From Jan. 18-28, 14 intrepid Eckerd College students and one faculty member traveled to Park City, Utah, for the annual Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals, which celebrate independent films made largely outside of the studio system featuring stories that don’t often get told by mainstream cinema.
This was a quiet year in terms of acquisitions — there was no breakout hit with an eight-figure distribution deal like 2017’s The Big Sick ($12 million) or Mudbound ($12.5 million). Rather, this year was notable for all four directing awards going to female filmmakers and for viewers choosing stories of thrills and hope — The Guilty, Search, Burden, This is Home and The Sentence — for audience awards. Here is a breakdown of 20 films to stream or watch for at your local cinema or stream.
Search — Former Google admaker Aneesh Chaganty galvanized audiences with his debut feature, which won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize and the NEXT Audience Award, which honors films that tell stories in new and innovative ways. Told entirely through computer screens, Search explores how much we don’t know about people who live under the same roof but who live completely different lives on social media. This film also features the most heartfelt and compact introductory montage since Pixar’s UP. Sony Pictures has picked up this film for distribution — watch for a summer or fall release.
The Kindergarten Teacher — Sarah Colangelo won the directing prize for the U.S. Dramatic category for this impeccably acted story of how far a New York kindergarten teacher (Maggie Gyllenhaal) will go to break out of her middle-class routine and seek a life of artistic ambitions through one of her students.
American Animals — Documentarian Bart Layton’s first dramatic feature generated a lot of buzz at Sundance, partly because it was the first film to be picked up by a new partnership between The Orchard and Moviepass (the Netflix-style movie ticket subscription service). A rousing blend of fact and fiction that tells the mostly true story of four college students who attempted to steal million-dollar rare books from the Transylvania University library in 2003. This film had the Sundance audiences buzzing.
Burden — An Eckerd student favorite as well as winner of the Sundance Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic film, Burden was a film 20 years in the making. Writer/director Andrew Heckler’s debut feature follows a member of the KKK in 1996 South Carolina who undergoes a change of heart and faith and offers a glimpse of a pathway out of entrenched racism.
Assassination Nation — Another Eckerd student and general audience favorite at Sundance, writer/director Sam Levinson’s latest film fetched the highest price at the festival this year: $10 million from Neon and AGBO for global rights. Like Search, this film transforms an old story — the witch hunt (the film even takes place in the small town of Salem) — into an up-to-the-minute journey through what would happen if everything about your digital private life became public.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post — Winner of Sundance’s top prize for American dramatic films, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is director Desiree Akhavan (who previously competed at Sundance in 2014 with Appropriate Behavior) adaptation of Emily Danforth’s coming-of-age novel to the screen. Chloë Grace Moretz plays the lead role during her time at same-sex attraction “conversion” therapy camp in the 1990s. A nuanced look at both sides of those involved in conversion therapy, the film is anchored by the performances of three outcasts in this camp of the marginalized: Moretz, Forrest Goodluck, and Sasha Lane (who also appears in another film on this list, Hearts Beat Loud).
Eighth Grade — Comedian and YouTube celebrity Bo Burnham’s first film garnered lots of buzz at the festival for newcomer Elsie Fisher’s strong performance as an always-connected middle-schooler who makes YouTube videos to deal with her feelings of isolation but cannot make the same connections in real life. An Eckerd student favorite.
Sorry to Bother You — Another of the few purchases at this year’s festival (with a pickup by Annapurna Pictures), Sorry to Bother You garnered serious buzz and, like Eighth Grade, rated an additional, space-available only midnight screening at Sundance. Boots Riley’s first feature is a gonzo study of the racist and classist roots of global capitalism in which a simple setup — an African American telemarketer finds success only when he discovers his “white voice” — that takes a completely unexpected turn.
Tyrel — A weekend in the country proves less than relaxing for Tyrel (Jason Mitchell, Mudbound) when he discovers he’s the only black member of the group. The latest from director Sebastián Silva, Tyrel is a take on the not-quite-able-to-put-a-finger-on-it feeling that you don’t belong. Christopher Abbott, Michael Cera, and Ann Dowd also star.
Hearts Beat Loud — An audience and Eckerd student favorite at Sundance, Hearts Beat Loud had one of the earliest pickups (by distributor Gunpowder & Sky) at the festival and will premiere in theaters this summer. A feel-good musical in the vein of Once, Hearts Beat Loud stars Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons as a reluctant father-daughter band who reconnect through making music together.
Sweet Country — Another Eckerd student pick, Sweet Country has been making the festival rounds, including in competition at the Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize, and at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the Platform Prize. The opening of the film says it all: To a boiling pot is added black and then white components. This suggestive beginning gives way to a sprawling narrative about the murder of a white Australian in the colonial outback by an aboriginal in order to save his family.
And Breathe Normally — An award winner for best director for Icelandic filmmaker Ísold Uggadóttir, And Breathe Normally explores the unlikely pairing of a female border patrol officer and a female refugee from Guinea Bissau when the former must decide between doing her duty or allowing the other woman to reunite with her family. Read our interview with director Ísold Uggadóttir.
Un Traductor — An Eckerd student favorite, in Un Traductor brothers and co-directors Rodrigo and Sebastián Barriuso tell a personal story about a Russian literature professor (Rodrigo Santoro) in 1980s Havana tasked with translating for child victims of the Chernobyl disaster during their treatments in Cuba.
Dead Pigs — Winner of an ensemble award for acting, Cathy Yan’s intersecting story about contemporary China as an amalgam of cultures — modern and traditional, working and middle class, Asia and Europe — as explored through the experiences of four individuals, one housing development, and thousands of dead pigs.
Yardie — Actor Idris Elba’s directorial debut is a tight revenge story based on the cult novel set in 1970s and 1980s Kingston, Jamaica, and London.
Crime + Punishment — An Eckerd student favorite and winner of the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Social Impact Filmmaking, Crime + Punishment tells the little-known story of both the whistleblower New York City police officers who uncovered the legacy of quota policing and those who fell victim to those quotas.
Circus Ecuador — The Eckerd Slamdance pick for 2018, Circus Ecuador follows two volunteers who travel to the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest to build a school for the indigenous Shuar community. What follows though is the unraveling of idealistic good intentions when met with the realities of a world of murders, land rights issues, and human trafficking.
RBG — Magnolia Pictures picked up this nuanced biodoc of the “Notorious RBG,” US Supreme Court Justice and gender rights activist Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A crowd pleaser at Sundance, this film reminds us that equality often starts at home.
The Cleaners — Everyone who uses the internet should see this documentary from first-time filmmakers Moritz Riesewieck and Hans Block that uncovers the power held by secret internet “content moderators” employed to delete “inappropriate” content from the internet. The film explores the fine line between protection and censorship.
Three-way tie: Two films that find hope in the future in young high school science fair entrants — Inventing Tomorrow and Science Fair — and Shirkers, a documentary about the halted production of Singapore’s first female-authored independent film by a pathological liar. Director Sandi Tan won the Directing Award for World Cinema Documentary for Shirkers.