Sundance Film Festival 2018
Photos by John Pugh

Sundance 2018: Best of fest!

Another Sundance Film Festival is in the books, and while it was an exhausting 10 days filled with freezing cold temperatures and a severe lack of sleep, this iconic fest remains what it’s always been: a movie lover’s dream and a joyful, exuberant experience made up of a diverse lineup of films from all over the world. But beyond an endless sea of cinematic discovery, deal making, and networking, what’s truly special about Sundance is the people. From storytellers to entertainment writers to volunteers to staff members to attendees, Sundance is a wonderful place to meet like-minded individuals and engage in deeply meaningful conversations about the glorious art form that is film. In short, Sundance brings folks together.

There were several memorable films unveiled at Sundance 2018, and at the end of the day, I saw in the neighborhood of 35 of them. That said, here’s a list of four noteworthy titles that left a long-lasting impression on yours truly.

Sundance Film Festival 2018
Cast and crew of “Hearts Beat Loud”

“Hearts Beat Loud”

“Hearts Beat Loud” spoke to me on an almost indescribable level. This wonderful movie from “The Hero” director Brett Haley stars the great Nick Offerman as Frank Fisher, a record store owner and single father who is emotionally preparing for the departing of his UCLA medical school-bound daughter, Sam (played by the luminous and endlessly adorable Kiersey Clemons). As the big departing date looms ever closer, music-loving Frank continues to spend as much time with Sam as humanly possible, and eventually, a few customary father/daughter jam sessions result in a real-life inspired pop song called, you guessed it, “Hearts Beat Loud.” The infectiously catchy tune is an instant sensation on Spotify, prompting Frank to beg Sam to put medical school on hold so that they might give their newly formed band a chance to flourish. While this movie is at its core a moving father/daughter story, “Hearts Beat Loud” is also a charming, honest, and undeniably heartfelt musical about life and how art can get you through really tough times. This outstanding movie brought to mind the likes of “High Fidelity,” “Once,” “School of Rock,” and the underappreciated gem “Rudderless,” and having owned a record store back in the day, I could relate to it in a big way.

Sundance Film Festival 2018
Milly Shapiro from “Hereditary”

“Hereditary”

The strikingly horrific “Hereditary” starts out as a dysfunctional family drama and deals with grief and mental illness head-on before taking a detour into terrain that could be best described as sinister in nature. What’s most worth noting about “Hereditary” is that it isn’t a surface-level horror show. There’s real complexity here, and first-time feature director Ari Aster handles the proceedings with the skill of a seasoned pro. Of course, it helps that he has a sensational cast to back him up. Toni Collette is outstanding as an emotionally distraught mother who isn’t always the best of communicators. Equally effective are Alex Wolff and young Milly Shapiro as the children of the family. An understated Gabriel Byrne rounds out the cast as a perplexed husband and father who’s becoming increasingly tired of enabling his wife’s seemingly erratic behavior. When tragedy strikes, “Hereditary” goes from shocking and heartbreaking to downright terrifying. But this isn’t cat-jumping-on-the-window-sill-level scary. No, this is the kind of grim, unnerving horror that really gets under your skin, and there are a couple of creep-out moments in this picture that are absolute all-timers. A24 will release “Hereditary” in theaters this June, and my advice to you is that you see this movie with the largest crowd possible, because it’s an absolute blast to watch with a packed house!

Sundance Film Festival 2018
The cast and crew of “Private Life”

“Private Life”

In this relationship drama, Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn are Richard and Rachel, a married couple in their 40s who desperately want to conceive a child. As they attempt to navigate through the tricky world of assisted reproduction, truths about their relationship are slowly revealed. I love, love, love Kathryn Hahn in this picture. She often plays supporting characters (“Anchorman,” “The Visit”), but she’s front and center in “Private Life.” As the frustrated, anxiety-consumed Rachel, Hahn has created a character of tremendous depth and complexity. This is a towering performance made up of a wide range of emotions. Likewise, Giamatti is fantastic as Rachel’s emotionally exhausted husband. “Private Life” was written and directed by the gifted Tamara Jenkins whose last film, “The Savages,” was released a decade ago. It’s so great to have her back, because as she so skillfully demonstrated with that exceptional film, she shows a real knack for ringing humor and honesty out of the most serious and intimate of subjects. “Private Life” delves into some pretty rough territory and will be particularly relatable to folks who’ve dealt with the perils and pitfalls that come with fertility. Heartbreaking stuff, but again, honest.

Sundance Film Festival 2018
The makers of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

When I was a child, there were two television shows that I refused to miss. One was “Sesame Street” and the other was “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Fred Rogers always had the ability to talk to kids at their own level as opposed to talking down to them, and this is one of many reasons he became such an icon. One of the more intriguing aspects of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was that despite its substantially lower budget, it was considerably more successful then many of the other kids’ shows at the time, and that’s a testament to Rogers’ innate ability to speak to his core audience. Morgan Neville’s moving (and revealing) documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a warm, insightful, and important love letter to Mister Rogers and all that the man stood for. By way of interviews with Rogers and the people he was closest to, show clips, and rare behind-the scenes footage, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a must-see for everyone, particularly in a time of such division. Regardless of whether you grew up on this man’s show or not, this documentary is all about compassion, love, and hope, and we could use a little of all of those things right now. Focus Features will release “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” in theaters this June. I encourage everyone to seek it out.

Honorable mention:

—“Death of Stalin”

—“Hal”

—“Puzzle”

—“The Sentence”

—“You Were Never Really Here”

For more information on The Sundance Film Festival, click here.

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