Film Feature: The Best of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival

by Carrie Kahn on February 11, 2018

The Sundance Film Festival ran from January 18th to 28th this year; over 120 films were shown in ten days. For the fourth year in a row, I was on the (often snowy) ground, knocking out almost 20 films in five days in order to bring you the Best of the Fest. I present here the ten best films I saw – five features, four documentaries, and one special screening. Keep your eyes out for these during the coming year, as they are well worth your time and money. And if you’d like to know all the films that took home awards this year, you can see the winners here.

TOP FIVE FEATURE FILMS

1.) Search
(USA 2017, 101 min. Directed by Aneesh Chaganty. Category: Next)

Worried father David Kim (John Cho) uses the Internet to search for his missing daughter.

The word innovative doesn’t even come close to doing filmmaker Aneesh Chaganty’s first feature film justice. Using a narrative that unfolds completely on a computer screen (via video chats, texts, emails, Internet searches, and news videos), Chaganty immerses us in the story of recently widowed dad David (John Cho, excellent as always) and his desperate search for his missing teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La). Debra Messing, cast against type, is terrific as the San Jose police detective heading the investigation. Filled with red herrings and twists and turns you’ll never see coming, Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian’s South Bay-set mystery is as imaginative as their method of telling it. Both a celebration and a critique of our increasing reliance on technology, the brilliantly executed Search is my hands-down favorite film of the Festival. Sony Pictures acquired the picture for five million dollars in one of the Festival’s biggest buys, so a wide release will be forthcoming. The film also deservedly won both an audience award and the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize. Don’t miss this one.

2.) What They Had
(USA 2017, 98 min. Directed by Elizabeth Chomko. Category: Premieres)

Ruth (Blythe Danner, l.) is comforted by her daughter Biddie (Hilary Swank).

The debut feature film from actress Elizabeth Chomko, What They Had features one of the best portrayals of adult siblings since Kenneth Lonergan’s 2000 Sundance hit You Can Count on Me. Michael Shannon and Hilary Swank have palpable and believable chemistry as brother and sister Nicky and Biddie, who butt heads with each other and their stubborn father (Robert Forster) as their mother (Blythe Danner) descends deeper into dementia. A moving look at memory, identity, family, love, and loss, Chomko’s film tackles difficult subject matter with grace, humor, and unflinching honesty. It’s nice to see Swank back on screen in a role worthy of her, and her scenes with the equally talented Shannon are some of the best in the movie. What They Had will open widely in mid-March, and you should seek it out.

3.) Blindspotting
(USA 2018, 95 min. Directed by Carlos López Estrada. Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Oakland childhood friends Collin (Daveed Diggs, l.) and Miles (Rafael Casal) increasingly find themselves at odds.

Like Search, Blindspotting also has a local angle. Shot entirely in Oakland and written by and starring Bay Area natives and long time friends Daveed Diggs (Hamilton) and Rafael Casal, Blindspotting marks the first feature film from Carlos López Estrada. Collin (Diggs) is trying to successfully get through his probation period after a stint in jail, and his best friend Miles (Casal) may not be the ideal person to hang around if Collin wants to stay out of trouble. Estrada, Diggs, and Casal ratchet up the tension as Collin becomes torn between his loyalty to his friend and to family and friends who urge him to steer clear of the unpredictable Miles. A love letter to Oakland that doesn’t shy away from exploring some of the city’s weightier issues like gentrification and police and community relations, Blindspotting is ultimately a story of the power of friendship, family, and place. The film also benefits from a superb soundtrack (Diggs delivers an intense and powerful rap near the film’s end that you won’t soon forget), and local theatergoers may recognize Bay Area actress Margo Hall doing fine work here as Collin’s mother. Estrada, Diggs, and Casal were rewarded with a Grand Jury Prize nomination for their efforts, and deservedly so. Lionsgate acquired Blindspotting, and has set a July 27th limited release date, to be followed by a wide release on August 10th. Mark your calendars now.

4.) Juliet, Naked
(United Kingdom 2018, 105 min. Directed by Jesse Peretz. Category: Premieres)

Annie (Rose Byrne) introduces her ex-boyfriend Duncan (Chris O’Dowd, r.) to his musician idol Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke).

Nick Hornby’s 2009 novel of the same name is charmingly brought to the big screen by TV director Jesse Peretz (Girls; Divorce) and five writers, including Hornby himself, Tamara Jenkins (The Savages), Jim Taylor, Phil Alden Robinson, and Evgenia Peretz. Five screenwriters on one script isn’t always a good sign, but the quintet here has managed to deliver a thoroughly engaging adaptation of Hornby’s book that will please both its fans and newcomers to the story. Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) is obsessed with singer Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), an ‘80s rock star who has seemingly disappeared into the ether. When Duncan’s live-in girlfriend Annie (Rose Byrne) strikes up a friendship – and then more – with Crowe, an awkward romantic triangle develops. O’Dowd, Hawke, and Byrne are such appealing actors that when the film ends, you are sorry to see them go, and wish you could spend more time with them. Peretz manages to ask thoughtful questions without seeming pedantic: What is art? Who is it for? What, if anything, do fans and artists owe each other? And what makes for a healthy, satisfying relationship? Juliet, Naked may not have all the answers, but you’ll enjoy musing on them as much as Annie, Tucker, and Duncan.

5.) And Breathe Normally
(Iceland/Sweden/Belgium 2018, 95 min. Directed by Isold Uggadóttir. Category: World Cinema Dramatic. In Icelandic and Creole with English subtitles.)

Adja (Babetida Sadjo) bonds with Eldar (Patrik Nökkvi Pétursson).

Filmmaker Ísold Uggadóttir has won numerous awards in her native Iceland for her short films, and she adds to her collection here, garnering the World Cinema Directing Award and a Grand Jury Prize nomination for And Breathe Normally, her first feature film, which she both wrote and directed. Beautifully filmed on the Reyjanes peninsula near the Keflavik airport, you’ll be hugging your sweater a little closer as Iceland’s stark grey skies and fierce winds engulf you as they do Lara (Kristin Thóra Haraldsdóttir) and Adja (Babetida Sadjo), the film’s main characters. Lara is a struggling single mom embarking on a much-needed new job with airport passport control, and Adja is a refugee from Guinea-Bissau trying to get to Canada. When Adja is detained indefinitely in Iceland because of Lara’s sharp eye, the two women find themselves reluctant allies as they try to solve both their problems. A little reminiscent of Tom McCarthy’s 2007 film The Visitor, And Breathe Normally is a fascinating look at how other countries handle immigration and refugee issues. Uggadóttir brings empathy and authenticity to complex issues, and Haraldsdóttir and Sadjo vividly bring to life two different but equally complicated and unforgettable women. 

TOP FOUR DOCUMENTARIES

1.) Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind
(USA 2018, 116 min. Directed by Marina Zenovich. Category: Documentary Premieres)

Robin Williams, in a typical moment. 

Returning to the Festival for the third time, documentarian Marina Zenovich follows up her 2017 and 2008 offerings Water and Power and Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired with this alternatively melancholy and joyful biopic of the late, great Robin Williams. Hewing to a relatively chronological format, Zenovich gives us a portrait of a gifted artist whose talent couldn’t be contained (a clip of Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton looking taken aback at Williams, a most decidedly off-script guest, is a particular gem). Interviews — many of them exceptionally moving — with Williams’s friends, family, and colleagues help tell the story of the only child who became a comedic sensation the likes of which the world had never seen. Billy Crystal, Pam Dawber, Eric Idle, and Steve Martin, as well as ex-wives Marsha Garces and Valerie Velardi and son Zachary, reminisce on the triumphs and struggles of their friend, husband, and father. While we may never truly know what ultimately drove Williams to take his own life almost four years ago, Zenovich’s documentary helps us remember and celebrate the man who meant so much to so many. Bring tissues; a clip from Dead Poets Society shown near the end of the film takes on a whole new meaning, as we watch Williams’s Mr. Keating urge his students to remember the lives of boys from a bygone era, seen now only in old photos in the school’s display case. What loss, we can’t help but think; what loss.

2.) RBG
(USA 2018, 96 min. Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen. Category: Documentary Premieres)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg holding court (sorry…) in RBG.

Gloria Steinem has called her closest thing to a super hero we have today. Colloquially known to her fervent fans as the Notorious RBG, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has lived a life well deserving of a documentary. Luckily filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West have stepped up with RBG, a lively and fun film with appropriately serious overtones that documents Ginsburg’s amazing life and career. A trailblazer from her earliest days, Ginsburg was one of only nine women in her 1957 class at Harvard Law. From there, she went on to be a forceful champion of women’s rights, and Cohen and West highlight many of the cases Ginsburg litigated that resulted in a number of anti-discrimination laws. Fans of Law and Order and other legal stories will love the attention Cohen and West bring to these cases, as each unfolds as a mini-story unto itself, and all are fascinating (the desegregation of the Virginia Military Institute is a particularly moving case). But Cohen and West don’t shy away from the personal, either, which is just as interesting as Ginsburg’s professional accomplishments. Ginsburg’s childhood, her long and loving relationship with her supportive husband, her often puzzling-to-others friendship with ideological nemesis Justice Antonin Scalia, her battles with cancer (she never missed a day on the bench even while going through treatment), her weight training regime, and even her opinion of Kate McKinnon’s impression of her on Saturday Night Live are all given their due. Physically small but ferocious and unwavering in her beliefs, Ginsburg, at 84, is still a role model for many half her age, and Cohen and West have done her justice (pun intended) with this stirring film.

3.) Jane Fonda in Five Acts
(USA 2017, 133 min. Directed by Susan Lacy. Category: Documentary Premieres)

A young Jane Fonda.

Susan Lacy, a prolific American Masters producer and director and the director of the recent HBO documentary Spielberg, gives us another documentary focusing on an extraordinary woman. Jane Fonda in Five Acts chronicles the life and career of actress and activist Jane Fonda, who is still going strong professionally and personally at age 80. Lacy frames Fonda’s story by using the important men in Fonda’s life as catalysts to look at Fonda’s life; Act One, for example, is called “Henry,” for Fonda’s famous actor father. Fonda spent her childhood yearning for affection and approval from her busy and distant father, and this struggle for acceptance shaped much of her life going forward. Lacy’s film explores Fonda’s marriages to French new wave filmmaker Roger Vadim, activist and politician Tom Hayden, and media tycoon Ted Turner, punctuating still photos, home videos, and movie clips with interviews with Fonda herself. Remarkably candid and reflective in present day interviews, Fonda contemplates everything from her relationship with her father to early career choices like Barbarella to her infamous posing on a North Vietnamese tank in 1972, a youthful decision she regrets to this day. Insightful and honest, Fonda makes the perfect subject for a film that, while about one woman’s coming into her own during turbulent and changing times, also speaks to larger issues of women’s cultural and social history in this country over the past century.

4.) The Devil We Know
(USA 2018, 88 min. Directed by Stephanie Soechtig. Category: U.S. Documentary Competition)

The DuPont plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

You probably have some Teflon pans in your kitchen cupboard right now; you may have even used one to cook your eggs this morning. After seeing Stephanie Soechtig and Jeremy Seifert’s new documentary, however, you may not be so quick to whip out that pan for your next breakfast meal. Teflon is made using a chemical surfactant called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, also known as C8. It is so prevalent in the environment that every baby born in the world today has some level of C8 already in its blood. Soechtig and Seifert tell us that sobering fact and many more in their documentary about Teflon manufacturer DuPont and its plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where a class action suit has been filed because of high PFOA levels in the town’s water. Many town residents and former and current plant workers are claiming that these levels have led to a rash of health and birth defects. Interviews with Parkersburg citizens affected by the chemical (including a mother who was pregnant when she worked at the plant and her adult son, who faced a series of health challenges growing up), toxicologists, lawyers fighting the good fight, and, of course, DuPont PR execs maintaining their innocence (reminiscent of Big Tobacco’s denials) provide powerful context for a chilling story of American business gone awry. By turns inspiring and infuriating, Soechtig and Seifert’s Grand Jury Prize-nominated film should be given worldwide distribution.

TOP SPECIAL EVENT

 An Evening With Todd Haynes and Screening of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
(USA 1988, 43 min. Directed by Todd Haynes. Category: From the Collection)

Karen Carpenter, as portrayed by a Barbie doll, in Todd Haynes’s 1988 cult hit Superstar.

Sundance isn’t just about movie screenings; the Festival regularly hosts a variety of panels, talks, and special events. This year, film fans were particularly excited to be able to attend a conversation between legendary indie directors Todd Haynes (Wonderstruck; Carol; Far From Heaven) and Richard Linklater (Boyhood; Before Sunrise; Dazed and Confused). Our excitement level raised even higher when we were told before the talk that we were in for a special surprise. We were to be treated to a screening of Todd Haynes’s very first movie (co-written with Cynthia Schneider), which played at Sundance in 1988: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Digitally restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the version of the film we saw was crisper and cleaner than the grainy recorded VHS versions you can only find occasionally on the Internet now (the film famously was withdrawn from circulation after the Carpenters threatened a copyright lawsuit; Haynes, young and naïve at the time, never got permission to use the Carpenters’ songs, which feature heavily on the film’s soundtrack). The film also has gained cult status because it was filmed entirely using Barbie dolls instead of live actors (Haynes was also faced with possible litigation from Barbie-maker Mattel, which accused him of violating its patents; it also didn’t want its products associated with death). The choice to use Barbies to tell the heartwrenching story of Karen Carpenter’s battle with — and eventual death from — anorexia remains particularly inspired and surprisingly effective. As Haynes explained in the Q&A following the film, using a doll with a static face works well for a story in which the audience projects its own feelings on the narrative. The Karen doll’s face indeed almost does seem to take on different emotions depending on the scene (arguing with her mother or brother, for example), even though, in reality, of course, the doll’s face remains the same throughout. The film, for all its campiness, holds up well; at its heart, it has tremendous empathy for all its characters, a thematic aspect of the film that may be forgotten by those who only remember its avant-garde storytelling method. If you ever get a chance to see this newly restored version, jump on it.

 

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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