The Twenty Best Films of Sundance 2012

Sundance has already given out its own awards, but now that the Vulture crew has left Park City, it’s time for us to weigh in. We’ve already picked out our favorite performances, but now, we’ve selected the twenty best films to premiere at this year’s festival, and they really run the gamut, featuring robots, skateboarders, staredowns, and sex. Even better: Many of them should be coming to a theater near you by the end of the year, since they’ve already secured distribution. Here, then, is what you’ve got to look forward to.

Synopsized, it sounds like the worst American Pie sequel ever: a handicapped writer in his mid-thirties (John Hawkes) hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to relieve him of his long-held virginity. How wonderful, then, that this note-perfect, modest little movie works so well. Hawkes and Hunt are terrific (and the latter is bravely nude throughout), and the movie sends you out on a sex-positive high, like a “Savage Love” column come to life. Status: Bought by Fox Searchlight for $6 million, the biggest purchase of the fest
Is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining about the genocide of the Indians? Or the Holocaust? Or a confessional about how Kubrick faked the moon landing? Rodney Ascher’s journey through obsessive fan theories about Kubrick’s seminal film — some reasonable, some certifiable — is a delirious ode to movie love: a meditation on becoming so consumed by a film that every single inch of the screen seems to hold some kind of special meaning. Told mainly through footage from The Shining itself — much of it manipulated — it’s both hilarious and electrifying, a must-see for any true film buff. Status: No distribution as of yet, and all that footage may turn out to be a beast to clear. But as one of the most buzzed-about films at this year’s festival, expect it to show up at more fests soon.
This light comedy about two broke and mismatched roommates who start a phone-sex line out of their apartment — they’re uptight Lauren (played by Seth Rogen’s wife, Lauren Anne Miller, who also co-wrote) and firecracker Katie (Ari Graynor) — isn’t so much about sex as the intricacies of female friendship. Still, there are lots and lots of dildo jokes. Status: Sold to Focus Features for $2 million
This stunningly shot movie was the surprise of the festival, an episodic adventure that follows little Hushpuppy (Quevenzhane Wallis) as she navigates her flooded town and learns to toughen up. Expect big things from this one, which has a terrific, galvanizing ending: If handled properly, it could be a Best Picture candidate. Status: Sold to Fox Searchlight
In the height of the anti-apartheid movement, a bootleg of an album by seventies Detroit rocker Rodriguez turned up in South Africa and became the soundtrack for a nation fighting systematic oppression. A flop in the U.S., Rodriguez never knew that he was as big as the Beatles and Elvis on another continent, and all his legions of South African fans knew of him was that he’d killed himself onstage after the failure of his second album. The crowd-pleasing rock-and-roll detective story follows two of those fans as they try to track down what really happened to their fallen hero, and what they find is both wrenching and electrifying. Status: Sold to Sony Pictures Classics.
While one sister (Alison Brie) gets ready for her wedding, another sister (Lizzy Caplan) breaks up with her rocker boyfriend right as things are about to get really serious and winds up meeting a new guy who may or may not be a rebound. What ensues is a charming, funny look at the thorny world of commitment and heartbreak (co-written by cult comic writer and artist Jeffrey Brown), defined by its generous outlook toward all its characters and featuring one of this year’s two star-making turns by Caplan, who makes brooding indecisiveness both touching and sexy. Status: No distribution yet
Photographer Lauren Greenfield started chronicling billionaires Jackie and David Siegel as they built the largest single-family home North America, a 90,000-square-foot mansion in Orlando modeled after Versailles. After the financial collapse stymied the Siegels’ ability to finish the house and to keep their Westgate Resorts time-share empire afloat, the family let her keep shooting. They come off as warm, human, and fascinatingly out of touch, as when Jackie goes to a rental car counter for the first time and cheerily asks for her driver’s name. Status: Sold to Magnolia Pictures Photo: Lauren Greenfield/Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE
Is queer cinema finally out of its slump? Last year’s Weekend was well received, and now Ira Sachs delivers Keep the Lights On, a deft, deeply felt look at a tumultuous, nine-year relationship between two New York men. In its handling of sex, drug addiction, and love, it feels real and true. Status: No distribution yet
Eugene Jarecki’s two-hour investigation into the war on drugs begins with a profile of Nannie Jeter, a black woman who’s worked for his family for years, and whose family has been torn apart by both drugs and mandatory-minimum sentences. From there, Jarecki travels the United States, gathering perspectives from drug dealers, law enforcement officers, judges, and academics, with The Wire’s David Simon providing eloquent connecting commentary. The takeaway? That our policies’ effects on poor, often minority communities is in essence, as Simon says, “a Holocaust in slow motion.” Status: On the market
Perhaps the festival’s most divisive film, Antonio Campos’s challenging and stylized look at a young American’s sexually tortured relationship with a Parisian prostitute puts you in a dark, dark place and pretty much leaves you there. Initial reviews (including ours) were mixed at best, but nobody could stop talking and arguing about this one. In the lead role, Brady Corbet manages to both bottle his emotions and convey the aggressive, animal energy of a man on the edge. Status: IFC Films, which has had prior success distributing challenging, divisive films like Antichrist, picked it up.
In a year when relationship movies were a dime a dozen, Terence Nance’s little experimental film was one of the most powerful: Utilizing a film he shot years ago, as well as documentary footage, different styles of animation, home movies, staged re-creations, and bits of poetry, Nance creates a cinematic therapy session in which he meditates on the role illusions, expectations, and competing visions play in the development of a relationship. Status: No distribution yet; headed to the Rotterdam Film Festival
Mark Webber, best known for starring in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, wrote and directed this meta-experimental film in which he stars as Mark, an out-of-work actor who once starred in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Fictional Mark is struggling to care for his 2-year-old son Isaac (played by Webber’s then-2-year-old son, Isaac) after his mother dies in a car accident; Webber let Isaac be himself while shooting and then stayed in character around him, resulting in a completely guileless child performance (that’s not a performance) coupled with an incredibly sad portrait of how we grieve. Status: On the market
National Geographic photographer James Balog treks across blustery, 30-below icescapes on a mission to document climate change. The plan? Stake 27 time-lapse cameras at glaciers around the world. The result? Distressing before-and-after shots of glaciers in rapid decay. This would be an utterly depressing movie if the cinematography weren’t so breathtaking. Status: TV rights acquired by National Geographic Channel; Prize for Excellence in Cinematography Photo: Adam LeWinter/Adam LeWinter/Extreme Ice Survey
In this near-future comedy starring Frank Langella and a robot, the 74-year-old legend finds both the humor and the intense loneliness in a senile ex-jewel thief who befriends his mechanical caretaker and turns it into his partner in crime. Despite the seemingly cutesy premise, this is actually a touching allegory on how technology has overtaken human communication. With James Marsden and Liv Tyler as the grown children too busy to visit their dad, and Susan Sarandon as the kindly librarian who harbors a deep, unspoken connection to Frank. Status: Sold to Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions and Samuel Goldwyn Films
Abramovic is a knockout documentary subject, a performance artist whose ideas are so strongly held that her intense gaze alone was the center of a recent MoMA exhibit, where visitors could sit opposite her and share a silent connection. The movie about Abramovic’s attempts to mount the show is a surprisingly fun, high-spirited thing, as Abramovic’s enthusiasm about her work is contagious. Status: Offshore rights have been sold.
The very funny follow-up to Julie Delpy’s 2 Days In Paris features Chris Rock, of all people, as the straight-man romantic lead culture-clashing with the wacky French family of his girlfriend Marion (Delpy). Delphy’s actual father co-stars as Marion’s sausage-smuggling dad, but despite all the wacky scenarios (which include Marion selling her soul as an art piece), the movie always circles back to the message of loving your own. Status: Sold to Magnolia Pictures Photo: JOJO WHILDEN
This intimate look into LCD Soundsystem’s final concert at Madison Square Garden (following James Murphy’s decision to quit being a rock star) looks and sounds amazing. Sure, it’s a little overlong and repetitive, but the concert footage is propulsive enough to make you want to get up and dance, and the time spent with Murphy as he heads into the unknown is deeply touching. Status: On the market
Less an accounting of the economic turmoil that has hit Detroit over the past few years than a grimly poetic look at what it’s like to actually live there, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s impressionistic documentary follows numerous Motor City denizens as they come to terms with the fact that their city is slowly turning into a ghost town. Quote appropriately, the film feels like a haunted house movie — only this time the house is an entire American metropolis. Along the way, Grady and Ewing capture mesmerizing images of urban decay, and some unlikely sources of renewal. Status: Winner of the Best Documentary Editing Award; no distribution yet
Stacy Peralta charts the rise of Bones Brigade, his eighties team of wunderkind skateboarders that included Tony Hawk, Rodney Mullen, and Tommy Guerrero in their nascence. The movie stitches together an impressive array of eighties archival footage (skate park competitions, half-pipe parties, skate boys being skate boys) and weaves in funny, insightful interviews with the skaters today — many of whom are now dads. It’s a comprehensive documentary about the history of skateboarding, but also a touching coming-of-age film. Status: On the market
By far the most completely batshit crazy B-movie at the festival, John follows two college dropouts who must save the world from the scourge of an alien drug that takes users to parallel dimensions but robs them of their humanity. More a series of ridiculous short movies than a comprehensible narrative, it’s a miracle that it even got made. (Paul Giamatti, who co-produced and plays a journalist, probably has a lot to do with it.) As a friend described it, “It’s a mash-up of The Goonies and The Matrix and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the collected works of Philip K. Dick.” Status: On the market
The Twenty Best Films of Sundance 2012