Last year, the story of the Sundance Film Festival practically told itself. Whiplash was the opening night film, and the future Best Picture nominee dominated the conversation until Richard Linklater dropped a Boyhood-sized bomb on Park City, UT, a few days later. The highlights may not have been quite so obvious this year, but that was perfectly fine with us, as so many of the films we saw felt like they were breakout hits in the making. More than 100 films premiered at Sundance this year, and these 10 were our favorites—get familiar now, as you’ll be hearing a lot more about them in the coming months.
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Ben Mendelsohn (Starred Up) is Gerry, a divorced 44-year-old gambling junkie looking for a magic ticket out of his addiction. One night at the local Iowan casino where he fritters away his cash, Gerry meets an amiable and charismatic young stranger named Curtis (Ryan Reynolds). After a few serendipitous misadventures, Gerry decides that Curtis is the good luck charm he’s been waiting for, and convinces his carefree new friend to bankroll him on a poker trip down the Mississippi. A sweet, shambling, and supremely enjoyable road movie about two compulsive gamblers of very different stripes, Mississippi Grind is clearly inspired by the loose and trenchantly American studio films of the ’70s. While seeing a contemporary star like Reynolds grin and slide his way through something so indebted to California Split and its ilk will make you miss those movies more than ever, this movie is so good that you’ll thank directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden for the pleasure.
We're as surprised as you are to hear that Jason Segel has stepped up his game mightily to play the elusive, psychologically fragile novelist David Foster Wallace. The Forgetting Sarah Marshall star is totally persuasive as a troubled brainiac, and his performance is the beating heart of James Ponsoldt’s (The Spectacular Now) fun and moving road-trip movie about what happened when a Rolling Stone journalist (Jesse Eisenberg) accompanied the late writer on the last leg of his book tour. The film is equally pitched toward Wallace devotees and those who roll their eyes at anyone reading Infinite Jest on the subway—both crowds will enjoy it in their own ways.
Thank God for Rick Alverson. The deranged mind behind The Comedy, Alverson might just be the least complacent filmmaker we have, and Entertainment finds him continuing his crusade against the passivity of American culture. Ostensibly the story of a nameless comedian (Gregg Turkington, here dissecting his beloved “Neil Hamburger” alter ego), Entertainment is a caustic and punishing experience that alternates between scenes of perversely terrible stand-up and scenes of its hero sinking further into oblivion. Unfolding like a David Lynch movie by way of Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Alverson’s latest is a hostile confrontation with our amusement, and our relationship with those responsible for it. Entertainment doesn’t just howl into the void, it also demands a response in return.
This year’s Sundance was overrun by two distinct kinds of documentaries: ones about major issues (Going Clear, Racing Extinction, The Russian Woodpecker) and ones about the power of filmmaking (The Wolfpack, Chuck Norris vs Communism). In that light, it’s fitting that the best doc on the slate was a little bit of both. Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, Best of Enemies revisits the 1968 Presidential election and the broadcasting stunt that served as the big bang for our current political climate. Desperate for ratings, ABC decided to cap its coverage of the Democratic and Republican national conventions by airing 10 nights of debates between liberal heavyweight Gore Vidal and conservative titan William F. Buckley Jr. The chemistry between the two intellectuals resulted in some of the most compelling television of the 20th century, and this film’s elegant mix of archival footage and talking-head commentary rivetingly retraces how one heated rivalry sparked an entire culture of punditry.
The Citizen Kane of teen-cancer tearjerkers, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me & Earl & the Dying Girl is like The Fault in Our Stars remade for Criterion Collection fetishists. Greeted by a rapturous standing ovation at its Sundance premiere—which precipitated it becoming one of the highest-selling acquisitions in the history of the festival, and the third consecutive film to win both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award—this slick, funny and bruising high-school saga transcends its YA trappings by dropping the full weight of film history on a thoroughly modern milieu. Based on Jesse Andrews’s novel of the same name and directed with a restless visual dexterity that always serves its characters (Gomez-Rejon used to work for Scorsese, and it shows), Dying Girl refuses to accept the common wisdom that high-school films should be graded on a curve.
Sean Baker has proven to be one of the most relentlessly innovative fixtures of the festival circuit, and while his experiments don’t always work out (Starlet, an inert drama about the unlikely friendship between an old lady and a porn star, was a nonstarter), his successes can single-handedly reignite your enthusiasm for indie film. Shot on iPhones affixed with anamorphic lenses, Tangerine follows a breathless day in the lives of two transgender prostitutes as they race around downtown Los Angeles in order to get to the bottom of a bizarre love triangle. Honest and hilarious in equal measure, Baker’s electrifying film gives a voice to a community that movies usually exploit for laughs, and his two nonprofessional leads deliver the best performances of the fest. This is the Sean Baker we love, and the Sean Baker we need.
Welcome to The Forbidden Room, an exhilarating slipstream of two-strip technicolor havoc that feels like an exquisite corpse assembled from every leftover idea that filmmaker Guy Maddin has ever had. A dense quilt of nested scenes that were allegedly pulled from the cinema’s great abandoned films, The Forbidden Room never proves that Maddin is reanimating “real” lost projects, but how real can a film be if it was never shot? For all of its innumerable pleasures, however, The Forbidden Room can feel like too much of a good thing—premiering at Sundance, Maddin’s latest plays like a robust film festival unto itself. But at a time when everyone is talking about the death of the movies, Maddin proves that we can always bring them back to life.
Frances Ha on Adderall, Mistress America finds Baumbach working with a manic screwball energy that has more in common with Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks than it does any of his previous films. The film begins on the first day of freshman year as Tracy (perfectly cast rising star Lola Kirke) moves into her Barnard dorm, but it’s not until Brooke (a gloriously hysterical Greta Gerwig) enters the picture that the film takes flight. Tracy’s mom is due to marry Brooke’s dad, and so the two girls are forced into a manufactured but mutually beneficial sisterhood. As the siblings-to-be get into a whirlwind of misadventure, Mistress America becomes Baumbach’s lightest, funniest and most dexterous film.
There are confident first features and there’s The Witch, the exhilaratingly scary debut in which writer-director Robert Eggers tramples over the cowardice of the genre he’s just grabbed by the throat. Reverentially adapted from a ghoulish piece of Puritan folklore (much of the dialogue is lifted verbatim from 17th-century documents), this terrifying horror film follows a family of fundamentalist pilgrims who become neighbors with a nasty ghoul after being banished from their New England settlement. While The Witch deservedly nabbed the festival’s Best Director prize, the case could be made that it still got shortchanged.
A whirlwind 16-minute adventure through space, time, memory and the limitless potential of the “outernet,” Don Hertzfeldt’s (It’s Such a Beautiful Day) first all-digital short follows a young British girl named Emily (Winona Mae) who’s too small and innocent to realize what’s happening when an adult clone of herself (Julia Pott) invites her for a tragicomic tour of the future. At the risk of perilously understating our love for this film, “World of Tomorrow” might be one of the most satisfying shorts since Chris Marker’s 1962 landmark, La Jetée (a film with which Hertzfeldt’s shares some common DNA). Wise, hilarious and as formally daring as it is infinitely quotable, “World of Tomorrow” may not last very long, but it will stay with you forever.