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10 Should’ve-Been Hits Recommended From Sundance’s Recent Past

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by Amplify Releasing, Unison Films and Magnolia Pictures

For every movie like Little Miss Sunshine or Whiplash that explodes at Sundance en route to becoming an Oscar-winning pop-culture phenomenon, there are dozens of great movies that had warm openings at Sundance but didn’t connect with audiences like they should have, for whatever reason. Thankfully, the commercial reception a lot of Sundance movies receive outside of the supportive confines of Robert Redford’s brainchild leaves us with a lot sleepers just waiting to be discovered and embraced. With that in mind, and with Sundance wrapping up this weekend, here are ten terrific movies from the last ten years of Sundance that should have reached wider audiences but did not. Name recognition be damned, we encourage you to give ‘em a try.

1. The Foot Fist Way (2006)
Will Ferrell and Adam McKay were prominent early supporters and advocates for The Foot Fist Way, and their relationship with the movie’s writers and stars (Danny McBride, Ben Best, and Jody Hill, who also directed) eventually led the comedy titans to executive-produce the trio’s Eastbound & Down. But not even Ferrell and McKay’s fervent evangelizing on the film’s behalf could attract much of a cult audience for this bleak character study. On one level, the tepid reception the film engendered in audiences is understandable. As Hill’s follow-up (Observe and Report) and Eastbound & Down illustrate, McBride and the gang have a real weakness for desperately flawed, not terribly likable protagonists. But where Eastbound & Down’s shit-kicker redneck icon of an antihero Kenny Powers is an oddly likable force of nature despite his many less-than-admirable qualities, Foot Fist Way’s antihero, black belt and tae kwon do instructor Fred Simmons (also McBride), is a fairly repellent human being. Basically, he’s a deluded creep who has barricaded himself behind a thick wall of self-delusion that begins to crumble once he discovers his wife cheated on him. And where Eastbound & Down is gloriously cinematic and dynamic in its visual style, this is a super-low-budget labor of love whose stylistic ambitions begin and end with keeping the camera in focus and on the actors. The film represents McBride, Hill, and Best’s aesthetic in an early, raw, embryonic state, but that’s a big part of what makes it so messily compelling. It’s all rough edges and raw potential, the primordial soup out of which McBride and Hill’s more polished and better-liked later efforts would emerge. Still a great watch nonetheless.

2. Mystery Team (2009)
Derrick Comedy’s 2009 sleeper Mystery Team, which debuted as part of Sundance’s “Park City at Midnight” series, gives the Brady Bunch Movie treatment to the strangely deathless young-detective subgenre epitomized by Encyclopedia Brown and Scooby-Doo. The low-budget/high-concept spoof sends a trio of almost unnervingly clean-cut boy shamuses ever so slightly outside of their comfort zones, solving mysteries that can collectively be deemed “cute” in an attempt to find the dastardly culprit behind the un-cute double murder of a little girl’s parents. They’re a more childlike version of the Hardy Boys in a Breaking Bad world of sin, sex, murder, greed, and depravity. The incongruous juxtaposition of 1950s-style Norman Rockwell wholesomeness and contemporary sleaze and degradation never stops being funny. The whole cast is top-notch, and includes such familiar faces as a pre-stardom Audrey Plaza, Dominic Dierkes, D.C Pierson, Bobby Moynihan, Jon Daly, Ellie Kemper, Matt Walsh, and John Lutz,  but the real standout is star and co-writer Donald Glover, who exudes the guileless charisma and offhanded sweetness that would make him a geek icon and sex symbol.

3. The Carter (2009)
Lil Wayne sued unsuccessfully to keep The Carter from being released, arguing that the filmmakers had reneged on their promise to give him final cut. It’s easy to see why he might have a problem with the film. It’s an incredibly damning portrait of a contemporary hip-hop Renaissance man as a drug-addicted brat, an overgrown child chugging cups of promethazine and codeine like they’re water, smoking pot and recording songs at a 2Pac-like clip. The Lil Wayne who takes center stage in The Carter is an often callous egotist, a massive star at the height of his fame who exists within a sad little bubble, surrounded at every turn by flunkies, fans, and groupies. He’s at once an artist stubbornly devoted to his craft, whose life is set up to enable him to record songs anywhere he goes, and a larger-than-life caricature who terrorizes a hapless foreign reporter unlucky enough to ask a question he doesn’t like, among other cruelties. This uncomfortably intimate, highly unflattering glimpse into the hermetic world of superstardom both illustrates why Wayne became an unlikely icon (he’s a tremendous talent with an unbeatable work ethic) and why less self-destructive protégés like Drake and Nicki Minaj have taken his place at the pinnacle of hip-hop relevancy.

4. Mary & Max (2009)
After debuting at Sundance 2009’s opening night, Mary & Max skipped a theatrical domestic release in the United States. Somehow that did not keep it from developing such an impassioned fanbase that IMDb users have voted it the 171st best film ever made (as of the writing of this article). The epistolary Australian stop-motion masterpiece chronicles several decades in the unlikely pen-pal friendship between an Australian girl stuck in the sad prison of a dysfunctional childhood and her decades-older long-distance pal and confidante, a middle-aged New York eccentric with a case of Asperger’s syndrome that causes him to see the world in a very unique way. Writer-director Adam Elliot, who won an Oscar for Best Animated Short for “Harvie Krumpet,” finds beauty and poetry in the interlocking sadness of these curious outsiders who find comfort, meaning, and community in a friendship that spans cultures, hemispheres, continents, and decades. It’s a deeply human look at the brokenness that unites us, distinguished in part by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s wonderful, gravelly vocal performance as Max, a man who never stops trying to understand the world, and consequently never stops feeling “confuzzled” (his portmanteau of confused and befuddled) by its infinite complexities and cruelties. In Mary & Max, the world sure is confuzzling, but it’s majestic and glorious as well.

5. Boy (2010)
New Zealand comedian, actor, and filmmaker Taika Waititi is currently riding one hell of a hot streak. A more werewolf-themed follow-up to his hilarious vampire mockumentary with Jemaine Clement, What We Do in the Shadows, was just announced (with the stellar title of We’re Wolves, no less), and he was recently announced as the director of the Marvel sequel Thor: Ragnarok, which may be a Midnight Run–style mismatched-buddy road pic involving Thor and Bruce Banner/the Incredible Hulk. But while the general public may just now be getting to know the filmmaker, he’s a familiar presence at Sundance, where his feature-length debut, Eagle vs. Shark, had its world premiere, as did its even more winning follow-up, Boy. An all-time box-office champ in Waititi’s native New Zealand, Boy is a coming-of-age comedy-drama that takes place in 1984, when the after effects of Michael Jackson’s Thriller were still being felt all over the world, but particularly in the home of its 11-year-old protagonist (James Rolleston). A young Maori boy who worships MJ and his deadbeat dad (Waititi) equally, Boy’s protagonist has constructed an elaborate fantasy world surrounding his father, to keep himself from having to acknowledge that a man he worships in abstract abandoned him and his family when he needed them most. It helps that Waititi has an unusually deep understanding of the imaginations of children. Boy is a powerful testament to both the life-affirming power and limitations of daydreaming, distinguished by wonderful lead performances by Rolleston and Waititi, who makes his flagrantly irresponsible man-child at once funny, pathetic, and fundamentally sad.

6. Project Nim (2011)
For a lot of people, the 1970s were less a period of time than a state of mind. It was a strange era where the unrest and idealism of the decade that had just passed collided with an intense new emphasis on the self, bringing with it a golden age of self-absorption. The utterly fascinating documentary Project Nim is about the 1970s as a state of mind, one that is decadent, self-interested, hedonistic, and terribly cavalier about throwing out old rules of conduct that, it turns out, existed for damn good reason. The film is ostensibly about a simultaneously idealistic, ambitious, and wildly irresponsible attempt to see if raising a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky essentially as if he were a human child and not a primate could shed light on the way language is acquired. But it’s really a story about the arrogance and myopia of the humans who failed this chimpanzee in ways that border on unforgivable. The people conducting the experiment sleep with people they shouldn’t, abuse their power, and violate sound scientific procedures in pursuit of their own glory. With the people in power giving in to their animal urges, the poor chimpanzee never really stood a chance. By the time Nim Chimpsky has picked up enough sign language to ask to smoke marijuana with his newest set of handlers (ah, the 1970s), the project’s scientific bona fides are but a distant memory. Project Nim uses a particularly egregious misuse of science to explore the darkness and complexity of being human.

7. Hobo With a Shotgun (2011)
The midnight-movie portion of Sundance is a godsend to films like Hobo With a Shotgun. The insane genre homage’s unexpected route to Sundance began with the filmmakers winning a fake trailer contest run by Grindhouse, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s attempt at providing a whole overstuffed evening’s worth of grindhouse entertainment for nostalgia- and trash-minded audiences. Hobo With a Shotgun is a simultaneous straight-faced and over-the-top tribute to the deranged vigilante movies of the 1980s that perfectly casts Rutger Hauer as the titular heavily armed vagrant. The film takes place in the kind of hilariously over-the-top hellscape of superviolence and degradation that could only exist in the possibly cocaine-fueled imagination of hack genre filmmakers from the height of the Reagan era. Hauer delivers a hilariously uncompromising performance as a deeply scarred, haunted man who’s not just a little bit cracked. Rather, he’s completely insane, and neither the filmmakers nor the star make much of an attempt to make him either sympathetic or lucid. It’s a pitch-perfect pastiche that’ll appeal particularly to audiences familiar with all of the garbage cinema the film lovingly pays homage to. Basically, the more terrible action movies you’ve seen, preferably from the exquisitely terrible Cannon empire (Death Wish 3 in particular), the more fun you’ll have with this loving homage. And as Grindhouse spinoffs go, it towers over Rodriguez’s clever-in-theory, deadly-in-execution Machete stinkers.

8. Compliance (2012)
Few Sundance movies have divided or enraged audiences like writer-director Craig Zobel’s 2012 ripped-from-the-headlines melodrama Compliance did. It takes a lot to shock the jaded likes of Sundance attendees, who might see three or four boundary-pushing independent labors of love in a single day. But Compliance’s unflinching, docudrama-style approach to an already disturbing story — a young cashier at a fast-food chicken joint is held hostage after a mysterious man claiming to be a police officer investigating a theft insists that she be detained and subjected to a series of increasingly abusive and sexual measures — unnerved a festival audience that prided itself on being tough to shock. Detractors accused the film of exploiting young female sexuality for prurient and sordid purposes. In the hands of a less masterful and more shameless filmmaker, the film might have crossed the line from honest exploration to cynical exploitation, but Zobel opts for a clear-eyed, life-size take on the material that’s powerful for what it says about human nature’s innate deference to power. What’s terrifying about Compliance isn’t that it indelibly chronicles something sleazy and heartbreaking that actually happened, but that it captures something keeps happening, and reflects terribly not just on the people involved, but on society as a whole.

9. God Help the Girl (2014)
Belle & Sebastian front man Stuart Murdoch’s 2014 directorial debut God Help the Girl probably would have done better had it been released at the height of the band’s early fame, when a sense of mystery made them seem like more than just a band. Alas, by the time God Help the Girl was released, the band was no longer a twee enigma but a veteran group whose genius front man disappointed a lot of their rabid fanbase by turning out to be a fairly sane, functional, relatable dude. Murdoch has long been an extraordinarily cinematic songwriter, with a gift for conjuring up melancholy worlds with his words and music. With God Help the Girl, he proves to be a predictably literary and musical filmmaker. The film’s subject matter deliberately harkens back to the beginning of Belle & Sebastian’s career, when the band captured the rampaging sadness of adolescent life with a sensitivity and eloquence rare in pop culture. The film takes the form of a musical coming-of-age romance about a depressed young woman (Sucker Punch star Emily Browning) who falls for adorable musician James (Olly Alexander) and tries to overcome anorexia and suicidal depression. God Help the Girl feels like an afternoon daydream of 1970s Hollywood (think Harold & Maude) reimagined for the Scottish present and filtered through the similarly bittersweet filter of Wes Anderson, who worked with God Help the Girl producer Barry Mendel on Rushmore and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. God Help the Girl represents the perfect cinematic representation of Belle & Sebastian’s worldview, which, depending on your opinion of the group, is either high praise or a terrific reason to stay away.

10. Call Me Lucky (2015)
Few documentaries take a turn as unexpected as Bobcat Goldthwait’s Call Me Lucky. Then again, fans of Bobcat Goldthwait’s remarkable run of should-be cult films have come to expect the unexpected from Goldthwait, who has made fundamentally serious, thoughtful, and humane comedy-dramas about subject matter as incendiary and shocking as bestiality (Sleeping Dogs Lie), a cross-country killing spree (God Bless America), and autoerotic asphyxiation (World’s Greatest Dad). Goldthwait’s Call Me Lucky begins as a relatively straightforward exploration and celebration of Goldthwait’s eccentric friend and mentor Barry Crimmins, a legend of the Boston comedy scene whose uncompromising political satire and equally uncompromising personality made him a hero to younger comics, even if it greatly limited his commercial possibilities. Let’s face it: A Barry Crimmins sitcom where he adopts a handful of multicultural orphans was never going to happen. Crimmins’s righteous battle with corrupt authority takes an unexpected but fascinating turn when the comedian comes to terms with his own molestation as a child and devotes himself to fighting a one-man war against child molesters, who used the “anything goes” permissiveness of the early internet to pursue their deplorable goals. This holy crusade to keep children from being victimized the way he was as a child is riveting and raw, but it’s also inspirational. Crimmins’ willingness to sacrifice his sanity, his time, and his furious energy to protect children marks him as an unlikely hero.

10 Should’ve-Been Hits From Sundances Past