2015 Sundance Film Festival Recap

  • Publish Date: February 1, 2015
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Is Earl this year's Whiplash?

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The Sundance Film Festival wrapped up its 2015 festival over the weekend, and for the third year in a row a single film swept the top two prizes. Fruitvale Station did it in 2013, and Whiplash repeated the feat in 2014 (before going on to earn five Oscar nominations). This year, it was Me and Earl and the Dying Girl that captured both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize as the best U.S. dramatic film in competition.

But before buzz built for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and its movie-loving main character (a trait shared by the Angulo clan of the documentary award-winning The Wolfpack), sex was the talk of the town. The opening night featured gymnastic sex via The Bronze, which was followed by a surprising coupling in The D Train, a frank look at teenage sexuality in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, swinger sex and prosthetic penises in The Overnight, and then recovering sex addict sex (complete with bottle demonstration) in Sleeping with Other People.

Below, we recap the wide range of critical responses to each of these films as well as to new works by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, James Ponsoldt, Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski, and more.

This year's major award winners

U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) and U.S. Audience Award (Dramatic)
. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
USA | Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon | Acquired by Fox Searchlight for $4-$5 million

Previous Grand Jury Prize winners:
2014: Whiplash 88
2013: Fruitvale Station 85
2012: Beasts of the Southern Wild 86
2011: Like Crazy 70
2010: Winter's Bone 90

Previous Audience Award winners:
2014: Whiplash 88
2013: Fruitvale Station 85
2012: The Sessions 80 (fka The Surrogate)
2011: Circumstance 65
2010: happythankyoumoreplease 45

It’s all right there in the title. Thomas Mann (Project X) plays Greg Gaines (the “me” of the title), a movie-obsessed teenager whose only friend is his cinephile buddy, Earl (RJ Cyler), until his mother (Connie Britton) forces him to hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who is battling leukemia. The second feature by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (The Town that Dreaded Sundown), from Jesse Andrew’s adaptation of his own novel, was the best-reviewed feature in this year's competition. THR calls it a “smart-ass charmer, merciless tearjerker and sincere celebration of teenage creativity,” and The Playlist believes it’s a “wonderfully funny, bittersweet, and inventive picture” that will “headlock even the most cynical-hearted viewer and turn him or her into emotional mush.”

Indiewire praises the film’s “spectacular cast, whose sincere performances imbue the screenplay with authenticity despite its eccentricities,” and HitFix agrees that the film could not succeed without the “incredible performances from both Mann and Cooke.” Variety is impressed with the “near-constant stream of wise, insightful jokes that make it so easy to cozy up to characters dealing with a tough emotional situation,” and ComingSoon.net writes, “It’s great that the film rarely goes in the direction you might expect and every element that has been established earlier, no matter how odd or quirky, does pay off in the last few minutes. It’s a payoff that’s well earned as well.”

Dissenting voices include The Dissolve’s Mike D’Angelo (who walked out after 30 minutes) and his colleague, Noel Murray, who writes, “The overarching problem I have with Me & Earl is with Greg, who according to the film needs only to get over his lack of ambition and his self-deprecation, when really, he should stop being so self-centered. Greg’s apparent lack of interest in Earl’s and Rachel’s lives is a character flaw I kept waiting to be exposed. Instead, this movie is obstinately self-congratulatory: a reassurance to all the high school kids that someday their secret genius will be recognized by their peers.”

U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Documentary)
. The Wolfpack
Directed by Crystal Moselle | Acquired by Magnolia Pictures

Previous Grand Jury doc winners:
2014: Rich Hill 75
2013: Blood Brother 71
2012: The House I Live In 77
2011: How to Die in Oregon
2010: Restrepo 85

Crystal Moselle’s documentary looks at the life of the Angulos—six siblings ranging in age from 16-23 years old who were raised in their New York projects apartment by their overprotective mother and Hare Krishna father. So far, so normal ... until you learn that the Angulos children rarely left their apartment. Sometimes a year would pass without them leaving, and even then it would be for only a brief amount of time. (How did they spend their time indoors? Watching movies.) The Guardian calls this look at their lives “fascinating,” and Variety mostly concurs, but wishes Wolfpack had turned out “sharper, more searching and coherently organized.” But Indiewire believes “Moselle's alternative strategy makes for a fascinating experience in which the full story lurks just outside the frame.” The Dissolve’s Noel Murray writes that Angulos’ cinemania is “initial hook, but it’s not really what the movie is about.... The film is structured more as a metaphor for parenting in general, arguing that mothers and fathers have to let their kids grow up and engage with the world, however dangerous it may seem. Cinema gave the Angulos another window to peer through, but ultimately, they had to to develop the will to walk through their front door.”

U.S. Audience Award (Documentary)
. Meru
Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

Previous Audience Award doc winners:
2014: Alive Inside 67
2013: Blood Brother 71
2012: The Invisible War 75
2011: Buck 76
2010: Waiting for 'Superman' 81

In this adventure documentary, three climbers—Conrad Anker, Renan Ozturk and credited director Jimmy Chin—struggle to find their way through obsession and loss as they attempt to climb the Shark's Fin on Mount Meru, one of the most coveted prizes in the high stakes game of Himalayan big wall climbing. Ion Cinema gives the film 2 1/2 out of 5 stars, claiming “Meru attempts to stand out with a few stylistic shots but ultimately takes the same path as many other similar stories before it. Regardless, it reflects the inner struggle to overcome the limitations that one may have in order to accomplish what others may dub crazy and impossible but also exalting.”

Other key films

Note that dollar amounts in distribution deals listed below are unconfirmed estimates as reported by various trade publications.

Picture . The Bronze
Drama/Comedy | USA | Directed by Bryan Buckley
Acquired by Relativity for $3 million

Directed by Bryan Buckley, making his feature debut, and starring Melissa Rauch (who also co-wrote the script with her husband, Winston), this raunchy comedy about a bitter bronze medalist gymnast who feels her celebrity slipping away thanks to a promising newcomer (Haley Lu Richardson) failed to find many fans. But with a cast that includes Gary Cole as Rauch’s father, Sebastian Stan as a rival gymnast, Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch as a potential boyfriend, and a much talked about sex scene (Variety writes that it would “take home the gold”), this “intentionally toxic comedy,” as TimeOut New York describes it, will still find its way into theaters. For The A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd, “What almost saves the movie ... is Rauch’s expertly abrasive performance.” THR claims it’s a “strident comedy made in accordance with the sole guiding principle of, when in doubt, go even more vulgar.” Indiewire believes the film has “some emotional resonance,” but that it “comes up short on its most crucial ingredient: the laughs.”

Picture . Brooklyn
Drama | UK/Ireland/Canada | Directed by John Crowley
Acquired by Fox Searchlight for $9 million

Based on Colm Tóibín’s novel and adapted by Nick Hornby, director John Crowley’s (Boy A) latest follows Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) from Ireland to the U.S. and back again in the 1950s as she falls for Emory Cohen’s Tony in America and Domhnall Gleeson’s Jim when she returns to Ireland. THR calls Brooklyn a “beautiful and moving film,” with perfect casting and acting. The Playlist claims that “Crowley's graceful film fills in every emotional contour with warmth and sensitivity,” and Variety believes it’s a “robust romantic drama, rich in history and full of emotion” as well as a “tenderly observed tearjerker.” However, TimeOut New York dismisses the film as a “lightweight historical romance,” and Indiewire thinks “it never wrestles free from the formulas in play. The characters' motivations remain fairly one-note and offer little in the way of surprising behavior. There are times where the actors simply can't salvage the material from its limitations.” Lastly, The Dissolve’s Noel Murray writes, “I can’t deny that the film is, first and foremost, a pleasure. It’s a sunnier spin on The Immigrant, and the kind of arthouse picture that cinephiles can unreservedly recommend to their parents. But it’s hardly broad or pandering. Brooklyn is easy on the eyes and aimed at the heart, but it’s also a smart study of a woman who’d become accustomed to accepting whatever scraps are given to her, until she becomes an American and discovers the power of choice.”

Picture . The D Train
Comedy | USA | Directed by Andrew Mogel & Jarrad Paul
Acquired by IFC for $3 million

Jack Black and James Marsden star in this dark comedy about the obsession of the head of a high school reunion committee (Black) to persuade his most popular classmate (Marsden), a TV commercial star, to attend the reunion. In the process (and after an evening of debauchery in Los Angeles), his relationships with his wife (Kathryn Hahn), son (Russell Posner), and boss (Jeffrey Tambor) suffer. HitFix gives this debut feature from the writing and directing team of Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel a “B+” for “Marsden's career-best turn and a superb third act” that “turn[s] things around.” The Guardian finds the film “as annoying as its lead character,” believing that the characters are “too broad to be taken seriously, so their dark midlife-crisis agonies have zero resonance.” With praise for Marsden and Black, but falling somewhere in between on the film, are THR (“To be sure, there are funny moments here, and the actors make sure there’s something worth watching here nearly all the time") and Variety. The latter notes that “Black etches a singular characterization here,” while Marsden “gives arguably the film’s strongest performance, and inarguably one of his own personal best.” Lastly, The Dissolve’s Mike D’Angelo believes “it’s a mess,” but acknowledges that “The D Train ultimately respects what the people it’s invented are going through, and acknowledges that some aspects aren't particularly funny.”

Picture . The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Drama | USA | Directed by Marielle Heller
Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for $2 million

First time writer-director Marielle Heller adapts Phoebe Gloekner’s novel for a coming of age story about Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), a San Francisco teenager growing up in the counterculture haze of the 1970s who enters into an affair with her mother's boyfriend. Kristen Wiig plays her mother, and Alexander Skarsgård is the boyfriend. While critics admit Wiig and Skarsgård are both strong, it’s Powley who steals the movie. Vulture claims she’s “staggeringly good in it,” and Indiewire calls her “brilliantly unrestrained” in a film that is “shocking but genuine, poignant and hilarious,” and "could well become one of the more memorable entries in the Sundance Film Festival's U.S. competition.” The Dissolve’s Noel Murray believes the film is “heartbreakingly specific about that particular period of adolescence when kids are mentally and physically primed to experiment with grown-up pleasures, but not emotionally ready,” and The Guardian praises how this “rare movie that realises that individuals are the sum of formative experiences some good, some bad, and some productive in their devastation.” Finally, THR’s Todd McCarthy writes, “In this gutsy, intimate and assured debut, Marielle Heller accomplishes just about everything all young independent filmmakers say they want to do when starting out: to create a personal, fresh, distinctive work in their own ‘voice’ that will then, of course, make their careers.”

Picture . Dope
Dramedy | USA | Directed by Rick Famuyiwa
Acquired by Open Road/Sony for $7 million – Opens June 12

Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa’s fourth feature (following The Wood, Brown Sugar, and Our Family Wedding) looks at the lives of Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) as they try to survive as geeks in the dangerous Inglewood, Calif. neighborhood known as The Bottoms. That description might make it sound like Boyz n the Hood, but Famuyiwa is actually aiming for an overstuffed comedy, and most critics think he hits the target. The Playlist believes Dope “pulsates with restless verve, ping-ponging around subjects and tangential observations about pop culture and adolescence like Tarantino on ecstasy,” and Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri “love[s] the film” even though “it’s got a couple too many endings, and it loses the romantic subplot for a distressingly long time.” Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com calls it a “bracingly smart piece of work that’s also wildly entertaining and insightful,” and The Dissolve’s Noel Murray concurs with his colleague Mike D’Angelo on Dope, “which is overstuffed with plot and ideas, but which for long, sustained stretches is fizzy and fun.” Less enamored of the film is Grantland’s Wesley Morris, who writes, “As the movie lumbers toward the finish, it drags with it an audience apparently hungry for the gallery of stereotypes Famuyiwa thinks he’s upended. Nothing here is as fresh as the filmmakers think it is. These black characters are crammed into a box that Famuyiwa lacks the imagination to think beyond.”

Picture . The End of the Tour
Drama | USA | Directed by James Ponsoldt
Acquired by A24 for approx. $2 million

Director James Ponsoldt returned to Sundance for a third time, following 2013’s The Spectacular Now and 2012’s Smashed, with this adaptation of David Lipsky’s memoir of his time with David Foster Wallace during the author’s 1996 book tour for Infinite Jest. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Lipsky, and Wallace is played by Jason Segel, whom The Playlist believes gives a “career best performance.” TimeOut New York also praises Segel for “stepping up his game mightily” and turning the film into “a feast of subtle fragility.” A dissenting voice comes from Variety, which warns that “there’s too little drama and insight” and “what we see and hear onscreen here isn’t all that great — not especially revealing, poignant, funny or engaging.” On the other hand, THR calls the film a “significant step forward” for Ponsoldt, whom The Dissolve’s Noel Murray lauds for his ability to capture “the flavor of a place ... and the hard truths of personal interactions,” with the film being “both a finely honed look at a brief, strange relationship and an engaging dialectical inquiry into what life, art, and celebrity are all about.”

Picture . I Am Michael
Drama | USA | Directed by Justin Kelly

Writer-director Justin Kelly’s feature debut tells the true story of Michael Glatze (James Franco), a gay-rights advocate and magazine editor who renounced his homosexuality and became a Christian pastor. In his “B+” review, Indiewire’s Eric Kohn praises Franco’s “remarkably convincing performance” and the film’s ability to “explore Glatze's story without condemning him, even as it foregrounds the troubling nature of his path.” The Film Stage’s “B–” review also believes Franco gives one of his “more accomplished and complicated performances,” and The Playlist, while not liking the film quite as much because it “ultimately ends up saying not much at all,” still feels Franco “proves that when he’s on, he’s great.” THR adds that it’s “one of the super-busy actor's more subdued performances, which helps make both the gay and born-again Michael more believable and, despite their enormous differences, of one piece,” and HitFix concurs, writing, “Franco's portrayal of this sad, confused, yearning man ends up being very affecting.”

Picture . James White
Drama | USA | Directed by Josh Mond

Martha Marcy May Marlene producer Josh Mond makes his feature debut as writer-director with this story of a 20-something New Yorker (Christopher Abbott) struggling with the extra responsibility brought on by his mother’s increasingly serious illness. Variety praises the “knockout performances by Cynthia Nixon and Girls alumnus Christopher Abbott,” as does The Guardian, writing, “When Abbot and Nixon start their sparring, Mond’s film takes on a magnificently physical and tactile quality.” The Playlist agrees that the cast is “terrific” in this “striking first film,” and THR believes it’s a “deeply felt account of a jaded young man flailing his way into adulthood without a net.” The Dissolve’s Noel Murray calls the film “outstanding” and a “magnificently acted and nuanced character-sketch, often funnier and more nail-biting than the subject matter suggests,” and The Film Stage writes, “While lesser, perhaps more commercial films might shy away from the actual process of decay and loss, Mond displays no fear in vividly walking us through the bleak events in James White’s journey.”

Picture . Mississippi Grind
Drama | USA | Directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
Acquired by A24 and DirecTV for approx. $2 million

The latest film by the writing-directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar, It’s Kind of a Funny Story) stars Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds as a pair of gamblers rambling down the Mississippi to a legendary high-stakes poker game in New Orleans. While the overall reaction to the film was positive, the lead actors earned unwavering praise from critics. THR claims that the “movie's chief pleasure is watching Mendelsohn in a wonderful role that's both shifty and sincere, taking maximum advantage of the Australian actor's hangdog appeal and sauntering physicality.” Variety agrees that a “never-better Ben Mendelsohn” shines in this “bittersweet, beautifully textured road movie.” The Playlist, though giving the film as a whole a mere “C+,” believes “Mendelsohn is terrific and real as the failure who can never catch a break, but his character’s misery and hard luck is so downtrodden he becomes hard to bear.” The A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd assigns the film a “B” and praises the “excellent” lead performances, adding, “Mendelsohn, especially, works wonders with the affable pitifulness of his hopeless character—and the stench of bourbon and denial practically waffs off the screen.” HitFix finds the film “a little shaggy, but ... charming,” and “Mendelsohn's funnier here than normal, while Reynolds seems to respond to the darkness that drives Mendelsohn.” Lastly, Mike D’Angelo of The Dissolve writes, “Both actors are superb ... Mendelsohn has the showier role and is getting most of the attention, but Reynolds, as the ‘stable’ one, demonstrates again that he’s much more than a ridiculously pretty face.”

Picture . Mistress America
Comedy | USA | Directed by Noah Baumbach
Acquired by Fox Searchlight for $6.5 million

After their first collaboration, Frances Ha, was a hit with critics in 2013, this second film from writer-director Noah Baumbach and star Greta Gerwig looks to be another critic favorite. The comedy stars Lola Kirke as a college freshman who is seduced by the increasingly crazy schemes of her soon-to-be-stepsister (Gerwig). TimeOut New York believes it’s Baumbach’s lightest, funniest, and most dexterous film,” and HitFix claims “it's the screenplay and the leads' incredible chemistry that makes it all so entertaining.” Consequence of Sound calls it “manic... enlightening... witty, and... at times bizarre,” and The Film Stage’s “B+” review praises Gerwig as a “joke machine," adding, "Not a single delivery or piece of physical comedy misses the mark.” The Playlist also gives this “uproariously funny” and “eminently quotable” movie a “B+,” and Indiewire follows suit, concluding that even though Mistress America “may not fully realize the strengths of either Baumbach or Gerwig ... it showcases their talents just enough to deliver on their appeal.” The Dissolve’s Noel Murray admits it’s “a little uneven ... but it’s funny throughout, and has something meaningful to say about how a young writer matures once she learns to love her characters and not to judge them.” And A.A. Dowd of the A.V. Club thinks it’s a “looser but more disposable entertainment, and while Gerwig and Baumbach remain masters at penning hilarious bon mots, they’ve failed to supply their joke-machine narrative with the kind of prickly, complicated characters that occupy the director’s best work.”

Picture . Nasty Baby
Drama | USA | Directed by Sebastián Silva

After having two films (Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus and Magic Magic) play the festival in 2013, writer-director Sebastian Silva returned to Sundance with this tale of a gay couple (Silva and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe) who try to help their friend (Kristen Wiig) have a child. Most reviews focused on the third act’s drastic change in tone. Indiewire loves it: “The jarring tonal shift of the third act feels like more of a natural evolution than a cheap twist. Silva masterfully switches from the levity of earlier incidents to a state of wild, uneasy panic. By the time the film ends and the narrative ingredients are pulled together, the result is more than just plain nasty — it's strange, unsettling and ambiguous.” The Playlist is less convinced, writing, “The film takes a dark turn at the end, and while the two sides of Nasty Baby are interesting, well-made, and well-performed, they feel like two completely different movies.” THR likes how Silva’s finale “twists the knife, to thought-provoking ends,” and The Film Stage believes the “third act doesn’t detract from the movie too much. There’s such compassion in this story, and Silva exhibits real range as a writer, director, and actor. While Silva doesn’t land the horror, he has no problem whatsoever with the drama, laughs, and characters.”

Picture . The Overnight
Comedy | USA | Directed by Patrick Brice
Acquired by The Orchard for $4 million

Writer-director Patrick Brice’s comedy explores what happens when a recently relocated Seattle couple (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) meet their first Los Angeles couple (Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godreche) and agree to a playdate with their kids. As the night continues and the kids are put to bed, prosthetic penises are revealed and the couples get to know each other better. Indiewire claims the actors hold “Brice's loose, uneven romp” together,” and THR calls the film “sweet, silly and as easy to enjoy as it is to forget ten minutes after the credits roll.” The Playlist finds it to be a “genuinely fresh and surprising” sex comedy “bolstered by excellent performances, clever writing, and a true sense of authenticity,” and Variety believes that a “perfectly cast quartet of actors buoy the slight, generally unpredictable antics.” The Dissolve’s Mike D’Angelo agrees that Brice “has chosen his four lead actors perfectly” and “creates funny caricatures, then transforms them into real people. It’s bracing.”

Picture . Results
Rom-com | USA | Directed by Andrew Bujalski
Acquired by Magnolia Pictures

Andrew Bujalski’s follow-up to his 2013 Sundance entry, Computer Chess, is an Austin-set comedy about a pair of personal trainers, played by Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders, whose personal and professional lives are disrupted by a rich, lonely New York transplant played by Kevin Corrigan. The Playlist calls it a “funny, lighthearted, and uneven effort,” and Indiewire finds that while it’s not a “singular achievement on par with its precedents in the filmmaker's career ... like all of Bujalski's movies, the allure of individual moments have a tendency to grow on you.” The A.V. Club believes the film “proves that the filmmaker’s offbeat sensibilities are malleable enough to be applied to something more superficially ‘traditional,’” but The Dissolve Mike D’Angelo feels it’s “a disappointment,” while his colleague, Noel Murray writes, “I liked Andrew Bujalski’s Results more than Mike, though I’m not as wild about it as some of our other friends here. It’s too slack for a comedy, and Guy Pearce’s and Cobie Smulders’ acting styles don’t always fit with Bujalski’s sensibility—or with Kevin Corrigan, who plays the third prong in the movies’ bent love triangle.”

Picture . Sleeping With Other People
Rom-com | USA | Directed by Leslye Headland

Bachelorette writer-director Leslye Headland returned to Sundance this year with a rom-com she jokingly described as “When Harry Met Sally with assholes.” Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis star as ex-lovers who meet at a sex addict meeting a dozen years after losing their virginity together. Drew McWeeny of HitFix loves the film, writing, “This movie plays on the surface as a rude, profane, brash, wild little thing that will make you laugh constantly. Underneath that, though, there are plenty of things that the movie deals with that are very serious, very real.” The Playlist likes it too, praising Brie and Sudeikis, “who exhibit the kind of cinematic chemistry that the recently ailing rom-com genre has been lacking for entire years. They’re not just good together, they’re believable, sexy, funny and sweet, and more than a little sad.” THR calls it a “brittle, bawdy, frequently funny romcom that might be too smart for its own good,” but for Consequence of Sound there’s an “overwhelming feeling of been-there-done-that.”

Picture . The Stanford Prison Experiment
Thriller | USA | Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez

The latest film from director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (C.O.G., Easier with Practice) is a dramatization of psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s (Billy Crudup) infamous 1971 experiment that recruited 24 college students and split them up into the roles of guards and prisoners, resulting in an increasingly out-of-control situation. The film won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize for “outstanding feature films focusing on science or technology as a theme, or depicting a scientist, engineer or mathematician as a major character,” while screenwriter Tim Talbott took home the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: U.S. Dramatic. While the story has been told by other filmmakers before, The Dissolve’s Noel Murray feels that “Talbott and Alvarez don’t bring any special zing or slant to their version,” and Variety thinks that “for all its bludgeoning effectiveness, the film also manages to be at once heavy-handed in some respects and annoyingly vague in others.” But A.A. Dowd of the A.V. Club believes it’s a success: “The challenge of this material is making it feel psychologically credible; though all of this really happened, it would still seem contrived without actors capable of selling how these young men could adapt so quickly to the parts they were playing. Everyone comes through.” The Guardian has praise for Billy Crudup who is “marvelous as the unknowable Zimbardo,” as does HitFix, writing, “Billy Crudup does fantastic work here as a smart guy whose best intentions begin to spin out of control, leaving him frantic to make things work again. THR is also a fan, concluding that “Crudup's performance here will count as a career high, but this is truly an ensemble piece.” Lastly, The Playlist claims “the movie is overabundant with rich human textures.”

Picture . Stockholm, Pennsylvania
Thriller | USA | Directed by Nikole Beckwith

Nikole Beckwith’s debut features some strong acting from Saoirse Ronan as a girl reunited with her family (Cynthia Nixon and David Warshofsky) 17 years after being abducted, but critics feel that a weak script proves the film’s undoing. The Playlist finds the film “initially compelling and complex” until a “massive error in judgment in its second half.” The Guardian wonders if “they give out awards for the first half of movies” because “Stockholm, Pennsylvania deserves them all,” but ultimately agrees with The Film Stage, which concludes, “Sadly, the film makes a decision at the halfway point, without much warning, that derails any and all good will built up in the first hour.” THR claims that “strong performances from Saoirse Ronan and Cynthia Nixon keep Stockholm, Pennsylvania intense and absorbing,” but a “problematic script with too many lapses in logic undermines” them. However, Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com believes Ronan and Nixon “combine to overcome a few narrative flaws” and “sell the unpredictable arc.”

Picture . Tangerine
Dramedy | USA | Directed by Sean Baker
Acquired by Magnolia Pictures for < $1 million

Shot using an iPhone 5S outfitted with an anamorphic lens adapter, writer-director Sean Baker’s follow-up to 2012’s Starlet tells the story of two transgender prostitutes (Mya Taylor and Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) and an Armenian cabbie (Karren Karagulian) in Los Angeles. Wesley Morris of Grantland writes, “After four days, Sean Baker’s Tangerine is already my favorite movie. It’s trashy, lurid, and hilariously profane — exploitation in the best, most cinematic sense — but without ever losing the thread of human ache that connects the handful of characters.” THR believes it's the “warmth and absence of judgment or condescension toward its marginalized characters that make Sean Baker's film such a vibrant and uplifting snapshot,” and Variety agrees, writing, “It’s this bigger-picture compassion, born of an impulse to place the unique struggles of sexual and ethnic minorities in conversation with each other, that elevates Tangerine from a raggedy little group portrait to a generous and surprisingly hopeful vision of humanity.” The Dissolve’s Mike D’Angelo says the film could have done without Razmik, the cab driver, because “the two irrepressible women, in all their violence and compassion, were all Tangerine needed. Did I like them? Not at first. Did I relate to them? Not in the least. Did that matter? Not one iota.”

Picture . True Story
Thriller | USA | Directed by Rupert Goold
Previously acquired by Fox Searchlight – Opens April 10

The first film from respected theater director Rupert Goold is based on a memoir by Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), a New York Times reporter whose identity was stolen by accused killer Christian Longo. In his book, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, Finkel recounts his bizarre relationship with Longo (James Franco), which included teaching him how to write a book in exchange for Longo’s story. THR believes “Goold's work never feels stagey ... But what happens in that room isn't as convincing as might be expected from these actors.” Variety feels Franco and Hill “deliver measured, soul-searching work,” but The Guardian finds “no one in the film is particularly likeable, and while the global implications about epistemology are interesting, the specifics of this particular case, at least rendered here, are quite dull.” However The Playlist deems True Story a “tightly made slice of true crime,” and ComingSoon.net’s Edward Douglas thinks it’s “such a strong piece” that he would not be surprised if the film is “being talked about at year’s end, come awards time.”

Picture . The Witch
Horror | USA | Directed by Robert Eggers
Acquired by A24/DirecTV for approx. $1.5 million

Writer-director Robert Eggers won the U.S. Dramatic Competition Directing Award for his debut feature about a Puritan family in 1630s New England who leave their community to start their own farm on the edge of a forest. When their crops fail to grow and their infant child disappears, the family members turn on each other as superstition takes hold. The Dissolve’s Mike D’Angelo finds The Witch to be “the sort of singular, crazily ambitious, utterly unforgettable film that Sundance should showcase but too often doesn’t,” and TimeOut New York declares it “a jaw-droppingly bold gift from God ... a major horror event on par with recent festival sensations like Kill List and The Babadook. Haunting doesn’t even begin to describe it.” HitFix believes Eggers “deserves accolades for crafting something that feels timeless,” and The Playlist thinks it “will dazzle and shake you right to your core." The latter publication also spotlights actress Anya Taylor Joy, who, playing the eldest child, “stands out,” and Vulture concurs, claiming she’s “beyond fantastic.” But some critics haven't fallen under The Witch's spell. The A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd finds “this sharply acted and beautifully shot film” troubling because of the “historical implications it courts,” and THR thinks the “dedication exerted to render the mores, beliefs, speech patterns and way of life among radical Calvinists of the period proves more compelling than does the witchcraft-saturated story, which is pretty short on scares or surprises.”

Picture . Z for Zachariah
Sci-fi/Drama | USA | Directed by Craig Zobel
Previously acquired by Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions

Director Craig Zobel’s follow-up to 2012‘s controversial Compliance is an adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s 1874 book about the last man and woman on Earth. Margot Robbie plays Ann, a religious woman who nurses Chiwetel Ejiofor’s John Loomis, a scientist, back to health. What’s different in Nissar Modi’s script is the arrival of Caleb (Chris Pine), a miner who has survived underground. For many critics, this additional character upset the spell the movie had cast. The Dissolve’s Mike D’Angelo believes the “book as written could have made a fascinating film; why Zobel and Modi made it more banal is a mystery.” However, his colleague Noel Murray likes how the film is “appealingly reflective in the way the best speculative fiction can be” even though he agrees that “it’s not always dramatically effective to shoehorn a love triangle into the story of two people trying to rebuild society post-apocalypse.” Vulture “could have watched these small human moments, alternately tense and tender, between Ejiofor and Robbie forever,” but could do without Pine and the film’s “descent into a tepid thriller of sexual jealousy.” HitFix claims “Margot Robbie's work here establishes her as one of the very best actresses in her age range today,” and The Film Stage thinks “Robbie excels here, anchoring the film with a performance that’s equal parts, brave, hopeful and naive.” Giving the film a “B,” Indiewire calls Zachariah a “solid relationship drama disguised as post-apocalyptic tale.”

Other Sundance films of note

PictureMorgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) and Robert Gordon’s documentary, Best of Enemies, recounts the William F. Buckley-Gore Vidal TV debates of 1968. THR claims “there could scarcely be any documentary more enticing, scintillating and downright fascinating than Best of Enemies,” and Variety agrees, calling it “thoroughly engrossing and surprisingly entertaining.”

PictureCharles Poekel’s Christmas, Again focuses on Noel (Kentucker Audley), a lovesick and lonely Christmas tree salesman. The Dissolve’s Mike D’Angelo believes, “Poekel’s atmospheric direction nicely conveys the melancholy mood,” while Audley turns Noel, a “stoic, often kinda dickish loner into mesmerizing company.”

PictureKevin Bacon stars in Cop Car, the story of a small-town sheriff who wants to track down the kids who have taken his car for a joy ride. Jon Watts' second feature “excels in its minimalism,” according to The Guardian, but THR deems it a “seriously imagination-challenged low-end action thriller.”

PictureJoe Swanberg’s Digging for Fire stars Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt as a struggling married couple who get to spend a weekend apart. Indiewire believes the film “delivers a bewitching dissection of happiness and unhappiness in love,” and Variety calls it a “lovely slice of everything and nothing.” The Orchard picked up distribution rights.

PictureSam Rockwell plays the titular Don Verdean, a Biblical archaeologist, in Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess’ latest. THR finds it “more quirky than comical,” and Variety warns, "The expected satire of religious gullibility and charlatanism proves toothless; worse, a cast of very funny people is given very little funny to do.” Lionsgate will release it later this year.

Picture Entertainment, writer-director Rick Alveron’s follow-up to The Comedy, follows a failing stand-up comedian (Gregg Turkington) playing a string of dead-end gigs in the Mojave desert. Indiewire believes it’s a “fascinating look at the tension between personal aspirations and the harsh realities holding them back,” and The Playlist claims “its brilliance is in the embrace of humiliation and failure, and the way it forces us to confront and sit with those embarrassing, uneasy feelings.”

PictureThe documentary Finders Keepers, from filmmakers Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel, concerns a severed human foot found in a used grill. The Guardian calls it “delightfully insane,” and Variety lauds the doc as “hysterical, insightful and genuinely empathetic.”

PictureGuy Maddin’s latest curio, The Forbidden Room, is, according to TimeOut New York, “an exhilarating slipstream of two-strip technicolor havoc that feels like an exquisite corpse assembled from every leftover idea that filmmaker Guy Maddin has ever had.” The Dissolve’s Mike D’Angelo describes it as “hilarious, exhilarating, slightly exhausting.”

PictureAlex Gibney’s latest documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, takes on the Church of Scientology. Vulture calls it “spectacular stuff,” and The Playlist gives the film a “B+,” claiming the “filmmaking is nothing exceptional, but what is remarkable is the bravery shown by those who speak out in the film.” HBO will air the film in March.

PictureLily Tomlin plays the titular character in Paul Weitz’s Grandma. Sony Pictures Classics has picked up the family drama about three generations of women, described by THR as “consistently funny and poignant,” and by Variety as a “constantly surprising character piece” that “slowly sneaks up on you and packs a major wallop.”

PictureDocumentarian Kirby Dick followed 2012’s The Invisible War with The Hunting Ground, an investigation of campus rape. Indiewire gives the film a “B+,” and call it a “a stirring call to action,” and THR believes it’s a “shocking but ultimately galvanizing work of reportage.”

PictureA much-lauded Sarah Silverman stars as housewife and mother struggling with addiction in I Smile Back, director Adam Salky’s adaptation of Amy Koppelman’s novel. The Playlist feels that “any story problems in the film are eclipsed by [Silverman’s] tremendous performance,” and Variety agrees that “it’s her hellish rendering of a New Jersey housewife under the influence of drugs, alcohol and mental illness that elevates director Adam Salky’s sophomore feature above the suburban-nightmare movie-of-the-week it otherwise often resembles.”

PictureKeanu Reeves plays a husband who gets into trouble when he allows two young women (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas) into his house in Eli Roth’s Knock Knock. Variety calls it a “glossy and reasonably fun update of Peter Traynor’s 1977 exploitation movie Death Game,” and the A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd claims “this is, by a country mile, the writer-director’s best movie—thanks in no small part to a trifecta of unhinged performances.” Lionsgate has the distribution rights.

PictureFor the HBO documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) got unfettered access to the musician’s archives, resulting in a film that THR calls “impressive in parts, but wildly uneven as a whole,” but that The Playlist believes is “seriously entertaining and enjoyable, but also a moving portrait of a man that many won’t soon forget.” The film debuts on the cable network in May.

PictureEwan McGregor plays both Jesus and Satan in Mother and Child director Rodrigo Garcia’s Last Days in the Desert. Variety believes “Garcia has touched upon something stirring and true here,” and has “risen to the occasion with perhaps the most singularly gorgeous piece of filmmaking of his career.” Vulture also finds it to be a “haunting, beautiful movie.”

PictureJemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) stars as a single father tying to navigate new love in writer-director Jim Strouse’s People, Places, Things. Indiewire labels it “ceaselessly entertaining, witty, and sentimental,” and THR believes it’s a “warm and knowing romantic comedy,” while The Playlist calls it a “total charmer.”

PictureWriter-director John Maclean’s Slow West won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize and was picked up for distribution by A24. The western, starring Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee, is “a terrific little parable, and a strong debut by John Maclean worth treasuring,” according to The Playlist. The Dissolve’s Noel Murray isn’t a fan of the first hour, but he likes the last 20 minutes, which features “one of the best gunfight sequences I’ve ever seen in a western.”

PictureAlanté Kavaïté won the Directing Award: World Cinema Dramatic for The Summer of Sangaile, the story of first love between lesbians in Lithuania. It is an “appealingly simple, poetically conceived teen coming-of-age tale,” according to THR. While Mike D’Angelo of The Dissolve finds it “beautifully limned in the early going” thanks to Kavaïté’s “gift for lyrical sensuality," the film grows “increasingly silly as it becomes more and more overtly therapeutic.”

PictureThe Film Stage calls writer-director Matt Sobel's debut feature, Take Me to the River, a “dark and exhilarating watch,” and Variety finds this “Midwestern gothic tale” about family secrets to be a “superlatively acted indie” that “promises more than it delivers, but chillingly evokes sufficient primal dread.”

PictureTen Thousand Saints, from married director duo Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor), is a coming-of-age tale set in 1980s New York starring Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, Emily Mortimer, Ethan Hawke, and Emile Hirsch. The Playlist gives it an “A” while deeming it “heart-warming, funny, and real,” but Indiewire believes the film “fails to offer a sufficient look at any of the characters' backstories, which makes it difficult to believe in them.”

PictureUnexpected tells the story of two pregnancies: a teacher’s (Cobie Smulders) and her student’s (Gail Bean). In Kris Swanberg’s film, they navigate the rocky road to maternity together in what THR calls a “warmly observed, unpretentious film,” one that ComingSoon.net finds “by no means groundbreaking,” but still “lovely.”

PictureRobert Redford and Nick Nolte star in A Walk in the Woods, an adaptation of Bill Bryson’s memoir which humorously recounts his struggles to hike the 2,200 mile Appalachian trail. THR believes the film “serves as a terrific showcase for two exceptionally durable stars,” but while Consequence of Sound admits it’s “very fun and, unlike a number of expedition films, never feels pretentious,” the film “doesn’t dig deep enough.”

PictureWhat Happened Miss Simone?, a documentary by Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against the World) about Nina Simone, is a “meticulously researched, tough-love portrait of the brilliant but troubled folk/jazz/soul diva” according to Variety, but The Guardian feels that while it’s “entertaining,” it’s also “very much of a ‘behind the music’ calibre.”

All photos courtesy of Sundance Institute.

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