Sundance 2018: Good or Bad, This Year's Films Push Cinema Forward
by Alex Billington
January 29, 2018
Every year at Sundance, there are people who try to claim that it was a bad year for films. Every year, there's critics who claim everything they saw was bad and it's a bad line-up and there's no good films and this year for cinema sucks. But they're wrong. They are always wrong. Not only do I recommend trying to see more films, since there's over 100 playing and there's no way anyone saw everything, but it's also about taking a closer look at how the films have evolved and what they represent. At the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, many of the films were very personal, very powerful, and sometimes provocative and challenging, for good reason (society today is pretty crazy). Even though some films weren't that great, or didn't turn out perfect, that does not mean they still aren't exciting, innovative, creative, original works that push cinema forward.
I saw a total of 38 films at the Sundance Film Festival (plus another 4 from online screeners), and you know what, I enjoyed most of them. I will fully admit that there was no Call Me By Your Name this year, which is fine. This means there was no one film that was so exceptionally outstanding that it will stay at the top of my Best of the Year list for the next 11 months (for some, last year's A Ghost Story also earned this title). But just because there wasn't one film like this doesn't mean there weren't incredible films, and it doesn't mean this is a bad year. In fact, I saw at least 10 films that might still end up on my Top 10, and then I saw another 20 that I would say are deserving of extra recognition and acknowledgement for various reasons. Sundance provided a very healthy slate of films that finally addressed the times and asked tough questions.
Ever since 2016, many people have been outspoken about how artists can help confront the issues of today's times. This is what good art can do, and what it is meant to do, when it's made by very passionate, creative people who want to fight to make a difference. When you're a filmmaker, how do you talk about the world and what's going on when no one will listen? You make films. You make films that slap us in the face with honest depictions of reality - racism, sexism, misogyny, injustice. It took a few years for these filmmakers to create, write, fund, film, and finally finish their films - and we're finally seeing them at Sundance 2018. And so many filmmakers are more driven than ever before - to make very bold, truthful films that speak directly to the audience. Take, for example, Carlos López Estrada's Blindspotting - one of my favorites of the fest.
Blindspotting is a film about two friends from Oakland - Collin, played by Daveed Diggs, and Miles, played by Rafael Casal. Collin is finishing up his last few days in a half-way house after getting out of prison for a violent crime a few years previously. He has cleaned himself up and is trying to live a respectable life, even refusing a joint in the car (in one of the opening scenes). The film challenges the preconceived notions and biases some have about with black men - that they are violent criminals with nothing to offer - and instead shows an intelligent, humble man who is fighting against injustice. One of the final scenes involves Collin rapping directly into the camera, calling out racism and bigotry directly, and forcing us (the audience) to consider that maybe this kind of straightforward confrontation of biases and privilege is necessary to figure out how to move forward as a society. I love how bold this scene is, and how it speaks directly to audiences.
We've been talking about how art will reflect the times & speak up loudly about society today. NOW is that time. It has been building but the films playing at Sundance this year have been in development, finally ready, and they are a very powerful indictment of the times. Oh yes.
— Alex Billington (@firstshowing) January 19, 2018
Another Sundance film that has this kind of bold commentary is Monsters and Men, made by filmmaker Reinaldo Marcus Green. It's an ensemble drama set in New York City that tells three different stories, each with a unique perspective - one follows a young kid who gets arrested because he filmed a police killing of a black man and posted the video online; another follows a black police officer refuting claims that all police are bad; and the last one follows a black teenager who decides to join the Black Lives Matter movement even though it puts his professional baseball career at risk. I saw this film at its world premiere, and while I was impressed with much of it, I don't think it's a great film. It's good, and has some powerful messages worked into it. And that's my point - just because it's not the best film of the festival doesn't mean it isn't worthy of being considered as challenging, brave filmmaking that audiences should (and hopefully will) engage with.
Another example of Sundance being innovative is how it represents the diverse voices of society. There are all kinds of different filmmakers - both men and women - telling unique stories about all kinds of different people - straight, gay, transgender, disabled. Every single winner of a Best Director award at Sundance 2018 was given to a woman: Sara Colangelo for The Kindergarten Teacher (Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic); Alexandria Bombach for On Her Shoulders (Directing Award: U.S. Documentary); Ísold Uggadóttir for And Breathe Normally (Directing Award: World Cinema Dramatic); and Sandi Tan for Shirkers (Directing Award: World Cinema Documentary). This isn't exactly innovative, per se, but just normal, representing the truth that women are just as talented at making films as men - and should be considered equally in every instance. If anything, Sundance has reiterated this fact and is highlighting how great these filmmakers are.
My good friend Alicia Malone (@aliciamalone) recorded a video at Sundance this year taking a closer look at "Why The Sundance Film Festival Still Matters", examining how Sundance is changing with the times - how is it staying relevant, how is it supporting independent cinema, and how is it encouraging and featuring (diverse) new voices. Her video includes interviews with various filmmakers, critics and programmers and is a must watch. She points out how important this festival is no matter what you might think about the films.
When we go to Sundance, especially as film critics, there seems to be this intense focus on whether the films are good, or great, or amazing. And if they aren't all the best-films-ever-made, then the discussion suddenly turns into this cynical thought of "well, it was a bad year." Not every film at Sundance has to be that good, even though all the filmmakers are trying their best. At the very least, as long as they put their passion into telling stories, these films are worthy of our recognition and attention anyway. This is actually why I love Sundance - the programmers are adept at finding the most challenging, innovative work and bringing it to Utah. Even if it doesn't impress us, or even if the film is a bit messy or sloppy or imperfect, it still challenges society, it still pushes cinema forward, and it still represents the most innovative art being made today. And that's what I love discovering and experiencing at Sundance, watching unique films that are good and bad.
Two other films that stood out to me from Sundance this year were: American Animals, directed by Bart Layton, and The Tale, directed by Jennifer Fox. They both feature very creative, innovative storytelling tricks worked into the narrative. American Animals is 75% a feature film, starring actors as real life people who tried to pull off an art heist at a local college in 2004. The film has some documentary aspects worked into it, including interviews with the real people, that are edited smoothly into the narrative - no gimmicks or title cards or anything. It also addresses ideas of memory, and during a certain reenactment, it replays the scene different ways - questioning whether the real person remembered it differently than what might've actually happened (we see the scene play out each way). The real person also shows up in scenes sitting next to the actor. This doesn't work perfectly, and the film isn't great (read my full review), but it is innovative.
Jennifer Fox's The Tale, on the other hand, is easily one of the best of the festival. It's a brilliant, unsettling, provocative feature about sexual abuse - and it's an autobiographical story. Fox also uses clever storytelling tricks like American Animals, specifically involving memory and how deceptive our minds can be. The film has a dual narrative - Laura Dern plays the adult version of a young girl who was abused as a child. Early on in the film, Dern goes to visit her mother and she finds an old picture of her at the age of 13. Suddenly, the actor they were using in the flashback narrative changes to an even younger actor, to show us just how shockingly young she is, and how we all perceive (especially in film) ages incorrectly. There's also innovative twists with memory where we see scenes play out differently, because she realizes she didn't admit the truth until now. It's brilliant how she works this into the narrative. It's a film that will be talked about all year, for these reasons and for many others. This film alone disproves the claim that it was a bad year at the festival.
In Alicia's video above, Sundance programmer Caroline Libresco explains: "Our mission has always been to discover singular voices that have not been heard." This is why Sundance is one of my favorite festivals, and even if I don't love all the films, they each have something fresh and original to offer. She continues on about how indie films are so distinct: "There's more freedom to take in the world and express something organic and authentic… There's more freedom to say something that's truly personal that's driving a storyteller, and that's often in reaction to the world [as it is today]." Indeed. There were a number of films at Sundance that represented our world today and the many people in it: Crystal Moselle's Skate Kitchen, Desiree Akhavan's The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Sebastian Silva's Tyrel, Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade, Jeremiah Zagar's We The Animals, Brett Haley's Hearts Beat Loud. Everyone has their own opinion, and everyone will judge each of these films on their own anyway, but I'm mostly happy they exist.
A few other favorite films from the festival that I believe represent how innovative, and original, and bold the 2018 festival was: Boots Riley's totally insane Sorry to Bother You, starring Lakeith Stanfield as a telemarketer who works his way up to the top echelon and discovers the crazy truth about capitalism; Sam Levinson's Assassination Nation, about a group of teenage girls in Salem, Massachusetts who fight back when the entire town gangs up on them after everyone's entire digital lives are made public; and the Zellner Brothers' Damsel, starring Mia Wasikowska poking fun at western tropes and the idea of the "damsel in distress" by making her the one who doesn't need any help (from any men). I'm tired of hearing so many complaints from others who are too cynical about films and are expecting too much. Even if there wasn't a totally-blow-you-away film at the festival, there were plenty of films that pushed cinema forward, addressed our society, asked tough questions, and hopefully gave us some hope for a better future. Here's to Sundance.