best of the fest

The Fifteen Very Best Movies at the Sundance Film Festival

What a Sundance it has been: shocking docs, sexy flicks, fistfights, porn-star debuts, daughter-of-art-star debuts, showdowns over cowboy hats, and all the general biz and buzz. But isn’t it, ultimately, all about the movies? We saw an awful lot of ‘em in 2009. Here we present a list of fifteen you absolutely must know about (along with their trailers, where available). Steven Soderbergh gets porn-y, Richard Farqua follows up Training Day, Paul Giamatti takes a to-die-for role, and some New Yorkers do their hometown proud — see all that and more in our slideshow!

Carey Mulligan will be on magazine covers soon. We’ll be writing more about her soon ourselves, in fact – but first, let’s explain why: Lone Scherfig’s precisely-observed film is a classically well-made production, with a clockwork, layered script by Nick Hornby, based on an essay by English writer Lynn Barber on her teenage affair with a sophisticated, older man (played by Peter Sarsgaard). Set in 1961 in London, the film catches both the bright naivete and petulant rage of a 16 year old as she gets lost in dreams of cafes and jazz and Paris – and as she tastes her dreams, and grows up fast.
Steven Soderbergh shot his $1.7 million indie in sixteen days with a cast of non-professionals, save for the lead: porn actress Sasha Grey. Playing a high-end call girl who does all the little things that provide the titular experience, Grey turns out to be something of a natural in front of the camera. And she’s kind of hot, which comes in handy when you’re making a structurally dense, partly improvised cinematic treatise about the commodification of American life. The film’s funniest moment comes when she gets hit on by a sleazebag sex connoisseur and critic, played by former Premiere film writer Glenn Kenny.
Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua hits the streets again with his muscular, fast-paced style and a rock-solid cast: Ethan Hawke, Don Cheadle, Ellen Barkin, Richard Gere, and real-life convict Wesley Snipes. The ensemble story connects crooked cops all over Kings County, but aims for something more philosophical than your average crime flick, breaking down right and wrong into “right and wronger.” The end is a blunt sledgehammer that destroys everything in its path – so Senator Entertainment, which picked up the film in Sundance’s first sale, has already changed it. But we fear that anything more optimistic in the world of these corrupt cops could be a cop-out.
Debut New York writer and director Sophie Barthes gives Paul Giamatti a to-die-for role – and he makes the most of it. In this beautifully composed film, he plays an actor so tormented by his own soul that he pays a service to remove it. Despite the dark tone, it must have been a thrill to act: Giamatti has to figure out how to literally act soulless at one point (while performing Chekhov). Then he tries another soul on for the hell of it. When the firm loses his soul, things get even more interesting.
This strange teen film starts off slowly, with a priggish, perfect girl (Emmy Rossum), a hot jock (Zach Gilford) and a dork (Ashley Springer). Then New York director Adam Salky throws a wildcard into the mix: a visit by an insanely self-righteous Actor (Alan Cumming) who tells the pretty girl she hasn’t lived yet. His visit spurs on each of the three to explore their sexuality and selves in a way that’s more surprising (and dangerous) than your average after-school special. And while certain performances ring slightly off-key, Gilford proves that his cult status on Friday Night Lights is no accident.
Welcome a serious new talent in New York filmmaking: Director and writer Cruz Angeles worked for years in local New York youth media organizations – and it shows. His film (co-written with his partner Maria Topete) about two Latino teens falling for each other in the wake of September 11 flaunts surprising, stereotype-defying dialogue that navigates all sorts of landmines with streetwise wit and wry candor. It helps that he found two extraordinary debut New York actors, E.J. Bonilla and Gleendilys Inoa, to lead the way.
If you think there’s nothing new left in the dissolute-sport-coach genre, you haven’t seen Sam Rockwell dressed as a wacko sports mascot, bumping and grinding with a blue Afro and too-tight bodysuit. In this darkly comedic Illinois basketball film from James C. Strouse (Grace is Gone), Rockwell carves his own path around the shadows of Walter Matthau, Will Ferrell, and Ice Cube to create a performance much more grounded, as he guides a high school girls’ basketball team towards something like self-respect.
Wow: We were surprised when Focus Features picked up Brooklyn first-time director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Mexican thriller before the festival – but now we understand why. If this were the Olympics, Fukunaga’s technical difficulty scores would be off the charts: He shoots in slums and on top of moving trains all across Mexico. But this fluid debut – about a young Chiapis gangster sprinting away from his crew toward the border – is almost ridiculously assured. It feels like the debut of a major local talent.
Producer-turned-director Lee Daniels makes a few odd mistakes here by stunt-casting Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey – but perhaps his pop stars will be the sugar that makes the medicine go down when this film hits theaters. The rest of this tale, based on the bestseller by Sapphire, is tough to digest: incest and abuse on an epic level (a visual reference to Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls… is hardly accidental). That said, Daniels takes stylistic risks and conducts performances that are so compelling it’s hard to turn away. Already, comedienne Mo’Nique is earning raves for her vicious turn as an abusive mother – and young New York newcomer Gabby Sidibe holds her own as her daughter.
Lynn Shelton’s film surprises you more with each passing scene. Andrew (the terrific, Galafanakis-ish Joshua Leonard) barges in on his old buddy (mumblecore heavy Mark Duplass) and his marital, suburban bliss in the middle of the night. The reunion is fitfully combative and subtly homoerotic, until Duplass has the brilliant, drunken idea to enter an art-porn contest with a film about “two straight dudes fucking.” The idiocy of the premise somehow evolves into something spastically hilarious and deeply serious about thirtysomethings struggling to live a life less ordinary. Seriously.
The Fifteen Very Best Movies at the Sundance Film Festival