Women filmmakers shine, but the festival lacks hits
While the 2018 Sundance Film Festival seems unlikely to produce the number of breakout hits and Oscar nominations of years past (think The Big Sick, Call Me by Your Name, Get Out, Mudbound from just the 2017 festival alone), the overall quality of the festival was still solid. Think of this year's lineup as having more depth but fewer stars.
Women featured strongly in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, taking home the Grand Jury Prize (Desiree Akhavan for The Miseducation of Cameron Post), the Directing Award (Sara Colangelo for The Kindergarten Teacher), the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award (Christina Choe for Nancy), and a Special Jury Award for Excellence in Filmmaking (Reed Morano’s I Think We’re Alone Now).
Despite 2018 being a slow year for acquisitions, a few films did make a splash. Neon and the Russo Brothers' AGBO bought the critically divisive Assassination Nation. Search, the debut thriller by former Google employee Aneesh Chaganty, won the Audience Award in the festival’s NEXT section and was picked up for distribution by Sony Worldwide. The Tale, a formally audacious and critically admired narrative debut by Jennifer Fox, was bought by HBO Films, taking it out of theaters and onto TV screens, where some think its harrowing story will play even better. The changing independent film landscape was also reflected in the purchase of Bart Layton’s American Animals by The Orchard and MoviePass, a first for the controversial subscription service’s new MoviePass Ventures distribution business.
Check out the recap below for a look at the critical responses to more than 40 key films at this year’s festival.
This year's major award winners
U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic)
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Drama | USA | Directed by Desiree Akhavan
Previous Grand Jury Prize winners:
2017: I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore 75
2016: The Birth of a Nation 69
2015: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl 74
2014: Whiplash 88
2013: Fruitvale Station 85
In her directorial follow-up to Appropriate Behavior, Desiree Akhavan adapts Emily M. Danforth’s novel about a teenage girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) sent to a gay conversion therapy center when she’s caught with another girl on prom night. Set in 1993, the film is a “gripping and sad drama that puts a tremendous amount of faith in its performers and audience,” in the opinion of The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman. Also loving the film is The Hollywood Reporter critic Leslie Felperin, who believes it’s a “delight... peppered with biting humor and warmed by a generous spirit that extends understanding, if not forgiveness, even to the religious zealot characters.”
U.S. Audience Award (Dramatic)
Drama | USA | Directed by Andrew Heckler
For the second straight year, festival audiences and the jury differed on their top picks. This year, the former group opted for writer-director Andrew Heckler’s debut feature, which tells the true story of Ku Klux Klansman Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund), who leaves the Klan with the help of his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and is taken in by an African American preacher played by Forest Whitaker.
But while Sundance audiences embraced the film, critics were decidedly mixed. The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman warns that the film is “about as subtle as a sledgehammer, with no shortage of cringeworthy moments and an uninteresting lead performance.” Other critics enjoy Hedlund’s performance, including Kate Erbland of Indiewire: “As Burden, Garrett Hedlund astonishes in a nuanced portrait of a man resistant to change, until he finally comes to understand that hatred is literally killing him.” Playing Nostradamus in her review for Variety, Amy Nicholson writes, “Reality is even more complicated than Heckler’s emotionally complex script, but the film he’s fashioned from this small showdown in South Carolina is a big-hearted crowd-pleaser that inspires hope without letting its characters, even the heroes, off the hook.”
U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Documentary)
Documentary | USA | Directed by Derek Doneen
Derek Doneen’s feature documentary debut chronicles the efforts of Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi to rescue children from slave labor. Variety’s Dennis Harvey believes the “film’s edge, if not its worthiness, is slightly dulled by an over-slick approach that in the end makes it feel less like reportage than a first-class fundraising video.” But Daniel Fienberg of THR thinks Doneen gives audiences a glimpse of Kailash and his organization that is “exciting, inspirational and sad,” ending “on the right notes of hope, without abusing sentiment.”
U.S. Audience Award (Documentary)
Documentary | USA | Directed by Rudy Valdez
Rudy Valdez’s extremely personal documentary induced many audience members to cry, so maybe it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that this debut feature-length work won the Audience Award. Ten years in the making, the film captures how Valdez’s family copes when his sister Cindy is sentenced to a 15-year mandatory sentence for charges related to her deceased ex-boyfriend. Leaving a husband and three children behind, Cindy’s imprisonment hangs over the family as they advocate for her release. THR’s Daniel Fienberg believes it’s an “incredibly intimate and exposed piece of family storytelling,” that is “so committed to its concentration on emotion and heart that it's difficult not to get carried away, and it feels almost churlish to quibble with the intellectual responses it barely aspires to.”
Other key films (and a few TV shows)
America to Me
TV series | USA | Directed by Steve James
Acquired by Starz for $5 million
The latest documentary from Hoop Dreams director Steve James is a miniseries that spends a full school year with a handful of black students—and their parents and teachers—at a large and diverse high school near Chicago. Critics are finding a lot to like in James' examination of race and education. RogerEbert.com's Brian Tallerico admires how "the lengthy running time allows the production to breathe in ways that most documentary films don’t." The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips similarly praises James' "indelible portraits" that combine to make an "unusually revealing mosaic." At The Hollywood Reporter, Daniel Fienberg finds the series "challenging" but "entertaining," while singling out the technical aspects of the production, which he calls "astounding." And Indiewire's Ben Travers, in an "A" review, is happy that James "embraces the complexities of an issue many want to believe is on the outs" with "clarity and grace."
The 10-part series (only five episodes screened at the festival) didn't have a network attached upon entering Sundance, but Starz picked it up earlier this week, and will air the show this fall.
Drama | USA/UK | Directed by Bart Layton
Acquired by The Orchard and MoviePass Ventures for $3 million
Bart Layton’s debut narrative feature still retains some of the documentary flourishes from his award-winning The Imposter, but some critics aren't fond of that choice. The film dramatizes the “Transy Book Heist” of 2004, when four Kentucky college students attempted to steal millions of dollars in rare books. Layton casts Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, and Jared Abrahamson to play the college kids, but he also has their current-day counterparts appear with them and comment on their actions. David Ehrlich of Indiewire admits that the film is “fiercely entertaining from start to finish,” but also believes it “works too hard to sell its structure, and not hard enough to justify its subject.” However, Screen Daily’s Fionnuala Halligan claims it’s a “supremely-crafted doc/fiction hybrid which is genuinely innovative, pleasingly entertaining and deliciously more than the sum of its parts.”
The film represents the first-ever purchase for MoviePass Ventures, the brand new distribution arm of the subscription movie ticket service.
Thriller | USA | Directed by Sam Levinson
Acquired by Neon and AGBO for $10+ million
Writer-director Sam Levinson’s follow-up to his 2011 Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award winner, Another Happy Day, is definitely timely, but is it any good? The film details how the town of Salem (note the name) comes undone when someone starts posting details from the private lives of half the population. In The Film Stage, Jordan Raup believes this “heavy-handed satire” is “so painfully attempting to be of its time that all nuance is thrown out in the window in favor of an assaultive, ultimately muddled attack on the senses.” Writing for Variety, Amy Nicholson describes it as a “Molotov cocktail thrown at a hazy target,” but she does admit that to “dive into it at all is a daring choice for a young male filmmaker, and Levinson over-compensates by transforming the girls — who, in the beginning, were as corrupt as everyone else — into a valiant death squad.”
Despite that low Metascore, Nation was the largest acquisition of this year's festival, selling for over $10 million to the partnership of Neon and Joe and Anthony Russo's AGBO—both relatively new companies.
Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by Brad Anderson
In theaters April 13 Watch trailer
Written by Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), directed by Brad Anderson (The Call, Transsiberian) and starring Jon Hamm, this political thriller about a former American diplomat (Hamm) pulled back to Beirut ten years after a tragic incident underserves its supporting cast (Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris, and Shea Whigham) in a “narrative that values twists and turns over actual growth,” according to Indiewire’s Kate Erbland. But Dennis Harvey of Variety believes Hamm is in “top form” in this “complex but cogent tale” that is “expertly directed” by Anderson.
Comedy | USA | Directed by Carlos López Estrada
Acquired by Lionsgate
for an unspecified amount
Written by and starring Rafael Casal and Hamilton's Daveed Diggs, Carlos López Estrada‘s debut feature about best friends who grew up together in Oakland but face an uncertain future is “messy, ambitious, occasionally grating: the kind of debut that belongs at Sundance, where big swings should matter as much, if not more, than big names,” writes A.A. Dowd in his B– review for the A.V. Club. The film frustrates THR’s Todd McCarthy with its “brash exuberance and stilted storytelling tropes,” while Justin Chang of the L.A. Times praises its “energy and ambition,” but faults its lack of “trust in the audience's ability or willingness to listen.” But The Playlist’s Gregory Ellwood is an unabashed fan, calling it “one of the more accomplished directorial debuts in recent memory.”
The Catcher Was a Spy
Drama | USA | Directed by Ben Lewin
After winning the Audience Award in 2012 for The Sessions, director Ben Lewin returned to Sundance with this true story of major league baseball player Moe Berg (Paul Rudd), who spied for the U.S. during World War II. Adapted for the screen by Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) from Nicholas Dawidoff’s book, the film received a mix reaction from critics. The Playlist’s Jordan Ruimy and Variety’s Dennis Harvey feel Rudd is miscast and Lewin isn't the right man for the job, but Dan Mecca of The Film Stage believes Rudd is “top-notch” and the film “remains a well-told piece of espionage.”
Drama/Comedy | USA | Directed by Bridey Elliott
Writer-director-star Bridey Elliot directs her father (Chris Elliott), mother (Paula Niedert Elliott) and sister (Abby Elliott) in her feature debut, a dark comedy about a once-famous family and the matriarch who stayed out of the limelight. Variety’s Dennis Harvey believes the film's “ideas are seldom all that original or funny, too often degenerating into rote scatological humor,” though he does recognize a “formative creative sensibility.” So does Rodrigo Perez of The Playlist, who finds the film “brilliant in the way it negotiates the hysterical and the quite tragic, the claustrophobic and the warm.” He describes Ghost as a “cackling laugh that’s funny, but goes on long enough to contain faint traces of creepy uneasiness.”
Drama | UK | Directed by Wash Westmoreland
Acquired by Bleecker Street and 30West for $4+ million
A solo Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice, directed with his late partner Richard Glatzer) directs Keira Knightley as the groundbreaking, mononymous French writer of the title in a biopic described as “fun, frothy, and unmistakably feminist” by Indiewire’s David Ehrlich. Detailing Colette's first marriage to Henry Gauthier-Villars, who took credit for writing her first four novels, the film features Knightley in “top form: luminous, clever, sexy and sympathetic,” according to Jordan Hoffman of The Guardian. It’s a performance with “wit and backbone,” writes Screen Daily’s Tim Grierson, and one that gives “the proceedings a crowd-pleasing tone that never feels cloying.”
Drama/Comedy | USA | Directed by David Zellner and Nathan Zellner
The latest from brothers David and Nathan Zellner (Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter) is a “hilariously eccentric deadpan comic-western," says Jordan Raup of The Film Stage. The film follows a man (Robert Pattinson, “easily the best thing” in the film according to The A.V. Club's A.A. Dowd) as he searches the wild west for his true love (Mia Wasikowska). While Screen Daily’s Tim Grierson enjoys this “amusing doodle of a revisionist Western that slowly accrues unexpected resonance,” it is more of an acquired taste for others, like Owen Gleiberman of Variety: “Damsel, if I’m going to be honest about it, is droll and touching and amusing and a little boring, all at the same time.”
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot
Drama | USA | Directed by Gus Van Sant
In theaters May 11 Watch trailer
After receiving his lowest Metascore to date for The Sea of Trees, writer-director Gus Van Sant “has rebounded with one of his best, a life-affirming sweet-and-sour concoction,” writes Variety’s Peter Debruge. Based on the memoir by quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), the film charts his 12-step struggle to become sober with the help of his sponsor (Jonah Hill). While critics agree on the high quality of the performances by Phoenix and Hill, they split on the film’s overall effectiveness. The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman calls it a “discordant brew that just doesn’t blend right,” while Tim Grierson of Screen Daily believes the movie “radiates considerable compassion, sensitively addressing issues including addiction, recovery and forgiveness.”
Comedy | USA | Directed by Bo Burnham
Comedian turned writer-director Bo Burnham’s feature debut follows a student named Kayla Day through her final week of middle school. Critics are falling for the film as well as its lead actress, Elsie Fisher. Vulture’s Emily Yoshida writes, “Burnham’s direction is patient and endlessly empathetic; it’s an out-of-the-gate confidence that is as pleasantly surprising as fellow comedian turned auteur Jordan Peele’s. ... But as far as revelatory debuts, it’s rivaled by that of Elsie Fisher, who embodies Kayla’s anxiety and yearning with an almost spooky self-awareness.” The film already had a distributor (A24) lined up prior to the festival, though no release date has been announced.
An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn
Comedy | UK/USA | Directed by Jim Hosking
Director Jim Hosking’s follow-up to The Greasy Strangler stars Aubrey Plaza, Craig Robinson, Jemaine Clement, and Emile Hirsch. But, according to critics, the upgraded cast did not result in a better film. (On the contrary: Evening has a much lower Metascore than Hosking's previous work.) One of the film's few supporters is Indiewire’s Eric Kohn, who believes that for “every grating bit, there’s another exchange with an air of legitimate melancholy.” But the polarizing film’s harshest critic, The Playlist’s Jordan Ruimy, claims “there isn’t a single inspired note in the film,” which he deems an “embarrassing misfire."
Documentary | USA | Directed by Lauren Greenfield
In theaters July 20
In 2012, Lauren Greenfield won the Sundance documentary directing award for The Queen of Versailles. Her latest film is part career retrospective and part film essay about a subject she’s been covering for 25 years—materialism. Unfortunately, for many critics, the film feels like a companion piece to her Generation Wealth exhibition and book, and not a standalone work. Additionally, Daniel Schindel of The Film Stage and The Guardian’s Charlie Phillips believe, respectively, that the films’ focus on Greenfield, her family, and her career “never feels convincing,” and “becomes too sentimental and stretches the film out beyond its natural length.”
Thriller | Denmark | Directed by Gustav Möller
Acquired by Magnolia for an unspecified amount
In a tense 85 minutes, Danish director Gustav Möller’s feature debut accomplishes more in one room than most Hollywood thrillers. A disgraced cop (Jakob Cedergren) working emergency dispatch receives a call from a kidnapped woman. Unable to leave his desk, he must rely on the eyes and ears of others to save her. John Fink of The Film Stage believes it’s an “exhilarating, minimalist thriller that effectively sinks its hooks in.” And the Village Voice’s Bilge Ebiri is similarly impressed with how Möller “establishes a vital connection between the formal playfulness of his film and the moral vision of his story.”
The Happy Prince
Drama | Germany/Belgium/Italy | Directed by Rupert Everett
Rupert Everett writes, directs, and stars in his debut feature, a look at three years in the life of Oscar Wilde. Covering Wilde’s final years (1897-1900), Prince is dividing critics at the festival. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw believes it’s a “deeply felt, tremendously acted tribute to courage,” but for Eric Kohn of Indiewire, “The Happy Prince largely amounts to a bland rumination on Wilde’s lesser-known decline.”
Hearts Beat Loud
Drama | USA | Directed by Brett Haley
Acquired by Gunpowder & Sky and Sony Pictures for an unspecified amount
Writer-director Brett Haley’s third Sundance feature, following I’ll See You in My Dreams and The Hero, is an affectionate look at the relationship between single dad Frank (Nick Offerman) and his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons), who’s heading off to college. Connecting through their shared love of music, they form a band and write a song that becomes a minor Spotify hit. It’s a film that is “often slight but always welcoming,” writes Dan Mecca of The Film Stage. Echoing that sentiment, TheWrap’s Sam Fragoso writes, “Hearts Beats Loud knows exactly what it is. Haley doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel. He doesn’t even really want to challenge the viewer. His art is created to comfort.”
Horror | USA | Directed by Ari Aster
In theaters June 8
One of the best-reviewed films of the festival came from the Midnight section. Writer-director Ari Aster’s debut feature is “amazingly confident.... first-class genre filmmaking,” according to A.A. Dowd of the A.V. Club. Toni Collette stars (in a highly praised performance) as Annie, an artist, a wife (her husband is played by Gabriel Byrne), and a mother to a teenager (Alex Wolff) and his younger sister (Milly Shapiro). They are haunted by unresolved issues after Annie’s mother dies, and a terror takes hold of the family. The result, writes The Playlist’s Jordan Ruimy is “a spooky, hypnotic film that feels like the culmination of the last 50 years of horror.”
I Think We're Alone Now
Sci-fi/Drama | USA | Directed by Reed Morano
After making the jump to directing with Meadowland in 2015, cinematographer Reed Morano went on to direct the first three episodes of Hulu's The Handmaid’s Tale before coming to Sundance with this post-apocalyptic story of a happy loner (Peter Dinklage) whose solitude is disrupted by a young woman played by Elle Fanning. The film earned a split decision from critics. Indiewire’s David Ehrlich finds it “admirably bold but aggravatingly banal,” but a more generous Tim Grierson of Screen Daily deems it a “smart, moody post-apocalyptic drama that honours genre conventions before niftily readjusting them.”
Rom-com/Drama | UK | Directed by Jesse Peretz
In this romantic comedy from director Jesse Peretz (Our Idiot Brother), Rose Byrne’s Annie strikes up a transatlantic correspondence with Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), a reclusive singer-songwriter with whom her boyfriend Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) is completely obsessed. An adaptation of a 2009 Nick Hornby novel, the film is receiving mixed reviews. THR’s Todd McCarthy believes it’s “passably engaging and has its funny moments but feels almost startlingly mainstream and conventional,” while David Edelstein of Vulture feels it’s “everything a mainstream rom-com should be but no longer is — literate, unpredictable, full of bustling tangents.”
The Kindergarten Teacher
Drama | USA | Directed by Sara Colangelo
Little Accidents writer-director Sara Colangelo’s second film is an English-language remake of Nadav Lapid’s award-winning Israeli feature of the same name. “It’s a chance to see Maggie Gyllenhaal give one of the best performances of her career,” according to Jordan Hoffman of The Guardian. In the film, Gyllenhaal’s teacher takes an interest in one of her young students when he shows a surprising skill with poetry. THR’s David Rooney writes, “Rippling with psychological complexity and sneaky humor, this is a rich character study that takes constantly surprising turns.” Colangelo was named best director in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.
Leave No Trace
Drama | USA | Directed by Debra Granik
Acquired by Bleecker Street for an unspecified amount above $1 million
After winning the Grand Jury Prize and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award in 2010 for Winter’s Bone, writer-director Debra Granik (Down to the Bone, Stray Dog) returned to Sundance with this adaptation of Peter Rock’s book about a father (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter (highly praised newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) who struggle to adapt to society after living in the wilderness together. Reviews have been strong overall. Bilge Ebiri of The Village Voice believes the film “rivets and terrifies in its own way” even though it doesn’t have the “genre elements that helped make Winter’s Bone something of a breakout.” And in his B+ review for the A.V. Club, A.A. Dowd claims Granik “preserves her strong grasp on environment, her gift for precisely capturing the look, feel, and language of the cultural fringe.”
Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by Craig Macneill
Acquired by Saban Films for an unspecified amount
Critical opinion is divided on this dramatization of the infamous August 4, 1892 murders of Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and Abby Borden (Fiona Shaw). Directed by Craig William Macneill (The Boy) and starring Chloë Sevigny as the suspected axe-murderess of the title and Kristen Stewart as her housemaid, lover, and possible co-conspirator, the film is an “unconvincing, oppressively somber take on the Lizzie Borden story,” according to A.A. Dowd of the A.V. Club. But The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman disagrees, praising the film as a “gripping, well-acted and sharply-written low-budget drama.” A theatrical release is expected this summer.
The Long Dumb Road
Comedy | USA | Directed by Hannah Fidell
A Teacher director Hannah Fidell’s follow-up to 6 Years is a road-trip comedy that follows Nathan (Tony Revolori) as he drives from Texas to Los Angeles to begin his freshman year of college. When his car breaks down, he gets some mechanical help and a new passenger in the form of Jason Mantzoukas’ Richard. While Dan Mecca of The Film Stage and Indiewire’s Kate Erbland feel that the story runs out of steam, Elizabeth Weitzman and Amy Nicholson, writing for TheWrap and Variety, respectively, believe the trip is worth taking, thanks to the chemistry and charm of its lead actors.
Drama | Brazil/Uruguay | Directed by Gustavo Pizzi
Co-written by director Gustavo Pizzi and lead actress Karine Teles, this Brazilian feature examines the invisible bonds that hold a family together. Teles plays Irene, a mother of four, whose oldest child is about to leave home to play professional handball in Germany. The familiarity of empty nest syndrome is turned into a “warm and wonderfully universal love story,” according to Variety’s Peter Debruge. And Sheri Linden, writing for THR, agrees: “Pizzi's dynamic direction brings a specific domestic world into bright, tender focus.”
Drama | USA | Directed by Josephine Decker
Following Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, writer-director Josephine Decker’s third feature is another experimental effort—but a more successful one, according to critics. Capturing the relationship between mentally fragile teenager Madeline (newcomer Helena Howard), her mother (Miranda July), and the director of a progressive theater group (Molly Parker), the film is “one of the boldest and most invigorating American films of the 21st century,” according to Indiewire’s David Ehrlich, who adds that the last 20 minutes that are “as visceral and exhilarating as anything you might find in Mad Max: Fury Road.” Gregory Ellwood of The Playlist agrees, calling that climax a “truly exquisite cinematic experience.”
Action/Thriller | Belgium/USA | Directed by Panos Cosmatos
Writer-director Panos Cosmatos’ follow-up to Beyond the Black Rainbow stars Nicolas Cage as a lumberjack who wants one thing: bloody revenge on his wife’s killers. The A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd describes it as a combination of “giallo, Clive Barker, Death Wish, prog rock, heavy metal, Heavy Metal, Guy Maddin, Mad Max, the dueling-chainsaw climax of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Nicolas Roeg, and Nicolas Cage at his most bugging-out unhinged.” (We're pretty sure that's an endorsement.) Similarly, in his B+ review for Indiewire, Eric Kohn declares it a “hypnotic midnight movie, which veers from astonishing, expressionistic exchanges to gory mayhem without an iota of compromise.”
Monsters and Men
Drama | USA | Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green
Acquired by Neon for an unspecified amount
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s debut feature tells the story of how footage of a white cop wrongfully killing a black man affects the lives of three men—the man who films the incident, an African-American police officer, and a talented high school athlete. Justin Chang of the L.A. Times admires how Green “plays out each of these stories to slow, steadily absorbing effect, avoiding every impulse toward either phony contrivance or pat resolution.” But Variety critic Peter Debruge finds the film “simultaneously subtle and on-the-nose,” as well as “original yet under-cooked.” Nevertheless, the festival jury gave Green an award for Outstanding First Feature.
Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by Christina Choe
Writer-director Christina Choe won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for her debut feature, the story of a woman (Andrea Riseborough), who, after the death of the woman who raised her, comes to believe she was kidnapped as a child. Variety’s Amy Nicholson believes the film is “just too miserable to encourage the audience to offer up our empathy, when it doesn’t have affection for anything in it either.” But The Film Stage thinks “Riseborough lives inside this character with such depth that’s it’s easy to get lost in each moment.”
Drama | UK | Directed by Claire McCarthy
Writer Semi Chellas and director Claire McCarthy’s team for an adaptation of Lisa Klein’s re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the point-of-view of Ophelia, played here by Daisy Ridley. “Unfortunately, after an agreeably high-energy opening stretch, the movie settles into a fairly sedate mode it can’t pull out of,” writes Daniel Schindel of The Film Stage. Even harsher is The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman, who thinks the film “looks absolutely gorgeous, but apart from its production design it is basically a disaster.” But the film does have a few supporters, including TheWrap's Alonso Duralde, who calls it an “intelligent and gorgeous spin on Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the point of view of the melancholy prince’s beloved.”
Our New President
Documentary | Russia/USA | Directed by Maxim Pozdorovkin
Documentarian Maxim Pozdorovkin, director of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, returned to Sundance with this look at Russia’s propaganda machine, focusing mainly on Russian media coverage of the recent U.S. election and the Trump presidency. A collage of Russian state news clips and amateur videos, the film “is certainly, on some base level, entertaining,” writes Bilge Ebiri of Village Voice, but it “offers relatively little context; rather, it drowns us in clips of Russian news anchors breathlessly peddling obvious untruths and ordinary Russians gleefully parroting back this nonsense.”
Thriller | USA | Directed by Nicolas Pesce
Nicolas Pesce’s follow-up to The Eyes of My Mother is a disappointment for critics. Based on a novel by Ryū Murakam (the author of Audition), the film follows Reed (Christopher Abbott), a new dad, as he plans to kill a prostitute in a hotel room. But when Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) arrives, the balance of power shifts. Russ Fischer of The Playlist claims it “foregoes incisive writing in favor of entertaining but superficial psycho-sexual twists.” And Indiewire’s Eric Kohn agrees, finding it “at once enjoyable in the moment and utterly disposable,” though he admits that Piercing also “delivers just enough macabre delights to confirm a darkly comedic sensibility on the rise.”
Drama | Greece/Poland | Directed by Babis Makridis
Director Babis Makridis’ second feature, co-written with Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer scribe Efthymis Filippou, is a dark comedy about a lawyer who becomes addicted to his own sadness and the pity it provokes in others. The Playlist’s Andrew Crump believes the film is successful until its “tonally out of sync” third act, but Sheri Linden of THR finds Makridis' “stylized” second feature’s “sly, dry playfulness reverberates with fascinating questions about emotions and how we portray them.”
Drama | USA | Directed by Tamara Jenkins
Eleven years after her last film, the Oscar-nominated The Savages, premiered at Sundance, writer-director Tamara Jenkins returned with this look at a New York couple’s struggle to conceive. Starring Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as the central couple and Kayli Carter as their possible savior, Private Life is a “generous, graceful, full-hearted drama,” according to The Film Stage’s Jordan Raup. And Justin Chang of the L.A. Times calls the “tender, blistering and exquisitely judged” film a “unusually observant portrait of a marriage” and a “terrific performance showcase.”
Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind
Documentary | USA | Directed by Marina Zenovich
Documentarian Marina Zenovich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired) directs this profile of late comedian Robin Williams. The Guardian’s Charlie Phillips believes the documentary suffers from an “unwillingness to pursue darker strands” in Williams' life, and Anthony Kaufman of Screen Daily concurs, writing, “Ultimately, Come Inside My Mind provides a lively glimpse into the inner-workings of one of the world’s funniest men, but one gets the sense there’s still a whole lot more to glean.” But Variety critic Owen Gleiberman finds the film “sharp-edged, humane, and deeply researched enough to take you closer to the manic engine of Williams’ brilliance and pain.”
Drama | USA | Directed by Aneesh Chaganty
Acquired by Sony Pictures for $5 million
Former Google employee Aneesh Chaganty’s innovative (and ironically difficult-to-Google) debut feature takes place entirely on computer screens as it follows a father’s search for his missing daughter. Bought by Sony Pictures Worldwide for one of the larger payouts of this year's Sundance, it’s a film that has “plenty of flair and tension to suck just about anybody into its story,” according to The Playlist’s Jordan Ruimy. THR’s Todd McCarthy believes Chaganty has produced “something both novel and accomplished,” and Screen Daily’s Tim Grierson praises John Cho’s lead performance as the “beating heart of a film that can be coldblooded in its construction.”
The film won the audience award in the festival's "NEXT" competition, which features films utilizing digital technology. It also won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, given annually to a film that focuses on science or technology.
Winner of the Directing Award in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, Sandi Tan’s unique documentary is about what could have been her narrative debut—a film shot guerrilla-style in Singapore in 1992 titled starring Tan as a teenage killer. But the footage was stolen by her American mentor on the film, Georges Cardona, and wasn't uncovered until 20 years later, inspiring Tan to investigate why Cardona stole the film and the effect it had on her life. The resulting film is “a joyous and funny recollection of a youth when anything felt possible,” according the The Guardian’s Charlie Phillips.
Drama | USA | Directed by Crystal Moselle
Following her Sundance-winning documentary The Wolfpack, Crystal Moselle’s narrative debut documents a different group of New Yorkers: an all-girl skateboarding crew. Using actual skaters to lead the cast and focusing on an 18-year-old from Long Island (played by founding Skate Kitchen member Rachelle Vinberg) who finds freedom in the big city, “Moselle doesn’t just capture the rebellions of her characters, she expresses their triumphs and joys with intimacy and detail,” writes Kimber Myers of The Playlist.
Sorry to Bother You
Comedy/Fantasy | USA | Directed by Boots Riley
Acquired by Annapurna for an unspecified amount greater than $1 million
Critics disagree about the merits of rapper-turned-writer-director Boots Riley’s feature debut, which stars Lakeith Stanfield as a telemarketer who begins to rise up the ranks (to the consternation of his girlfriend played by Tessa Thompson), leading him to a meeting with the company’s unhinged CEO (Armie Hammer). Indiewire’s Eric Kohn deems it a “whip-smart satire of racial dynamics in the workplace,” but A.A. Dowd of the A.V. Club dismisses the film as a “scattershot, intermittently pointed satire” whose “hit-or-miss zaniness swallows whole the project’s good intentions.”
Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by Jennifer Fox
Acquired by HBO for $7 million
For her first narrative feature, documentarian Jennifer Fox (My Reincarnation) draws from her own experiences to create a harrowing tale of sexual abuse. Laura Dern plays a documentary filmmaker named Jennifer Fox who investigates her own memory of the sexual abuse she suffered as a 13-year-old. THR’s Leslie Felperin finds it to be a “slippery, thought-provoking and thoroughly compelling film,” and Jordan Raup of The Film Stage believes “Fox has not only created a deeply personal investigative memoir, but one that could stand as a model to those that have been abused and seek the truth and some semblance of retribution.” Because HBO purchased the film (for among the highest dollar amounts at this year's festival), it likely will not get a theatrical release.
Three Identical Strangers
Documentary | USA | Directed by Tim Wardle
Acquired by Neon for an unspecified amount
In 1980, three strangers—Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland, and David Kellman—discovered that they were identical triplets separated at birth. Their tale makes them momentarily famous, but Tim Wardle’s documentary reveals the tragedy behind their joyful reunion. THR’s David Rooney believes it’s a “distressing story” told with “great skill and compassion,” and Dan Callahan of TheWrap finds it “carefully structured and suspenseful.” The film, a CNN Films production, is expected to get a theatrical release prior to airing on CNN.
Comedy | USA | Directed by Jason Reitman
In theaters April 20 Watch trailer
Following Juno and Young Adult, this third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody is “a marvelous movie about the lies we tell ourselves to stay sane—and the reasons why we might need to tell the truth,” writes Amy Nicholson for The Guardian. Charlize Theron stars as Marlo, a mother of three, whose newborn pushes her to the breaking point until Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a night nurse, arrives to ease her burden. Indiewire’s David Ehrlich believes “Theron and Davis are dynamite together” in a movie that’s “funnier than Juno and almost as ruthlessly honest as Young Adult.”
Wild Wild Country
TV series | USA | Directed by Chapman Way and Maclain Way
Streams March 16 on Netflix
One of several notable Netflix nonfiction titles streaming during the opening months of 2018, this Duplass Brothers-produced, six-hour documentary series had its world premiere at the festival, screening in its entirety. This strange-but-true tale traces a guru's failed attempts (despite spending over $100 million) to build a 64,000-acre utopian city in the Oregon desert in the early 1980s. Local residents weren't happy about the sudden influx of outsiders, and the resulting conflicts began with the largest-ever biochemical terrorist attack on U.S. soil—and only got wilder and more intense from there. The only critic to review Country so far is THR's Daniel Fienberg, but he certainly recommends the series, which he finds to be "full of unbelievable twists and intriguingly short on easy answers."
Actor Paul Dano’s adaptation (co-written with Zoe Kazan) of Richard Ford’s novel is a “remarkably assured, thematically rich directorial debut,” according to Jordan Raup of The Film Stage. Capturing the fraying of the marriage of Jerry and Jeanette Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan) through the eyes of their 14-year-old son (Ed Oxenbould), this “small gem” of a film is “unusually restrained and unemphatic by contemporary standards,” possessing an “integrity and economy of means that earns respect,” writes THR’s Todd McCarthy.