The 2018 Sundance Film Festival kicks off Thursday night, promising at least a few films that people will be talking about all year long. Last year’s event may have taken place in the shadow of the inauguration of our 45th President—and the marches that went with that—but will likely be just as remembered for the strength of programming that year. 2017’s Sundance included several films that popped up on best of the year lists 11 months later, including “Get Out,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Mudbound,” “The Big Sick,” “A Ghost Story,” “Columbus,” “Beach Rats,” “Wind River,” “Strong Island,” and many more. It was one of the best Sundances of all time, setting a high bar for 2018. Here’s 20 films we’re eyeing as the ones that will determine if it matches that standard. Come back for coverage of all 20 and probably about 80 more by myself, Nick Allen, Tomris Laffly, and Monica Castillo, starting Thursday night.
Brad Anderson returns to Sundance over two decades after his debut feature premiered there. In the 22 years since, he has quietly been one of the most interesting genre hoppers in all of film and TV, helming “Session 9,” “The Machinist,” “Transsiberian,” and episodes of acclaimed shows like “The Wire,” “Boardwalk Empire,” and more. This is his most promising film project in years as he directs a script by the great Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”) that tells the story of a U.S. diplomat (Jon Hamm) returning to Beirut for a very special mission. Gilroy’s gift for intelligent dialogue and plotting combined with Anderson’s underrated eye could easily make for the most thrilling film of Sundance 2018.
Robert Greene’s form-breaking “Kate Plays Christine” was one of the best films of Sundance 2016 and he returns to the U.S. Documentary Competition with another daring project this year. Greene shot his film in Bisbee, Arizona in 2017 but the title also refers to something that happened there a century earlier, something that still resonates today. It’s known as the Bisbee Deportation of 1917, the year when 1,200 striking miners were pushed out of the city. Greene captures how the townspeople of Bisbee remember the darkest chapter of their history, while almost certainly also drawing parallels to the immigration debates of today. This one feels likely to be one of the most talked about films of the year, not just at Sundance.
It wouldn’t be Sundance without an Ethan Hawke movie or two, but he’s behind the scenes on this one, co-writing and directing a film in the U.S. Dramatic Competition category. It’s a quasi-biopic of an unheralded member of the outlaw country movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Blaze Foley, played by newcomer Benjamin Dickey. Hawke recently starred in the underrated “Born to Be Blue,” a film that played with the convergence of musical legend and stark reality, and it sounds like that likely influenced this dramatic examination of similar themes.
“A Boy, A Girl, A Dream”
The first Sundance in which most of the films went into production after the election of Donald Trump will surely feel different than any other, but this is one of the few works this year that appears to directly comment on the beginning of the Trump era. The film premieres in NEXT, typically one of the most fascinating programs in any festival all year, and stars the underrated pair of Omari Hardwick and Meagan Good, two very different people who meet on the night of the 2016 election in Los Angeles. A potential romance unfolding on a night that startled much of the world sounds incredibly promising, and the fact that it made it into the often-groundbreaking NEXT only adds to our anticipation.
Writer/director Andrew Heckler’s debut feature lands in the U.S. Dramatic Competition and boasts one of the most intriguing casts and premises of the year. Hopefully building on the next-level work he did in “Mudbound,” Garrett Hedlund stars in the true story of Mike Burden, a loyal KKK member in South Carolina in 1996. Burden sees his beliefs challenged and his world turned upside down by a new girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough, appearing twice in Competition this year) and a Reverend (Forest Whitaker) who offers him a second a chance. After the year of Charlottesville and clashes over Confederate statues, how we address the racist history of this country feels remarkably timely, and, hopefully, this film can be an important conversation-starter along those lines.
“The Catcher Was a Spy”
“The Sessions” director Ben Lewin helms this true story with a remarkable cast. The major strength of “The Sessions” was the way in which Lewin drew such great performances from his award-nominated cast, including an Oscar nod for Helen Hunt. Here, he works with Paul Rudd, Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce, and Paul Giamatti, with a script by Robert Rodat (“Saving Private Ryan”) about a major league catcher who became an employee of the Office of Security Services in World War II. Rudd as a smooth-talking spy in a WWII-era movie? That sounds too good to be true.
David and Nathan Zellner delivered one of the more divisive Sundance films in recent memory with “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” but I was a big fan of that challenging, unforgettable piece of work. From there, I wouldn’t have guessed that the Zellners would bring their quirky sensibility to what sounds on paper like a Western Comedy, nor would I have suspected they would cast Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, and Robert Forster in such a crazy-sounding project. This is one of those projects that could easily be the best or worst film of the entire festival. Of course, that means everyone has to see it to find out.
Documentary director Lauren Greenfield won a U.S. Documentary Directing Award at Sundance in 2012 for her unforgettable “The Queen of Versailles,” and she returns with another examination of excess with this Documentary Premieres entry. She has been chronicling affluence for a quarter-century and takes the chance to ruminate on her work and how the wealthy class has changed in the last 25 years, with an emphasis on how people often emulate the rich without actually being able to afford their lifestyle. As the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen, this could be a tragic look at how many people are falling into it.
“I Think We’re Alone Now”
Award-winning cinematographer and director Reed Morano (“Meadowland”) had quite a remarkable 2017, capped by an Emmy for her work on “The Handmaid’s Tale.” She brings the very intriguing “I Think We’re Alone Now” to the Competition program at Sundance this year, a film that feels like it could have been inspired by working on the Hulu hit as it also posits a terrifying future. This time, the world is literally empty for Del (Peter Dinklage). The human race has been eradicated and he is the last man on Earth. Until he meets Grace (Elle Fanning). That’s about all we need to know to be excited about this sure-to-be unique sci-fi vision.
“Leave No Trace”
The last time that director Debra Granik brought a narrative feature to Sundance, the ground shook. 2010’s “Winter’s Bone” not only went on to earn four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, it essentially launched the career of one of the biggest actresses of the entire decade in Jennifer Lawrence. This time, her lead is the always-strong Ben Foster, but this story of a father and daughter living off the grid in Oregon promises one of the breakthrough performances of 2018 in Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. Could she be the next Lawrence? We’ll know soon.
“The Long Dumb Road”
Director Hannah Fidell sounds like she’s making a stark turn from the tone of her 2013 Sundance film “A Teacher” with this buddy road movie, but it’s more who she cast as the buddies that makes it sound promising: Tony Revolori and Jason Mantzoukas. They may not be household names but Revolori has been delightful in films like “Dope” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” while Mantzoukas has stolen shows like “The League” and “The Good Place,” along with delivering constant laughs on his podcast, “How Did This Get Made?” There are a lot of movies at Sundance this year that sound like they could be dark, challenging experiences. Here’s hoping this one is just a hell of a lot of fun.
It wouldn’t be Sundance Midnights without a totally weird movie or two, and this promises to be one of the totally weirdest of 2018. Panos Cosmatos, the director of the cult hit “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” helms this “ethereal treat” that promises to subvert genre expectations at every turn. What’s particularly intriguing about the project is that, unlike a lot of out-there Sundance Midnights, this one’s got some star power in the form of Nicolas Cage and the woman who could easily be the Queen of Sundance 2018, Andrea Riseborough, who appears in three films at the fest this year.
“Minding the Gap” & “America to Me”
The essential Kartemquin Films (“Hoop Dreams”) pops up twice this year at Sundance in two different forms but with works that both capture the company’s deep humanism. The first is a documentary called “Minding the Gap,” in which a young filmmaker returns to his hometown of Rockford, Illinois and examines the pasts and presents of his two best friends, resulting in a look at what it means to be a young man in the ‘10s. The second is the premiere of five episodes of the Steve James-directed “America to Me,” for which the award-winning filmmaker spent a year at a Chicago suburb high school, chronicling the challenges of administrators and students there.
“The Miseducation of Cameron Post”
“Appropriate Behavior” made waves for writer/director/star Desiree Akhavan in 2014 and she tries to avoid the sophomore slump with this promising U.S. Dramatic Competition entry. The title character is played by Chloe Grace Moretz, and she’s forced to be “re-educated” after she’s caught in a delicate situation with another girl on prom night. Of course, Akhavan subverts the story of a homophobic culture that believes gay people can be reprogrammed by detailing the supportive community in which Cameron finds herself at the conversion therapy center. A clever, progressive teen comedy starring Moretz and co-written by Akhavan (from the novel by Emily Danforth)? Sign us up.
A new work from Borderline Films (“Christine,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) is always an event, but this Midnight entry is even more promising because it’s the follow-up to Nicolas Pesce’s unforgettable “Eyes of My Mother.” He breaks from the style of that film for a psychological-horror/neo-noir starring Christopher Abbott as a serial killer who runs into a victim for whom he was not entirely prepared. She’s a call girl played by Mia Wasikowska, and she may be able to turn the tables. Can Pesce build on the promise he showed with “Eyes”? We’ll definitely be there for the midnight premiere to find out.
Tamara Jenkins took a decade-long break from filmmaking after her Oscar-nominated work on “The Savages,” and this is the result of her return, a dramedy starring Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn that is one of the opening night films of Sundance this year. Giamatti and Hahn star as a couple trying to have a child, through fertility treatments and adoption routes, and Jenkins chronicles the strain that can put on a couple, one that changes with the arrival of a step-niece who could be the answer to their prayers. Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch round out a very impressive Opening Night cast. You’ll have our take on it late that evening.
We’re all hoping the MVP of 2017, Laura Dern, continues her ascendance with this very promising U.S. Dramatic Competition film writer/director Jennifer Fox. Dern stars a journalist and professor who sees her careful life unravel when her mother finds a story she wrote when she was 13 about a “special” relationship she had with two adult coaches. Jennifer becomes convinced that something truly horrifying happened to her and she begins to investigate and unravel her own past. Any Laura Dern-led drama would likely make this list but the era of #MeToo makes this one feel like it could be even more timely and important than ever.
Writer/director Sebastian Silva has been to Sundance five times over the last decade, but this marks his premiere in the U.S. Dramatic Competition category, and sounds like his most ambitious work to date. Jason Mitchell (“Mudbound”) plays the title character, a young man who goes to a weekend party in the Catskills and discovers he’s the only black person there. As the macho male energy blends with gallons of alcohol, racial tension becomes even more prevalent. Could this be the “Get Out” of Sundance 2018? It’s at least certain to be one of the films that gets people talking. We wouldn’t miss it.
“We the Animals”
Justin Torres’ novel of the same name is one of the most beloved and acclaimed coming-of-age stories in recent memory, and so it’s promising to see its adaptation land in the NEXT program at Sundance. Documentary filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar appears to have embraced the dreamlike tone of the novel, which tells the story of three brothers and how one tries to escape the damaging legacy of their father. It wouldn’t be Sundance without a promising coming-of-age story, and this is certainly one that stands out this year.
Last year’s Competition slate was a bit of a drag, but this year’s should turn that around with six films in this list of twenty coming from that program (and several others, including “Sorry to Bother You” and “Nancy”) that just missed the cut. We will cover all 16 films in the Competition program, and end this preview with one of the most exciting, Paul Dano’s directorial debut. The actor adapts (with co-writer Zoe Kazan) Richard Ford’s novel of the same name about a small town in 1960s Montana, in which a patriarch leaves to fight a raging forest fire and leaves his wife and son to fend for themselves. Carey Mulligan plays the wife, and this could easily be the platform for one of those performances we’re talking about all year long and into the next awards season. Let’s hope so.