Critics' Picks: The 20 Best Films From Sundance 2018

6:30 AM 1/27/2018

by THR Staff

A timely drama about sexual abuse, a bittersweet comedy about a couple’s fertility struggle, Gus Van Sant's return to form, docs about Jane Fonda and Mr. Rogers, and a Danish shocker were among THR critics' faves from the fest (in alphabetical order).

'American Animals,' 'Blaze' and 'Come Sunday'
'American Animals,' 'Blaze' and 'Come Sunday'
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

This story first appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

  • American Animals

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    One of the most far-fetched crimes of the 21st century — an art theft from a Kentucky college library — is dazzlingly recounted in this thriller from Brit Bart Layton. While bowing to stalwarts like Michael Mann, Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino, Layton employs his own bag of tricks to craft a tale both engrossing and grotesque. The young actors, including Barry Keoghan and Blake Jenner, deliver with bristling, edgy work. — Todd McCarthy

  • Blaze

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    A deeply felt eulogy for an underexposed Texas songwriter, Ethan Hawke's lovely biopic will be the first intro most have to Blaze Foley. A contemporary of Willie Nelson, Foley was troubled, but Hawke goes in search of his tender side and finds it — thanks in large part to a charismatic lead turn by musician Ben Dickey. Alia Shawkat is wonderful as Foley's romantic partner, Sybil Rosen. — John DeFore

  • Come Sunday

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Director Joshua Marston returns with arguably his most powerful work since 2004's Maria Full of Grace. Developed from a story broadcast on This American Life about the crisis of faith that shook renowned Oklahoma Pentecostal bishop Carlton Pearson (a terrific Chiwetel Ejiofor) in the late 1990s, it's a mesmerizing and very timely contemplation of the clash between rigid dogma and considered reinterpretation. — David Rooney

  • Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot

    Not since American Splendor has the headspace of a cartoonist been entered with such infectious fondness as in Gus Van Sant's unwieldy but generous and consistently enjoyable film about Portland legend John Callahan (an excellent Joaquin Phoenix), who discovered his artistic calling after being paralyzed at age 21 and getting sober. — D.R.

  • The Guilty

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Focusing entirely on a dispatcher speaking into a headset at a Danish emergency call center after a kidnapped woman phones in, Gustav Moller's feature debut emerges as a twisty crime thriller every bit as pulse-pounding and involving as its action-oriented, adrenaline-soaked counterparts. The filmmaker masterfully ratchets up tension without the benefit of the usual visual aids, forcing viewers to dust off their imaginations and put them to work with chillingly effective results. — Michael Rechtshaffen

  • Hereditary

    Courtesy of A24

    A superb Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne play parents left grappling with a terrifying legacy following the family matriarch's death in writer-director Ari Aster's horror debut. The film takes the core haunting element of a spirit with a malevolent agenda and runs with it in a seemingly endless series of unexpected directions over two breathless hours that never slacken for a minute. Arguably the most effective domestic chiller since The Conjuring and The Babadook, this A24 release should hit discerning genre fans right where they live. — D.R.

  • Holiday

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Like a crafty predator, this exceptional debut feature from Danish director Isabella Eklof lies patiently in wait as long as it needs to before stunning its prey, the spectator, with a shocking scene that catapults the film to a whole different level. A depiction of a gangster and his girlfriend on vacation in seaside Turkey, the drama ultimately explores the corrosive and contaminating essence of the criminal ethos. — T.M.

  • Jane Fonda in Five Acts

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Susan Lacy's captivating, fluidly constructed doc (to air this year on HBO) is, notwithstanding commentary of friends, colleagues and exes, a first- person story, taking its cues from Fonda's 2005 autobiography. Drawn from interviews and a selection of home movies, film clips and stills, it's an engaging study in glamour and grit. — Sheri Linden

  • The Kindergarten Teacher

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    A luminous and compelling Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as a Staten Island early-childhood educator whose obsessive interest in a gifted student (Parker Sevak) leads her down a dangerous path. Sara Colangelo's remake of the acclaimed 2014 Israeli film ripples with psychological complexity and sneaky humor, offering a rich character study that takes constantly surprising turns, which should appeal to audiences hungry for idiosyncratic adult drama. — D.R.

  • Leave No Trace

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    This tough-minded, touching drama from Winter's Bone director Debra Granik centers on the chasm that gradually opens up between a PTSD-afflicted vet (Ben Foster) and his teen daughter (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), who live together in the woods outside Portland. The film takes its time but draws you close, and the two superb leads turn in quietly wrenching performances. — Jon Frosch

  • The Miseducation of Cameron Post

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    This sophomore feature by Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior) is easily the best film about a teenage lesbian compelled to go to a Christian conversion camp since the underrated But I'm a Cheerleader (1999). OK, that's admittedly a very small field of competition. However, it doesn't change the fact that the movie is a delight, more somber in tone than Cheerleader but still generously peppered with biting humor and warmed by a spirit that extends understanding, if not forgiveness, even to the religious zealot characters. Chloe Grace Moretz digs deep for a sensitive lead turn. — Leslie Felperin 

  • Monsters and Men

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Reinaldo Marcus Green's supremely assured debut feature (with a fine ensemble led by John David Washington) draws inspiration from the 2014 death of Eric Garner at the hands of a police officer, the shooting of two NYPD cops later that year and the take-a-knee movement launched by Colin Kaepernick. These real-life elements are shaped into a shattering three-act drama. — D.R.

  • Private Life

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    This long overdue third feature from Tamara Jenkins (The Savages) stars an outstanding Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as married New Yorkers struggling to conceive. Their journey takes a turn when the couple's step-niece (Kayli Carter) agrees to be their surrogate. The film is long at 132 minutes, but there's warmth, humor, subtle drama and truth in the way it plays out, with Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch rounding out the strong cast. — J.D.

  • Search

    Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

    The first thing people will always say about former Google commercials creator Aneesh Chaganty's filmmaking debut is, "Oh, yeah, that's the one shot entirely from the perspective of phone and computer screens." But impressively, he has also made a real movie, the story of a father (John Cho) searching for his missing daughter that gradually ratchets up the tension as all good thrillers must. The result is well constructed and acted, as well as bracingly novel in its storytelling techniques. — T.M.

  • Shirkers

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    An alluring tale spun from the joys and perils of collaboration, Singapore-born Sandi Tan's documentary picks up the mysteriously stolen-and-returned pieces of a 25-year-old film that would have been her first produced screenplay. Combining that footage and new interviews with her filmmaking co-conspirators, it's a wry and wistful cine-essay on movie love, a capsule autobiography and a lament for what might have been. It's also a fascinating rebel's-eye view of an authoritarian culture. — S.L.

  • The Tale

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Jennifer Fox's quasi-autobiographical film is a flawed but conceptually audacious and powerful drama that moves back and forth between past and present as a documentary maker (a gutsy Laura Dern) reconsiders with adult eyes a sexual relationship she had as a 13-year-old with an older man (Jason Ritter). Elizabeth Debicki is terrific in flashbacks as the Dern character's horse-riding instructor, who was complicit in the abuse. — L.F.

  • Three Identical Strangers

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Tim Wardle grippingly tackles a fascinating true story in his documentary chronicle of Robert Shafran, Edward Galland and David Kellman, triplets separated at birth who grew up oblivious to one another's existence. The film starts out like a jaunty sitcom, featuring three likable lugs with toothy grins who might have stepped off the set of Welcome Back, Kotter. But as the euphoria of reconnection subsides and disconcerting questions begin to arise, a mystery freighted with disturbing ethical violations unfolds in its place. — D.R.

  • Tully

    Courtesy of Focus Features

    Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman team up a third time for another sharp, funny and strange look at pregnancy and challenges surrounding it. This time, we approach motherhood not from the perspective of a pregnant teen, but of a mother of three (Charlize Theron) whose latest child might well be the end of her — if not for the arrival of a miracle nanny (Mackenzie Davis). The often-very-funny picture entertains while affording its characters their share of no-laughing-matter concerns. — J.D.

  • Wildlife

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Precise, controlled and emotionally acute, Paul Dano's directorial debut, an adaptation of a Richard Ford novel, examines the disintegrating relationship of a married couple (played by Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal, both in fine form) from the point of view of their 14-year-old son (the sensational young Australian actor Ed Oxenbould). The film, set in 1960, is unusually restrained and unemphatic, possessed of an integrity and economy of means that earn your respect. — T.M.

  • Won't You Be My Neighbor?

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Both nostalgic and immediate, Morgan Neville's deeply affecting look at the worldview and legacy of beloved American TV personality Fred Rogers is full of both lovely Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood clips and words from the man himself. Starting with a 1967 interview in which Rogers says he wants to "help children through some of the difficult modulations of life," Neville traces that desire and how it was fulfilled through decades of small-screen work. It's a documentary you want to hug. — Daniel J. Fienberg