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The Very Best of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival: Blood, Sweat and Plenty of Tears

The films—and performances—that you’ll surely be talking about later this year.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

From January 18 to 28, over 50,000 people braved high altitudes and low ABV beers to take in the world’s premier independent film festival.

And sure, the 2018 Sundance Film Festival wasn’t as impressive as last year’s edition—one of the best fest’s ever, boasting the films Get Out, Call Me By Your Name, Mudbound, The Big Sick, A Ghost Story and ICARUS—but there was still plenty to write home about.

Here are our Sundance ‘18 superlatives.

BEST FILM

Marlow’s Pick: Eighth Grade

By its moving bonfire conclusion, the entire press screening I attended was weeping. Such is the power of Eighth Grade, the achingly true-to-life filmmaking debut of Bo Burnham. In chronicling the journey of Kayla, a 14-year-old social outcast navigating the minefield that is eighth grade—with its Instagram selfies, YouTube videos, you name it—the stand-up comedian’s crafted a coming-of-age tale for the ages, and one that announces an exciting new talent: Elsie Fisher, a young actress who won everyone’s heart at Sundance, and whose future is terribly bright. Anyone who’s ever harbored feelings of alienation or personal inadequacy will be moved by the story of Kayla.  

Kevin’s PickThree Identical Strangers

While there were a handful of films we genuinely adored or were excited by—Eighth Grade, Private Life, The Tale, and Sorry to Bother You chief among them—we were among the festivalgoers too spoiled by last year’s bonkers-good lineup that we couldn’t imagine any of this year’s films going the distance in that way. But then we remembered Three Identical Strangers, the amazing true story about triplets separated at birth with a disturbing twist we never saw coming. The way the film lures you with the can-you-believe-this-is-true joy of the brothers’ reunion only to blindside you with its angering, dark turn was one of Sundance’s most involving experiences. Sometimes it’s documentaries that tend to make the most noise at festivals, and we expect this one to turn up the volume throughout the next year.

BEST ACTRESS

Kevin’s Pick: Kathryn Hahn, Private Life

In a heartening shift that hopefully reflects a new normal, the bulk of this year’s standout performances at Sundance were from women, and in films in which they were the leads and the center of the narratives: Laura Dern in The Tale, Rose Byrne in Juliet, Naked, Hilary Swank in What They Had, breakout Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Claire Danes, Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Toni Collette...the list goes on. But it’s Kathryn Hahn’s spectacular work in Private Life that’s still lingering with us now that we’re back from Park City and finally defrosted. The Tamara Jenkins film centers on a couple carefully navigating landmines in their marriage, which threaten to detonate each time an attempt to have a baby—through fertility treatments, surrogates, adoption—falls through. As Rachel, Hahn delivers a vanity-free, prickly performance, with equal-measure dry cynicism and emotional fragility that tickles your funny bone just as often as it makes you squirm. As we wrote in our review, Hahn has a way of blending wanton comedy with unbridled pathos when she’s in the right role. We’ve yet to see one this perfect.

Marlow’s Pick: Chloe Grace Moretz, The Miseducation of Cameron Post

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With the notable exception of her anxiety-ridden turn as Lindsay Lohan in Clouds of Sils Maria, I haven’t been all that impressed with Chloe Grace Moretz’s recent output. It’s not entirely her fault—she’s a gifted actress who’s tethered herself to some genuinely crap films, like the Carrie remake, the abysmal Dark Places, sci-fi dud The 5th Wave, and Louis C.K.’s creepy bout of self-analysis. In Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, she’s found a project worthy of her talents. Moretz plays the title character, a teen lesbian who, after getting busted hooking up with her ladylove on prom night, is forced to attend an insidious gay conversion therapy camp. Moretz is deeply in tune with the rhythms of Cameron—her thoughts, hopes and fears—and has, with her committed performance, reminded us all how important it is to be yourself.  

BEST ACTOR

Marlow’s Pick: Evan Peters, American Animals

Having largely ignored Ryan Murphy’s FX anthology series American Horror Story, I’m not all that familiar with the work of Evan Peters. What little I’ve seen, however, has impressed, including his scene-stealing turn as Quicksilver in the X-Men films and his garrulous high school pal in Kick-Ass. He’s an eminently watchable actor whose volatility compels and confounds. And, while this year’s Sundance was mostly about the women, his turn as Warren Lipka, a live-wire college kid who plots a harebrained art heist with three of his classmates, brought levity and a dash of menace to American Animals’ wacky proceedings. Can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Kevin’s Pick: Lakeith Stanfield, Sorry to Bother You

Sorry to Bother You is a wild ride—part workplace satire, part #Resistance allegory, part gonzo acid trip—that only works because an actor like Lakeith Stanfield is guiding it. The Atlanta and Get Out star plays Cassius, a down-on-his-luck telemarketer who, after tapping into a trick of the trade (talk like a white guy), is promoted to the executive floor where he must decide to either be complicit in the selling of slave labor, or give up a life-changing paycheck. Hip-hop artist-turned-director Boots Riley tumbles through genres like a cinematic gymnast, with Stanfield vacillating between broad comedy, intense drama, and even horror-film paranoia with such precise dexterity that you can’t imagine anyone else sticking the landing. Armie Hammer’s doing coke in a sarong, Tessa Thompson’s doing nude performance art, and half-horse humans are running around him in all their full-frontal glory, but Stanfield roots it all, so that you never forget that for all the craziness, the story you’re watching is intrinsically human.

BREAKOUT PERFORMANCE

Kevin’s Pick: Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade

Fourteen-year-old Elsie Fisher had finished eighth grade just one week before filming began on Bo Burnham’s sensational coming-of-age dramedy Eighth Grade, and started high school one week after production wrapped; she was in Park City to premiere the film on a break from taking her finals. It’s an intimacy-to-material that gave her insight into the heart of Kayla, a middle-school outsider struggling to muster the confidence to discover her own identity and place in the unforgiving eighth grade social circle (let alone the world). It’s a portrait of that time in a person’s life that is so authentic and resonant, audiences wept in response. Speaking in that stutter-y adolescent cadence and with that shaken soda can of exploding teenage emotion, it’s a performance so verité that it would be easy to not give Fisher credit for the skill on display here. She commands the screen even while telegraphing devastating insecurity. Days later we still can’t stop thinking about her.

Marlow’s Pick: Hari Nef, Assassination Nation

Assassination Nation, the biggest acquisition of this year’s Sundance—with a $10 million price tag—was also its most divisive film, with many critics lambasting its satirical of-the-moment dialogue and Spring Breakers-esque mania. For all its visual and sonic flourishes, and there are many, the bonkers midnight movie is bookended by two beautifully rendered sequences featuring Hari Nef, a trans model/writer/actress multihyphenate. The first sees her sitting on a bed devastated, a tear gliding down her cheek, after her high school jock-crush instructs her to “not tell anyone” about their all-too-brief sexual encounter, fearing the judgment of his closed-minded pals; and the second sees her begging for her life as those same toxically masculine bros bully the aforementioned crush into stringing her up to a lamppost. They’re important scenes that remind us of the violence and intimidation that trans people face every day. And don’t worry: Nef gets her revenge on the bad men, with a pair of pistols and sass to spare.

CRAZIEST KILL SCENE

Marlow’s Pick: Mandy

Nicolas Cage is a national treasure, and his action-movie trifecta of The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off remains the best genre run of any bullet-riddled hero in recent memory. Thanks to his twitchy, outré performances, like that time he ran around punching witchy women in a bear suit in The Wicker Man, Cage has transmogrified into a phenomenon; a beloved, borderline mythological figure in the pop-culture consciousness. And in Mandy, Panos Cosmatos’ batshit-insane fever dream of a revenge film, Cage Rage is turned up to 11 after his goddess of a wife (Andrea Riseborough) is brutally murdered by a pack of raving Jesus freaks. Armed with a custom scythe and crossbow, Cage stalks the wilderness in search of the cult members—as well as the trio of heavy-metal demons who aided them. He encounters one of these hellspawns in a living room watching ‘70s porn while doing cocaine. As I wrote, “He lunges at the creature, who then flips Cage onto the ground before stabbing at him with his phallus, which happens to be a sword. So Cage, ever the resourceful lunatic, reaches for a box cutter and slits the beast’s throat, and, as a geyser of blood erupts into his face, cackles hysterically. If that weren’t enough, he gets up, grabs a piece of broken glass, scoops some of the leftover cocaine, and hoovers it.” It is just as glorious as it sounds.

BIGGEST CONVERSATION STARTER

Kevin’s PickThe Tale

That The Tale speaks so directly to the conversations and confessionals surrounding the #MeToo movement is a circumstance that should amplify the power of Jennifer Fox’s brave, yet—yeesh—challenging memoir film, though hopefully not erase it into an encompassing hashtag. Based on Fox’s own experience, it stars Laura Dern as Fox, a documentarian who, at age 48, is prompted to interrogate a relationship she had when she was 13 that, as she re-examines it, clarifies itself as child rape. As she confronts her memories of the relationship, with a 40-year-old coach and mentor, she ponders how and why the people in her life allowed it to happen, and how and why she had, for all these years, convinced herself it was consensual. Every brutal detail plays out on screen, including the rape (filmed with a body double), forcing the audience to themselves confront not only the grotesque realities of sexual assault, but our own ideas about victimization, complicity, denial, delusion, and memory. It’s an uncomfortable film to watch, and that is vital to its impact.

BEST MUSIC SEQUENCE

Marlow’s Pick: Skate Kitchen

There’s a sequence in Skate Kitchen, filmmaker Crystal Moselle’s bildungsroman about a teen girl finding her place amid an eclectic female skateboarding collective, that had me humming its song for the rest of Sundance. When Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) decides to go behind her best friend’s back and hang with her crush (Jaden Smith) and his fellow sk8er bois, she’s on cloud nine. What follows is a dreamlike series of scenes that sees Camille and the fellas skating across Manhattan to Khalid’s “Young Dumb & Broke” that perfectly captures those fleeting feelings of teenage immortality.

BIGGEST CRYFEST

Kevin’s PickWhat They Had

We’re a crier, OK!? And it turns out it only gets worse with altitude. The first big communal cry came during a wallop of a father-daughter exchange near the end of Eighth Grade. EKO: Emotional Knock Out. We never stood a chance at a screening of the documentary Believer, in which Imagine Dragons singer Dan Reynolds introduces us to gay Mormons who have been ostracized by their church, including the parents of one young gay teen who committed suicide. But it was the final stretch of the family drama What They Had that had us out-of-breath from our heaving verklemption. Hilary Swank stars as the daughter of Blythe Danner’s character, who is suffering from dementia. When unexpected tragedy strikes the family, there are two exchanges that Danner delivers in fleeting moments of lucidity that blanketed Park City in a flurry of sniffles. It would have been tempting to write off a dementia family drama as Sundance-y to the point of parody, had these emotional beats not been so devastatingly honest and heartfelt.