The word I’ll use to describe the 2018 Sundance Film Festival is: different. Now I don’t mean “different” in a politely negative way, such as when I ask a friend about my outfit and they reply with, “It’s… different.” No, I’m using it as in: change, growth, new. The mood at the festival was different. I felt different. And the perspectives on screen were mercifully, different.
I’ve read articles about this Sundance being weak or lackluster, but I didn’t feel that. Maybe for buyers, but not in terms of the films themselves.The festival remains a refreshing start to my year thanks to the wide variety of perspectives shown on screens. Overall, 13,468 films, indie episodics and VR projects were submitted to the festival, with 122 feature films making the cut. Out of those movies, 53 were by first-time filmmakers, and 37% were directed by women. It’s a contrast to the rest of the yearly fare delivered by studios, where 96% of the 100 highest grossing films are directed by men.
The content of the movies at Sundance felt fresh and bold, as independent cinema often does, delivering blistering messages on racism, police brutality and sexual assault. There were lighter options too, like Bo Burnham’s directorial debut ‘Eighth Grade’, about a painfully awkward teenage girl, which managed to be funny and sweet in a non-sentimental way. Or ‘Mandy’ which featured a particularly insane Nicolas Cage performance. And there was inspiration to be had in the documentary category. I particularly enjoyed ‘Bad Reputation’, the tribute to rock icon Joan Jett, and Kimberly Reed’s ‘Dark Money’, which followed a group of everyday people in Montana fighting to keep their democracy clean.
But the consensus on the slate of movies was also different. I spoke to multiple film critics, read their tweets and reviews, and noted that there was not much agreeing going on. One person’s masterpiece seemed to be another’s flop. This is unlike previous years, such as 2017, where the majority agreed that ‘Call Me By Your Name’, ‘Mudbound’ and ‘The Big Sick’ were the films to watch. I loved the cinematography, editing, sound design and message of ‘Blindspotting’, whereas others thought it was heavy-handed. I believe ‘The Tale’ to be important filmmaking, but it was said to be too uncomfortable to watch. And while many critics gave praise to ‘Burden’, with Garrett Hedlund as a KKK member who changes his ways, I just couldn’t feel empathy for his character. I don’t think this disagreement is a bad thing. One of the most mystifying parts of movie watching for me is how two people can see the same film and have a completely different experience.
The effect of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, the Me Too movement and Times Up initiative was definitely felt in snowy Utah. The overall mood of the festival was much more subdued, yet determined. Topics of conversation in panels and interviews was focused on current events. The corporate sponsored lounges, premiere parties and celebrity gifting suites were all still there, but I noticed far fewer non-film goers lounge-hopping on Main Street. The theaters were packed, but the streets were not. There was also the Respect Rally, held a year after the Women’s March. Back then, everyone was emotional. Even I, old stone Malone, was crying. It was the first coming together for women and it felt extremely powerful. I remember at the time, getting a lot of backlash online for attending. This year, everyone is in agreement. There is no denying of the problem, now it’s about looking ahead to find solutions. And I may be a hopeless film geek romantic, but I do believe in the power of cinema to get us all thinking in a new, and yes, different way.
MY TOP PICKS:
Sorry To Bother You: The name Boots Riley is familiar in the music world, but with this debut feature, he’s announced himself as a vital voice in film. Lakeith Stanfield is wonderful in his starring role as Cassius, a telemarketer who wants more out of life. Tessa Thompson is his artist, activist girlfriend with the best earrings you’ll ever see, and Armie Hammer has a startling role as a coke snorting CEO. As bizarre as a Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry film, with sharp satire about race and the power of activism. I guarantee you will keep thinking about this film for a long time after it ends. [Annapurna picked this one up, so look out for its release date soon]
Wildlife: Paul Dano proves he is not just a talented actor, or writer, but a director too. Is there anything he can’t do? Set in Montana in the 1950s, the story (based on a book and adapted by Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan) is about a struggling family and how the mother copes when the father leaves to fight a wildfire. The cast is remarkable, with Cary Mulligan giving another tour-de-force performance, young Aussie Ed Oxenbould playing the son with sensitivity and Jake Gyllenhaal as the father you want to hate, but just can’t. The cinematography is just as gorgeous, and the ending packs an emotional punch. [Still to be bought, but I can’t imagine it will go unsold]
American Animals: Part heist film, part documentary and based on a true story about a group of college kids who decide to steal some rare books. Like he did with ‘The Imposter’, director Bart Layton plays with the idea of memory, with the real people interjecting into the narrative. Moves at a pace, both humorous and tense, with a fantastic young cast including Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan. [This is the first acquisition by Movie Pass, along with The Orchard]
The Tale: Jennifer Fox uses a painful story from her past, starring Laura Dern as a documentarian who investigates herself. She looks into a relationship she had with a 40 year-old when she was just 13, and realizes it was not as loving as she had believed. Hard to watch at times, but told with a lot of sensitivity, and investigates a type of abuse we don’t openly talk about. [Bought by HBO Films, look for it on the cable channel this year]
The Miseducation of Cameron Post: Chloe Grace Moretz stars as a teenage girl shipped off to a gay conversion camp after being caught with her girlfriend. The film is full of interesting actors (such as Sasha Lane from ‘American Honey’) and director Desiree Akhavan deftly moves between humor and emotion. The idea of being able to “fix” sexual preference is absurdly funny, but the film doesn’t shy away from the deep toll it takes - to hear constantly that there is something wrong with the way you love. [No buyer announced but it won big at the awards, so I’m sure it will find a home]
Blindspotting: ‘Hamilton’ star Daveed Diggs gets a lead role alongside his real life friend Rafael Casal, playing two guys living in Oakland. The movie has a lot to say about police brutality, racism, cultural appropriation, privilege and gentrification. I enjoyed the speed with which director Carlos López Estrada moved through those messages, cranking the pace up with fast cuts, interesting camera angles, and a pulsing soundtrack. [Lionsgate bought this one, I’m sure it will be in theaters this year]
Generation Wealth: Photographer and documentarian Lauren Greenfield (‘The Queen of Versailles’) has spent decades studying the idea of wealth. This film brings her work together as she revisits previous subjects to see how truly damaging excess can be. It’s also a very personal story for Greenfield, as she looks at how her own workaholism may have hurt her family. Fascinating and disturbing. [Made with Amazon already attached, out in summer]
You Were Never Really Here: Lynne Ramsay’s crime thriller had its premiere at Cannes last year, and played at Sundance in the Spotlight section. This is based on a novella by Jonathan Ames, about a PTSD-ridden anti-hero hitman who finds his purpose. The subject matter may sound similar to many other movies (and his weapon of choice, a hammer) but in Ramsay’s hands it’s gripping and unlike anything you’ve seen before. Joaquin Phoenix is perfectly cast, showing both vulnerability and ferocity, and Ramsay’s use of sound design and jarring imagery give you an insight into his mind. [Amazon studios are releasing this in April]
Shirkers: A creative documentary by Sandi Tan, which also works as a redemption story. It’s about the movie she made when she was 18, and how her dreams were stolen by a man she trusted. Sandi interviews her childhood friends to piece together what happened, making a film that is funny, frustrating and inspiring. [No deal yet, but it won in the awards, so hopefully this will be bought soon!]
Hearts Beat Loud: As he did with Blythe Danner in ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’ and Sam Elliott in ‘The Hero’, director Brett Haley gives a lead role to a great actor who usually doesn’t get to be the star - Nick Offerman. He plays a father who wants to start a band with his daughter (Kiersey Clemons) before she goes to college, as a way to connect with her. Full of heart, the film explores family, dreams, love and has features some fantastic, original music. [Sold to Gunpowder & Sky, hopefully out in theaters, if not then it will be on VOD]