From social satire to hard drama to low-stakes comedy, this year’s Sundance Film Festival delivered a wide variety of very good films. Here is a list of our favorites.
As we mentioned before the festival started, it’s tough out there for a Sundance film. Over 13,000 films were submitted to the festival. Only 229 of those were expected. Of those 229, our team only had time enough to see 40-50 films. Because if you survive the altitude, the rapidly changing weather patterns, the worst flu season on record, and avoid catching whatever the 500 other people in each theater have brought with them, you still have to choose wisely. And you’re choosing from a batch of films that are almost entirely made up of premieres. They have no buzz from previous festivals and they have no Rotten Tomatoes scores. They have a two paragraph pitch from the programming guide and whatever baggage their filmmaker or cast bring to the party. It’s not an impossible task to see the best films of the festival, but it’s not easy.
All of that to say that this is our list of the 18 best films we saw at this year’s festival. It’s possible we missed a few and will regret it, but that’s something you learn to live with at Sundance. You can’t see everything, but you hope discover something. And as we peer over our list, we feel pretty good about what we discovered. We hope you will, too.
Storytelling techniques collide in Bart Layton’s film about a group of young men that plan to raid a books library. The former documentary filmmaker draws on his past filmography to fictionalize a possibly true story in a manner that will leave viewers guessing until the very end. Come for the problematization of truth claims, stay for an amazing performance by Ann Dowd as librarian Betty Jean Gooch. – Matt Hoffman
This loud, violent, and in your face action/comedy comes with a heavy dose of social commentary and righteous indignation, and while it probably wants to rock the boat a bit too much the end result is still a terrifically caustic and entertaining ride. It wants to offend the offensive, and it’s not too worried about the collateral damage. – Rob Hunter
A dark, pulsing romantic thriller with a real mean streak, Beast is one of the better under-the-radar films we discovered at this year’s festival. Despite the fact that it did premiere at TIFF last year. All the same, newcomer Jessie Buckley delivers a fantastic performance as a woman who wrestles with her love for a man accused of a string of terrible murders. – Neil Miller
This isn’t Ethan Hawke’s directorial debut, but it does feel like his most mature effort to date as a filmmaker. In telling the story of Blaze Foley, a legend of the Outlaw Country movement of the late 80s, Hawke creates a soulful experience that unleashes the talent of lead Ben Dickey unto the world. The music is great, the cast is phenomenal (Alia Shawkat and Charlie Sexton are both excellent), and while it might need a little bit of a trim before it’s ready for wider audiences, Blaze is an undeniable success. – Neil Miller
Bridey Elliott channels Edward Albee and Eugene O’Neil in this dark comedy set in her family home. The slightly autobiographical film stars the entire Elliott clan and features an astounding performance from Paula Niedert Elliott, who is in fact the only of the Elliotts to have never appeared on screen previously. Think Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but with a ghost. – Matt Hoffman
Comedic westerns are a rare experience on the big screen, but the Zellner Brothers (Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter) deliver dry brilliance with their latest film alongside fun performances from Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson. It’s a funny, surprising, and sharply-written look at the male desire to rescue women whether they need it or not, and it’s my favorite film of the festival. – Rob Hunter
A single location thriller set where the action *isn’t* happening sounds like a recipe for dullsville, but this tight and suspenseful tale from Denmark brings the goods in surprisingly entertaining ways. We can only hear what’s happening on a 911 operator’s line, but we watch his face and his actions with both anxiousness and dread. – Rob Hunter
Hearts Beat Loud
If you saw The Hero in 2017, you know that director Brett Haley has a penchant for discovering and displaying the humanity in just about any story. Here, he enlists Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons as a father/daughter pair with a few interesting differences and a shared song in their heart. It’s a delightful low-stakes story about dealing with change. The unexpected chemistry between the two stars is what seals it as one of the loveliest experiences of Sundance ’18. – Neil Miller
No hyperbole here when I declare that this is one of the best new horror films I’ve seen in years. Director Ari Aster uses horror and satanism to explore grief in a super effective manner. It’s absolutely terrifying but leave it to Ann Dowd to make this one a tearjerker as well. – Matt Hoffman
I Think We’re Alone Now
Director Reed Morano delivers an intimate, atmospheric tale of a man who thought he survived the apocalypse alone, only to have his world upended by the appearance of a young woman on the run. Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning are another unexpectedly magnetic pair in a Sundance that was all about finding chemistry in odd places. For Morano, this is another step forward in her burgeoning, brilliant directorial career. For audiences, it’s a chance to see Dinklage continue showing off his emotionally dynamic skills. – Neil Miller
Nick Hornby’s work is best when he’s at his sweetest. There’s plenty of room for awkward laughs, but at the heart of films like Juliet, Naked is an earnest adoration for characters and their desire to be loved. In this instance, we have Rose Byrne finding herself after getting out of a 15-year relationship with an obsessive music nerd played by Chris O’Dowd. Of course, it gets awkward when she becomes penpals with her ex’s greatest musical obsession, a reclusive rocker played by Ethan Hawke. All three are delightful and the story is easy enough to like. For director Jesse Peretz (Our Idiot Brother, GLOW) it’s another comedic win with plenty of heart. – Neil Miller
Lords of Chaos
There’s a distinction between death metal and black metal, but that’s just one of the things you’ll learn from this tragic, bloody, and surprisingly funny true crime tale about a crime spree in Norway that ends in murder. Rory Culkin takes a lead role here and delivers a killer performance against a fascinating backdrop of ambition and madness. – Rob Hunter
Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline was perhaps the most vibrant film at Sundance. The film features profoundly moving performances from Miranda July, Molly Parker, and newcomer Helena Howard as Madeline. Parker stars as a theatre director whose experiment goes too far when she asks Madeline to draw from her own life. With an explosively fresh formal approach, Decker crafts a film that is unlike any other. – Matt Hoffman
Night Comes On
This low-key drama about two sisters seems cut from an obvious Sundance playbook, but the whole is far greater than the parts. Two absolutely terrific performances, some narrative surprises, and a whole lot of heart help lift the film into the realm of the truly affecting. You won’t soon forget these two girls. – Rob Hunter
It wasn’t entirely clear that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was in need of a funky, feminist reboot from the POV of his doomed love Ophelia, but I’m glad director Claire McCarthy went for it. Because she really went for it, especially as the story unravels toward the end. Daisy Ridley delivers an impressive performance in the lead role, stretching out a bit beyond A Galaxy Far, Far Away to embrace the madness of Ophelia. Naomi Watts and Clive Owen are also there. So is Clive Owen’s wig, which is a sight to be seen. The entire thing plays like a farce and feels undeniably fresh. – Neil Miller
Sorry to Bother You
Boots Riley is a rapper, a filmmaker, and a madman. The latter two qualities come in handy for the delivery of his social satire, Sorry to Bother You. He places Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson in the middle of an Oakland that Michel Gondry might build, unfurling a story about rampant capitalism and inequality that cuts deeply and twists absurdly. It’s one of the most creative, vibrant, and brilliant pieces of cinema that 2018 is likely to see. Oh, and Armie Hammer shows up as an agent of chaos and human mutation. That doesn’t make sense now, but it will when you see Sorry to Bother You. Because you should do that. – Neil Miller
Documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox delves into narrative storytelling for this autobiographical interrogation of memory. Laura Dern stars as Fox, who in her late forties revisits a story she wrote as a child about her first love. What she thought of as an innocent love affair with an older man is revealed to be much more disturbing as Fox reassess the events. In revealing the lies we tell ourselves to survive, Fox crafts a brave and mesmerizing film. – Matt Hoffman
Working as a sort of anti-Get Out, Sebastián Silva’s Tyrel offers a complex portrait of racial relations and white boy partying. The subtle execution and a perfectly orchestrated sense of dread makes this brilliant film my favorite of the festival. Did I mention it features a perfectly cast Ann Dowd? – Matt Hoffman
All images courtesy of the Sundance Institute. For more, check out our Sundance archive.