Sundance 2015 Wrap-up and Top 10!
I knew it would be great at it certainly was. Yes ladies and gentlemen, the 2015 Sundance Film Festival is officially in the books. Over ten days I managed to see and review thirty-two movies, and you know what? I still missed stuff! I was devastated not to be able to catch the Grand Jury Award winner ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, but with Fox Searchlight having picked it up for a major release, I expect I’ll be able to see what all the fuss is about before long. Overall though, this was another great year. While I’ve yet to seen an indie that can compete with last year’s WHIPLASH or BOYHOOD, or a genre film that can break out like THE GUEST, THE BABADOOK or COLD IN JULY (truthfully the genre fare was weak outside of THE WITCH which got good notices), it was a very solid year.
The following are just ten of the festival’s highlights and I’d wager any of them has breakout potential and should play well with any kind of crowd. I’ve tried to include distribution info when possible and while some of the deals haven’t been made yet you can be reasonably assured that you’ll see everything on this list before year’s end.
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Sebastian Silva’s a maniac, but he’s my kind of maniac. Having thoroughly enjoyed his CRYSTAL FAIRY and MAGIC MAGIC, I couldn’t wait to see what Silva would cook up with NASTY BABY, in which he also stars as a gay man living in New York with his partner (TV on the Radio) who’s trying to conceive with his best friend (an enormously appealing Kristen Wiig). There’s a crazy, “out of nowhere” twist that sharply divided audiences at the fest, but it’s truly thought-provoking as fresh. This one hasn’t been picked up yet but it’s only a matter of time. It could be a solid VOD/art-house hit.
Funnyman Jack Black’s been pretty quiet lately, but his Sundance outing THE D TRAIN brings him back in a big way. He stars as a former high-school-geek turned chairman of his school’s anniversary committee, who takes it upon himself to track down the former class golden boy (played by James Marsden) who’s now living as an actor in L.A. A surprisingly thoughtful comedy with a great second act twist, THE D TRAIN was picked up by IFC Films, who hopefully can turn this into THE SKELETON TWINS-style sleeper it deserves to become.
A surprisingly sharp sexual comedy of errors is given a tight, accessible eighty-minute package in Patrick Brice’s follow-up to his (soon-to-be-released) festival hit CREEP. Adam Scott and ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK’s Taylor Schilling star as a married couple new to L.A, who ends up making an adult playdate with the hip parents (Jason Schwartzman & Judith Godrèche) of a boy their child has befriended. The evening turns into a witty, adult romp with tons of laughs, music, full frontal nudity (from both sexes) and more than a little heart. Newbie distributor The Orchard (who also picked up Joe Swanberg’s DIGGING FOR FIRE and acclaimed doc FINDERS’ KEEPERS) picked this one up.
MISSISSIPPI GRIND is a major return-to-form for directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, following IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY. This one – a riff on Robert Altman’s CALIFORNIA SPLIT is closer to their debut, HALF NELSON. The great Ben Mendelsohn gets a rare starring role as a down-on-his-luck gambler who teams up with a Ryan Reynolds’ hot-headed card sharp for a trip down south where they hope to change their luck for the better. Mendelsohn is brilliant and Reynolds’ is at his absolute best here, in a part that should put to bed anyone’s concerns that he’s not leading man material. A24 picked this one up, with DirecTV getting a VOD window before it hits theaters.
John Maclean’s SLOW WEST is one of the movies that took me a little by surprise this year. Truthfully, I didn’t go in expecting all that much. I suppose I’m slightly burnt-out on elegiac westerns (although I probably shouldn’t be as I tend to like most of them) but really that’s not at all what I got with this eighty-minute bizzaro western. Michael Fassbender stars as a kind of “Man with No Name” style bounty hunter trying to keep a young Scottish tenderfoot alive long enough to reunite with his true love – or so it would seem. Darkly comic, visually striking, and wildly inventive, SLOW WEST is a real treat. A24 picked this one up right before the fest started, and apparently it’s due pretty soon, with it getting a DirecTV window before going theatrical.
KURT COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK is more than your typical music documentary. Coming from THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE’s Brett Morgen, MONTAGE OF HECK uses various techniques, including animation and stock footage to put you directly inside Cobain’s mindset – in a way that’s often uncomfortable. Most strikingly, he uses tons of Cobain’s own home movies, made with spouse Courtney Love - footage he was able to obtain thanks to the involvement of Cobain’s daughter, Francis Bean, as a producer. Courtney Love herself sits for a no-holds-barred interview. This is compelling stuff, and it will likely make a big splash once it debuts on HBO this summer (it will also get a theatrical release internationally).
It’s no wonder DOPE walked away with the festival’s biggest deal, with Open Road having already slotted this for a wide June release. A kind of urban RISKY BUSINESS, DOPE is paced-like lightning, often side-splittingly funny, and more than that – thrilling. Breakout star Shameik Moore plays a bit-coin and GAME OF THRONES loving geek growing up in the projects who finds himself in the possession of a backpack full of the titular dope, which he has to sell if he wants to live long enough to graduate high school. Co-starring THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL’s Tony Revolori, DOPE is probably the most fun I had watching a movie at the fest and one that deserves to be a huge breakout success for all involved.
Based on the real-life experiment which was fodder for the German classic DAS EXPERIMENT and it’s American remake, THE EXPERIMENT, THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT is a sobering look at the dangers of peer pressure and unchecked authority. In 1971, a Stanford psychology professor sought to approximate prison conditions in order to examine the effect on a group of young men randomly assigned the role of convict and guard. The results were shocking to say the least, and Kyle Patrick Alvazez (COG) has it into a thought-provoking, wildly entertaining feature with standout performances by Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan and (especially) Michael Angarano. So far no one’s picked this up, but it seems like a natural for a prestige boutique like Sony Classics of A24. Fingers crossed.
Writer-director Josh Mond’s JAMES WHITE is the kind of movie I go to Sundance for. I knew absolutely nothing about it going in, and it took me on a ninety-minute emotional rollercoaster ride I wasn’t able to shake for days after. Coming from the same gang of filmmakers that brought us MATHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, SOUTHCLIFFE, and SIMON KILLER, this is the story of a young man (an incendiary turn by GIRLS’ star Christopher Abbott) coming-to-terms with his beloved mother’s (an award-worth Cynthia Nixon) impending death and his own rootless existence. It’s a somber character study, but easily the most emotionally affecting film of the festival that I’ve seen. So far no distributor has signed on to handle this yet but I figure it’s only a matter of time.
THE END OF THE TOUR could have very well been just another star vanity project, but having seen the finished film it’s clear that Jason Segel’s totally reinvented himself tackling the part of David Foster Wallace – famed author of ‘Infinite Jest’. Eschewing your typical biopic conventions, director James Ponsoldt’s (THE SPECTACULAR NOW, SMASHED) film zeroes-in on a three-day trip Wallace took with Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (a very fine Jesse Eisenberg) whose memoirs of the journey were the basis for the screenplay. Wallace’s voice is captured in a very authentic, moving way and Segel’s so good that distributor A24, who picked this up shortly before the festival began, would be well-advised to hold this for the next Oscar season. He’s certainly worthy of that kind of buzz.