Sundance ’18 | Best of the Fest

by Tim Gordon

The annual film festival kick-off of the New Year, The Sundance Film Festival, will conclude this week amidst the snowy mountains of Park City, Utah. Our staff had the opportunity to see over 30 of the films premiering at the festival and will spotlight our Top Ten Gems that left audiences buzzing.

Unlike previous years, this year’s slate of films including no star-studded “must-see” highly-anticipated fare. Films such as Mudbound, The Big Sick, Brooklyn, The Birth of A Nation and plenty of others have provided Park City audiences with electric moments. The absence of Harvey Weinstein’s dealmaking, as well as the lack of activity from the major screening services, such as Netflix, has produced a solid festival where the entire slate of films are all on equal footing. Despite the lack of major films and storylines, below is the list of films that thrilled us and perhaps may make some noise later this year.

A Boy, A Girl, A Dream
Writer-director Qasim Basir’s third film focuses on a young couple, Cass (Omari Hardwick) and Frida (Megan Good) whose paths cross outside of a nightclub on the night of the 2016 election. Over the course of 90-minutes (edited to look like one tracking shot), we follow their journey from interested friends to the dawn of a new relationship. Each displaying tenderness and vulnerability, we witness their emotional walls slowly coming down as they open up and begin to trust each other. Hardwick and Good are mesmerizing and electric in this wildly romantic, keenly observant and blissfully hopeful romantic drama. Basir’s simple yet heart-warming story is a film that we don’t see often enough but during these turbulent and confusing times, it’s one we need – one filled with hope.

Ten years in the making, best friends and collaborators Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal drew from their personal experiences growing up in the Bay to create this entertaining, yet socially-conscious story, which was purchased by Lionsgate. Digg’s character has three days left on his parole but those final days are filled with non-stop dread. While he is trying to walk the righteous path to change his life for the better, his destructive, yet care-free friend, played by Casal, tests the limits of their friendship while endangering his freedom. The pair, which co-wrote the story, tackle gentrification, white privilege, and police misconduct . . . while somehow managing to simultaneously make the audience laugh and think. Not an easy task indeed but one that works very effectively in this story.

Juliet, Naked
Sundance darling Ethan Hawke returns with a reflective and entertaining story of a reclusive former rock musician, Tucker Crowe, emerges from seclusion when the head of his fan club, Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) and his long-time girlfriend Annie (Rose Byrne) take opposite stands on his legacy and Tucker befriends the ex-girlfriend, much to the shock and chagrin of the spurned ex. Hawke, who has starred in several indie classics from Richard Linklater, including the “Before” trilogy, and Boyhood, create another solid and memorable performance as a detached former star whose concentration is connecting with the family that he has avoided throughout his life and how his relationship with Byrne reinvigorates him. All three leads are very effective in this tale that displays that it’s never too late to start living your best life.

King in the Wilderness

King in the Wilderness
The final years of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. are carefully explored in this powerful documentary of the Civil Rights icon. Directed by Peter W. Kunhardt, the film features a bevy of previously unseen footage of King in his most private moments, this winning doc displays that as the times were changing in the late 1960s, it was beginning to transform him and his ideology from him being seen as “The Dreamer” to a man who sensed turbulent change from a younger, frustrated generation far less tolerant than he. Interestingly enough, one wonders how King would be perceived in the current climate if he had lived as the doc shows young firebrands such Stokely Carmichael and other from the Black Power Movement would have tarnished his legacy. A fascinating look at an enduring symbol of Civil Rights Movement.

The Tale
The discovery of a letter detailing an inappropriate relationship when she was a teenager leads a woman on a life-altering journey of exploration in this powerful, yet difficult to watch drama. Laura Dern stars as Jennifer Fox, who is befriended and later taken advantage by both a lecherous track coach, Bill (Jason Ritter (young); John Heard (old)) as well as her riding instructor, Mrs. G. (Elizabeth Debicki (young); Frances Conroy (old)). Written and directed by Fox, the power in the story is found in the awkward yet revealing scenes of inappropriate seduction that simultaneously repel the audience while maintaining the uncomfortable gaze that is the visual manifestation of the #MeToo movement. While it had to uncomfortable for Fox to revisit one of the darkest chapters of her life, we applaud her courage to share her story which should serve as healing for her and so many others who had similar experiences.

After the public murder of his older brother, Jerry Dredd (Everaldo Creary) while brokering peace between two rival gangs, a young man fueled by revenge tries to find the righteous path in this reggae-drenched coming-of-age story by first-time director Idris Elba. The young protégé of a powerful Jamaican druglord, King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd), D (Aml Ameen) is trusted to handle a drug deal in London when he crosses a local dealer, Rico (Stephen Graham) and brings the drama from the island to the U.K., while trying to hold his family together as well as avenge the death of his beloved brother. An inspired debut from Elba, his film mines familiar territory but its pulsating beats, as well as strong and solid work from his talented cast, show that after years of making his female fans swoon on the big-screen, he was refining his technical skills.

Monsters and Men
The shooting and subsequent cover-up by the NYPD of a popular local figure, Darius (Christopher Jordan Wallace) alter the life of three people in this all-too-familiar but heartbreaking story. Capturing the shooting on his smartphone makes a young man, Manny (Anthony Ramos), a target of the undercover detectives. John David Washington also stars as Dennis, a police officer who tries to tow the “thin Blue line,” while experiencing the trials of many he patrols. Finally, a talented young high school baseball player, Zee (newcomer Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), tries to balance his burgeoning social activism while tries to punch his ticket out of the hood. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, the film is at its best when it explores how one act can create so much upheaval while leaving much of the story open-ended – similar to the reality many have endured.

The Rider

The Rider
After suffering a major injury, a celebrated rodeo star, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) must decide between his love the game or his life in this reflective drama. Despite staples lining half his skull, the decision to walk away before suffering permanent damage is not enough from preventing dude from walking away from the only thing he’s ever loved. Constantly visiting a former colleague and dear friend, Lane Scott (himself) who has suffered major physical and psychological damage after a bad rodeo accident, also adds to his personal drama during his season of indecision. Director Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me) screenplay and storytelling explore the things that many hold dear, displaying the universality of topics such as mortality, and our dreams. This gritty look at a hard existence that doesn’t give our character too many choices, packs an amazing emotional punch.

A bright and promising young man, Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) is on trial for his freedom in this thoroughly-engaging and riveting social drama. Harmon is arrested for a lookout for a crime that has left a local bodega owner robbed and killed. A model student, he must rely on a sympathetic attorney, Katherine O’Brien (Jennifer Ehle) to come up with a strategy that will get him exonerated. The film explores how one act could immeasurably alter the trajectory of a promising life. Harrison, who shined in another film at Sundance, Monster and Men, takes center stage displaying every emotion in his cinematic toolbox effectively drawing audiences and giving them a protagonist to rally around. Directed by Anthony Mandler and produced by Tonya Lewis Lee and John Legend, the film is filled with winning supporting performances including John David Washington, Jeffrey Wright, and Jennifer Hudson.

Sorry to Bother You
Writer/director Boots Riley uses the world of telemarketing as the backdrop for his bold and audacious feature debut film. Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cash, a recent hire of a demanding job as a telemarketer who is instructed to S.T.T.S. (Stick to the script) as management dangles the carrot of a promotion to the elusive “Power Caller” status. Much like Which Way is Up and Living Large, Stanfield succumbs to the temptation and in the process losing his friends, girlfriend, and his soul as he must make a decision on what is a success? Riley gets strong supporting performances from Tessa Thompson, Omari Hardwick, and a funny, yet brief appearance from Danny Glover. The film’s third act is wholly original but challenging which will determine how successful Riley’s wickedly subversive but entertaining satire will fare.