The Best of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival

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.

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