaggy, stoner Rip Van Winkle beard will do just that. Ashby could be a prickly bomb-throwing revolutionary, but his films (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Being There) all seem to possess an off-kilter decency, a strident sense of justice, and a truly independent (which is to say, American) outlook. Finally, a filmmaking genius hiding in plain sight, gets his well-deserved close-up. A must see for movie buffs.