The Best of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival

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.

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