The Sundance Film Festival is always a worthy one to keep an eye on. It usually marks the debut of most of the independent films we’ll be talking about for the remainder of the year, and this year was no different. As usual, there’s one special standout, and this time is not even the big Jury Prize winner – barring any scandalous revelations like Nate Parker’s, these films should be Oscar frontrunners in 2018.
This list contains a gay drama, a racially charged period piece, an Aubrey Plaza comedy, a hip hop biopic, and a Thai film about a guy and his elephant. So, as usual, versatility seems to be Sundance’s forte.
1. Call Me By Your Name
Luca Guadagnino’s gay summer fling film has been the best reviewed entry in the festival. It’s about a seventeen year old boy’s blossoming fascination and romance with a summer guest at his parents’ mansion. Armie Hammer plays the seductive stranger with a dexterity that has seldom been explored since his breakout role in David Fincher’s The Social Network. Guadagnino’s noted intensity and warmth is applied to a story that deserves it and, even further, begs for it.
It’s also cool to note that James Ivory is credited as one of the screenwriters – needless to say that the British filmmaker is responsible for another classic of gay cinema, 1987’s Maurice. Young Timothé Chalamet is a revelation in the main role, bringing complexity and intelligence to this whirlwind of a film.
If not really a fully-realized film, Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto is still a fascinating experience. It features a performance than can only be described as a tour de force by Cate Blanchett, playing 13 different characters throughout the film, each of them repeating the words of a famous artistic or political manifesto. Praised for being a cinematic triumph in what could’ve been a purely conceptual exercise, Manifesto is a film that deserves to be seen.
That it manages to be accessible and compelling even when eschewing any resemblance of an actual plot is a miracle. It’s a striking miracle of creation on top of creation, displaying both artists’ knack for communicating the most difficult ideas in the most engrossing forms.
3. I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore
The Grand Jury winner this year was a crime thriller with a dark comedy undercurrent, with fabulous lead performances by indie darlings Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood. It’s a weird little story about a depressed woman being burglarized and suddenly finding new meaning to her life as she seeks retribution with the help of her eccentric neighbor.
Macon Blair, better known for his work as an actor in Blue Ruin, Green Room and Murder Party, makes a splashy debut as writer/director, and it’s very cool that Sundance chose to give its main award to a genre film, recognizing the rise of an exciting wave of indie filmmakers. Keep an eye on Blair’s next films, and whatever Lynskey and Wood do next.
Dee Rees has been away from theatrical motion pictures for too long. If you don’t count made-for-TV movie Bessie, which earned her two Emmy nominations, her last film was her debut, Pariah, in 2011. Mudbound proves she’s not a one-hit-wonder as it tells a very different story with the same competence. Rees is a brave director, building riveting scenes from scratch and never straying from her story and her characters to show off her abilities.
Mudboud is a racially charged period piece about two men returning from World War II to find a divided and wounded America. While adjusting to life outside of the battlefield, they also have to face racism. Filled with great performances by the likes of Carey Mulligan, Jason Mitchell, Rob Morgan and Jonathan Banks, the film was purchased by Netflix for distribution.
5. Beach Rats
This scathing examination of toxic masculinity interfering in the growing up process of a teenager is Eliza Hittman’s spiritual sequel to her debut, the delicate It Felt Like Love. It’s a sensitive film with a real ear for the silences and self-discovery moments that happen in adolescence. It pulsates with quiet sexuality and the sense of imminent tragedy, a mood piece more than anything else.
The film took home the Directing Award this year, which speaks to how much it hangs on Hittman’s uncanny ability to control the mood and the look of the film. Harris Dickinson is a revelation as this conflicted and complicated young man dealing with his sexuality and the pressures that come with it in Beach Rats.