sundance report

The Best Films at Sundance This Year

Now that last year’s Sundance favorites The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone have earned their Best Picture nominations, it’s time to turn our attention to the festival’s latest crop of films: Vulture managed to catch nearly all of the big buzz titles in Park City over the last two weeks, and here are our picks for the sixteen best films of the festival. From Michael Shannon’s incredible performance in Take Shelter to the warm and fuzzy pleasures of Being Elmo, these are the movies everyone will be talking about (and voting for) over the next year.

Everyone is talking about the discovery of stunning new actress Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley), but to dwell too much on her is to miss the even greater find of a major new director, Sean Durkin. The story follows our 4M-ed heroine during the three weeks after she’s left a violent cult and gone back to live with her sister, played by the underappreciated Sarah Paulson. (The title refers to the different names she’s given by people in her life.) Durkin deftly cuts between scenes at the sister’s house and flashbacks to the cult in such a disorienting way that the audience begins to experience MMMM’s paranoia, while at the same time, like her sister, slowly coming to fear how dangerous and messed up she is. The film also boasts Oscar nominee John Hawkes as a cult leader who is somehow even creepier than the character in his last Sundance hit, Winter’s Bone. Now if only Durkin could learn how to name a movie. (We eventually just started calling it “The 4M’s.”) - JY
It is impossible to come out of this documentary about Kevin Clash, the man behind Elmo, without wanting to hug someone. But Being Elmo isn’t just love and red fur and rainbows. It’s the fascinating portrait of a black kid growing up in Baltimore in the seventies who wanted nothing more than to be a puppeteer, and the group of adults — including puppet-maker Kermit Love and Jim Henson himself — who recognized and nurtured his extraordinary talent. And what talent it is. When Clash gives a tutorial to the puppeteers developing a French version of Sesame Street, their felt characters really do seem dead in comparison. - JY
The plot of Take Shelter promises fireworks: Michael Shannon plays a devoted husband and father who’s plagued by apocalyptic visions and becomes obsessed with building an underground shelter designed to withstand the end times. Instead, Shannon plays against the material and turns in a fascinating, self-lacerating performance as a man who doesn’t want to be doing any of the things he’s compelled to. Meanwhile, director Jeff Nichols pushes his tiny budget to the max with his frightening end-of-the-world visions and pushes our own buttons about a culture of terror that seems a heartbeat away from spilling into something truly scary. - KB
Subject-wise, Hell and Back Again feels like a follow-up to Restrepo, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Afghan War documentary that debuted at Sundance last year and is now nominated for an Academy Award. In Hell, former New York Times still photographer Danfung Dennis follows a single marine from his deployment to Afghanistan through his recovery back home after a devastating injury. It’s an intimate, painful, often disturbing journey, made even more visceral by Dennis’s extraordinary cinematography and editing. He invented a special camera rig with which he was able to capture beautiful, stable tracking shots of the action while running and being shot at himself. He’s also done away with doc tropes like interviews and archival footage and simply pieced the story together like a feature film, without exposition. This movie may change the idea of what a documentary can be. - JY
Though some found the Paul Rudd comedy slight, we thought it was the perfect Sundance snack, designed to go down easy in between full meals of death, drama, and discord. Rudd plays a well-meaning hippie brother shuttled between his type-A sisters (Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, and Emily Mortimer), who reluctantly take him in and find their lives transformed by his easygoing slacker ways. The best scenes come when all the sisters get to squabble, and the actresses gamely go for it, happy to shed their usual cinematic personas as the Girlfriend to be able to finally share comic space with other women. - KB
Steve James’s seminal 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams was about two inner-city kids’ (Arthur Agee and William Gates) attempts to make it in basketball. Since the film’s release, both Agee’s older half-brother DeAntonio and Gates’s older brother Curtis — both who featured prominently in Dreams — were gunned down on the streets of Chicago. Their deaths partly inspired James to look into the epidemic of violence in the city, which led him to a group of former felons and gang members called the Violence Interrupters (particularly the charismatic former drug runner turned Muslim pacifist Ameena Matthews and an ex-con named Flamo) who risk their lives every day to step in and stop the killing. At 160 minutes, the movie needs another edit, and James knows it, but even as the length may discourage some viewers, the running time does help illustrate the everyday repetition of violence in that city. - JY
Don’t let the big stars, the laughs, and the music-box soundtrack fool you: The Details has a pitch-black heart, and that’s what we loved about it. Whether it can find breakout success is debatable — Harvey Weinstein paid around $8 million for it on the strength of such recognizable stars as Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks, and Ray Liotta — but this tale of a morally questionable doctor who finds himself committing infidelity (and some far worse sins) is the most gratifyingly off-kilter moral parable since Election. It also had the comic performance of the festival, Laura Linney’s tour de force as a cat-lady neighbor who swerves dangerously from self-pity to sexual aggression and back. - KB
The title isn’t quite specific enough: This gripping documentary is really about a year inside the media desk of the Times as the reporters cover the collapse of their own industry as their employers struggle to stay afloat. And through all this, columnist David Carr, a ready-made documentary star, emerges as a sort of folk hero of the newspaper biz, passionately taking down VICE magazine’s Shane Smith, Newser’s Michael Wolff, countless bloggers, and the Tribune Company’s Sam Zell. Even the most iPad-dependent audience members will leave wanting to restart their paper delivery. - JY
Alike, a shy 17-year-old black tomboy from Brooklyn (played by the wonderful newcomer Adepero Oduye) goes to a new women’s club with a friend and emerges transformed; she now understands she’s a lesbian. Director Dee Rees, an NYU grad, wrote this right after her own coming out, and it brims over with authenticity. The teenagers in this movie talk like real urban teenagers, throw on inspired hodgepodge outfits of brightly patterned, African-influenced clothes, and bond over music like all high schoolers do. And Alike’s conservative parents (Kim Wayans and an excellent Charles Parnell) react to her coming out with a mixture of anger and lack of comprehension that feels intensely, sadly real. The lush feel and intense colors are thanks to cinematographer Bradford Young, who won an award from the Sundance jury. - JY
It’s worth it just to see Dominic Cooper become a megastar before your eyes. Cooper was memorable in An Education and The History Boys, but he positively rips into this dual role, his biggest yet, as both Saddam Hussein’s sadistic son Uday and the decent man forced to be his body double. Cooper is in nearly every frame, often twice, and sometimes torturing himself, and he proves masterful in both parts. The movie itself, directed by Lee Tamahori and co-starring a miscast Ludavine Sagnier, is a hard sell, a fast-paced, gruesome “gangster” flick about a family of vile men whom no one was able to control. (Hard to believe, but a lot of the torture scenes were toned down from what actually happened.) But Lionsgate picked it up, and if they market it correctly, you’ll very likely be hearing Cooper’s name in the Oscar mix next year. - JY
Miranda July says she was so paralyzed by the success of her debut Me and You and Everyone We Know that she didn’t want to make a second film, but she managed to channel that artistic self-doubt and her incipient fear of mortality and loss into something quite profound with The Future. Yes, it’s cute and precious and a little bit “hipster,” but this story of a thirtysomething couple who find their lives undone by the responsibility of adopting a cat (the feline also serves as narrator) packs a mighty punch when you least expect it. - KB
Okay, the film is a bit of a mess. As one audience member said, “It was as if [25 year-old writer-director Sam Levinson] took a bowl and threw in every single dysfunction you could have in one family.” Yes, but this dark comedy about the most chaotic wedding ever is never dull. As a writer, Levinson (son of Barry) has done an incredible job capturing the voices of three generations of women, particularly given his age; and as a director, he’s drawn out a slew of great performances. Ellen Burstyn, as a matriarch whose husband is slipping away to dementia, gets one of those moments that goes straight to the Oscar reel, and Ellen Barkin, who also executive produced the movie, is the best she’s been in years as the mother of a cutter (Kate Bosworth) and a drug addict (breakthrough actor Ezra Miller) whose own mother is still kind to the husband who once abused her (Thomas Haden Church). There’s also a catfight between Barkin and Demi Moore that is not to be missed. - JY
Director James Marsh (Man on Wire) has gone back and interviewed the participants of a famous seventies project that set out to see if raising Nim the chimpanzee as a human child would facilitate him learning how to communicate through sign language. From the beginning, the project takes on bizarre undertones; raised by hippies in a brownstone on the Upper West Side, Nim is breastfed and smokes pot. He learns sign language, too, but at some point grows too big for his handlers, and is thrust down an unnatural and highly disturbing life trajectory. Funny, shocking, and intensely sad, this movie will make you ashamed to be a human. - JY
What if there were another you? And what if one of you had done something inconceivably awful? Would you be able to forgive yourself? These are the questions asked in this beautiful, memorable movie co-written by director Mike Cahill and actress Brit Marling. While leaning out her window to catch a glimpse of a newly discovered second Earth, a mirror planet to our own, Marling’s 17-year-old character crashes her car into a family of three, killing the wife and daughter. Four years later, when she gets out of jail, she attempts to apologize to the husband, but ends up getting entangled in his life instead. And as the possibility of visiting the other Earth opens up, so does the hope that for one or both of these irreparably broken people, the past can be undone. - JY
Another teenage lesbian coming-out story, this one is set in Iran, and our two beautiful protagonists, Atafeh and Shireen, have not only their families, but also zealous morality police to contend with. What starts off as two best friends experimenting with their sexuality becomes pure oppression as Atafeh’s brother returns home, starts working with the morality police, and becomes determined to save Shireen from his sister’s influence. For Iranian-American director Maryam Keshavarz to make this movie was an extreme act of bravery; even to pass the censors in Beirut, where she shot, she had to remove half the script and shoot her sex scenes and references to sex on the sly. But at the core is a simple story of hedonism, oppression, and unrequited love. - JY
Go into this movie expecting it to be about anything other than a hobo with a shotgun and you will be disappointed. This is a B-movie that revels in its B-movie-ness, which means rivers of bright-red blood, incredibly inventive decapitations, a prostitute with a heart of gold, cartoonishly murderous villains (wearing white, naturally), and Blade Runner badass Rutger Hauer as the titular vigilante character who must give up his dream of owning a lawn mower in order to clean up the streets. Last at Sundance with a short called Treevenge — which was about Christmas trees turning against their murderers — director Jason Eisener makes no apologies for the over-the-top cheesiness and gore of his vision (which began as a fake trailer in Grindhouse). And we, too, feel no need to apologize for laughing so hard at all that sadism that we cried. - JY
The Best Films at Sundance This Year