What the best movies of Sundance 2018 had in common

Sex and violence are overrated

Helena Howard and Molly Parker in 'Madeline's Madeline.'
(Image credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Film festival programmers often try to whip up some excitement before a screening by telling audiences about the "new voice" and the "new cinematic language" we're about to experience. More often than not, they're overselling. The "new voice" ends up being just another young artist telling a story about growing up as an introverted oddball, while the "new language" involves heavier-than-usual use of flashbacks.

But while it's easy (and justified) to be skeptical about hype, this year's Sundance Film Festival actually did feel a little different. Previously marginal sections of the fest — like the VR-focused New Frontier and the television-bound Indie Episodic — have become increasingly integral. Meanwhile, many of the best feature films (like Private Life, You Were Never Really Here, and The Tale) are bound for Netflix, Amazon, and HBO, coming soon to your TV screen. Plus, there were so many projects in Park City spearheaded by women, LGBTQ filmmakers, and/or artists of color that even if you said, "I really liked that movie that explored the black experience in Oakland," you'd need to be more specific.

On the fringes, the work that stood out expressed something relatable and personal. In Narcissister Organ Player, the masked New York performance artist known as "Narcissister" combines footage of her avant-garde erotica with interpretive dance, puppetry, and rumination on the death of her mother and growing up interracial. In the upcoming Netflix series The Mortified Guide, adults stand onstage and read excerpts from their adolescent diaries, intercut with animation and reflective observations on where they were in their life when they wrote those words.

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Two of the 2018 fest's best documentaries, Shirkers and Minding the Gap, also contrast youthful exuberance and creativity with the disillusionment of adulthood. Sandi Tan's Shirkers looks back at the unfinished art-film that she and her best friends made in Singapore as teenagers. While investigating what went wrong, Tan wonders what it means that everyone involved went on to have a pretty okay life, even though they were robbed of their rightful artistic legacy. At least Tan's friends are better off than the Rockford, Illinois, skate-punks in Bing Liu's Minding the Gap, who are still trying to party like teenagers well into their 20s, even as they struggle to find jobs, raise kids, and maintain relationships.

All four of these pieces — two docs, one experimental film, and one offbeat TV series — make similar observations about the ways that where we're from and who we know can affect the people we become. They take different paths to the same destination, sure. But still, it's refreshing to see artists and journalists at least trying to come up with original ways to present some basic, universally understood ideas.

Originality has never been a problem for documentarian Robert Greene, whose films Actress and Kate Plays Christine have freely crossed the lines between fly-on-the-wall realism and overt artificiality. Bisbee '17 is Greene's masterwork. Shot during one Arizona town's commemoration of an infamous 1917 labor dispute, the film combines reenactments of the deadly miners' strike with the wry observations and deeply entrenched political opinions of the townsfolk and actors (some of whom are one and the same). Bisbee '17 is about what divides Americans, then and now, and also about the ghosts that keep haunting us whenever we default to enmity rather than empathy.

The 2018 Sundance festival didn't just offer abstract meditations on society and self. There was plenty of conventional, straightforward storytelling on display too, including: Betsy West and Julie Cohen's stirring RBG, all about the amazing life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Matthew Heineman's eye-opening docu-series The Trade (debuting on Showtime this Friday, Feb. 2), which examines the crisis of opioid addiction from the competing perspectives of the producers, the suppliers, the users, the users' families, and the law enforcement officers; and the slick, exciting Jon Hamm vehicle Beirut, which has the magnetic Mad Men star playing a Middle East policy expert reluctantly acting as a go-between in a 1980s kidnapping case.

But one of Sundance's most dispiriting traditions — overly enthusiastic reactions to sloppily crowd-pleasing muck — re-occurred this year, with writer-director Sam Levinson's overwrought midnight movie Assassination Nation. The film drew raves, and was reportedly sold to a distributor for over $10 million. But while its story of an affluent community torn apart by leaked hacks of personal internet histories has some smart things to say about social media lynch-mobs, any nuance gets lost amid the hyperbolic style, the over-the-top scenes of sex and violence, and the clumsy last-act thematic pivot toward a more general (and inarticulate) anti-misogyny message.

What's most frustrating about the hubbub surrounding Assassination Nation is that it drew attention away from two films from Sundance's Midnight program that were genuinely inspired: Ari Aster's Hereditary, and Panos Cosmatos's Mandy. The former is an absolutely harrowing haunted house picture, with Toni Collette as an artist whose family seems prone to tragedy, either due to their genes or because of something more nefarious and supernatural. And in the latter, Nicolas Cage is a logger whose girlfriend get abducted by a religious cult, pushing him to embark on a dark, blood-soaked mission of backwoods revenge.

The descriptions above can't even begin to explain how spine-tinglingly eerie Hereditary is, or how mind-blowingly trippy and visionary Mandy is. Throughout the festival, both of these films were spoken about in awed whispers by attendees, usually in response to the question everybody asks each other at Sundance, "What have you seen that you've liked?" In fact, I loved the "prog-rock album cover meets '80s horror paperback" look and feel of Mandy so much that I did something I almost never do at festivals: I cast a ballot for it, for the audience awards.

Mandy didn't win anything. Nor did Hereditary, or Bisbee '17, or The Tale and 306 Hollywood, my favorites from my previous Sundance report. Instead, the major audience prizes went to Burden and The Sentence, while the juries went for The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Kailash. All of these movies were well-reviewed, but none gathered the buzz of The Guilty, an audience award winner in the "World Cinema Dramatic" category, which stands a decent chance of becoming an arthouse hit, thanks to its gripping story of a Danish emergency service dispatcher trying to investigate a possible crime entirely by phone.

Generally speaking, the films that end up defining any given Sundance are neither the prize-winners nor the ones that land the biggest distribution deals. I predict that cinephiles will look back at 2018's fest as the year of The Tale, Mandy, Hereditary, and …

Leave No Trace, the latest film from Winter's Bone writer-director Debra Granik, following another of her resourceful young heroines (played by the promising newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) as she survives in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest with her PTSD-afflicted father.

Madeline's Madeline, featuring another astonishingly talented young actress, Helena Howard, playing a mentally ill teenager who joins an experimental theater troupe and finds her director's push for authenticity at once therapeutic and triggering.

Tyrel, a subtle slice-of-life starring Jason Mitchell as the only black guy at a weekend Catskills house party, becoming acutely and uncomfortably aware of how little he has in common with these white dudes when they're all in a group.

You Were Never Really Here, a refugee from last year's Cannes film festival, written and directed by the brilliant Lynne Ramsay, and starring Joaquin Phoenix as a tortured soul who exorcises his demons by doing brutally violent jobs for sketchy rich folks.

What connects these last four films — besides three of them being written and directed by women — is that they're aggressively subjective, putting viewers into the skins of people who see the world from their own distinct angles. The headiness of creation in Josephine Decker's Madeline's Madeline, the unshakeable paranoia in Sebastián Silva's Tyrel, the longing for stability in Leave No Trace, the attempt to ignore the troubling larger world by focusing intensely on minutiae in You Were Never Really Here ... these are all profound cinematic and human experiences. The films are less interested in congratulating audiences for having the right attitudes than in shaking their foundations a little.

"Profound," "humane," and "subjective" also describe Sundance 2018's best film overall, the funny and bittersweet character study Eighth Grade. Written and directed by 27-year-old stand-up comedian Bo Burnham — who's way too young to be so mature as a filmmaker — the dramedy stars Elsie Fisher as a shy, friendless 13-year-old, suffering through her last week of middle school and having a hard time imagining how high school will be any better. Equally indebted to John Hughes and the Dardennes brothers, Eighth Grade sidesteps the alarmist hooey of Assassination Nation's take on the youth of today, and instead heads someplace more clear-eyed and honest, showing how 21st century teens use social media to forge connections and experiment with self-identity in ways that are difficult to do in their everyday lives.

No, Burnham hasn't reinvented cinema. Eighth Grade mostly pushes familiar buttons, skillfully manipulating the audience to laugh, cry, and cheer. But by focusing so closely on the face of one endearingly awkward youngster, the movie reaffirms what so many of this year's best Sundance entries prove: that the uniqueness of any story is partly in the telling, and partly in the people they're about.

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