Two 2017 Sundance presentations — Call Me By Your Name and Get Out — have made the Academy Awards list of best picture nominees (see next week’s column for my pre-Oscar assessment). Although a repeat of that seems unlikely based on the 2018 crop of new dramatic features, a great range of excellence was on offer. Here are some that most impressed along with notable mentions (all are U.S. productions unless otherwise noted).
Winner of the audience award in the U.S. dramatic competition, this true story of overcoming racial prejudice, 20 years in development as a film project by first-time writer-director Andrew Heckler, strikes a chord in the current climate of racial tensions. In the mid-1990s a group of Ku Klux Klansmen in Laurens, South Carolina, led by Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), converted a closed movie theatre into a “Redneck Shop” and “KKK Museum.” Griffin was a father figure to an angry young man, Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund), who had grown up in white-trash surroundings and participated in the Klan’s violence and intimidation tactics that were protested by the town’s African-American residents led by Pastor David Kennedy (Forest Whitaker) of the New Beginnings Baptist Church. Through the love of Judy (Andrea Riseborough), a single mom with a young son, Burden began a troubled journey from darkness into the light of forgiveness. When ostracized by the Klan, the couple found refuge in the pastor’s home. Hedlund, who starred in last year’s racially charged Deep South saga Mudbound, gives a remarkable performance. And as Heckler put the story’s driving force: “You can never turn an enemy into a friend through hate. You can only turn an enemy into a friend through love.”
Directed by the remarkable actor-author Ethan Hawke, who first came to Sundance with a short film almost 25 years ago, this “gonzo indie country-western opera,” as he described it, is an affecting tribute to legendary country-music troubadour Blaze Foley, who died in 1989. Foley is brilliantly played by Benjamin Dickey, who received a special jury award for achievement in acting. His faithful female companion and muse, Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat) — whose memoir is a source for the movie — had to put up with a lot but never abandoned him. Foley’s talent vied with his self-destructive side. Dickey and Shawkat have great chemistry in flashback scenes of their relationship. The mythology of Foley’s musical influence emerges from interviews with several associates (conducted as unobtrusively as possible by Hawke).
Hawke has his own star turn as a legendary singer-songwriter from the past, Tucker Crowe, in the Jesse Peretz-directed Juliet, Naked, a Sundance audience favourite based on the Nick Hornby novel. Crowe has an obsessive fan in Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), who lives with long-suffering girlfriend Annie (Rose Byrne) in a seaside English town. Although Annie couldn’t care less about Crow, her offhand negative reaction to a Crowe album arriving in the mail leads to an unexpected email correspondence with the man himself, and then to much more. The offspring of Crowe’s very mixed-up life, marked by addictions and abandonments, will bring him to London, and voilà, sparks fly. There are separations, awkward meetings with relatives you never knew you had, even a heart attack. Yet things turn out in a way that leaves one more lighthearted than sorry. Not brilliant perhaps, but a delight in its own right.
Director Debra Granik is best-known for the Oscar-nominated Sundance prize-winner Winter’s Bone that propelled Jennifer Lawrence to stardom. Here she adapts the Peter Rock novel about Will (Ben Foster), a homeless veteran suffering from PTSD, who is roughing it with his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) in a makeshift camp in a park near Portland, Oregon. Its discovery by park staff brings social agencies on the scene including a sympathetic social worker, Jean (Dana Millican), who finds them quiet lodgings and outdoor work for Will. While Tom thrives, he does not, tormented and unable to adapt to society. Their return to the wilderness provokes a parting. Yet the father-daughter bond endures. Foster is excellent in the role, and McKenzie is a major new talent.
Actor-director Paul Dano, working with screenwriting life partner Zoe Kazan (who was in last year’s Sundance hit The Big Sick), adapts the Richard Ford novel set in small-town Montana circa 1960. When Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), husband of Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and father to teenage son Joe (Ed Oxenbould), loses his temper and gets fired from his job at a golf and country club, he starts on a boozy downward spiral. After he leaves to fight forest fires, Jeanette is wooed by an older man, Warren (Bill Camp), the wealthy owner of a car dealership. While young Joe finds an outlet in satisfying part-time work as an assistant in a local photography studio, through his eyes we also see the growing strains of his parents’ crumbling marriage. The performances are all strong; that of Australian Oxenbould, a revelation in virtually every scene, is outstanding.
Brett Haley helms this audience favourite, the winning upbeat story of vintage Brooklyn record store owner Sam Fisher (Nick Offerman) and his talented daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons), who create some catchy music together even though his Red Hook Records is going out of business and she’s preparing to fly across the country to begin pre-med studies at UCLA. His upload of a track to Spotify, and her ties to a girlfriend, divert those plans and launch a new musical chapter. Offerman and Clemons opened the Sundance awards ceremony with a rousing rendition of the title signature tune backed up by its ace composer-singer-songwriter Keegan DeWitt.
In this true-story Netflix production (to be released April 13) directed by Joshua Marston, Chiwetel Ejiofor is compelling as the African-American evangelical pastor Carlton Pearson who preaches to a large megachurch and broadcast following in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the senior televangelist, Oral Roberts (played by noted Catholic activist-actor Martin Sheen), considers him to be a protégé and potential heir. Pearson, a bishop in the Church of God in Christ, is a star. But when he begins to question the fear-and-hellfire fundamentalist gospel — did not God’s unconditional love and the sacrifice of his Son redeem all of humanity? — he loses much of his flock, is spurned by his church, and must find a renewed faith to carry on.
Directed by Aneesh Chaganty, winner of both the best of NEXT and Alfred Sloan prizes, this was an amazing thriller — the images entirely composed of those appearing on electronic screens — that had me guessing until the final moment. Margot (Michelle La) is the 16-year-old daughter of David Kim (John Cho), a good student taking piano lessons who dearly misses the mom she lost to cancer. When Margot mysteriously disappears from her California home, it sets off an increasingly frantic search through a trail of often misleading social-media clues and online identities. As a desperate David interacts with detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) who has volunteered to lead the case, the investigation reaches a most unexpected destination.
From writer-director Bo Burnham comes another story involving the sometimes dangerous world of social media and millennial adolescent youth. Elsie Fisher is remarkable as the teenage girl, Kayla, who lives with devoted single dad Mark (Josh Hamilton, also in Blaze) while navigating the awkward hormonal peer pressures and anxieties of her last year of middle school. Kayla posts selfie videos to her YouTube channel. Like today’s teens she’s always on her phone, trying to be “cool.” But it’s her bundle of introspective insecurities that makes her genuinely likeable and puts us in her corner.
Writer-director Tolga Karaçelik received the world cinema grand jury prize for this fantastical tale of a trio of squabbling estranged siblings living abroad who are reunited after many years when a letter from their father brings them back to their native village, by which time he has passed on. The absurdist tone is set early on when older brother Cemal (Tolga Tekin) sets fire to himself in an astronaut suit on German television. Brother Kenan is an unsuccessful actor and sister Suzan a teacher who’s left an arrogant husband. Exploding chickens (literally), a tale of when butterflies come to die, an apostate imam, and a last request add to the bizarre happenings that end with a blind shepherd under a tree.
Director Desiree Akhavan won the U.S. drama grand jury prize for this adaptation of the Emily Danforth novel about Minnesota high school student Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) who, when discovered making out with another girl, is sent upstate by her strict Christian foster parents to a “gay conversion” Christian camp run by a “converted” Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) and his forbidding psychologist sister Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle). Cameron befriends two other outcasts, a girl with a prosthetic leg, Jane Fonda (Saska Lane, also in Hearts Beat Loud), and a Native American, Adam (Forrest Goodluck). After another troubled teen (who doesn’t want to be loved by Jesus?) is driven to suicide, you have to cheer when the three abscond. (Although scientifically discredited, a January 2018 University of California report estimates that some 700,000 Americans have undergone “gay conversion therapy,” half of them as adolescents.)
Joaquin Phoenix gives exceptional performances in two Sundance selections. In Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, he plays the iconoclastic and alcoholic Portland cartoonist John Callahan, confined to a wheelchair as a quadriplegic after a crazed car crash. (In the movie, Jonah Hill is also great as an HIV-positive gay man who leads an AA group.) Phoenix is even better as a hired killer in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, which screened at Cannes and is scheduled for an April release.
Keira Knightley is convincing as the pioneering French novelist in Wash Westmoreland’s Colette (U.K.Hungary/U.S.). In Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia, based on the Lisa Klein novel, Daisy Ridley commands the title role to George MacKay’s Hamlet.
Ben Lewin’s The Catcher Was a Spy and Brad Anderson’s Beirut are moderately effective thrillers. Catcher tells the true story of Jewish pro-baseball player Moe Berg (Paul Rudd) who was recruited as a secret agent during the Second World War and in 1944 sent on a mission to prevent the Nazis from developing an atomic bomb, if necessary to assassinate renowned physicist Werner Heisenberg. In Beirut, Jon Hamm plays a senior American diplomat caught up in a deadly 1972 terrorist attack in the Lebanese capital who, a decade later with Israel threatening to invade, is sent back by the CIA on a dangerous mission to negotiate the release of a former colleague held captive by Palestinian jihadists.
In Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had, Michael Shannon and Hilary Swank do good work as a brother and sister tangling with their father over what needs to be done to deal with their mother’s worsening dementia. (The mother is played by Blythe Danner who also has a somewhat similar but minor role as an addled elderly parent in Hearts Beat Loud.)
Claire Danes and Jim Parsons are excellent in transgender director Silas Howard’s A Kid Like Jake, about parents coping with concerns over their four-year-old boy Jake’s decidedly feminine preferences.
Writer-director Ísold Uggadóttir received the world cinema jury’s directing award for And Breathe Normally (Iceland/Sweden/Belgium), a beautiful story of the relationship that develops between an Icelandic single mother and a female migrant from Guinea-Bissau at risk of deportation.
Finally, although I generally steer clear of midnight horror movies, I can see why Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation became an audience favourite. The violence run amok takes place in a fictional modern-day American “Salem” of social-media trolling and manic vigilantism. It’s subversive, transgressive, excessive, and sometimes bloody brilliant (emphasis on the first “b”) — a late-night cult movie in the making. You’ve been warned.