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The Best Films Of The 2015 Sundance Film Festival

The Best Films Of The 2015 Sundance Film Festival

Suddenly, 2015 isn’t quite so new anymore —a wrap has already been called on the Sundance Film Festival, the first big event of the cinematic year. There were official winners (you can check out the full rundown of the awards here), but as everyone knows, the real prizes are the mentions from the attending Playlist staff in this end-of-festival assessment.

This year, our intrepid reporters at the festival covered a daunting amount of ground, both figuratively (we posted 50+ reviews) and literally, schlepping through the snow to dig out diamonds from all corners of the program. Of course, we turned up a fair number of disappointments, but we’re here to celebrate the best of what we saw. And despite peristent debates over the nature of Sundance, its role in championing indie film and whether it has become simply too big and too prestigious to retain real credibility in the down-and-dirty independent arena, there seems to be a consensus among attendees that this year was something special. We agree. On the evidence of the films below and the many breakout talents the festival fostered, Sundance is in better shape than ever.

Rodrigo’s Best Films
This was a solid year at Sundance: better than last in terms of me seemingly loving more and disliking less. In fact, coming up with a top five only is difficult, but here are five I loved in no particular order.

The Witch
Take the unnatural terror of Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List,” mix it with some haunting “The Shining” vibes, stir it up with some Ingmar Bergman, Terrence Malick and Nicolas Winding Refn, and you’ve got the spine-tinglingly frightening “The Witch.” Horror purists will say this film about devout colonial-era farmers who have the misfortune of being excommunicated and then set up shop next to a haunted forest is not in fact a horror film. And it’s probably not in a traditional sense, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary as fuck and 1,000x more unnerving and bloodcurdlingly creepy than 95% of most contemporary horror films. It’s a new modern classic, and Sundance noticed: first-time filmmaker Robert Eggers’ won the directing prize in what was a super-competitive field. Black Philips forever! (You’ll get that reference later in the year when this movie scares the shit out of you). My review.

Stanford Prison Experiment

I had no idea what I was in for with the “Stanford Prison Experiment.” I hadn’t read a thing other than its entry in our Most Anticipated feature. and needed a reminder as to what this experiment was: in 1971, a psychology professor at Stanford made a mock jail in the basement of the university and enlisted 24 students to act as prisoners and guards for two weeks. Suffice it to say the experiment, designed to study basic human impulses and behaviors in relation to authority and the willingness to assume designated power roles, turned ugly really fast. Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s visceral, unflinching film is meticulously crafted, and its elemental exploration of man’s dark nature is utterly engrossing. The film boasts an insanely deep ensemble cast, but actors like Michael Angarano, Billy Crudup, Tye Sheridan and Ezra Miller have never been better. It’s incredibly provocative and it also has a sense of humor. My review.

Mistress America

Noah Baumbach has gone from more abrasive films to softer portraits of New York intellectuals in recent years (or at least, I know a lot of people who felt that films like “Margot At The Wedding” chafe too much). I’d argue that “Mistress America” is probably Baumbach’s most abrasive film in some time, but that doesn’t mean it’s not extremely funny, quotable and insightful. A look at millennial ambition and 30-something angst, dream-chasing and score-settling, Baumbach’s film is infused with kinetic energy. His first screwball film is a paean to Peter Bogdanovich and “His Girl Friday” all in one, centering on the difficulties of female friendship and the inherent challenges of befriending someone way cooler than you. Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke nimbly run through their lines with balletic frenzy, the supporting cast is awesome, and Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips provide a pulsating, emotionally rich ‘80s inspired synth score. It’s as if John Hughes stayed up on yellow jacket pills studying frantically for his most make-or-break exam. It also might be a little too manic for some audiences and arguably loses its way a little bit in the last act, but I still enjoyed the hell out of it. My review.

Brooklyn

You could call it a tearjerker and I suppose you’d be right to some extent, but that term generally implies manipulative films calculated to pull the heartstrings. Not so in this case. John Crowley’s “Brooklyn” is terrific because it is incredibly humanist, doing absolute justice to a book that happens to have a lot of tragedy, but also much poignant observations about life. The movie also nails the emotional complexity of homesickness. The picture stars a-never-been-better Saoirse Ronan as an Irish immigrant in the 1950s who comes to America for a better life but is deeply conflicted about leaving her family and her old life behind. In America, she finds hardship but also love and romance, and tragedy strikes and makes it all the more complicated. John Crowley is the real-f’ing-deal director and the movie is beautifully crafted and sensitively rendered (his underrated and underseen 2007 film “Boy-A” is the reason Andrew Garfield is a worldwide star). So while the subject matter might sound like kin to the work of Nicholas Sparks, imagine a titan like Scorsese or Spielberg crushing a movie like that and then maybe you won’t second-guess it so much. There’s been premature talk of awards surrounding the film already, but if you’re part of a cynical backlash that likely will impact this film in the fall, a friendly reminder that it was gorgeous and exquisitely made all the way back in January when no one really knew what it was until its brilliant quality shone through. My review.

Me And Earl & The Dying Girl”
You’ve likely heard about this film now, given that it won the top Sundance prize for Best Drama and the Audience Award (talk about a big overall festival co-sign). But equating this film to “Fault In Our Stars” does it a huge disservice. And while it sounds like a painfully twee combination of everything that gives you a stomach ache at Sundance —coming of age, terminal illness, pop culture reflexiveness, etc.—“Me And Earl & The Dying Girl” is terrific, super-charming, and a wonderful combination of funny, sarcastic, aloof and earnestly sincere qualities. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon inventively stages the whole movie —the little cinephilia-obsessed asides are hilarious but thankfully not the heart of the movie— and it’s so  creative that it’s hard to believe Gomez Rejon directed some rather flat horror films before. The movie really hits a sweet spot of funny/sad tones, and it’s hard to go wrong with a score and songs by Brian Eno, isn’t it? My review.

Shout Outs To Some More

Since I can’t describe more than five films at length, I have to give serious shout out to many more films that I thought were fantastic. Rick Alverson’s “Entertainment.  is righteously fucked up, abrasive and confrontational as it can get, but it’s also a twisted comedy and existential masterpiece —anyone who has a dark sense of humor has to see this gem. I’d also like to call out the absurd, funny and moving Western “Slow West,” starring Michael Fassbender. Director John Maclean made an evocative fairy tale out of the Western genre and then added some Coen Brothers-esque thrills. He’s one to watch. And everyone loves James Ponsoldt already (“Smashed”) and I’m finally convinced. Ponsoldt’s always coaxed great performances out of actors, but some of his previous movies have had mixed results, but  he hits “The End Of The Tour” right out of the park. It’s an intimate, funny and genuine look at a life-changing five-day interview between a young Rolling Stone journalist and famed author David Foster Wallace. The always-dependable Jesse Eisenberg (an Academy Award nominee) is great as the magazine scribe, but comedian Jason Segel is absolutely terrific at nailing the introspective, conflicted and complicated life of the troubled author who committed suicide in 2008. I also thought Amy Berg’s documentary “Prophet’s Prey” was chilling; “The Russian Woodpecker” is a terrific doc (see Drew’s review); and I really enjoyed Joe Swanberg’s marital complications dramedy “Digging For Fire” and Andrew Bujalski’s “Results which features a terrific and surprising performance from Cobie Smulders who I didn’t really think that much of before and am now deeply impressed with. “Dope” needs an edit (don’t they all this year), but it’s a hell of a good time too.

Katie’s Best Films
Tangerine” 
Covering film festivals usually means watching around 4 movies a day, and many indie films can seem so similar that they start to blur together. So when something as bracingly different and unique as “Tangerine” shows up, it’s a refreshing surprise. Sean Baker turns his iPhone 5s on the world of transgender working girls in Hollywood, creating a world that is colorful, funny, energetic and as real as it gets. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor are wonderful discoveries, and I hope this isn’t the last we see of them. Baker tends to treat unfamiliar milieus with a sensitive, artful approach, and here’s hoping “Tangerine” can be a breakout for him. My review.

Cartel Land

Matthew Heineman‘s deep dive into a Mexican anti-cartel vigilante group might have been one of the most terrifying films at Sundance this year. The audience experiences street-level gun battles, goes inside raid missions and stalks narco cartel scouts in the hills of Arizona. What’s most disturbing is the film’s resigned assertions that money and violence will always corrupt and that the right people can co-opt movements in the wrong way. There are no easy answers and no calls to action in “Cartel Land” —only a window into a dark world of blood and drugs that unfortunately exists in a reciprocal relationship with the U.S. My review.

People Places Things

This sweet rom com from Jim Strouse is a fine showcase for Jemaine Clement‘s and a fantastic line-up of supporting players. As single dad and artist Will, Clement is able to play in a variety of different registers with the cast, from the cute twins who play his daughters to Jessica Williams as his student to Regina Hall as a possible paramour. The graphic novel illustrations are also a creative way to explore the subtext, showing rather than telling the inner workings of Will’s turbulent life. A treat, a trifle, but oh so delightful. My review.

Ten Thousand Saints

Not everyone agrees with me about “Ten Thousand Saints,” but it must have just hit me in the right place at the right time. The angsty late ’80s teens in the film hit me right in my sweet spot, and the soundtrack, production design and performances by Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld gave me heart-eyes emojis all over. Ethan Hawke is also fantastic, funny, and heart-string pulling in this role. There are a couple of things that didn’t quite work in retrospect, like the Thompson Square Riots bit, but in general, I found the story, tone and aesthetic to be entirely winning. It’s really good to see Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini in such fine form. My review.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

This documentary on Cobain’s short life is just such an achievement of form, taking the ephemera of his life and animating it into a living, breathing experience that feels true to his spirit. With access to his journals, tapes, home videos and childhood memorabilia, director Brett Morgen creates a piece that reminds us of what a huge loss Cobain’s demise was, but also offers a sense of closure on a life lost too soon. It’s a piece that is intimate and moving, genuinely sorrowful, but is also bursting at the seams with creative energy. My review.

All of our reviews can be found here or below. Browse through our picks for Sundance Breakouts of 2015 or see how many of the winners we picked in advance in our Most Anticipated piece. We also took a look at 7 Trends We Noticed At The 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Or if you fancy taking a more historic look at the festival, here’s our feature Ranking all the Grand Jury Prize Winners, and here’s a 2014 piece running through 25 Films That Defined Sundance. We hope you enjoyed our coverage, and let us know what you thought of this year’s festival in the comments.

“Brooklyn” [A]
“The Witch” [A]
“The Russian Woodpecker” [A]
“Ten Thousand Saints” [A]
“Tangerine” [A-]
“Entertainment” [A-]
“Me & Earl & The Dying Girl” [A-]
“Dreamcatcher” [A-]
“The Stanford Prison Experiment” [A-]
“Western” [A-]
“Cartel Land” [A-]
“Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck” [A-]
“Slow West” [B+]
“Mistress America” [B+]
“Prophet’s Prey” [B+]
“The End Of The Tour” [B+]
“I Smile Back” [B+]
“People, Places, Things” [B+]
“The Royal Road” [B+]
“Dope” [B+]
“Being Evel” [B+]
“Sleeping With Other People” [B+]
“Going Clear” [B+]
“The Overnight” [B+]
“|’ll See You In My Dreams” [B+]
“True Story” [B+]
“Diary Of A Teenage Girl” [B+/B]
“Results” [B]
“Cronies” [B]
“James White” [B]
“Welcome To Leith” [B]
“Nasty Baby” [B]
“Unexpected” [B]
“Digging For Fire” [B]
“The Strongest Man” [B]
“Bob And The Trees” [B]
“Z For Zachariah” [B-]
“Take Me To The River” [B-]
“Last Days In The Desert” [B-]
“Finders Keepers” [B-]
“Christmas, Again” [B-]
“Mississippi Grind” [C+]
“I Am Michael” [C+]
“The Wolfpack” [C+]
“The Nightmare” [C+]
“Experimenter” [C]
“Stockholm Pennsylvania” [C]
“Cop Car” [C]
“Umrika” [C-]
“Tig” [C-]
“Strangerland” [C-]
“Hellions” [D]
“Reversal” [D]

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