Seems like just twelve days ago that Kate Erbland and I posted a list of our most anticipated films playing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Our choices were based on elements as diverse as cast, premise, the filmmaker’s previous work, and even the two-word concept of an “abortion comedy.” As is always the case, though, expectations are never fully met, and while some movies we expected to love ended up disappointing us others that weren’t even on our radar completely blew us away.
That, in a lanyard-wearing nutshell, is the beauty of film festivals. Unlike movies that open at your local cineplex or release onto Blu-ray and DVD each week, the majority of festival titles are unknown entities. There are no trailers or other marketing materials for these films, and the talent involved are often barely familiar faces at best. Most of the screenings are complete crapshoots, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This year’s Sundance was one of the most rewarding film festivals I’ve attended in regard to quality, and it’s evident in the high number of films already picked up for distribution. It’s telling that I had to exclude great and/or highly entertaining movies like Dear White People, Cooties, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, and The Battered Bastards of Baseball to narrow down my list below. Keep reading to see Kate’s and my top fourteen films of Sundance 2014.
A single mother and her young son square off against the monster haunting the boy’s dreams. Like the best horror films, this Australian chiller ties its terrors into a very human story. Even more impressive, writer/director Jennifer Kent’s feature debut would be just as frightening with the supernatural elements removed. (My review) – Rob Hunter
Richard Linklater’s long-in-the-making look at the adolescence of one boy (Ellar Coltrane) is both bold (it was filmed over twelve years) and suitably lo-fi (it’s really just a great coming-of-age story). It’s one of the most satisfying in-theater experiences I’ve had in years, and it shows that gimmicks can still work to great effect. — Kate Erbland
A woman who recently lost her sight tries to make sense of her condition by imagining the world and people around her. Writer/director Eskil Vogt co-wrote the emotionally devastating yet intensely life-affirming Oslo August 31st, so it comes as no surprise that his directorial debut is such an affecting, creative, and beautiful film. (My review) – Rob Hunter
This Jenny Slate-starrer takes on big problems (what do you do when you have no partner, no job, and one hell of an unexpected pregnancy?) with nothing but humor and warmth. An abortion-centric rom-com, Gillian Robespierre’s debut feature, based off her short of the same name, is witty and wise and it never takes the easy way out. — Kate Erbland
A scientist (Michael Pitt) works to refute creationist claims that the human eye’s complexity proves intelligent design, but his efforts lead to a startling discovery. Like his debut, Another Earth, writer/director Mike Cahill’s follow-up offers a smart mix of sci-fi and humanity to tell a grand story on a personal scale. (My review) – Rob Hunter
It seems like both Obvious Child and Appropriate Behavior will remain linked in my mind for quite some time – both films take on expected tropes (abortion and a bad breakup, respectively) and then treat them with respect and humor and lots of style. Writer/director/star Desiree Akhavan comes out swinging in her feature debut, marking her as someone to watch in a big way. — Kate Erbland
Listen Up Philip
A narcissistic, mildly successful novelist (Jason Schwartzman) finds the world and people around him growing more and more unbearable. Writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s film is a fantastically casutic and funny entry in the canon of “asshole cinema,” and Schwartzman’s portrayal delivers both laughs and a well-deserved pathos. – Rob Hunter
The Skeleton Twins
Craig Johnson’s offbeat drama proves a few things quite handily – Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig can do big drama, the pair have exceptional chemistry, and even suicide can be treated with a bit of humor. The story of estranged twins who try to commit suicide on the same day is sad, silly, and ultimately moving. It’s extremely satisfying and seems like a prime target for maximum rewatching. — Kate Erbland
The Raid 2: Berendal
A cop agrees to go undercover to catch notorious gang leaders and corrupt policemen, but his mission becomes bigger, bloodier, and far more brutal than he expected. Gareth Evans’ follow-up to his epic 2011 action film ups the ante in every way. I’m not prone to hyperbole, but this is the best, most exciting, and well-choreographed action film in existence. (My review) – Rob Hunter
The One I Love
It’s very hard to talk about Charlie McDowell’s clever little feature without giving away its big “twist” (and one that makes itself plain within the feature’s first act), but we’ll try. It stars Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss as a married couple trying to navigate a fractured relationship who are sent to a weekend retreat to reconnect. They find something very unexpected there – no, not a serial killer or anything like that – and it not only puts their relationship on the ropes, but it also begs Duplass and Moss to turn in some, ahem, double time peformances. — Kate Erbland
What We Do In the Shadows
A documentary crew follows a trio of vampires living in modern-day New Zealand. Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s comedy concerned me at first as it sounded too reminiscent of the fantastic Belgian film, Vampires, but my worries were unfounded. This movie is flat-out hilarious, smartly written, and its own ridiculously fun creation. – Rob Hunter
Is Joe Swanberg now just going to make films about drinking, evolving relationships, and relatable situations that appeal to whole new scads of people? Here’s hoping, because Happy Christmas is his best yet, and Anna Kendrick is luminous. Also, baby Jude Swanberg is a star in the making. — Kate Erbland
A music academy student (Miles Teller) works hard to be the best jazz drummer, but the insane pressure from his teacher (J.K. Simmons) may be too much for him to handle. This is a solidly engaging drama with some addictive music sequences, but the final fifteen minutes are other-worldly in their musical power and intensity. It is incredible stuff. (My review) – Rob Hunter
Looks like even Rob Hunter and I can agree on something this year. Whiplash is energetic, wild, and wooly, and it’s nothing short of entertaining as all get out. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are a duo to be reckoned with, and it’s no surprise that this Grand Jury Prize winner was the one everyone was talking about all festival long. — Kate Erbland