Essays · Movies

The Ten Best Films of Sundance ’08

I had the honor of seeing a lot of great films this year in Park City — many of which I will be following throughout the year until they are released for everyone to see.
By  · Published on January 29th, 2008

The following list of films may not match up with the grades that I gave all the movies over the last 12 days, but it does have the advantage of perspective. Now that the Sundance Film Festival has pretty much come to a close, I am able to look back on all the films that I saw, picking out my personal favorites delivering them to you in this tidy, hopefully informative list. I had the honor of seeing a lot of great films this year in Park City — many of which I will be following throughout the year until they are released for everyone to see. As for these ten films, these are the ones that you too should be eyeing up between now and their release dates.

(Click on the title of each film to read my full review)

10. Sunshine Cleaning

Its easy to fall in love with a dark comedy that stars both Amy Adams (Enchanted) and Emily Blunt (The Devil Wear’s Prada) — it’s a movie that is easy to look at, despite the fact that it deals with cleaning up crime scenes. Alan Arkin lends a great supporting performance in a film that is funny, dark and full of warmth in the end.

9. Choke

Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk (who, I am finding, has a ton of fans), Choke is a hysterical comedy that stars Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) and Kelly Macdonald (No Country for Old Men). It is funny, tragic and riddled with all the reasons that people love Chuck Palahniuk’s work. Fox Searchlight bought this one up quick, so you should be seeing a release sometime soon.

8. Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?

Like Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock is always entertaining. He has found a good rhythm making films that tackle tough subjects in a way that is easy to watch. From a breakdancing Osama Bin Laden to serious chats with “those people” that supposedly want us all dead, this is one of the most entertaining, engaging and insightful documentaries that you will see all year.

7. Towelhead

Director Alan Ball has now made two great movies about sexuality and personal revolutions. In Towelhead, he shows us the story of a young half-Lebanese girl (Summer Bishil) who struggles to find her place among her father’s whacked out neighborhood. Being pursued by her Army-reservist, child-toucher neighbor (Aaron Eckhart) and constantly watched and scolded by her demanding father (Peter Macdissi), she finds herself struggling to find her way. The performances are great, the story is compelling and it is, in many moments, very funny.

6. Smart People

It seems like everything Ellen Page touches lately turns to gold. Even though she has a supporting role in Smart People, playing the daughter of a very intelligent, but struggling college prof (Dennis Quaid), she still manages to steal the show. Along with Thomas Hayden Church, who plays her loser adopted Uncle, Page’s storyline completely outshines the love story between her character’s father and his doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker). The film is very funny, very endearing and incredibly well-written.

5. Be Kind Rewind

Michel Gondry is a director who has a lot of fans, but not a very wide appeal. Be Kind Rewind is by far his most accessible outing to date, a film that could reach just about anyone and have them laughing — hard. Jack Black, Mos Def and Melonie Diaz are all great in the movie as three kids who make homemade remakes of classics like Ghostbusters, Robocop and even Rush Hour 2. With a wide release date in late-February, this is one film that is worth at least one, if not two viewings.

4. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

I wasn’t very interested in the life of Hunter S. Thompson prior to seeing Alex Gibney’s brilliant doc about the Gonzo journalist, but now I am absolutely hooked. Thompson’s brand of journalism is exactly what many bloggers do today — news that is honest and often very subjective. The doc is an illuminating look at one of the single greatest journalists of our time.

3. American Teen

We’ll call this the first of the High School movies that made the list. In fact, all three of my top films dealt with high school age people. American Teen is however, the only one that deals with real people. Director Nanette Burstein has delivered a documentary that blows away reality shows like Laguna Beach by showing us what life is like in the quirky midwestern town of Warsaw, Indiana. It is (again) a very funny, beautifully crafted doc that is incredibly relatable and immensely entertaining.

2. The Wackness

Considering the fact that I saw it on the second day of the festival, you would have thought The Wackness could have been swept under the rug by this point — but its hard to disregard a movie that was so fresh, so intelligent and so brilliantly delivered by a wonderful cast and a very talented young director. It could be a breakout role for Josh Peck, sending him from Nickelodeon to more time spent on the big screen and it could certainly put director Jonathan Levine on a lot of A-Lists. Overall, The Wackness gets easily filed in the “Not To Be Missed for Any Reason” category.

1. Assassination of a High School President

Another film that should not be missed when it comes out is Assassination of a High School President. It is reminiscent of 2005’s Brick, but also reminiscent of the great John Hughes movies of the 80’s, combining a serious noir detective story with the quirks and oddities of life in an upscale, private Catholic school. Here we get everything we need in a high school movie — hilarious characters (no matter how big or small their part), a great lead performance from Reece Thompson and Mischa Barton in a sexy schoolgirl outfit. And for those not interested in Mischa, this film also packs one of the most intelligently written scripts that I’ve seen in years. If you miss this one when it releases, you should really re-examine your taste in movies — you may have lost the capacity to love an intelligent, sexy high school movie.

So there you have it, my Ten Best Films of Sundance 2008. Unexpectedly, this year was all about very funny coming-of-age stories. In a year that is being overpowered by the striking writers, we’ve seen some brilliant screenplays transposed into some equally as brilliant films.

As a bonus for our readers, I have also asked Peter at /Film and Alex at FirstShowing (my two condo-mates) to give up the goods on their favorites of the festival:

Alex Billington’s “Best of the Fest”

#1 – The Escapist
#2 – Assassination of a High School President
#3 – Hell Ride
#4 – American Teen
#5 – The Wackness
Honorable Mentions: Baghead / The Great Buck Howard / Hamlet 2

Peter’s List Coming Soon…

To look back at all of my coverage from Park City, check out our Sundance 2008 Homepage.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)