Sundance is a snow globe: a miniature winter wonderland and self-contained cultural ecosystem, closed off from the rest of the world. But as the festival winds down, cracks begin to form in the glass, letting in reminders of what’s happening on the outside. I awoke on my sixth and final day of my sixth and hopefully not final Sundance to the sound of my flat-mates, the other Chicago-area critics I bunk with in Park City, gathering around a laptop for the live reveal of this year’s Oscar nominations. This annual announcement usually falls during the festival, but there’s an additional kind of overlap this year, with the Academy recognizing four movies that premiered at Sundance a year ago. One has to wonder: Will any of this year’s crop become award darlings in the months to come? There were no huge breakouts in 2018: no Call Me By Your Name or Get Out, no Big Sick or Mudbound.
Which isn’t to say that the fest didn’t premiere some very good movies this year, presumably including some I didn’t see. (Try as one might to catch up with everything earning praise here, it’s impossible to see it all—especially given that it often feels like everything that plays Sundance earns praise.) Perhaps not surprisingly, one of best films I saw this week came from a filmmaker with great work already under her belt. In 2010, Debra Granik won the Grand Jury Prize for her superb Ozarks noir Winter’s Bone, which went on to score a bunch of Oscar nominations; launched the career of its star, Jennifer Lawrence; and was named the best movie of 2010 by this very website (before my time, but a pick I could certainly get behind). Eight years later, Granik has returned to the festival with a long-awaited narrative follow-up (she made a documentary, Stray Dog, in the interim), and if it’s very unlikely to blow up the way its predecessor did, we have belated proof that Winter’s Bone was no fluke.
In the spare, understated Leave No Trace (Grade: B+), a reserved military veteran, Will (Ben Foster), haunted by his experiences overseas, lives in a large public park outside Portland with his 13-year-old daughter, Caroline (Thomasin McKenzie, in one of the festival’s best breakout performances). The two hoard supplies, find resourceful ways to cook their meals, and keep an eye out for anyone who might report their illegal, makeshift encampment to the authorities. The opening few minutes of the film skillfully, efficiently establish the two’s routine, and also their solitary contentment: There’s no hint that Caroline is restless roughing it in the (relative) wilderness, away from anyone her own age. This is, until the pair’s off-the-grid lifestyle is threatened, confronting them with the possibility of something more than what they’ve had, someone more than just each other.
Perhaps this basic setup brings to mind a different American indie that premiered at Sundance a couple of years ago, that other one about a bearded loner raising his offspring in nature. But Leave No Trace has none of the easy fish-out-of-water humor or pat sitcom resolution of Captain Fantastic. It treats its superficially similar premise with emotional and situational realism. Granik, working from a novel by Peter Rock (the source material’s title might qualify as a spoiler, actually), preserves her strong grasp on environment, her gift for precisely capturing the look, feel, and language of the cultural fringe. As a depiction of a certain corner of American life, Leave No Trace is vivid and true. As a character study about a father, a daughter, and the sacrifices they try to make for each other, it’s blessedly bullshit-free—a drama that takes no false steps tracking the shifts in its central relationship.
Just don’t go in expecting the crackerjack urgency of Winter’s Bone. Granik is operating within a much less dangerous, volatile milieu, and she’s stripped away the crime-fiction affectation of her big breakthrough—one of its most exciting qualities, really—leaving behind only its sensitivity and potent sense of place. Whether it will do for McKenzie what Winter’s Bone did for Lawrence remains to be seen, but the young actor is terrifically naturalistic; the lack of any fragrant Ozark slang or backwoods melodrama shouldn’t be an impediment to her success. (Foster is solid, too, in one of his most restrained, least oddball turns.) Mostly, it’s just great to have Granik back in the narrative filmmaking game. May there be less of a gap separating this trek into the boonies from the next one.
Who would have guessed, just a few years ago, that Robert Pattinson might become one of our most reliably offbeat, consistently fascinating movie stars? He’s easily the best thing about Damsel (Grade: B-), a quirky, poky, half-comic Western from the sibling filmmakers behind recent Sundance alum Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. Pattinson plays an eccentric businessman who hires a drunken charlatan preacher (Kumiko’s David Zellner) to travel West with him, and then to help him find and marry his sweetheart (Mia Wasikowska). Unusually structured, Damsel has one great surprise in store for viewers—a turn that feeds right into the film’s inspired subversion of genre tradition. But the film backs itself into a kind of corner, too, repeating the same joke over and over again, because the (admittedly strong) point it’s making is in the repetition. That’s my careful, vague way of saying that Damsel is both on-point and one-note: a curiosity without much going for it beyond its progressive flipping of script. Oh, and Pattinson, too, who seems as at home on the prairie as he did on the mean streets of New York.
This may not have been the strongest year for Sundance, but that’s all relative. Again, there was plenty to admire—and for those not here in Park City, plenty to look forward to in the months to come, as the movies trickle down from altitude and into theaters across the country. Below, I’ve listed my five favorites from this year’s festival: the hits that made up for the misses, the titles that give “Sundance movie” a good name, the kind of films that keep me coming back to this snow globe every year.
Fear is as subjective as humor, but all but the steeliest of nerves will be shredded by this harsh and accomplished horror movie about a family haunted by death, misfortune, and the terrible truth of their own unconscious feelings. Imagine a particularly relentless haunted-house shocker invested with the emotional and psychological torment of something like In The Bedroom, and you’ll get a sense of the movie’s dark alchemy. I love this terrifying thing, and also resent it for the pit it put in my stomach and the images it put in my head.
2. The Tale
Not a perfect film, but a powerful, personal, and—given both Hollywood’s ongoing reckoning and the Larry Nassar scandal—disturbingly timely one. Enlisting the great Laura Dern as her onscreen proxy, documentarian Jennifer Fox dramatizes her battle with her own memories, interrogating events from her childhood to come to terms with a relationship she never allowed herself to think of as abuse. I fully expect it to win the festival’s main jury prize this weekend. It will deserve it, too.
3. Leave No Trace
See above. Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik returns to Sundance (and to narrative filmmaking) with a tender, naturalistic father-daughter story set against the backdrop of the Pacific Northwest. It’s great to have her back.
4. Eighth Grade
Every Sundance needs a bona fide crowd-pleaser, and Bo Burnham’s comedy about the crisis of confidence facing a preteen wallflower (Elsie Fisher) fits that bill beautifully. It’s somehow both sweet and painfully truthful about the social nightmare that is middle school. Anyone who survived that cruel purgatory can probably relate.
5. Private Life
Opening night of Sundance 2018 feels like a long time ago already, but something tells me that this family drama from Tamara Jenkins (The Savages) will endure throughout the year, propelled forward by the specificity of the ordeal it depicts and the strong performances by Paul Giamatti and Kathyrn Hahn.