No, I didn’t see every single movie that played at Sundance this year. That’s virtually impossible (I say “virtually” to save myself the calculations it would take to confirm that it is indeed impossible, though I’m pretty sure.) This was my seventh or eighth Sundance, and I don’t even do that thing where you try to see four or five movies in a day anymore. For one because it’s exhausting (not “digging ditches” exhausting, but a certain kind of tiring nonetheless), and for another because it necessarily means giving some movies less than my full attention, which is rude. I saw a bunch, and it will still take me half a year to catch up. Don’t worry, I’m not asking for sympathy.
In any case, my point is, there are “best of Sundance” lists all over the internet and I don’t pretend that this one is comprehensive. I’m not sure a list even could be comprehensive. Suffice it to say, I saw some movies, movies that you should probably know about, and of those movies I had favorites.
1. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot
Gus Van Sant’s John Callahan biopic doesn’t exactly reinvent the biopic, but it’s a great showcase for Joaquin Phoenix’s acting and Van Sant’s flair for period. The whole thing just feels so rich, like carved mahogany and fine hand creams. It’s also a wonderful introduction to John Callahan the cartoonist, whose drawings got big laughs throughout. Between this and American Splendor, is it possible that cartoonists make the best biopic subjects?
2. Juliet, Naked
In Juliet, Naked, Jesse Peretz (director), Nick Hornby (writer of the book), and Ethan Hawke (co-star) are a unique dream team, assembled to take a jaundiced eye to the ’90s culture they all in some way helped create. The former star of Reality Bites plays a kind of 2018 not-dead Jeff Buckley come face to face with his biggest fan, a kind of grown-up Rob from High Fidelity (who always seemed like a partial stand-in for Hornby). It’s possibly the best film adaptation of Hornby (also the first I saw before reading the book, however much that matters), features great performances from Rose Byrne and Chris O’Dowd, and is arguably Ethan Hawke’s most perfect role.
3. I Think We’re Alone Now
Peter Dinklage wanders a post-apocalyptic town sweeping streets and blowing leaves, a kind of lonely human dung beetle determined to carve order from chaos in a movie worth it for that image alone. The ending is a bit of a left turn, but feels more incomplete than out of place. I wish this was an HBO series. Side note: Hey, can we stop naming movies after unrelated songs now? Every time I type this title I get the dumb song stuck in my head.
4. The Catcher Was A Spy
Paul Rudd plays a multilingual, pan-sexual, baseball-playing super spy sent to kill a Nazi, from the director of The Sessions. Do I even need to keep going? Yeah, they probably didn’t need the chess metaphor, but in a movie so otherwise unique I’ll forgive it. Come on, did you think Paul Rudd + stickin’ it to Hitler was going to be bad?
5. Private Life
Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti in a movie together is my Avengers, and they’re paired here in an alternately hilarious and heartbreaking take on trying to have children past your prime. That’s not to mention Molly Shannon, John Carroll Lynch playing against type (finally) and a breakout turn from Kayli Carter. It’s at times a tough watch (but only because it refuses to cheat). You’ll be able to catch this on Netflix this year, though the release date hasn’t been set.
Kelly McDonald escapes her dreary family life in the world of… uh… competitive jigsaw puzzling, with the help of a puzzle OG played by Irrfan Khan in a film directed by super producer Marc Turtletaub. McDonald’s husband (played by David Denman, formerly Pam’s fiancée from The Office) feels a little anachronistic for 2018, especially towards the end of the movie (which is a remake of an Argentinian film from 2009), but it’s compelling and features great performances by McDonald and Khan, who cements himself in the pantheon of all-time great eyelid actors, alongside Jeffrey Wright and Mandy Patinkin.
7. You Were Never Really Here
A case of style over substance, and transparently so, but at least it’s good style. And yes, I will forgive a lot for Joaquin Phoenix murdering people with a hammer. Scheduled for release April 6th.
Jon Hamm plays a diplomat in ’70s Beirut called back 10 years later to resolve a hostage situation in a film from director Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Transsiberian) and prolific screenwriter Tony Gilroy. A capable thriller that feels like it soft-pedals its geopolitical take in favor of the hostage drama. Also, a movie where Jon Hamm plays a suave diplomat but never has sex? I feel cheated. (Opens April 11th)
9. Sweet Country
I was extremely excited for an Aussie western starring Bryan Brown and Sam Neill, two guys who’d probably be on the Mount Rushmore of Australian cinema if that existed and Australia had mountains. (I know Neill is technically a Kiwi, I still think he’s been in enough Australian movies to qualify.) Then it started and I remembered how brutal and bleak Australia’s colonial period was. Phew, and here I thought Private Life was a tough watch. The gorgeous cinematography (shot around Alice Springs by director Warwick Thornton, a cinematographer who grew up in the area) and performances (including the one from relative newcomer and indigenous actor Hamilton Morris) makes it go down a little easier, but hey, not all stories are sunshine and butterflies.
I saw this one at the suggestion of my condo mates, all of whom loved it. Naturally, it didn’t really work for me (I suggest not seeing it when you’re tired). A bone-dry slapstick Western from the Zellner brothers (Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter) about a love-struck vigilante (Robert Pattinson) and a damsel (Mia Wasikowska) who maybe doesn’t need saving, I appreciated what it was doing, I just wish it did it, like… faster. Likewise, sometimes the jokes were restrained to the point that they didn’t register as jokes. This would’ve made a great 20-minute movie.