The 2015 edition of the Sundance Film Festival has come and gone and now we’re back home nursing our various hangovers. Pro tip: altitude + alcohol is a volatile combo, especially if you usually live at or near sea level. Don’t worry though, we didn’t just go up into the mountains of Utah to drink. We also watched a lot of movies. We have spent almost two weeks chronicling our Sundance 2015 journey in the form of reviews, features and so many Tweets. And now it’s time to do the one thing that is most necessary at the end of a film festival: make a list.
In total, our team of Kate Erbland, Rob Hunter, Jack Giroux, Dan Schindel and Neil Miller saw well north of 50 different movies, narrative and documentary alike. At the end of it all, we were universally impressed with the overall quality of the festival’s 2015 program. Being the first major fest out of the gate every year presents the Sundance team, led by festival director John Cooper and director of programming Trevor Groth, with a great deal of pressure. The amount of submissions their team handles is beyond the realm of imagination for casual viewer. To put together a quality program is undoubtedly a challenge based on the sheer size of the undertaking. This year they did a wonderful job.
With that in mind, the team has selected 15 films to mark the best of Sundance 2015. These are films that we will be keeping an eye on throughout the year, providing you a heads up when they become available to the general public. For now, have a look at our favorites below:
Jack Giroux: A period piece about an Irish immigrant (Saorise Ronan) moving to America all by herself sounds like pure bleakness, but Brooklyn isn’t that movie. John Crowley’s (Boy A) picture isn’t without its challenging or dramatic moments, but it’s also a film full of kindness and laughs. Nick Horby’s script, based on a book of the same name, is elegant, maneuvering around problems that often plague stories like Brooklyn. What could have been a trite or mopey love triangle is instead a compelling film about a girl torn between two homes. Brooklyn also features Saorise Ronan’s finest performance to date. The young actress take us on an unexpected journey with the quiet but powerful transformation she makes over the course of the film.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Jack Giroux: Marielle Heller’s directorial debut is about as honest as a coming-of-age film gets. At a Q&A for The Diary of a Teenage Girl, someone in the crowd asked Heller if she made this adaptation to “excuse” pedophilia, but that couldn’t be further from the truth: she’s made a film that doesn’t sugarcoat the highs or lows its lead character experiences, played impeccably by Bel Powley. We see the world through Minnie’s (Powley) eyes. Sex with an older man is explicit because of course this young girl would remember every small detail of her sexual encounters. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a beautiful, honest and moving portrait of becoming a woman and the kind of mistakes we all make that ultimately help us grow.
Digging for Fire
Neil Miller: Joe Swanberg’s latest, which he co-wrote with New Girl’s Jake Johnson, could be simply described as a movie about a married couple (Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt) who spend a weekend apart sort of unintentionally trying to work out their own issues. It spends time basking in the tropes of adulthood: fidelity, parental responsibility and a thirtysomething’s quest for purpose. Digging for Fire is also a kind of standing still travel movie that includes a lot of moving parts, many of which are performers who are a lot of fun. The film shuffles a fabulous ensemble – including the likes of Sam Rockwell, Mike Birbiglia, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Orlando Bloom, Sam Elliot, Judith Light, Ron Livingston and Melanie Lynskey – in and out of situations that are thoughtfully constructed and often quite funny. It’s a who’s who movie that punctuates Swanberg’s filmography. One of those great “here’s an excuse to get all of our friends together and make a movie” movies.
Kate Erbland: If you’ve never attended a film festival for a big stretch of time, it’s hard to imagine that watching movies all day – movies! all day! – could be exhausting, but damn is it ever (add in writing about them, trying to sleep, attempting to eat, and seeing friends, and there are just not enough hours in any given day). That’s why films like Rick Famuyiwa’s crowd-pleasing Dope are so welcome. Shot through with bold energy, bright characters, big laughs, and excellent music, Dope is the kind of thing that can enliven even the snooziest film festival crowd. Fast-faced and just fun, the Los Angeles-set high school tale is like the weirdest, buzziest heist film you could imagine, jazzed up with cool looks and cool kids galore.
The End of the Tour
Kate Erbland: Yes, “Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace” sounds like some sort of horrible punchline to a really ill-timed joke, and director James Ponsoldt certainly took some licks when the casting of his fact-based DFW feature was announced. It’s easy enough to pigeonhole Segel as just another goofball – until, of course, you actually think about some of his bigger roles, like in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Muppets or the weirdly pathos-laden The Five-Year Engagement, and remember how much of his humor is actually rooted in sadness. That’s part of what makes The End of the Tour work so damn beautifully, that Segel is able to finely tune his performance as DFW to capture both humor and heartache, without reverting to big doofy tricks or over-the-top sad sack antics. Oh, Jesse Eisenberg is there, too, doing a self-loathing act that’s so neatly and nicely done that it’s easy to overlook in the face of Segel’s life-changing turn.
Jack Giroux: This is the kind of movie that’s best to go into completely blind. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is perhaps the coolest movie ever made about STDs. The metaphor of his horror-comedy is quite obvious – you’re never safe until you have safe sex – but it’s well-handled, clever, and downright awesome. Some have described It Follows as John Hughes meets John Carpenter, and that’s an apt description. Like Hughes, Mitchell understands teenagers and, like classic Carpenter, he also knows exactly when to go for a laugh or a scare. If you have the chance to see It Follows in a theater, please do, because this is a movie you need to see with an audience.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Neil Miller: Few movies have found such a consensus as Me and Earl at Sundance. It has not only made our list (with a resounding consensus from each of us who saw it), but it also won the Sundance Audience and Grand Jury awards as best film. On top of all that, it’s a great coming-of-age tale about friendship, belonging to something greater than yourself and above all, being a huge movie nerd. It’s a story built for the kind of people who write for and read this website. As the kids might say, this is our jam. Even better, it earns every laugh and every tear with a smart story, three special lead performances and an infectious energy. It is simply one of the best movies we’ve seen in a while.
Neil Miller: Writer/director Patrick Brice has now made two movies we’ve liked a lot. His debut feature Creep is a movie we reviewed positively at SXSW 2014 and his follow-up The Overnight had us rolling at Sundance this year. It features Adam Scott and Orange is the New Black’s Taylor Schilling as a young couple who recently moved to L.A. In their search for new adult friends, they run across a hip Jason Schwartzman and his mysterious wife, played by Judith Godreche. Their desire to be social leads them down a rabbit hole of adult situations, each one funnier (and surprisingly more thoughtful) than the next. Brice’s film has plenty of honesty hidden underneath the very funny surface, all of which is pulled off beautifully by his exceptional cast. Come for the Jason Schwartzman Variety Hour, stay for the honest portrayal of marriage and parenting in one’s thirties.
Dan Schindel: Pervert Park sticks to the conventions of the confessional subculture genre, exploring a specific environment and letting its inhabitants have their say about what it’s like to be a part of it. But what sets it apart is the sheer discomfort that its chosen world evokes. We don’t want to think about sex offenders as anything other than monsters, but this movie will have none of that. So it tells us their stories. Their awful, disturbing, sometimes unfair and sometimes even sympathetic stories. Film is an empathy machine, and this film holds true something that most people might say they agree with but secretly not live out: that everyone, no matter who they are, deserves some empathy.
Rob Hunter: It’s easy to recommend a beautifully-shot film with a fantastic lead performance and a smartly imaginative exploration of a serious subject, but when that subject involves child molestation? That’s a bit more difficult. But Princess is that beautiful, creatively-written drama about a girl walking a dangerous line with her stepfather that he soon crosses. Writer/director Tali Shalom-Ezer’s film is a fascinating look at a child’s coping mechanism – essentially her imagination – in not only dealing with the abuse but standing up to it as well. This isn’t about exploitation or revenge. The subject is treated with respect, but there’s at least one scene guaranteed to pause your breath as you wait and watch, helpless, as the events onscreen unfold. The film infuses a terrible subject with beautiful life.
The Royal Road
Dan Schindel: Jenni Olson turns a movie in on herself by turning a camera outward to the Pacific coast. History, cinema, romance, memory, philosophy and theory all intermingle along The Royal Road. Solipsism and documentary don’t always jibe together too well, but Olson uses her own experience as a jumping-off point for some big ideas about nostalgia and its relationship to us and the places in which we live. This is a quiet film but never a dull one. Plus, its gorgeous 16mm cinematography easily makes it the best-looking doc at the fest.
The Russian Woodpecker
Dan Schindel: I want to believe. Like all the best conspiracy documentaries, The Russian Woodpecker makes you a little bit crazy and paranoid. But even if it turns out that Fedor Alexandrovich is wrong about the true cause of the Chernobyl disaster (though I’m honestly convinced that he could be on the money), this is not a film whose true value lies in “proving” anything, but rather in how it draws up a portrait of life in modern Ukraine and what it’s like to be constantly grappling with the shade of the Soviet Union, a behemoth that in many ways is still alive and well. Besides that, this film is endlessly riveting, sometimes chilling and often quite funny. And if we find out that Alexandrovich is right, then this may well be one of the most important documentaries ever made.
Sleeping With Other People
Kate Erbland: The romantic comedy is back, baby! And this time it’s here to remind us what actual on-screen chemistry looks like. It’s easy cast a couple of good-looking and bankable stars in a romance and just, like, hope it all works out or whatever (as ever, I turn to my prime example: Music & Lyrics, woof), but Leslye Headland’s newest feature handily squashes that idea into little, tiny, heart-shaped pieces. Chemistry is hard, but it’s worth it – and you know it when you see it. Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis are obvious enough picks for a raunchy, funny rom-com, but even that doesn’t account for their electricity. These two jump off the screen, handily accomplishing the number one feat of any rom-com ever made: getting the audience to blindly, fully, hopefully desire that they end up together. We’ll put it this way: Sleeping With Other People satisfies.
Rob Hunter: A girl and her dog are separated and their reunion threatened by the cruel acts of man, but the abused mutt is one persistent canine who soon has an army of four-pawed soldiers at his side. White God is a gorgeous film with a simple message. Essentially, we can do better as a species. Director/co-writer Kornel Mundruczo crafts a beautifully-shot allegory for man’s treatment of the downtrodden, whether they be animals or other men, and while it loses the scent a couple times along the way the end result is a thrilling adventure about inter-species awareness. Think the heart-warming quest for reunion from Homeward Bound meets the flesh-tearing mayhem of Man’s Best Friend, and you’ll have an idea what to expect from this particular incredible journey.
World of Tomorrow
Rob Hunter: I know what you’re thinking. A short film on our list of the festival’s best films? Madness! Even worse, it’s the only short we saw at this year’s Sundance. More madness! But then I tell you it’s the latest work from Don “My spoon is too big!” Hertzfeldt, and it starts to make sense. This is sixteen minutes of pure, animated magic – incredibly smart, ridiculously funny and delicately balanced between cynicism and real hope for humanity. Time travel, cloning, virtual reality – this compact story uses science fiction to tell a a very human tale, and with any luck the majority of us will listen. It’s an amazing piece of work that I’ve already watched a half dozen times, and I want nothing more than to watch it a dozen more.
Read more coverage from Sundance 2015 at Film School Rejects and at our documentary site Nonfics.