The general consensus at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was that, overall, the films weren’t on par with what we saw last year. And there’s some truth to that, because last year was a special year – with movies like Call Me By Your Name, The Big Sick, and Mudbound, those 2017 Sundance movies are still part of the conversation as we head towards the Oscars. The 2018 fest probably won’t repeat that kind of success.
But! I will say that this year the percentage of movies I liked was much higher. It was a little more hit or miss last year – in that it was either a big hit, or a huge miss. This year, I pretty much enjoyed most of the 16 movies I saw while at the festival, which is rare.
And it’s a festival I’ll never forget – being the first time I’ve gotten out of New York City since my father passed away in November. It was a reflective festival for me – in a way feeling like it was time to try to start rebuilding myself. I actually socialized for the first time in two months and I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would. (Well, one night was pretty iffy. A film distributor had a house party that quickly got out of control. We could sense something bad was going to happen and got the heck out of there. By the time we got back to our condo, the police had “busted” the party. I don’t think I’ve used the word “busted” since the ‘90s.) But, anyway, Sundance was something I didn’t think I needed, but I did desperately need and it came along at the right time. And with the needed influx of films this year that speak to the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, there weren’t a lot of movies about sad white kids losing a parent – which, thank goodness, because there’s no way I could have sat through one of those right now.
Anyway, here are my five favorite films I saw at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
There’s a full review of The Tale posted, but, again, I’ve never seen anything quite like this. In a film starring Laura Dern, director Jennifer Fox grapples with her own untrustworthy memories in a true story about being sexually abused as a child. This is going to be a big movie, but also a tough sell in some respects. It’s one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen in my life and I could imagine someone watching it, then saying, “Why in the world would you recommend that?” This is probably why The Tale is the quietest buzziest Sundance movie in recent history. But, my gosh, it’s powerful. And the thing to keep in mind is that Jennifer Fox actually had to live through this, all we have to do is listen to what she’s trying to tell us for a couple of hours.
My biggest regret of Sundance was not having time to write about Eighth Grade, so I’m going to try and remedy that here. For the life of me, I don’t understand how writer-director Bo Burnham tapped into the psyche of an eighth-grade girl, but somehow he did. Elise Fisher plays Kayla Day – and if you were ever the awkward kid in junior high school, well this movie is going to devastate you. And Kayla tries so hard to fit in, but instead winds up winning an award for “quietest girl in school.” Eighth Grade also, sort of, plays as a horror movie in the sense of combining the already terrible aspects of junior high with social media. Could you imagine being in junior high and also have to be popular on social media? Looking at picture after picture of social events you weren’t invited to. At least when I was in junior high I was blissfully unaware of all the fun I wasn’t invited to. After school, at least I got a respite until the next horrible day. Now, it never ends. It’s nonstop. How does anyone cope with that? Eighth Grade gives us a window into this world. A24 bought this movie before the festival even started, so audiences will most likely get to see it this summer.
Sorry To Bother You
Again, there’s a full review up of this one, but what a trip. Lakeith Stanfeild is on the verge of becoming a huge star and this is the kind of movie that shows just why that’s about to happen. A tale of corporate greed becomes a movie about people being turned into some sort of half-man, half-horse hybrid. And then Armie Hammer shows up to chew some scenery as evil corporate overlord Steve Lift. I’m very curious to see how this will do in the real world, outside of a festival.
Blindspotting kind of got a bit of a bad deal. (Here’s a full review.) It’s certainly an honor to be the opening night Sundance movie, but that comes with some caveats. Usually at an Eccles premiere there are a few seats roped off for the cast and crew, but mostly the whole auditorium is fair game. I was maybe the 10th person in the theater for Blindspotting and was told there were only 20 seats for press on the lower portion, all in the front two rows. The rest of the theater was reserved for corporate sponsors. Look, I get it: You gotta pay the bills. But this is an electric film and the reaction after was surprisingly quiet. I was legitimately shocked. But the theater was filled with corporate people who wanted to see famous people. It was a huge bummer of a reaction. But the good news is Blindspotting rebounded in later screenings, eventually selling to Lionsgate.
And here’s what will probably be one of the most controversial movies of the year. First of all, it’s been really great to watch Garrett Hedlund reboot his career. Tron: Legacy was on cable a couple weeks ago and I just couldn’t get over how miscast Hedlund is in that movie. It’s easy to see that now after watching him in Mudbound and now Burden, but here’s an actor who has been working really hard to shake whatever that movie did to his career. Hedlund plays Mike Burden in the true story of a member of the KKK who leaves the Klan to find some sort of salvation through the help of Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker). It’s a story about redemption, yes, but Mike Burden doesn’t have the normal arc of steady redemption. Even the movie compares him, basically, to a pitbull that was trained to hate at an early age. Long into his “redemption,” the old Mike Burden will come out when he’s agitated. We are constantly reminded that, deep down, this was a man trained to hate and it’s going to take a long time after the events of this movie’s end to change that. Are people in the mood for a movie about an ex-Klansman seeking redemption? Boy, I don’t know. But it will have people talking. There’s no doubt about that.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.