The Best and Worst Movies of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival

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If you’ve been paying attention the buzz out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, you’ve probably heard about the “weak” slate of narrative films – and it’s true, there was no obvious commercial breakout like The Big Sick or Manchester by the Sea. But that’s an awfully limiting view of the cinema, don’t you think? Of the 16 narrative features I took in before and during my stay in Park City, I only saw a couple that were downright bad, and a couple more that disappointed. Everything else was at least good; a few were much better than that. (And did I mention the documentaries?) So here are some thoughts on what you should keep an eye out for – and what to maybe skip – in the months ahead.

Danny McBride in ‘Arizona.’

WORST OF THE FEST (RUNNER-UP)

Monster

This overcooked melodrama is a clumsy mix of subpar courtroom drama and subpar crime thriller, sifted through a deadly meta-textual filter; its protagonist, a 17-year-old accused of standing lookout for a deadly robbery, is a film student and filmmaker, which means we get classroom scenes with lectures about storytelling and conflict and, so help me, a discussion of Rashomon and the elusive nature of truth. It’s ironic, you see, because that’s what the movie is about! Director Anthony Mandler tries to elevate the material by cranking the shooting, cutting, and scoring up to frenetic levels, but it just looks desperate; Monster is earnest and well-acted (particularly by Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Ehle), but that’s about it.

WORST OF THE FEST

Arizona

Set within the foreclosures, reductions, and short sells of suburban Arizona gated communities in the aftermath of the housing crisis, this would-be midnight movie from director Jonathan Watson begins like a dark cousin of The Big Short before careening wildly between pitch-black comedy and slasher movie. Danny McBride stars as an angry homeowner who accidentally kills his real estate agent (Seth Rogen); Rosemarie DeWitt, who deserves far better than this, is a fellow agent who witnesses the crime, and the many, many more he commits after kidnapping her. McBride does his best to find a balance between blustery character humor and genuine menace, but the movie’s just too graphic in its gore and smug in its violence, which throws the whole thing out of whack, and the inconsistencies of the script don’t help; by its closing scenes, it’s become a grim slog. There are some laughs, and some clever ideas. But somewhere along the line, someone needed to decide what the fuck this movie was going to be.

Gus Van Sant introduces ‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.’ (Photo Credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire)

DISAPPOINTMENTS

The trouble with being excited about a movie, based on its personnel and premise, is that it then has something to live up to. Both of these were on our most-anticipated list; both of them failed to meet those (perhaps inflated?) expectations.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Since the massive box office success of Good Will Hunting, Gus Van Sant has veered back and forth between similarly commercial sentimental fare (Milk, Finding Forrester) and aggressively-to-off-puttingly experimental works (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days). If that schizophrenia is peculiar when considering the filmography, imagine how odd it is to see those two modes co-exiting in the same picture. The experimentation plays better; there’s some inventive crosscutting and structural play, and the form seems a good match with the subject (John Callahan, who became a darkly comic cartoonist after a drunken car crash left him paralyzed). But Van Sant’s script keeps putting that stuff on pause so someone can do a maudlin, Oscar clip-ready, teary-eyed monologue. The actors mostly come out looking good (except poor Rooney Mara, saddled with an absolute nothing of a role), but this one’s ultimately a washout.

Juliet, Naked

Nick Hornby’s novel 2009 novel Juliet, Naked is one of his best, returning to the types of his seminal High Fidelity with a bit more cynicism and self-awareness, and it’s hard to imagine better fits for its love triangle of forgotten rock star, obsessive fan, and the woman caught between them than (respectively) Ethan Hawke, Chris O’Dowd, and Rose Byrne. They’re all fabulous; Byrne is particularly good, conveying the character’s quiet melancholy while landing laughs big and small, and Hawke nicely captures the look (shorts and sandals chic) and gait of a guy who stopped caring years ago, a grizzled shadow of his former self. Scattered moments and sequences work, capturing the way an email correspondence can be a ray of light in the fog of a bad relationship, for example, or getting at something insightful about how, at a certain point, fans take ownership of art. But director Jesse Peretz directs in a flat, uninteresting, TV-movie style, clumsily staging and poorly timing his would-be comic set pieces. Much like his last feature, Our Idiot Brother, he takes a clever concept and an unbeatable cast and sands it down into something utterly forgettable. What a shame.

Boots Riley introduces ‘Sorry to Bother You.’ (Photo Credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire)

MESSY BUT MEMORABLE

In the breathless hyperbole of first festival reactions, it’s very easy to boil things down to “brilliant!” or “garbage!” But some fall somewhere in between – imperfect, but interesting. Like these:

Sorry to Bother You

The Coup frontman Boots Riley makes his feature directorial debut with this broad social satire, and firmly establishes himself as a singular comic voice – weird, wild, and provocative. He indulges in everything from indie-movie in-jokes to Zucker-Abrams-Zucker style background gags (there’s even an explicit Monty Python shout-out), all infused with a healthy dose of his Marxist sensibility. It runs out of gas a bit in the back third, but even then, his sterling cast carries him through; Lakeith Stanfield’s sprung style and off-kilter readings are an ideal delivery system for the script’s verbal wit, Armie Hammer’s role is brief but (to say the least) striking, and though Tessa Thompson doesn’t get quite enough to do, her individual moments (particularly the glimpse of her performance art) are inspired. It’s kind of mess, I suppose – but then again, so was Putney Swope.

A Stupid and Futile Gesture

Doug Kenney was the co-founder of National Lampoon, who went on to co-write Animal House and Caddyshack before his absurdly early death in a probable suicide. Wet Hot American Summer director David Wain’s portrait of the comedy guru offsets its been-there sad-clown stuff with witty self-awareness, slyly sending up biopic conventions in its dialogue (“That’s Tim Matheson in the orange sweater. He’s about the say the title of this movie”) and its structure – which has Martin Mull as the wise old sage Kenney never became, kibitzing on the rise of younger counterpart Will Forte and commenting on the narrative and its shortcuts. It occasionally falls prey to the hero-worship of the 2015 Lampoon documentary that also premiered here, and can’t figure out how to make more than one of its women more than a nagging girlfriend/wife. But those speed bumps aside, its an engaging picture, and as funny as all movies about funny people should be.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in a post-screening Q&A for ‘The Kindergarten Teacher.’ (Photo Credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire)

GREAT PERFORMANCES

Four leading turns – by two men and two women – that will stick with this viewer for a long, long while.

The Kindergarten Teacher

Maggie Gyllenhaal is smashingly good as a twenty-plus year kindergarten teacher who takes an intense interest in a student that seems to be a poetry prodigy – perhaps, it soon seems, too intense of an interest. Writer/director Sara Colangelo (adapting Nadav Lapid’s 2014 Israeli film) shifts from character drama to comedy of desperation and back again, and does so with such nimble grace, we hardly notice the sense of dread she’s sneaking in. It becomes one of those films where there’s no doubt something terrible is going to happen; it just becomes a matter of what, and when. The pieces don’t all snap into place, but the skill and bravado of that Gyllenhaal performance keeps the picture humming.

Lizzie

Chloë Sevigny turns in a monster performance as Lizzie Borden, the headstrong and independent young woman who famously, one morning in 1892, murdered her father and stepmother with a hatchet. Or did she? She was found not guilty – her all-male jury simply didn’t believe that a woman of her social standing could commit such a crime – and screenwriter Bryce Kass approaches the murders sideways, skipping and dodging the event itself until both motives and fallout have been properly dramatized. It’s an effective approach, and director Craig William Macneill deploys the tools of Gothic horror (particularly the assaultive score’s stings and trills) to create the proper mood, and prepare us for the bloodshed at the film’s (but not the story’s) conclusion. Kristen Stewart is appropriately withdrawn as the servant who becomes Lizzie’s intimate – their everyday interactions take on a casual eroticism, which is a nice touch – and Jamey Sheridan is appropriately loathsome as her degenerate father.

Jon Hamm, director Brad Anderson, and writer Tony Gilroy in a post-screening Q&A for ‘Beirut.’ (Photo Credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire)

GREAT PERFORMANCES (CONT.)

Beirut

So here’s one with a backstory: way back in the early 1990s, screenwriter Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, the good Bourne movies) penned a script about a diplomat/fixer negotiating a delicate hostage swap, but it didn’t get made. In fact, it sat on a shelf for twenty-plus years before landing in the hands of director Brad Anderson (Session 9, The Machinist) and star Jon Hamm, and here we are. Some of the storytelling devices have gathered a bit of dust, but overall, it’s a primo piece of Gilroy craftsmanship, full of narrative curveballs, crisply defined characters, and sharp dialogue; Rosamund Pike gets some good moments (and upturns some expectations), while Hamm is an ideal Gilroy sorta-hero. In short, it’s the kind of middlebrow, middle-budget, muscular, star-driven thriller studios used to make all the damn time – and they are missed.

Burden

Full disclosure: I looked at the logline of this one – the true story of how a Southern Klansman was swayed by the love of a good woman and the patience of black preacher to renounce that life and confess to his misdeeds – and cringed, preparing for the worst kind of festival treacle. But this is a powerful and moving picture, thanks to the complexities of its characters, the precision of the portraiture, and (especially) the skill of the actors. Garret Hedlund’s taciturn physicality is riveting, Andrea Riseborough is fierce (and barely recognizable), and Tom Wilkinson works up a chilling portrait of affable evil. Maybe it’s just a case of low expectations, but this one got to me.

Director Desiree Akhavan and actors Jennifer Ehle, Sasha Lane, and Chloë Grace Moretz in the post-screening Q&A for ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post.’ (Photo Credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire)

BEST OF THE FEST (RUNNER-UP)

The Tale

It’s hard to imagine a film being more of its moment than this potent and powerful story of repressed sexual assault, which marks the narrative filmmaking debut of documentarian Jennifer Fox – with a story based on her own journey, so the fiction/non-fiction lines get blurry. On top of that, the film is preoccupied with questions of memory, of scenes in which the present interrogates the past (and vice versa), and with the question of what one even does with memories like these, once they begin to reveal themselves. Fox structures the film as something of a mystery story, but there’s nothing trivial about the topic – and she refuses to soft-soap the subject matter, as difficult as it may be to take in. The Tale has its problems; the dialogue is frequently stilted, and while Laura Dern and Ellen Bustyn are unsurprisingly brilliant, Common is embarrassingly bad as Dern’s fiancé. But those issues are ultimately secondary anyway; this is probably an instance where a film’s overall effect simply matters more than the particulars.

BEST OF THE FEST

5. The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Desiree Akhavan follows up her achingly insightful and wickedly funny 2014 Sundance feature Appropriate Behavior with this marvelous adaptation of Emily M. Danforth’s novel, in which a young lesbian (Chloë Grace Moretz, in a warm and wonderfully open performance) is shipped off to the “God’s Promise” gay conversion camp after she’s caught making out with her best girl friend at the school prom. The portrait of evangelical therapy is eerily convincing (without veering into lazy caricature), as is the dramatization of the guilt, pain, and self-loathing that is such a key component of these programs. But first and foremost, it’s an engaging comedy/drama, full of rich characters and witty dialogue. The tonal shifts in the third act are a touch over-telegraphed, but that minor complaint aside, this is one of the best of the fest.

Jakob Cedergren in ‘The Guilty.’

BEST OF THE FEST (CONT.)

4. The Guilty

This tight-fisted thriller from first-time Danish director Gustav Möller runs a trim 84 minutes, all of them spent within the walls of a 911 call center, where the smooth surfaces and shiny computer screens give the entire enterprise a slick claustrophobia. Asger (the excellent Jakob Cedergren) is a cop busted down to jockeying the phones while awaiting judgment on a dodgy shooting; near the end of his shift, he gets a call from a woman who’s been kidnapped by her abusive husband, whom Asgar tries to save from his considerable distance. The writing and acting are sharp as a tack, but Möller’s real skill is understanding and manipulating audience expectation – there are scenes where he knows we’re ahead of him, creating unbearable tension as we wait for the movie to catch up, and then he’ll turn the whole movie upside down. Crisp, slippery, and smashing.

3. The Rider

Chloé Zhao’s modest, slice of life drama concerns Brady (Brady Jandreu), a horse trainer and bronco rider who’s first seen on the mend from a particularly nasty injury. And because we begin with such a clear view of the dangers of his work, the subtle threat of further injury looms in the background of even the quieter scenes, creating tension at the most unexpected moments. That tension pays off with a climax of borderline visceral emotional urgency, and an unsentimental ending with a pragmatic message that, to put it mildly, is not common to cinematic sports stories. Zhao has a gift for capturing the listlessness of these lives, directing in an uncluttered, no-nonsense style that fuses the naturalism of documentary with the beauty of a good Western.

Director Lynne Ramsay and star Joaquin Phoenix introduce ‘You Were Never Really Here.’ (Photo Credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire)

BEST OF THE FEST (CONT.)

2. You Were Never Really Here

The latest from Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) opens with a series of upsetting sounds and images, but in such garbled audio and tight close-ups, you can’t fully determine what’s happened (except that it was nothing good). She puts the viewer off-balance right away, a mode that’s maintained throughout this adaptation of Jonathan Ames’s novella, featuring Joaquin Phoenix as a contract killer in a ball cap, hoodie, and Mel Gibson’s beard who takes a job that goes, to put it mildly, off the rails. There’s an unwinking hopelessness and despair in this parade of death, the filmmaker refusing to put a shiny gloss on its considerable bleakness, yet it also stylishly scuzzy and weirdly funny (in the darkest possible manner), full of story turns that land like gut punches and scenes you simultaneously can’t bear to watch, and can’t look away from. It has the skill of a genre exercise – but the soul of a chamber piece.

1. Private Life

It’s been more than a decade since Tamra Jenkins’ last feature, The Savages (also at Sundance), and it was worth the wait. This one has a sitcom-ready premise – after several failures of conception and fertilization, a fortysomething couple (Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti) decide to try the process with an egg donor, and ask their step-niece (Kayli Carter) to make the contribution. And it’s a very funny movie; the dialogue is quotable but conversational, and there are some uproarious beats (many provided by Denis O’Hare as Hahn’s peppy, self-consciously cool OBGYN). But Jenkins can flip the switch from genuine hilarity to emotional intensity in an instant (and without skipping a beat), crafting a portrait of a marriage that’s genuine, honest, and at times, uncomfortably real.