The Movies Worth Watching from this Year’s Sundance
BY JASON GORBER
Every January in snowy Park City, Utah, just after all the Oscar bait titles have made their pre-holiday bows, cinephiles from all over the world gather in a kind of cultural reset, where the first class of films for the year make their appearance on the world’s stage. This collection of mostly independent films are often a far cry from more general studio fare, but many of the works that come out from these screenings go on to dominate the discussion throughout the year. In 2017, Oscar-winner Get Outplayed as a surprise midnight screening, and other titles like Call Me by Your Name found their first audience here.
2018’s class was a mixed bag, with the festival feeling the effects of the #MeToo movement’s eruption last fall. Sundance was the festival that Harvey Weinstein helped build up through mad acquisition battles, and, while the mood was a bit more guarded, the films tried to make up for it by taking Get Out’s lead and pushing even harder at certain buttons.
Here are the most interesting films to come out of this year’s slate.
There were plenty of films that brashly looked at issues of race in America, but none did so this year with as much subtlety and sophistication as Sebastián Silva’s ode to bro-culture and social awkwardness. Shot with documentary precision and with an impeccable cast including Jason Mitchell, Michael Cera, Ann Dowd, and the late, great Reg E. Cathey, this is a film that consistently undercuts audience expectations, twisting any easy feelings of righteousness into knots. It’s less flashy than some that derived more attention, but the rewards are all the more powerful because of that.
While we get many good fiction films out of Sundance, the documentary slate is truly extraordinary. Tops of the list included Sandi Tan’s deliriously fun and quirky Shirkers. A tale of indie filmmaking on the streets of Singapore, the tale turns into a kind of emotional true-crime story, with the director looking back at what happened to her lost work. Colourful, fascinating, and unforgettable, the film was picked up in a lucrative Netflix deal, but you owe it to yourself to see it with an audience if you can.
Toni Collette is no stranger to classics – her part in The Sixth Sense proved a far cry from her breakthrough in Muriel’s Wedding, but in this classically-styled family horror film, she outdoes anything she’s done before in this genre. Along with Gabriel Byrne and Ann Dowd (who was in half a dozen films this fest!), this creepy, Polanskian thriller is macabre and extremely effective. Smart, slick horror is very much in vogue, and with the box office success of the likes of A Quiet Place, this is a film that’s deserving of attention when it opens this summer.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
In an instant frontrunner for next year’s Oscar best documentary, Morgan Neville, has provided the perfect tribute to Fred Rogers. The story behind the children’s entertainer who helped educate generations of children is one of a powerful mission fueled by his faith. Rogers’ show never shied away from letting kids into some of the darker aspects that we encounter. Profoundly political, Neville’s film unmasks a compassionate conservatism long forgotten in contemporary discourse, and despite eschewing any hagiographic elements, the spotlight on Rogers still manages to sanctify the remarkable legacy that this cardigan-wearing fixture left behind.
Indie fests are littered with coming-of-age tales, but when one gets everything right, it’s still cause for celebration. Bo Burnahm manages a pitch perfect dramedy that follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher) through the travails of adolescence. Even the way the tired ennui of the teachers is portrayed is cause for glee, as each moment’s specificity rings perfectly true. It’s a film that could easily have been a farcical mess but instead reigns as a glorious testament to a time of supreme awkwardness and fumbling towards adulthood.
There were few films scarier than this Mexican drama about a family trip to a resort, one that I described as being as if Kubrick shot some vacation footage. In a land of dreary presentations, awful strangers trying to become instant friends, and unnerving poolside activities, the film toys with all the tropes of a conspiracy thriller by finding the ghastly in the quotidian nonsense endemic of such travel destinations. It’s clever stuff, and anyone who has fought with futility against the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of a tropical resort will share the same chills that I felt.