One of the coolest things about the Sundance Film Festival is the amount of talent that touched down to promote their films. There were talks (loved the Gold House focus on Asian filmmakers, Stacy’s Chips, the Chase lounge was everything, and Audible for the super cool factor) and fireside chats with so many. I attended as many talks as I could and the ones I got to were completely inspiring, especially Stacy’s “Rise” panel and toast centering around female filmmakers.
Many of the stars also graced the red carpets set for the premieres and for those highlights, please visit my Instagram.
But once again, it’s all about the movies, right? And besides a list of best films at Sundance, I was also blown away by the powerhouse performances that showed even greater depth from some of the favorite actors that I had seen before. Here’s my list of Best Performances out of the Sundance Film Festival this year:
Jonathon Majors was electrifying in Magazine Dreams
Magazine Dreams was one of the most critically acclaimed out of Sundance and for good reason. It told the gut-wrenching story about an aspiring bodybuilder, Killian Maddox (such a great name for a protagonist!), played with hypnotic intensity by Jonathan Majors. Magazine Dreams follows his ambitions with heartbreaking results as he pushes his body to the brink with a punishing fitness, diet, and a dangerous dependence on steroids. Combined with his unhealthy obsession with famous bodybuilder, Brad Vanderhorn (Michael O’Hearn), and delusions of grandeur, it all lends to a freight train of declining mental health that feels like a dam that’s about to burst. Even the sincerity with which he posts self-help bodybuilding videos on social media and pursues a potentially sweet relationship with a checkout clerk at the store they both work at only exacerbates the divide between Killian’s and everyone else’s reality.
All along the way, Magazine Dreams continues to crush the viewer as Killian’s steroid-energized rage mitigates any of his earnestness, like some sort of bullet train heading straight for the skids. You want him to turn his life around, especially in the empathetic scenes between him and his grandfather, who he cares for since the death of his parents (the details of which are shocking).
It’s a testament to Jonathan Majors’ astonishing performance that makes him so likable despite the many gut-wrenching mistakes he continues to make. It’s not just an emotional transformation, it’s the sheer awe-inspiring physicality with which the actor approaches the role of Killian. He taps into depths of pathos that make this performance absolutely electric. For Jonathan Majors alone, you should watch Magazine Dreams.
Jennifer Connelly was delightfully unhinged in Bad Behavior
Bad Behavior tapped into the narcissism of self-help and guru culture with occasionally hilarious results. Helmed by actress Alice Englert (famed director Jane Campion’s daughter), the film isn’t exactly a home run debut. A bit uneven overall, it did provide moments of promise, some of which are the result of two performances that serve as opposite points of friction at the spiritual retreat where it all goes down. On one side is the satirically enlightened young model-influencer, Beverly (Dasha Nekrasova), the other, toxic Lucy (Jennifer Connelly), a former child actress who is grappling with the dissolution of her marriage and yearns to connect with her stuntwoman daughter, Dylan, played by Englert.
Both Dasha Nekrasova and Jennifer Connelly made me laugh out loud with their performances. Nekrasova really committed to her spiritual journey in a way that had me admiring her ability to seem sincere while also obviously channeling parody. The best comedy comes from reality, no? The schism between her and Connelly just continues to grow and it’s no surprise that it comes to a head at some point, but that doesn’t take away from the absolutely entertaining way that boiling point transpires. Connelly’s explosive reaction to Nekrasova’s Beverly made me guffaw. When she screams “shut the f**k up,” it truly was one of the most joyful moments I’ve had watching the celebrated actress. I couldn’t stop laughing at her reaction.
The only shame is that Nekrasova isn’t in the second half of the movie, which concentrates on Connelly’s and Englert’s strained mother-daughter relationship. The second half is almost like a different movie, but I enjoyed several moments as the two of them struggle to come to terms with their complex and challenging bond. There is a love there, but it is deeply rooted and difficult to navigate.
This is one of Jennifer Connelly’s best performances, and the honesty with which she brings to the role of a toxically warped mother is greatly valued. It’s fun to see women behaving badly (my favorite show is Absolutely Fabulous so you know I’m a big fan of that archetype), but it’s a testament to Connelly’s intelligence that she shows the exhilarating highs (violence towards an annoying person) and the consequences (a damaged relationship with her daughter) that this type of behavior begets. Watching Jennifer Connelly breathe life into such a great character is why we need more flawed women like this in movies and television. With the recent criticism of Cate Blanchett’s character in Tar, it’s not that women shouldn’t be portrayed as problematic individuals, they should get the same kind of complex roles that say an Al Pacino would only relish. Plus, women like to see them!
Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich battle it out in the tense thriller Fair Play
Fair Play was one of the big hits out of Sundance, a thriller that depicted a New York couple, Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) and Emily (Bridgerton’s Phoebe Dynevor) who come to blows over her surprise promotion at a brutal Wall St. hedge fund. The scene is set from the outset of the intense drama where the two begin their story in the film covered in blood, from her period during a sexual encounter. The bloody catalyst to their spiraling relationship is no accident—and certainly no gimmick—as writer-director Chloe Domont weaves a dispiriting tale of the dynamic couple’s unraveling. Beset by jealousy, greed, ambition, and insecurity, these two once-besotted partners can’t ever seem to find common ground, culminating in the destruction of a man’s fragile ego and the compromise of standards for Emily.
Due to the incredible chemistry between Ehrenreich and Dynevor, watching their relationship collapse is even more profoundly sad. Fair Play’s brilliance lies in its ability to demonstrate the modern complicated state of office romances. If Luke and Emily didn’t work together, would this have ever happened? Then again, they might never have met either, and the two of them share a real love.
Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor absolutely shine in Fair Play. In anyone else’s hands, the film would have felt more melodramatic, perhaps. But due to the contained, sizzling performances, you can’t take your eyes off the screen. It’s also nice to see Ehrenreich show what he’s made of, after taking such a critical drubbing from the Han Solo movie. He holds his own up against Dynevor, and together the two of them just dazzle.
Fair Play was one of the best projects to come out of Sundance, and one of the early success stories, having been picked up for $20M by Netflix. The exceptional film was worth every penny, IMO.
Alexander Skarsgard and Mia Goth form a horror-show partnership in overrated Infinity Pool
To be honest, I was unimpressed by Brandon Cronenberg’s X-Rated Infinity Pool. Although some have insisted that audiences at Sundance saw the very best cut of the film, I am here to let you know you didn’t miss anything. What you probably avoided is just a prosthetic that stands in for Alexander Skarsgard’s penis and an up-close ejaculation scene, which was completely unnecessary for the narrative (you pretty much already got what was going on, thank you, by the very obvious facial expressions).
There’s the old adage of less is more, something which Cronenberg clearly didn’t get. While plenty rhapsodized about the genius of all the gratuitous violence and sex, I fell more on the other side of the spectrum. It’s not that I’m a prude (my favorite director is David Lynch, after all), I like to look at the core of the story and thought the inundation of evocative content oversaturated a brilliant premise and distracted from the genuinely shocking moments, such as clones standing in for privileged humans when they’re scheduled to die for their crimes. Infinity Pool was disturbing, but the premise of the story was enough to accomplish the stun.
Despite my disappointment with one of the most highly anticipated (and certainly talked about) films out of Sundance this year, it’s a testament to two wonderful actors who made it (kind of) worthwhile: Alexander Skarsgard as James and Mia Goth as Gabby, an entrancing, but depraved millionaire who serves as James’s torrential guide into a hedonistic, drug-infused journey of murder, massive violence, orgies, and identity confusion. Shedding everything in their roles, Skarsgard and Goth are monstrously matched and provide the film a crazed intensity that leaves one of them unable to move forward. For them alone, Infinity Pool proved a satisfying experience, if a demoralizing and frustrating one.
Anne Hathaway and Marin Ireland are standouts in Eileen
A period film set in the 1960s, adapted from the Ottessa Moshfegh novel, Eileen starts out as the story of the title character, played with quiet intensity by Thomasin McKenzie. A mouse of a woman, Eileen works at her small town’s local juvenile prison by day and cares for her alcoholic, boorish father (a fantastic character portrayed by Shea Whigham, who brings layers to the role) by night. Eileen fantasizes during the day, but is unmistakably stuck in a rut that she can’t seem to break out of.
In walks Anne Hathaway’s sophisticated, smooth Rebecca, the new prison psychologist, coiffed in Marilyn Monroe blond curls, classy attire, and a self-assurance that plain Eileen can only dream of. We’re as shocked as Eileen is that Rebecca takes an interest in her—platonic or not—and by some of Rebecca’s devil-may-care choices. To my surprise, Hathaway completely pulls off this character study and maintains the audience’s attention with her fascinating depiction, even when the conclusion borders on the implausible.
Hathaway is emotionally matched by Marin Ireland’s mother of one of the juvenile prisoners, who turns in a visceral monologue at the end that provides the most shocking moment. Only an actress of her caliber could pull off such an impressive feat.
The cast is first-rate in this underrated, subtle thriller, with Anne Hathaway and Marin Ireland creating the biggest impact in Eileen.
These incredible performances represent the very best of Sundance, and why I attended in the first place.