Sundance 2014: A Complete Wrap-up & Top 10

As quickly as it came up, another edition of the Sundance Film Festival is in the books. Like every year, this was a ten-day-marathon of hot-ticket films, many of which you will be hearing about over the months to come. Many big distribution deals for some of the biggest titles (like INFINITELY POLAR BEAR, which I’m amazed hasn’t been picked up yet) are still in the works, so expect more announcements over the next week or so. Over the course of this- the thirtieth anniversary of the fest- I saw very few bad films, many good ones, and a couple of great ones. The following is a list of what I think are the festival’s ten best films, along with a full and complete list of all twenty-nine of my reviews, which you can see below! Can’t wait for next year!!!



1. The Raid 2

While I’d love to include something highbrow as my top pick of the fest in order to give you all the impression that I’m more sophisticated than I am, I can’t deny that THE RAID 2 was by far the highlight of the festival for me. As much as I loved THE RAID: REDEMPTION, I was wary of a sequel, but director Gareth Evans delivered big time. It’s best not even to really think of this as a legit sequel, as outside the first five minutes, the relationship with REDEMPTION is minor. Rather, this is epic action filmmaking, with some of the biggest and best set pieces I’ve ever seen. Watching this, I finally felt like I knew what TIFF audiences in 1992 must have felt after sitting through HARD-BOILED for the first time. By the time the car chase starts, with the camera going from one car to another (without cuts) I was almost in tears over how awesome it all was.

2. Boyhood

Twelve years in the making, Richard Linklater finally unveiled BOYHOOD to a sold-out Sundance audience, and by the time his three-hour-epic was over, we all felt like we had seen something truly unique. Watching young Ellar Coltrane (as Mason) age from a precocious six-year-old, to a thoughtful and kind eighteen year-old on his way to college and manhood, is a profoundly moving experience, and one I can’t wait for you all to share. This is one of Linklater’s masterpieces.

3. Whiplash

The first film I saw at this year’s Sundance was also one of the best. Damien Chazelle’s WHIPLASH cleaned up in the U.S Dramatic competiton this year, and it’s no wonder. Subverting all your expectations as to what this could be, his film has been called “FULL METAL JACKET at Julliard” but truthfully, it’s more than that. It’s a coming of age tale, a thriller (I was on the edge of my seat throughout despite absolutely no violence or even the threat of it), and a thoughtful examination of the price of perfection. This one got acquired by Sony Classics early on, and you can expect a major awards push for co-star J.K Simmons, who hasn’t been this menacing since OZ.

4. Cold in July

COLD IN JULY has the single coolest performance I’ve seen at Sundance this year, courtesy of comeback kid Don Johnson. Now in his sixties, the former MIAMI VICE star has his best role since Sonny Crocket as Jim Bob, the coolest P.I since Jim Rockford or Magnum P.I, who helps Michael C. Hall’s mulleted Texan out of a big jam. Johnson is so damn cool in this, Jim Mickle’s finest film, that one can’t help but hope more movies centered around his character are made, with Jim Bob being a recurring part in writer Joe Lansdale’s books.

5. The Skeleton Twins

Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig surprised me in a big way with this, Craig Johnson’s sensitive and soulful comedy-drama about two estranged twins who help each other through a crisis. From one scene to another, you'll go from being in hysterics (such as Hader & Wiig’s instant classic pantomime of Starship’s eighties cheese classic “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”) to being near tears. This is just an all-around excellent film.

6. Calvary

Brendan Gleeson re-teams with his THE GUARD director, John Michael McDonagh, with this complexe and darkly humorous tale of a small-town Irish priest trying to save souls while battling his own crisis of faith. Gleeson is wonderful, and deserves Oscar-attention for his superb acting here. With indie powerhouse Fox Searchlight having bought the rights, he just may get his shot.

7. The Guest

Were it not for Don Johnson in COLD IN JULY, I’d say Dan Stevens gave the single best performance I saw at this year’s Sundance. Watching him in Adam Wingard’s action-horror hybrid THE GUEST, you’d never know that his bad-ass anti-hero (the most vicious since Rutger Hauer in THE HITCHER) was also the stammering, floppy-haired Lord Matthew on DOWNTON ABBEY. If you thought Stevens was going to be the next Hugh Grant- think again. With this, he just might become the next Michael Fassbender or Daniel Craig.

8. Blue Ruin

Revenge movies are a tried and true formula in genre filmmaking, but BLUE RUIN did the impossible and delivered one that seemed truly original. A mix of genres- embracing comedy, action and even a bit of art-house, Jeremy Saulnier’s film was smashing entertainment, and featured an unforgettable performance by star Macon Blair. TWC’s Radius is putting this out on VOD in the spring, so keep your eyes peeled!

9. Killers

As if THE RAID 2 wasn't killer enough, Jakarta-based Merantau Films also brought The Mo Brothers KILLERS to the fest. Easily the most twisted (and memorable) serial killer thriller since I SAW THE DEVIL, imagine the energy and creativity of THE RAID, but applied to horror. This bold, uncompromising film will be too hardcore for many, but is also utterly unforgettable and primed for some cult success.

10. Roger Ebert: Life Itself

Like I wrote in my review, for many of us it’s impossible to be balanced about the life of Roger Ebert, as he’s a guy who meant so much to all of us. Having been lucky enough to meet him (twice) and chatted with him and his wonderful wife Chaz, LIFE ITSELF struck me as an especially moving tribute to their loving relationship. If Ebert were alive to review this, there’s no doubt this would get a big thumbs up, which it thoroughly deserves.

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