2014 was a terrific year for Sundance. The fact that no single film generated a groundswell of deafening (and often nauseating) critical support meant that more attention was paid to more films, and the program was certainly popping with movies that deserved to be part of the discourse. Just as importantly, nothing we saw was abjectly terrible, the child zombie comedy "Cooties" earning our lowest score with a still respectable 5.0 / 10.
A strong selection of international fare and an unusually satisfying platter of genre offerings rewarded more adventurous festival attendees, but – as always – Sundance's ultimate purpose was to champion the best of America's new indie cinema. While that doesn't really explain what Zach Braff was doing there (his controversially Kickstarted film "Wish I Was Here" didn't have the goods to shift the conversation towards the movie itself), our picks for the best of the fest suggest that Sundance continues to be a vital event on the strength of its bread and butter.
While we'd be the first to admit that documentaries are underrepresented in the list below, that owes more to scheduling than it does to a lineup of docs that, by most accounts, was exceptional (favorites included "Rich Hill", "The Overnighters", "No No", and "Concerning Violence", the director of whom we interviewed here). We also failed to review narrative gems like "Ping Pong Summer" and "Blind", while we settled for interviews with festival favorites like the wonderful "Appropriate Behavior". Too many movies, too little time. But there are worse problems for a bunch of film critics in January.
ALL of our Sundance 2014 coverage can be found on our festival mega-post, but please enjoy our 10 favorite films of the fest below.
Note: Only films that premiered at Sundance were eligible for this list. Titles like "The Double" and "Blue Ruin", which began their festival runs last year, were not considered.
While Seattle-based filmmaker Lynn Shelton’s been a regular presence at Sundance with films like “Humpday,” “Your Sister’s Sister,” and “Touchy Feely,” “Laggies” is both a welcome return and an intriguing departure. As Shelton herself noted at the film’s Eccles premiere, it’s the first time in her career she’s worked from a script by another person, but that screenwriter Andrea Siegel’s work felt like a fit. And the change does Shelton good; funny, human, clean and still messy, “Laggies” is the indie-film equivalent of a bumblebee – it shouldn’t be able to fly and maneuver, but it does and does so superbly. – James Rocchi
Let the record show that “The Raid 2” certainly does not want for bone-crunching, jaw-snapping ambushes, shootouts and brawls involving machetes, machine guns and utterly mad men. The broader scope makes for a great variety of environments ranging from bathrooms to ballrooms, subways to highways, nightclubs to prison courtyards, often adorned in Refn-worthy production design. Although many sequences boast a jittery, undercranked look that irritates more than it excites, the elaborate fight and chase geography and choreography on display is beyond well enough to compensate, with select shots and stunts simply too brutal and baffling to believe. – Will Goss
8. - WHIPLASH (Damien Chazelle) – 8.5 / 10
“Whiplash” is about a demanding teacher trying to coax greatness out of a student, yet it couldn’t be further from the saccharine exploits of Mr. Holland, Mr. Dead Poets, and the countless other educators who have inspired their pupils and moved audiences to tears. For one thing, the teacher in this instance is abusive well beyond the acceptable limits of “tough love,” more like a drill sergeant than a mentor. For another thing, instead of gently reminding us that we mustn’t let pursuing our dreams hinder our personal relationships or prevent us from having functional everyday lives, the film suggests the only way to realize some goals is to ditch everything else.
Basically, you can be a world-class jazz drummer, or you can be a well-adjusted member of society, but you can’t be both. Not the sort of message you usually get in these movies. This unusually unromantic approach to music education is one of many noteworthy things about “Whiplash,” a funny, exhilarating drama — bordering on psychological thriller — that was written and directed by Damien Chazelle as an expansion of his Sundance-winning short. – Eric D. Snider
Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are trying to recreate their magical first night together – a hazy, dreamy mish-mash of meeting up, finding a spark, and indulging in a little bit of criminal trespassing, all in the space of just an hour – in an attempt to reignite the passion they once felt for each other and their relationship. Charlie McDowell’s deeply smart “The One I Love” opens with Ethan telling us (or, as we soon learn, telling their marriage counselor) about breaking into a stranger’s backyard for a midnight swim alongside his now-wife Sophie, the very thing they did the first night they met.
That drama isn’t there anymore, and when the couple tries to recapture it, no one is home – literally, the guy isn’t home – and the pair spends some mystified minutes bobbing in the pool, waiting for something to happen. It doesn’t.
Apparently inspired by his patients’ need to do something to save their floundering marriage, Ethan and Sophie’s therapist (played by an exceedingly wry Ted Danson) asks them to attend a kind of marriage retreat, a weekend away at a beautiful and somewhat isolated estate where they can connect (just the two of them!) and restart their relationship. And, no, they are not prepared for what the weekend actually has in store for them. – Kate Erbland
6. THE BABADOOK (Jennifer Kent) – 8.8 / 10
It's not that Jennifer Kent's remarkably assured first feature, The Babadook, reinvents the proverbial wheel -- good luck finding me a modern horror effort that does -- yet it hardly, if ever, steps wrong in its tale of a widowed mother, her only child and the distresses brought upon them by a sinister supernatural force and the daily demands of parenting alike. Kent's film doesn't just strike an eerie mood, it establishes a vital emotional core on which to unleash its gorgeously nightmarish scenario, and the result is creepy as all hell.
Full review to come soon.
5. - LOVE IS STRANGE (Ira Sachs) – 8.9 / 10
There’s a shot of Alfred Molina and John Lithgow walking arm in arm through the same West Village streets as Dylan’s album cover and it is among the most touching film images I’ve seen in a long time. George (Molina) and Ben (Lithgow) are newly married in a legal sense, but have been lovers, companions and best friends for decades. Throughout the picture, but in this shot particularly, you understand the miracle and good fortune of finding love, and recognize the great changes in tolerance American society is currently (albeit slowly) undergoing. The performances sell it, Ira Sachs’ muted direction sells it, his script, co-written by Mauricio Zacharias sells it. And, let’s not forget, New York sells it. – Jordan Hoffman
Writer/director Alex Ross Perry has some real Philip Roth affection going on – the credits of his films are in “that typeface” – so I’ll lay this out in appropriate language. If Perry’s savagely funny “The Color Wheel” was his “Portnoy’s Complaint,” then “Listen Up Philip” is his “Letting Go.”
If you aren’t adequately versed in the poet laureate of Weequahic, what that means is “Listen Up Philip” is big, sprawling and tortured, if a little lacking in focus – while funny in parts, it isn’t really a comedy. The plot of this 120 minute film (long for an indie these days) can be summed up in a sentence fragment, but the rich scene work and unpredictable storyline make for a probing inquiry into the film’s three main characters. – Jordan Hoffman
There are three messages to take away from “The Voices.” One: Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian filmmaker whose autobiographical “Persepolis” made waves a few years ago, is a major directorial talent. Two: there is a demented screenwriter named Michael R. Perry who should probably be on some kind of watch list. Three: if Ryan Reynolds will keep making risky, offbeat aberrations like this, we’ll overlook the “Green Lantern”s and “R.I.P.D.”s and love him forever.
Here is a pitch-black psycho-horror-comedy to restore one’s faith in the “What the eff did I just watch?” genre. Set in a wholesome American town (the praises of which are sung in an opening theme song [!]), the film stars Reynolds as Jerry Hickfang, a smiling, awkward, not-quite-all-there fellow with a low-level factory job. He’s just out of prison on a work-release program and has a regular appointment with a court-ordered psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver), but he seems harmless enough. He goes through life in a bit of a daze, attended by imaginary butterflies, and has a cute crush on Fiona (Gemma Arterton), a beautiful brunette from the accounting department. – Eric D. Snider
“I am like a Spanish Conquistador. Recently, I’ve learned of untold riches hidden deep in the Americas.”
So Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a peculiar 29-year-old clerk who shares a decomposing Tokyo apartment with her pet rabbit Bunzo, confesses to the nonplussed security guard of her local library after she’s attempted to steal a book of maps. The “untold riches” to which Kumiko refers are the unclaimed bricks of prop cash that – towards the end of the seminal 1996 film “Fargo” – Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) buried beside an anonymous stretch of highway somewhere near Brainerd, Minnesota.
Kumiko, who ostensibly seems to understand that Ethan and Joel’s frigid crime saga is a work of fiction, is nevertheless convinced that the money is still there for the taking, waiting beneath the snow for an enterprising treasure hunter to unearth the small fortune and wrest it into reality. It’s an idea that first occurred to Kumiko after she stumbled upon a VCR-shaped slot of rock on the shore of a desolate Japanese beach and found a worn videotape of “Fargo” waiting for her inside the cave’s oblivion.
This is a true story. – David Ehrlich
I cannot promise how “Boyhood” will move you, or even that it will. Richard Linklater’s long-forming project charting the growth of its subject, Mason, in real time from age six to eighteen is not entirely unprecedented; Michael Apted’s “7 Up” documentaries revisited the same British children every seven years as they grew older, François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series cast the same actor as the eponymous character over the course of four feature films, and Linklater’s own “Before” trilogy caught up with its protagonists every nine years much as they caught up with one another.
Like the best of fiction, it conveys greater truth about coming to terms with the world at large, and regardless of whether each individual scene is ultimately justified in its inclusion, the cumulative impact of seeing something resembling a life unfold over a mere two hours and forty minutes is overwhelming. “Boyhood” is Linklater’s third masterpiece in the past decade, and it should only affect anyone who’s ever been someone else’s sibling, child, parent, lover or friend. – Will Goss