I saw 14 films over five days at Sundance 2018 as I covered the festival for the Canadian Press, and was initially wondering when — or if — I was finally going to see “that” movie, the one that would grab me and stay with me, deserving to be part of the conversation this year.
It took a while. But it came on day three with Leave No Trace, from Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik.
My Top 5 also includes something I saw in a mobile venue called The Box, rather than a theatre.
It was part of the New Frontier slate, which showcased 27 works, including some stunning virtual reality programming. I watched a four-pack of shorts in The Box, sitting in a swivel office chair with 39 others, wearing a headset and headphones, completely immersed in the stories being told.
This is a new approach to visual storytelling and it’s thrilling to see the rapid evolution of the genre. It would be a mistake to dismiss it as something for gamers or to lump VR in with Hollywood’s clumsy cash grab sparked by the overuse of 3D of a few years back. This is the real deal, a legitimate new breed of entertainment. And Montreal company Felix & Paul Studios is leading the creative charge. I wrote about them at Sundance for the Canadian Press.
I also liked music rom-com Juliet, Naked (nothing new here, but fun), Ophelia (a feminist take on Hamlet told from her perspective, although as Claudius, Clive Owen’s wig looks like something climbed on his head and died) and Nancy (Andrea Riseborough is great; the story is plodding and lacking).
Here are my favourite films from Sundance 2018, which wraps on Jan. 28.

Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in Leave No Trace. Sundance Institute photo

Leave No Trace
Director Debra Granik’s follow to Winter’s Bone stars newcomer Thomasin McKenzie (exceptional) as Tom, a teenager being raised off the grid by her ex-solider father (Ben Foster, also excellent). His PTSS has forced them to live in the only place he feels safe, roughing it in the woods on the edge of Portland, Ore. As much as she adores her father, the maturing Tom begins to yearn for another life. A moving, powerful story that makes no judgements.

Keira Knightley stars in Colette. Sundance Institute photo

Colette
Wash Westmoreland’s visually stunning film makes the most of its Belle Époque Paris setting in telling the story of the celebrated French writer who churned out stories for her philandering husband to pass off as his own. Kiera Knightley takes Colette from naive country girl to fierce and determined artist, a woman who celebrates her sexuality and fights for her artistic integrity, agency and voice.

 

Isle of Dogs: Behind the Scenes involves the canine characters from Wes Anderson’s new film. Sundance Institute photo

VR at The New Frontier
Virtual reality has evolved at a blistering pace and is proving to be as engaging as traditional films. I was impressed with Felix & Paul’s whimsical Isle of Dogs: Behind the Scenes and Maria Bello-produced The Sun Ladies, about an all-women Iraqi fighting unit. It was an interesting and immersive moment when I found myself sharing a meal with them. The Dinner Party drops the audience through the roof of a suburban home to tell the real-life story of a 1960s close encounter.

Babetida Sadjo and Patrik Nökkvi Pétursson in And Breathe Normally. Sundance Institute photo

And Breathe Normally
I love Icelandic films and this one confident first feature from Ísold Uggadóttir didn’t disappoint in its often-bleak story of a struggling single mother (Kristín Thóra Haraldsdóttir), her young son and the proud and mysterious Adja (Babetida Sadjo), a woman from Guinea-Bissau trying to get to Canada with a forged passport. When she’s detained in Iceland en route, the two women form an unlikely friendship, gradually discovering that despite initial appearances, they have much in common.

Chloë Sevigny, right, plays Lizzie Bordon in Lizzie, and Kristen Stewart takes the role of the family maid, Bridget. Sundance Institute photo

Lizzie
Careful with that axe, Lizzie. There were gasps in the theatre as Chloe Sevigny dispatched her hated, miser father and his wife in Craig William Macneill’s Lizzie Borden tale. It’s wasn’t exactly 40 whacks, but it certainly felt like it when Sevigny bared all to furiously put an end to her torment and she is excellent as desperate intelligent, complex Lizzie. We get some insight into what may have led her to murder, including her relationship with the Borden’s Irish maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart).