The film writing community is still catching up on sleep, getting over festival flu and showering off the stink of their blogger condos, but there’s no escaping it: the Sundance Film Festival is over for another year. For over thirty years, the festival has provided a welcome opportunity to shake off awards season, and to start to look over some of the movies and faces that we’ll be talking about for the next twelve months.
The general consensus superficially seems to be that this wasn’t exactly the best year of all time—there was no “Beasts of the Southern Wild“-style near-universal critical favorite, for instance—but it was a pretty strong year nevertheless. To wrap up our coverage from Park City (for the most part), we’ve picked out our ten favorite fiction films and five favorite documentaries, below, while our correspondents also picked their personal top fives on the following pages. Take a look, and let us know what you’re most looking forward to seeing in the comments section. Additionally, you can find the full list of Sundance award winners here.
Director: Lenny Abrahamson (“Adam and Paul,” “Garage,” “What Richard Did”)
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy
What’s It About? An unassuming young man accidentally becomes the keyboard player for an experimental pop band, drawing him into the enigma of their leader, a mysterious man who wears a giant head.
Why Is It Worth Seeing? Going into Sundance, “Frank” certainly looked like one of the most curious propositions of the festival, if not the year: that movie about a band where Michael Fassbender spends the whole thing encased in a paper mache head. But as it turned out, it was also arguably the best movie of the festival, proving to be a favorite of both head Playlister Rodrigo Perez and correspondent Cory Everett. The film—based very, very loosely on writer Jon Ronson‘s (“The Men Who Stared At Goats“) experiences with Mancunian musician/correspondent Chris Sievey, aka Frank Sidebottom, and directed by Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson, in a sharp about-turn from his excellent last feature “What Richard Did“—was, according to Rod’s A grade review, “an off-the-wall and terrific paean to the misfits and freaks of the world, their dreams, visions and togetherness.” One of the more convincing movies about being in a band, “like a mutated ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,'” and accompanied with “so many laugh-out-loud little flavors and shades,” it’s “unlike anything you’ve seen in recent memory.” Featuring tremendous performances from the whole cast which, aside from Fassbender, also includes Domhnall Gleeson, Scoot McNairy and a “scene-stealing” Maggie Gyllenhaal, “it certainly won’t be for everyone, but this terrific and sublime experience, and strikingly original film, is mandatory watching for the adventurous viewer.”
When Can I See It? Magnolia have the rights, and it should be in theaters in the summer.
Our Review: Rodrigo’s A grade review is here
“Listen Up Philip”
Director: Alex Ross Perry (“Impolex,” “The Color Wheel”)
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter
What’s It About? On the brink of the publication of his second novel, a celebrated writer is invited to the retreat of his idol, which further threatens his already crumbling relationship.
Why Is It Worth Seeing? His last film, “The Color Wheel,” became a serious favorite in the critical community, but after “Listen Up Philip,” the cult of director Alex Ross Perry is likely to grow much, much further. In part, it’s that he has some bigger names involved: Jason Schwartzman takes the lead role, with Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, Dree Hemingway, Jess Weixler and Kate Lyn Sheil among the supporting cast. But more than anything, according to Rodrigo Perez’s review from Park City, it’s that it sees the flourishing of a new voice with its “deeply misanthropic portrait of narcissism” that’s drawing comparisons to Noah Baumbach‘s earlier work. “A hilariously acidic look at the New York literary world and the complex and fragile egos within,” it gives Schwartzman “his best role since ‘Rushmore‘” as a self-absorbed on-the-rise author whose relationship is deteriorating and who falls under the spell of his idol, though Moss and Pryce are equally good, the latter in particular delivering a performance that might be his career best. Perry evokes “a pricklier Woody Allen, a less fastidious Wes Anderson” and even John Cassavettes, but carving out its own groove as well, the film’s also beautifully shot, by Sean Price Williams, and scored, by Keegan DeWitt.
When Can I See It? There’s no distributor yet, but we’ll assume that’ll change fast and you’ll see it later this year. It feels like a perfect movie for the indie spring season. Our Review: Rodrigo’s A- grade
“Love Is Strange”
Director: Ira Sachs (“Forty Shades Of Blue,” “Married Life,” “Keep The Lights On”)
Cast: Alfred Molina, John Lithgow, Marisa Tomei, Cheyenne Jackson
What’s It About? After 39 years together, Ben and George are finally able to get married, and are about to tie the knot. But, when the Catholic school he works for finds out, George is fired, the pair lose their apartment, and they’re forced to live separately, crashing with their respective children, and putting their relationship to the test.
Why Is It Worth Seeing? Nine years after winning the Grand Jury Prize with “Forty Shades Of Blue,” filmmaker Ira Sachs was back at Sundance with his latest, “Love Is Strange.” Like his last film, the excellent “Keep The Lights On” (which was at the festival two years back), it’s a low-key love story between two men, but while that dealt with twenty/thirtysomethings, “Love Is Strange” follows a couple, played by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, who’ve been together for nearly forty years, and who are about to finally tie the knot. Fortunately, the film is just as humane and lovely as its predecessor, according to James Rocchi’s review. “If ‘Love Is Strange’ were nothing more than a showcase for its performances, it would still be superlative,” he wrote, calling the central duo “perfect… with all of the feeling and fights and closeness that a real couple would have.” But Sachs isn’t just telling a love story, with the movie also addressing “New York economics, subsidized housing, prejudice’s more socially acceptable forms and how the rent is, in the words of the sage prophets, too damn high.” But it’s the central relationship that most are responding to: as James’ review concludes, “I doubt I’ll see a more finely performed and beautifully crafted love story, with or without any mere modifiers, up on the big screen this year.”
When Can I See It? Sony Pictures Classics acquired the film so we may be able to expect it in the summer, but it could even arrive in awards season if they want to push it in that direction.
Our Review: James Rocchi’s A- grade piece is here
Director: John Michael McDonagh (“The Guard”)
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd, Aiden Gillen, Isaach De Bankole
What’s It About? A gentle priest in a small Irish town is told during confession that he’ll be murdered, and sets out to find which of his parishioners will be the culprit.
Why Is It Worth Seeing? Whether you liked it or loathed it, most agreed that “Seven Psychopaths” was something of a step down for writer/director Martin McDonagh from his excellent debut feature “In Bruges.” But there’s been no such sophomore slump for his brother John Michael McDonagh for his second movie: if anything, “Calvary” might be a big step up for the man behind the delightfully offensive “The Guard.” A quieter, darker film about a small-town priest (Brendan Gleeson, reteaming with the filmmaker) who’s told that he’ll be murdered by a member of his parish. Rodrigo Perez praised the film’s “precision and control” that “evokes a modern Bresson, if Bresson were directing a particularly wordy Samuel Beckett play.” It’s not as uproariously funny as its predecessor (though it is funny), but “what it loses in laughs it gains in profoundly moving drama and emotional texture,” and among a tremendous cast, “Gleeson is in perfect form, effortlessly moving from comedic barb to high drama and back again.” A complex film that probably won’t be for everyone, but “its unwavering commitment to the intelligent thorniness of its themes, and the masterful control McDonagh exerts over the shifts in tone are worth cherishing, bringing it soaring close to something divine.”
When Can I See It? Fox Searchlight picked up the film. Look for them to push Gleeson in the next awards season.
Our Review: Rodrigo’s A- take can be found here
Director: Richard Linklater (“Dazed & Confused,” “School Of Rock,” “Before Midnight”)
Cast: Eller Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette
What’s It About? The life of two children in the twelve years following their parents’ divorce.
Why Is It Worth Seeing? A candidate for the longest duration between the start of a production and its eventual completion in the history of cinema (the film shot a few weeks every year for the last 12 years), the arrival of Richard Linklater‘s intimate epic “Boyhood” proved to be very much worth the wait. Tracking young Mason (Eller Coltrane) from childhood to college, the near-three-hour picture “feels much less like a greatest hits package and more analogous to being in the moment,” according to Rodrigo Perez’s review, proving to be “warm, soulful, funny and quietly insightful,” and something of a crowning achievement for the filmmaker, beginning “disarmingly light on its feet, sweet, funny and playful in the early years not unlike the director’s movies about kids, but as they mature, so does the movie.” Rod’s take wasn’t as unqualified a rave as those who called it the director’s masterpiece, admitting it sags “a little bit in the unremarkable years,” but the “cumulative result of ‘Boyhood is rather touching and stunning,” and it proves to be “a remarkable accomplishment that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.”
When Can I See It? IFC have the rights, and will release the film later this year.
Our Review: Rodrigo Perez’s B+ take
Director: Damien Chazelle (“Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench”)
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons
What’s It About? A 19-year-old drummer arrives at music college dreaming of greatness, only to butt heads with the talented but terrifying drum teacher.
Why Is It Worth Seeing? Impressively, and somewhat unusually, one of the biggest sensations of the festival came on opening night: even ten days on, “Whiplash” was the talk of Park City, not least because it was the rare film to pick up both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for the dramatic competition. And rightly so, according to James Rocchi’s review: Damien Chazelle‘s film (based on a short of the same name), which pits aspiring drummer Miles Teller against near-psychotic teacher J.K. Simmons, might sound familiar on the surface, but manages “a deeply and richly different take on that journey — not only examining the cost of struggle but the reward of it.” Teller continues to prove that “he’s the best young male actor in America,” while Simmons has “rarely been given the chance to go off the leash and run flat-out like he has here.” Chazelle makes something “more notable for its lack of compromise than any aspect of technique or craft,” and shoots “the performance scenes in a way where our expectations are both met and subverted.” James acknowledges in his review that the movie’s a tough sell, but with Sony Pictures Classics scooping it up, this definitely has the chance to cross over to a wider audience.
When Can I See It? SPC haven’t set a date yet, but look out for it in the late summer or early fall, we guess.
Our Review: James Rocchi’s take on the Sundance crowdpleaser
“The Raid 2”
Director: Gareth Evans (“Merantau,” “The Raid”)
Cast: Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Arifin Putra, Oka Antara
What’s It About? After surviving a brutal battle in a tower block, Officer Rama goes undercover in prison to befriend the convict son of a mob boss.
Why Is It Worth Seeing? Of everything in the lineup this year, it was “The Raid 2” that most promised to have the geek crowd wrapped around its little finger, given the positively orgasmic reactions to the first film, Gareth Evans‘ kick-ass Indonesian actioner that marked the Welshman out as a leading light in the action cinema world. True to form, the hyperbole flew after the Park City premiere of the sequel, was some calling the film the best action movie ever, and Evans one of the best living filmmakers. Our Mr. Rocchi was, thankfully, more measured in his praise in his B+ review. He wrote that “the fights, action and stunt choreography in the sequel are all a quantum leap forward,” and that “It’s also that rare action film precisely as beautiful as it is brutal.” Compared to its lean predecessor, the film “feels shaggy and shapeless, plumped up with filler that drags it down as a thriller,” but the ass-kicking, “with its long takes, clear camera work, sublime set design and how-did-the-stuntmen-live? action-scene insanity,” is more than worth the price of admission.
When Can I See It? The films opens March 28th.
Our Review: James Rocchi’s B+ review
“Kumiko the Treasure Hunter”
Director: David Zellner (co-written by his brother and producer Nathan)
Cast: Rinko Kikuchi with co-starring support by Nobuyuki Katsube, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Shirley Venard
What’s It About? An Japanese girl disenfranchised with her life finds a buried VHS copy of “Fargo” (yes, the 1996 Coen Brothers film) and travels to the U.S to track down the hidden money in the snow that she believes is real.
Why Is It Worth Seeing? Myriad reasons. Rinko Kikuchi is fantastic in a mostly silent performance. It has beautiful aesthetics, not least the cinematography and score (the latter winning the Sundance prize), and all in all, it’s just a thoughtfully-directed and absorbing portrait of loneliness wrapped in a superficially quirky story. Meaning, yes it’s a little offbeat and odd, but it’s also quite engrossing and well-considered.
When Can I See it? No distributor yet, but Alexander Payne attached his name to the film before the festival got underway, so that should help it pick up a buyer before too long.
Our Review: Rodrigo Perez’s B+ review
Director: Mona Fastvold (video and short filmmaker turned feature debut helmer)
Cast: Gitte Witt, Christopher Abbott, Stephanie Ellis and Brady Corbet, (who also co-wrote the picture)
What’s It About? The secluded peace of a rural Massachusetts couple is interrupted and fragmented upon the arrival of the wife’s younger, mentally disturbed, sister and her uptight boyfriend.
Why Is It Worth Seeing? Because it’s haunting and challenging and features terrific performances by the entire cast. An unnerving look at family dysfunction and secrets, it has a European chill to it, like a Lynch-ian take on an Ingmar Bergman chamber drama. Featuring a discordant Sondre Lerche-co-written score, “The Sleepwalker” isn’t the most comfortable viewing experience; it’s unsettled and disturbed, but that’s the point, and its controlled level of fractiousness is something to behold.
When Can I See it? “The Sleepwalker” has no distribution yet, but that will likely soon change.
Our Review: Rodrigo’s B+ review
“They Came Together“
Director: David Wain (“Wet Hot American Summer,” “Role Models,” “Wanderlust”)
Cast: Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Max Greenfield, Melanie Lynskey, Cobie Smulders
What’s It About: Romantic comedy spoof about a candy shop owner who falls for the corporate worker that’s threatening to put her out of business.
Why Is It Worth Seeing? The spoof genre has been given a terrible name in recent years, thanks to the likes of “Epic Movie” and “Meet The Spartans,” but roaring back to rescue it, thirteen years after they turned the summer camp movie on its head with “Wet Hot American Summer,” are former “The State“-ers David Wain and Michael Showalter, with this riff on the formulas and cliches of the romantic comedy. According to James Rocchi’s review, the script “combines broad, ludicrous potshots with precise, devastating sniper-fire,” straddling “the line between homage and satire superbly.” Paced just about perfectly (“it’s in, out and over with in a sprightly 85 minutes, moving swiftly and leaving scorched earth in its wake”), it sees Rudd navigate “the comedy with game, goofiness and good humor” and Poehler rise “to the challenge with authority, verve and a great Dickensian costuming joke” ahead of a “ludicrously talented cast.” Not every joke lands, but on the whole, the film has both “a silly, goofy smile and a sharp, savage bite.”
When Can I See It? Lionsgate will open it on June 27th.
Our Review: James Rocchi’s B+ take on the comedy
The 5 Best Documentaries
Director: Steve James (“Hoop Dreams,” “The Interrupters”)
What’s It About? A portrait of venerable film critic Roger Ebert, centering on the last few months of his life.
Why Is It Worth Seeing? Many film critics said going to see “Life Itself” was like going to church, paying our respects to one of the greats. But we choose to see it as something about more than just film criticism and writing. James’ portrait is about a man, warts and all, and the experiences that shaped him. Based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, James’ doc is moving and insightful, but doesn’t paint the lauded film critic as a god. Instead he draws a portrait of a collective life of experiences that shaped the person that so many loved for myriad reasons, beyond just his accessible and perceptive writing. For anyone that grew up watching “Siskel & Ebert” every week like clockwork, gaining access to a world of cinema you might not have otherwise known, “Life Itself” is a mandatory watch and an essential document of a fascinating film critic.
When Can I See It? A theatrical release is pending via Kartemquin Films, and it will air on CNN as well.
Our Review: Chase Whale’s A grade take on the doc
“Whitey: The United States vs. James J. Bulger”
Director: Joe Berlinger (the “Paradise Lost” trilogy, “Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster”)
What’s It About? The story of legendary Boston Irish mobster Whitey Bulger, and his eventual capture and trial after nearly twenty years on the run.
Why Is It Worth Seeing? Whitey Bulger has already inspired movies both directly (Ben Affleck has been developing a biopic with his brother and Matt Damon, and Johnny Depp is loosely attached to a rival project), and indirectly (he inspired Jack Nicholson‘s character in “The Departed“). But this true-crime tale, from documentary veteran Joe Berlinger, is about as compelling a version of his story as you could ask for, resembling, according to our Drew Taylor, “a first-rate James Ellroy adaptation” more than anything else. Focusing, in part, on the alleged corruption in the FBI and Justice Department that could have helped Bulger evade capture for so long, it weaves a “‘Rashomon‘-like prism of conflicting stories,” and “each and every character that Berlinger talks to, from the assorted goons to the slick lawyers defending said goons, has a vitality and charge all their own.” Reminiscent of “a ’70s paranoid thriller or the very best American crime fiction,” but with the “antsy, activist spirit” present in Berlinger’s “Paradise Lost” movies, it seems that the director’s delivered once again with ‘Whitey.’
When Can I See It? CNN have the rights, so it remains to be seen if this gets a theatrical release as well.
Our Review: Drew’s A grade review can be found here
Director: Shosh Shlam (“Last Journey Into Silence”) and Hilla Medalia (“Dancing In Jaffa”).
What’s It About? A look at contemporary Chinese web culture, through the prism of a treatment facility designed to cure teenagers of their addiction to online life.
Why Is It Worth Seeing? We can probably all identify with feeling in thrall to email and social networks (he said, pausing mid-sentence to check Twitter…), but China has been taking it more seriously than other countries, recognizing Internet addiction as a national health crisis and setting up 400 rehabilitation camps for the country’s youth, many of whom are taken there against their will. “Web Junkie” takes a look at these teens, many of whom spent most of their time on “Warcraft“-esque online games, and their parents, who can stay at the camp that the movie focuses on (leading to what Drew Taylor called “some of the movie’s most wrenching scenes” in his review). As Drew says “the specificity of the documentary, staying within the walls of the boot camp for virtually the entire movie, is one of its biggest strengths, since it is able to place you right alongside these kids,” and the result is a film that’s genuinely “heartbreaking… rich and emotionally rewarding.”
When Can I See It? No U.S. distributor yet, though U.K. company Dogwoof are selling it around the world.
Our Review: Drew’s A- take is here
Director: Jessie Moss (“Full Battle Rattle,” “Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story”)
What’s It About? Fracking in North Dakota causes a huge number of economic migrants to descend on the small town of Williston, and Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke sets out to look after the new arrivals.
Why Is It Worth Seeing? One of the major non-fiction talking points of the festival, and picking up a special jury prize, “The Overnighters” is, according to our Katie Walsh, “a true tragedy… a tale that weaves together deeply human elements but doesn’t offer a single easy answer.” Focusing on the truly good, even Christlike Pastor Reinke, who helps immigrants, drug addicts and sex offenders try to find new lives, against the wishes of his congregation, it’s a dense, stuffed film that Katie acknowledges isn’t “going to hold your hand and walk you through itself step by step.” But she says it’ll also “leave you stunned, questioning, and unsure of what is right and what is wrong—as most great docs do.” “Starkly bleak and devastatingly humane,” this is definitely one to keep an eye on as the year goes on.
When Can I See It? No distribution yet, as far as we’re aware: hopefully that changes soon.
Our Review: Katie’s A- review is here
Director: Goran Hugo Olsson (“The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975)
What’s It About? Based loosely on Frantz Fanon‘s “The Wretched Of The Earth,” this tells the story of anti-colonial struggles in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s.
What’s It Like? Three years ago, Swedish documentarian Goran Hugo Olsson managed a remarkable work after digging through the Swedish Television archives for “The Black Power Mixtape,” and has pulled off the same trick here with “Concerning Violence,” which sees the struggle for black power during the similar time period, but in Africa rather than the U.S. Narrated by Lauryn Hill, it allows the viewer to “consider these revolutions in a whole new light,” according to Kevin Jagernauth’s review for us. The film “does occasionally become disorienting,” but “the footage Olsson provides has an immediacy that is riveting and occasionally bracing,” proving to be “a searing look at Europe’s painful involvement in participating, encouraging and backing regimes of oppression.”
When Can I See It? No distributor yet, though hopefully IFC and/or Sundance Selects will step in, as they did for “Black Power Mixtape.”
Our Review: Kevin’s A- review is here
Honorable Mentions: Beyond all of the above, you can find links to every review we ran during the festival below (we’ll update as the last few stragglers come in), many of which are just as worthy of keeping an eye out for as the films above. You can also find some Top 5 lists from the festival from Playlist correspondents Rodrigo Perez, James Rocchi, Cory Everett and Chase Whale. You’ll notice a few discrepancies below, but not all writers reviewed all films for The Playlist, so outliers might be intriguing movies we all need to catch up on. And note: not all writers saw all the movies, so personal lists will change grow and expand throughout the year.
Rodrigo Perez’s Top 5
It’s certainly not a contrived grouping, but in retrospect, I found myself drawn to some of the more challenging and divisive films of Sundance and shying away from the predictably glum and dour, very “Sundance,” films. Perhaps the polarizing pictures are just my taste, but I loved the idiosyncratic portraits of misfits (“Frank,” ‘Kumiko’) and the distinctive harsh and hard edges of a few off-center films (“Listen Up Philip,” “The Sleepwalker”). I missed Marjane Satrapi’s “The Voices” and I’m deeply intrigued by the response, so that’s one I’m definitely going to have to try and catch up with later this year. We only made a top 10 of dramatic films and a top 5 of docs for this feature, but the quality of Sundance films was such that we easily could have written up about 30 movies we thought had value. Overall, a good year.
2. “Listen Up Philip”
3. “Kumiko The Treasure Hunter”
5. “The Sleepwalker”/”I Origins”/”Young Ones”
James Rocchi’s Top 5
While the most cinematic—and startlingly good—thing I saw at Sundance was “Blind,” I can’t help but note that there were a bunch of great films that impressed and moved me with everything from loveliness (“Love is Strange”) to liveliness (“Dear White People”), with either plain-spoken strangeness (“The One I Love”) or the everyday at epic proportions (“Boyhood”).
3. “Love is Strange”
4. “The One I Love”
5. “Dear White People”
Cory’s Top 5
This was my fourth year attending Sundance, and quite possibly my favorite yet perhaps because I saw more films than I had any other year. Looking at the ones that rose to the top for me, there’s a little bit of something for everyone: balletic, balls-to-the-wall action, a sincere and shambling tale of adolescence, a whacked-out comedy with darker edges, a misanthropic character portrait and a delicate love story. Long live Sundance.
1. “The Raid 2”
4. “Listen Up Philip”
5. “Song One”
Chase’s Top 5
This year was one of the best Sundance’s I’ve attended. While most of the films I saw were solid, only a small handful really blew me away (“Blue Ruin” and “Imperial Dreams” being two of them). The upside to all of this is I only saw one film I didn’t like and wish I could un-see (“The Voices,” starring Ryan Reynolds and talking pets), which is nice—nobody wants to go to Sundance and sit through films they don’t want to talk about later.
1. “Blue Ruin”
2. “The Raid 2”
3. “52 Tuesdays”
4. “Imperial Dreams”
5. “Obvious Child”
All The Playlist Sundance Reviews So Far…
Life Itself [A]
Love is Strange [A-]
Listen Up Philip [A-]
Web Junkie [A-]
The Overnighters [A-]
Concerning Violence [A-]
No No A Dockumentary [B+]
The Raid 2 [B+]
They Came Together [B+]
The Sleepwalker [B+]
Appropriate Behavior [B+]
Young Ones [B+]
I Origins [B+]
Imperial Dreams [B+]
20,000 Days On Earth [B+]
No No [B+]
The Voices [B]
The One I Love [B]
The Guest [B]
Cold In July [B]
White Shadow [B]
To Be Takei [B]
Obvious Child [B-]
A Most Wanted Man [B-]
The Skeleton Twins [C+]
Land Ho! [C+]
Life After Beth [C+]
Song One [C+]
Wish I Was Here [C-]
God’s Pocket [C-]
God Help The Girl [D+]
The Better Angels [D+]
Low Down [D+]
War Story [D-]