The Best Of The 2018 Sundance Film Festival

The 2018 Sundance Film Festival has come to a close, and while the awards have already been handed out from the festival itself, we have our own accolades that we'd like to pass out to some of the best movies from the year's first major film fest.

Ethan AndertonBen Pearson and Steve Prokopy all chimed in with their picks for their favorite comedy, favorite drama, favorite performances, most pleasant surprise, biggest disappointment and much more. Keep reading to find out our picks for the Best of Sundance 2018.

Favorite Drama

The Tale - Still 1

Ethan Anderton - The Tale

No movie at this year's festival ever eclipsed how shaken and moved I was by director Jennifer Fox's autobiographical drama about the sexual abuse she endured as an 13-year old girl. Aside from the unsettling and disturbing subject matter, which makes for one of the most harrowing stories at Sundance this year, the way Fox uses elements like memories to tell the story in a narratively unique way makes it that much more compelling. Combine that with the fact that both Laura Dern and Isabelle Nélisse do an incredible job at playing the traumatized Fox at two different time periods in her life, and Jason Ritter does an equally astounding job at making you hate him. This was not only the best movie I saw at Sundance, but it's likely to end up being one of the most important movies of 2018.

leave no trace review

Steve Prokopy - Leave No Trace

Debra Granik's return to feature filmmaking feels very much in her wheelhouse, once again focusing on American families living off the grid. Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin McKenzie play a father-daughter pair living in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, and both they and the audience wish the outside world would stop intruding. But the film is also a coming-of-age tale that marks a turning point in this delicate family dynamic—she's curious about the world outside, and he is all too familiar with its pitfalls. The film is sweet, fragile, achingly intimate, lyrical, and ultimately quite heartbreaking, but it also leaves all parties (including the viewer) hopeful that everyone lands exactly where they need to be.

Search review

Ben Pearson - Search

Formally daring, emotionally satisfying, and narratively thrilling, Aneesh Chaganty's Search was my favorite movie I saw at Sundance. The film goes far beyond its structural gimmick (the whole story is told only across computer screens: PCs, Macs, and iPhones) thanks to an excellent performance from John Cho, who brings an unwavering tenacity to the role of a father whose 16-year-old daughter goes missing. After a quick prologue, the movie basically transitions into a classic detective story but told in the most modern way possible (outside of a VR headset), with Cho's father sifting through digital clues on his daughter's computer and learning that there was much more to her than he thought he knew. It's an electrifying story told with breathless pacing, inventive framing, and heart-stopping suspense that ended up being the most purely entertaining piece of storytelling I've seen in a long time.

Favorite Comedy

bodied review

Ethan Anderton - Bodied

This wasn't an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival, but a last minute sneak preview screening added to the line-up after YouTube announced they had picked up the Joseph Kahn-directed rap battle movie for their YouTube Red subscription service (as well as a theatrical release). Official selection or not, I can't help but name it my favorite comedy simply because I loved it so much. This movie is a wild, audacious and downright hilarious story of a scrawny, white nerd who works his way up through the underground rap battle ranks and takes no prisoners in the process. It's full of sharp rap writing, and it takes aim at anyone and everyone who dares to be offended by it, especially our main character, who is anything but a hero. Bodied is a frenetic film in the vein of 8 Mile crossed with Scott Pilgrim vs the World, and it delivers in a big way.

Juliet Naked review

Steve Prokopy - Juliet, Naked

Not a perfect film, but certainly a funny and heartwarming one that made me laugh the most while watching. Sundance isn't a festival known for featuring an overwhelming number of comedies, but this Judd Apatow-produced adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel from director Jesse Peretz certainly has its fair share of laughs, alongside a few sobering lessons about commitment and the nature of fandom. Rose Byrne plays Annie, the long-suffering girlfriend of Duncan (Chris O'Dowd), who runs an obsessive fan site honoring the life and music of the long-in-hiding musician Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). Through some fun contrivances, Annie and Tucker start an online relationship, which throws the now-ex-boyfriend Duncan into a tizzy. As with Hornby's books, the film is smart about music and the relationship between artist and admirer, but it also has hard truths concerning the act of letting a new person into your life.

Sorry to Bother You review

Ben Pearson - Sorry to Bother You

It feels weird to call Sorry to Bother You a comedy because Boots Riley's directorial debut has so much on its mind, and traditional Hollywood comedies aren't nearly this daring or sophisticated. But there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments to be found here, whether it's the fact that David Cross's voice comes out of Lakeith Stanfield's body, the antics of a drug-fueled corporate CEO played by Armie Hammer, or the ever-changing phrases emblazoned on Tessa Thompson's activist character's earrings. One of the funniest scenes features an extended argument involving two longtime friends in which they aggressively compliment each other instead of insulting each other (trust me, it works in context), and that's before the laughs of horror and bafflement that come when movie tilts into its utterly bizarre final act. An Idiocracy-inspired aspect reveals that the most popular show on television is called "I Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me!", and it's just as hilariously depressing as the title indicates.

Favorite Dramatic Performance

The Tale - Laura Dern

Ethan Anderton - Laura Dern in The Tale

The Laura Dern-aissance contnues in a big way in this film, which will absolutely shake you and break you. Dern's role in this film is pivotal as she goes from being dismissive of a seemingly innocent special relationship she had as a young girl to slowly uncovering the repressed memories of her childhood that reveal a traumatic experience that lies dormant in the back of her mind. Her performance is one that becomes more intense, concerned and desperate as time goes on as her character begins to feel the pain that she's hidden for decades. The real payoff for her performance comes in the film's third act, but we'll let you see that for yourself when the movie gets released.

Hereditary Review

Steve Prokopy - Toni Collette in Hereditary

There has certainly been a trend of late of horror films taking on more adult tones and subsequently casting a better-caliber of actor to handle the dramatic load. Case in point, Toni Collette plays Annie Graham in this scare story about a family that is either cursed or simply the unfortunate victim of bad genetics that have passed on severe mental troubles from one generation to the next. Or perhaps it's a combination of both. Whatever the case, Collette is one of the few living actors who can handle this level of pure psychological torment, while also showing us that Annie wants to be a good wife and mother despite her mind's wanting to rebel against all that is expected of her. Writer-director Ari Aster give Collette great material to work with, as well as the necessary breathing room to cut loose when the scene calls for it. It's a raw, gripping performance that I could watch on a loop forever.

lizzie

Ben Pearson – Chloe Sevigny in Lizzie

While there were plenty of flashy performances at this year's festival, my favorite dramatic performance valued subtlety over style. In Lizzie, which puts a fascinating spin on the still-unsolved murders of Lizzie Borden's parents in the late 1890s, actress Chloe Sevigny pulls off an impressive feat: she humanizes a notorious murderer and somehow actually makes you want to root for her to kill her parents. Lizzie's budding relationship with a live-in maid named Bridget (Kristen Stewart) goes a long way toward making you feel sympathy for the title character, but it's Sevigny's mixture of quiet internal moments and bursts of pent-up frustration against her male oppressors – especially her wretched father – that truly endear her to the audience. The actress seems to carry the burden of history itself on her shoulders, and by the time she strips off all of her clothes to commit the heinous act, we may cringe at the brutality of the killings, but Lizzie's decision seems justified.

Favorite Comedic Performance

Eighth Grade Review

Ethan Anderton - Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade is remarkable simply because first-time feature writer/director Bo Burnham perfectly captured the voice of a 13-year old girl in the last year of her middle school experience. But the film is made even more delightful by the breakthrough lead performance from Elsie Fisher, previously known for her voicework as one of Gru's daughters in the Despicable Me franchise. Fisher isn't great simply because she taps into her own early teen experiences, but because she effortlessly knows how to be an awkward teen without feeling artificial. From her interactions with boys to her YouTube advice videos, her performance is authentic, funny and undeniably lovable.

What They Had

Steve Prokopy - Michael Shannon in What They Had

In a film that barely qualifies as a comedy (if it does, it is of the darkest variety), Michael Shannon stands out in every sense as Nicky, the disgruntled brother of Hillary Swank, whose mother (Blythe Danner) is stricken with Alzheimer's and whose father (Robert Forster) won't accept the severity of her condition. From first-time writer-director Elizabeth Chomko, the film pulls no punches when it comes to families dealing with this disease, but it also allows Shannon to voice the no-filter frustration of the entire family with some choice one-liners that both underscore and diffuse the tension this family must endure. Played by any other actor, Nicky's words might have seemed cruel, but Shannon infuses his delivery with a sly combination of blunt-force wit and not-giving-a-crap ignorance. It's a lethal, often hilarious combination that might almost make you feel guilty for laughing at all were his words not so truthful and necessary.

sundance 2018 blindspotting

Ben Pearson - Daveed Diggs in Blindspotting

Of the 15 films I saw at Sundance 2018, my favorite comedic performance came during the opening night film. In Blindspotting, Daveed Diggs (Hamilton) plays Collin, a convicted felon desperately trying to keep his head down and serve the remaining time on his probation without incident. Nothing about that description sounds funny, but Diggs finds plenty of opportunities for comedy in his winning, naturalistic performance. Quick-witted and sharp-tongued, Collin has an easy-going nature punctuated by freestyle raps about life in Oakland, and even in the moments when the film transitions into totally dramatic territory, there's a sincerity to Diggs' performance that keeps you hooked throughout. He's magnetic, and he absolutely has that ineffable "it factor" that casting agents are always looking for. Blindspotting contains the single biggest star-making performance of all the films I saw at the festival, and I'm confident we're going to look back on this movie as a big upward tick in the trajectory of rising star Daveed Diggs.

Best Protagonist

You Were Never Really Here Review

Ethan Anderton - Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here

Finding another performance as chilling as Joaquin Phoenix's as the gun-for-hire named Joe in You Were Never Really Here won't be easy. Phoenix goes from one end of the spectrum to the other as we see him as a gentle but grizzled soul taking care of his aging mother to being a cold, calculated vigilante who will stop at nothing to make bad people feel pain. Traumatized by an abusive past and a haunting period in his life as a Marine, Phoenix's character is haunting in his stoic spree of violence, which makes the few moments where he lets his emotions come through that much more hard-hitting.

Blindspotting review

Steve Prokopy - Daveed Diggs in Blindspotting

The Hamilton, Black-ish, and Wonder supporting player now comes into his own with a star-making turn as Collin, an ex-con who is trying to make it through his final few days of probation without incident—a tougher ask than one might think, especially in the company of his best friend Miles (Rafael Casal), who seems to be a magnet for trouble. Diggs (who co-wrote the film with Casal) proves himself to be an explosive and energetic performer, who also has an fiery gift for freestyle rapping, as is displayed in the film's harrowing climax, which pits an abusive police officer (Ethan Embry) against the face and voice of a man he would likely gun down if they met in the street. For better or worse, Collin is a hero for our times.

Sorry to Bother You

Ben Pearson – Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You

When down-on-his-luck 30-something Cassius Green gets caught in a lie during an interview with a telemarketing company, he thinks he's sunk. But hilariously, the interviewer appreciates his initiative and gives him the job anyway, which leads Cassius to discover a surprising truth about himself: he has a "white voice" inside of him that works perfectly for selling things over the phone. Lakeith Stanfield is excellent as Cassius in writer/director Boots Riley's unforgettable Sorry to Bother You, and while the movie careens into some wild and unexpected places in its third act, Stanfield is at his best in the film's simpler moments, like when Cassius realizes that his fellow telemarketers want to unionize. Our hero has finally found the one thing he's really good at in life, and though his heart lies with his friends on the front lines, there's a greedy side of him that doesn't find anything wrong with wanting to capitalize on his newfound talents. That complexity is what makes Cassius such a riveting character – we always understand him, even if we don't necessarily agree with him.

Best Antagonist

The Kindergarten Teacher Review

Ethan Anderton - Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Kindergarten Teacher

What makes Maggie Gyllenhaal's character Lisa Spinelli such a great antagonist in The Kindergarten Teacher is that she's an unlikely villain, one whose actions you wouldn't consider sinister, but merely unethical and extremely questionable. She's not a murderer or anything like that, but she exploits her position as a trusted educator, albeit in an effort to give a young prodigy poet a chance at a bright future. Her character's motivation is admirable, but the lengths to which she goes to act on them are what make her the villain of this movie. Even so, you might find yourself identifying with this antagonist up to a point, which makes her feel all the more real.

Sorry to Bother You

Steve Prokopy - Armie Hammer in Sorry to Bother You

As he proved in Call Me By Your Name, Armie Hammer can be a seductive son of a bitch. But what if he used those powers for evil? In Sorry to Bother You, he does just that, playing the CEO of a company that is said to be selling a no-worry lifestyle, free from concerns about rent or where your next meal will come from. In fact, he is selling a slave labor lifestyle, which leads to these slaves being sold to other companies. To make matters worse, Lift even spearheads the idea of splicing human and a certain animal's DNA to maximize production. With a sinister yet slick persona, Hammer is all about selling optimism, while also snorting enormous amounts of cocaine and hosting orgies. What's not to love?

Arizona review

Ben Pearson – Danny McBride in Arizona

There were solid antagonists in Lizzie, Sorry to Bother You, and Summer of '84, but in an effort to spread the love around a bit more, I want to briefly highlight Danny McBride's work in Arizona. In the midst of the late-2000s financial crisis, Sonny (McBride) is a disillusioned homeowner looking for someone to blame for his mistakes. Things escalate quickly during a confrontation with the realtor who sold him his house, and it's not long before the bodies begin to stack up. Sonny isn't committing premeditated murder, he's just trying to clean up the mess he's found himself in. And while he thinks his motives give him the moral high ground over Cassie (Rosemarie DeWitt), Sonny just keeps digging himself into a deeper hole. McBride is admittedly doing his typical Danny McBride routine here, but it works surprisingly well in the context of Sonny being the twisted embodiment of white male entitlement who refuses to take responsibility for his actions. As the film progresses, Sonny eventually embraces his role as a traditional horror movie villain and seems to enjoy the idea that he's able to kill without consequence. Unfortunately for him, Cassie's not just going to sit there and endure his bullshit – she has a plan of her own.

Most Pleasant Surprise

Hearts Beat Loud Review

Ethan Anderton - Hearts Beat Loud

Hearts Beat Loud was a pleasant surprise mostly because of how infectious the soundtrack from this charming father-daughter story turned out to be. It features some catchy original songs performed and sung by Kiersey Clemons, who has impressive pipes, and Nick Offerman and I can't get them out of my head. The quality of the music is along the lines of Sing Street, just in a more indie rock style that mixes a little of the old with a bit of the new. Outside of the soundtrack, the relationship between the father and daughter played by Offerman and Clemons is a touching one, and it makes their collaboration as musicians that much more meaningful, and it just might tug at your heartstrings a little more than you'd expect.

Hereditary Review

Steve Prokopy - Hereditary

In one of its strongest midnight programs in years, Sundance brought all manner of audience-pleasing, extreme cinema, and the results were fairly spectacular in some cases, including this pure nightmare fuel in the guise of a family drama. With particularly great performances by Toni Collette, Alex Wolff (as her son) and newcomer Milly Shapiro (as her daughter who probably sees ghosts), the movie walks the line between psychological and supernatural terror, and the result is sustained, character-based scares—a refreshing change from the jump-scare-heavy horror works that are so popular right now. Hereditary is a film so good that I don't want writer-director Ari Aster to make anything but horror film for the foreseeable future. Such strong voices should stick around in the genre that brought them to the dance in the first place.

Blindspotting review

Ben Pearson – Blindspotting

Blindspotting's IMDb synopsis describes the movie like this: "A buddy comedy in a world that won't let it be one." I was intrigued, but also a little wary – a film with a premise like that is hugely dependent on execution and the director's ability to balance conflicting tones, and this is the first feature for filmmaker Carlos Lopez Estrada. Luckily, he's up to the challenge. There are a few moments when it seems as if he's nearly lost control of his own movie, but he always rights the ship before any real damage is done. Estrada manages a deft balance between comedic buoyancy and devastating sequences of daily realities in America, and there's just enough heightened drama to give the film a stylized feeling that pays off in a big way during its climactic confrontation. With strong lead performances from co-writers Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, Blindspotting caught me off guard in the best way.

Biggest Disappointment

Summer of 84 Review

Ethan Anderton - Summer of '84

This was one of my most anticipated movies of the festival. It looked like it had the potential to take the 1980s nostalgia that has been glorified in the likes of Stranger Things and Stephen King's It and maybe give it some indie thriller edge. But instead, the movie coasts on nostalgia and doesn't bring anything new to the table. Not even an outstanding performance from Rich Sommer as the film's would-be villain or the satisfying synth score can save this movie from being bland and predictable. This could have been something so much more exciting, but instead it's uninspired and aggressively average.

The Catcher Was A Spy review

Steve Prokopy - The Catcher Was a Spy

Hopefully, there will be a worthy film made about the incredible, bordering on unbelievable, life of major league catcher Moe Berg, who also happened to speak nine languages, was an Ivy League graduate, and was a regular guest on quiz shows. Because of his notable intelligence, he was recruited by an intelligence-gathering team during World War II and became a field agent for this precursor to the CIA. He was also a fantastic keeper of secrets, including the fact that he was also gay. Sound like an incredible story, right? But director Ben Lewin's (The Sessions) biopic on Berg (played by the always likable Paul Rudd) is lacking any spark or tension that a proper, true-life story with this many interesting angles deserves. It's entirely possible that Berg stopped the Nazis from building the atomic bomb, but you never get a real sense of urgency from this telling of his story, which is a true shame.

The Catcher Was a Spy

Ben Pearson – The Catcher Was a Spy

The story of Moe Berg – a professional baseball player with multiple degrees from universities like Princeton and Columbia, spoke nine languages, and eventually became a spy for the United States government during World War II – deserves a much more lively film than The Catcher Was a Spy, which is easily my biggest disappointment of Sundance 2018. Star Paul Rudd seems like a good fit to play Berg on paper, but under the direction of Ben Lewin, he seems painfully out of place in what's supposed to be a serious period piece. Even Berg's main mission – to kill award-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg before he builds a nuclear bomb for the Germans – doesn't ever become all that engaging. Berg's true life adventures sound captivating, exciting, and thrilling, but sadly, Lewin couldn't bring those same qualities to his film. Even a supporting cast of phenomenal actors like Jeff Daniels, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti, and Guy Pearce can't provide a breath of life to this sleepy little movie. What a bummer.

I Didn't Get It

(We're shamelessly stealing the idea for the "I Didn't Get It" and "They Didn't Get It" awards from the Filmspotting: SVU podcast, and the categories are pretty self-explanatory: "I Didn't Get It" winners are movies that have received critical praise we don't personally agree with, and "They Didn't Get It" winners are movies we enjoyed more than everyone else.)

Wildlife

Ethan Anderton - Wildlife

You'll find plenty of acclaim for this directorial debut from Paul Dano, from a script he co-wrote with Zoe Kazan, adapted from Richard Ford's book of the same name. But despite some praiseworthy performances from Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ed Oxenbould, I just couldn't connect with this movie. I'm not sure if there's some metaphor that I'm not getting with regards to the wildfire that takes Jake Gyllenhaal away from his family in an effort to help them stay afloat while his wife falls into a mid-life crisis, or if it's just a lesser version of Revolutionary Road set in a Montana mountain town, but it felt like there was a lot of tense lead up with very little payoff in the end. The movie is commendable, but I didn't love it.

Our New President

Steve Prokopy - Our New President

Although it did take a Special Jury Award for Editing in the World Cinema Documentary category, director Maxim Pozdorovkin's video essay about how the Russian media influenced its own people and the world about the perils of Hillary Clinton becoming the next U.S. president and the countless ways in which Donald Trump would be the better man for the job was marred by frenetic editing and an unclear sense of theme. Using primarily available footage from state-run news outlets and YouTube clips, we get a sense that the beginnings of "fake news" took root first in Russian before Trump ever uttered the phrase. Read by newscasters hand picked by Putin, ridiculous stories about Clinton's health (one organization implies she has AIDS) coupled with devious puff pieces about Trump combine to turn a great number of Russian citizens into some of the most vocal Trump supporters on the planet. While I always prefer a film not spell out everything, Our New President could have been made so much better by simply connecting a few dots.

Nancy

Ben Pearson – Nancy

Christina Choe's Nancy is a spare, gloomy exploration of identity that features a monotonous performance from actress Andrea Riseborough as a woman who thinks she may be the daughter of a couple who's little girl was kidnapped thirty years earlier. It's one of only two films I didn't even bother reviewing for the site because I didn't think they were worth discussing. I didn't find much to grasp onto with Riseborough, who was in four movies at this year's festival, but this is the kind of movie that positive reviews praise for its performances: "Riseborough lives inside this character with such depth that it's easy to get lost in each moment," says The Film Stage, who calls this "career-best work" from the actress. So imagine my shock when Nancy ended up winning the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. But that win apparently wasn't a surprise to everyone; here's a quick excerpt from Indiewire's review: "While Riseborough's performance is the main attraction here, at least the most initially dazzling, Choe's writing is as taut and incisive as it comes." As the category title indicates, I simply do not get the praise for this one.

They Didn't Get It

Bodied Trailer

Ethan Anderton - Bodied

Even though there have been plenty of good reviews for the Eminem-produced rap battle movie directed by Joseph Kahn, from TIFF, Fantastic Fest, AFI Fest, and this special Sundance sneak preview, most of the audience in the theater seemed strangely subdued. Sundance might not be the best venue for such a subversive movie like this, mostly because of how offensive humor is utilized throughout the movie. For the more incendiary one-liners and raps in this movie, the audience almost seemed unsure if they could laugh, which makes me feel like they don't really get what Kahn was trying to do here. But I hope I'm wrong once general audiences get a chance to see this movie.

Tyrel review

Steve Prokopy - TYREL

A year after Get Out made its explosive debut at Sundance, this interesting (albeit lesser) would-be companion piece places Jason Mitchell's titular character at a party in the Catskills for a drunken birthday weekend with his best friend (Christopher Abbott) and a sizable group of his friends, all of whom are white. Although the latest from writer/director Sebastian Silva doesn't pretend to be anything more than a testosterone- and booze-fueled weekend of dude-bro bonding and frank discussion, it's clear that from Tyrel's perspective, he's in his own version of a horror movie, complete with white guilt and a barrage of questions about the black experience. Nervy performances from a cast that includes Caleb Landry Jones and a revelatory Michael Cera make TYREL an exercise is low-level tension and barely perceptible, between-the-lines racism.

lizzie

Ben Pearson – Lizzie

I saw Lizzie at 8:30 the morning after a midnight screening, a scenario I tried to minimize during the festival because it can sometimes put an unfair burden on the morning movie to be good enough to "justify" my decision to lose sleep in order to catch it. Pair that with the bad buzz I'd heard about Lizzie before walking into it, and I knew there was a strong possibility that I wasn't going to like this movie. But something magical happened: Lizzie ended up being one of my favorite movies of the festival, a feminist parable that's practically scorching with righteous determination and also an intimate drama that features subdued and touching performances from lead actresses Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart. But I seem to be in the minority in that opinion: Indiewire didn't buy into the movie's central relationship ("Even with all the furtive glances and breathlessly passed notes...they never push beyond feeling like warm acquaintances") and they didn't find the story nearly as dynamic as I did ("Yet repetition grinds Lizzie to a halt, and the film lacks anything resembling energy, cycling through the same beats until something happens only because it has to"). It's unfortunate this didn't resonate with more people, but you'll have the chance to see it and decide for yourselves soon since Saban Films picked it up a few days ago.

Wildest Movie

Assassination Nation

Ethan Anderton - Assasination Nation

This movie from writer/director is absolutely bonkers. A small town called Salem tears itself apart when an unknown hacker starts uploading all the most intimate texts, pictures and internet searches of its residents. It starts with the mayor, moves on to the high school principal and slowly but surely the entire town has their online activity exposed. The result is an explosion of hate and aggression, the likes of which are usually only spewed from behind the anonymity of our computer screens. The insanity of the internet spreads like a wildfire through this town, and the result is all hell breaking loose.

Bodied

Steve Prokopy - Bodied

Although technically shown at an invite-only screening event, this festival favorite (which was recently picked up for distribution by YouTube) is an exciting and powerful movie about not only rap battling, but also the truth behind the supposedly hardcore men and women of all races who face off and sling vicious bars at each other. Veteran music video director Joseph Kahn (who has worked regularly with, among others, Eminem, who produced the movie) and co-writer Alex Larsen tell the story of Adam, a white graduate student (Calum Worthy) who is writing a thesis on the art of the rap battle and gets pulled into the world when it turns out he's got a flair for the art form. Jackie Long plays battle champion Behn Grymm, a supporter and mentor to Adam, who eventually becomes his toughest adversary.

Mandy review

Ben Pearson – Mandy

Long before Nicolas Cage samples LSD that belongs to a demon, Mandy establishes itself as Sundance's clear winner in this category. Director Panos Cosmatos, the son of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra director George P. Cosmatos, follows up his 2010 movie Beyond the Black Rainbow with this psychedelic, kaleidoscopic nightmare of a thriller, a movie doused in bright red and green lighting that laughs in the face of realism and looks like the cover of a high fantasy novel blended with a heavy metal album cover. There's a slow burn aspect here (and in the movie's most disturbing scene, someone actually gets burned alive), but when it kicks into the next gear, Nic Cage is let loose in a way you've rarely seen before. Imagine Cage starring in Hobo with a Shotgun and you may come close to approximating the level of violence, gore, and ass-kicking ridiculousness on display here.

Movie That Made Us Cry

Won't You Be My Neighbor Review

Ethan Anderton - Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Having grown up with Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (like several other generations of kids who grew up between the late 1960s and late 1990s), Fred Rogers has always held a special place in my heart. But even I was not prepared for how touching this tribute to a true icon of television could be. What makes this documentary so lovely is that you see that Rogers was such a pure soul who only wanted to help children understand the complicated world around them and feel love. There are so many beautiful moments in this documentary, both from archived episodes and emotional talking heads looking back on the life of Fred Rogers. The end of this movie will have tears streaming down your face just as they did mine. Honestly, I'm tearing up now just thinking about it.

Hearts Beat Loud Review

Steve Prokopy - Hearts Beat Loud

Sometimes, simply being sweet and good hearted is enough to win the day. Director/co-writer Brett Haley follows up last year's sensational Sundance look at actors growing old (The Hero) with this moving tale of a vinyl record store owner (Nick Offerman) preparing to send his pre-med-bound daughter (Kiersey Clemons) to college. This seismic shift in his life comes as he's preparing to give up his store and devote most of his time to taking care of his mother (Blythe Danner), while likely working a job he doesn't love. In a last ditch effort to bond with his daughter, the two turn their nightly jam sessions into an actual band and record a few songs, one of which becomes a modest Spotify hit. She's resistant to taking the band any further, while he clings to the possibility that this might be an opportunity calling. Whatever happens, big changes are ahead, and we hope their relationship survives. The perfect blend of music, family and emotion.

Search - Still 1

Ben Pearson – Search

Sundance movies can often lean into their characters' despair, so you can sort of become inured to depictions of sadness and misery after a few days packed with screenings. That's a caveat to say that while I didn't full-on cry during any movie at this year's festival, the one that made me come much closer than anything else was also my favorite film at the fest: Search. As I mentioned in my review, the film opens with an extended montage that's reminiscent of Pixar's Up in the way it tells a concise and heartbreaking story in just a few minutes, and the fact that this loss of a family member is depicted only through computer screens doesn't make it any less heart-wrenching. When I see this again later in the year, far from frozen tundra of Park City, perhaps I'll have thawed enough for the tears to properly flow during this segment.

Favorite Documentary

Mr. Rogers

Ethan Anderton - Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Can you blame me for naming this as my favorite documentary of the festival after how emotional it made me (as described above)? I was expecting the Robin Williams documentary to pull at my heartstrings a little more since the comedian was a little closer to my childhood and adult heart, but it simply doesn't hit the emotional sweet spots of Won't You Be My Neighbor?. And while there may be more important documentaries that screened at the festival, I can't help but highlight this film, if only because it profiles a TV legend that we need now more than ever. It's a reminder that Fred Rogers was a treasure the likes of which we may never have in pop culture ever again.

Hal Review

Steve Prokopy - Hal

A documentary about a subject one is familiar with is great, but one that serves as a reminder and refresher of an artist that is in serious danger of being forgotten, even by cinephiles, is essential stuff. From veteran editor and first-time direct Amy Scott comes Hal, a fitting portrait of humanist filmmaker and humanitarian activist Hal Ashby, whose output in the 1970s (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Coming Home, Being There) is as crucial a filmography as any director of the period. Using deep-dive archival behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, and personal letters, along with newer interviews by peers and admirers alike, this movie traces not only Ashby's rise from Oscar-winning editor (for In The Heat of the Night) to his rapid decline in the 1980s. Sadly, the film is also a reminder that being a maverick artist often comes at a price, but it's that brutal honesty that separates this work from other star-driven biopics.

Generation Wealth review

Ben Pearson – Generation Wealth

A quick caveat: I desperately wanted to see Three Identical Strangers, but couldn't fit it into my screening schedule. But I'm more than happy to list Lauren Greenfield's outstanding documentary Generation Wealth as my favorite documentary I saw at Sundance 2018. It's a disturbing, sobering look at the impact our pop culture can have on the human psyche; if you don't keep your guard up, the film seems to say, you could turn into one of these people: a broken former porn star who's dreams of stardom didn't exactly come to pass the way she imagined, a high-powered finance executive who's obsessed with money, a pageant mom who paraded her child in front of the world for the promises of fame and fortune. But it's more than just a depressing warning: it's also a revealing portrait of Greenfield herself, a photographer whose 25-plus-year career has explored the themes of wealth and excess over and over again. We already know our collective societal values have gone to hell, so the most interesting aspect of this movie is watching Greenfield come to terms with the choices she's made over her career and explore why she's been so fascinated with this topic for decades.

2018 Sundance Film Festival Awards

Individual Top Five Lists

Ethan Anderton

  • The Tale
  • Blindspotting
  • Won't You Be My Neighbor
  • Bodied
  • The Kindergarten Teacher

Steve Prokopy

  • Leave No Trace
  • The Kindergarten Teacher
  • Blindspotting
  • Hereditary
  • Hearts Beat Loud

Ben Pearson

  • Search
  • Lizzie
  • Sorry to Bother You
  • Generation Wealth
  • Mandy