The Sundance Film Festival is officially over and the awards have already been handed out, both the official ones and our own Unconventional Awards, and out of the roughly thirty films I saw during my time in Park City, Utah, I’ve put together a list of the ten very best movies I had a chance to see. Many of them will be coming to theaters across the country later in the year, and a few of them may even be in the Oscar conversation a year from now.
10. The Big Sick
Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani made his triumphant debut as a leading man with this movie produced by Judd Apatow, directed by Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name is Doris) and co-written with wife Emily V. Gordon. Based on their own experiences in courting and how Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) being put into a medically-induced coma affected it, it was a very funny movie thanks to Nanjiani and the likes of Ray Romano and Holly Hunter playing Emily’s parents. The movie quickly sold to Amazon Studios for roughly $12 million, and we’ll have to see if this ends up being as big a hit as their 2016 Sundance purchase, the Oscar-nominated Manchester by the Sea.
Dee Rees’ return to Sundance after 2011’s breakout film Pariah, this one being an adaptation of Hilary Jordan’s novel about the relationship between a white and black family in the South during and after World War II. Carey Mulligan plays the wife of farmer Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), whose brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) befriends a fellow soldier (Jason Mitchell From Straight Outta Compton), the son of the McAllan’s farmhand Hap (Rob Morgan) as the war ends. Even so, the conflict between the two families explode, much of it revolving around the McAllan patriarch (Jonathan Banks from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) and his connections to the KKK. A complex story that uses a shifting narrative and perspective took some time to get going and was a little long at over 2 hours but it struck enough of a chord to receive a standing ovation at its Sundance premiere.
8. Wind River
Taylor Sheridan’s first-time behind the camera as a director might not have quite achieved the level of a Sicario or Hell or High Water, but it certainly continued the tradition of him exploring the world of crime and law enforcement. Jeremy Renner gives a brilliant performance as a hunter/tracker for the Department of Game and Wildlife in the snow-covered mountains of Montana. When an 18-year-old girl is found dead, he’s teamed with an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) to take on the underbelly of the area that might be responsible for her death. It leads to a horrific flashback showing what happened and a climactic shoot-out that more than makes up for the film’s slow build.
7. The Yellow Birds
Alex Moors’ Iraq war drama mystery starred Tye Sheridan and a barely-recognizable Alden Ahrenreich as two soldiers whose relationship is put to the test when one of them returns from the war leaving the other one missing in action. At first, the film seemed like every other war movie even going back the likes of Full Metal Jacket, but it found its way in the second half as we learn more about what happened to the missing soldier. The film also featured fantastic performances by Jennifer Aniston and Toni Collette as the soldiers’ mothers.
6. Band Aid
There were a lot of great comedies by first-time woman directors this year, but the one that just flowed so perfectly from humor to poignancy was this movie from Zoe Lister-Jones (Lola Versus), which teamed her with Adam Pally as a squabbling married couple who turn to music as a catharsis for their constant squabbling. Fred Armisen plays their weird neighbor, referred to as “Weird Dave,” who they get to play drums for their new band, which has them singing songs inspired by their biggest fights.
Not a movie that premiered at Sundance persé, but one that I finally had a chance to see before its release by Music Box Films in March. Frantz is the latest film from Francois Ozon, which is so different from his other recent films, this one being a post-WWI drama, mostly filmed in black and white. It follows a French soldier as he comes to a German village to offer his condolences to the family of Frantz, a dead German soldier he had befriended before the war. There’s a lot more to the story, especially in the relationship between the French soldier and Frantz’s fiancée.
4. Beatriz at Dinner
Director Miguel Arteta reunited with writer Mike White for their first movie since Jennifer Aniston’s The Good Girl in 2002, this one starring Salma Hayek as a vegetarian Mexican masseuse who ends up at the dinner of a wealthy client when her car breaks down. As she meets her client’s boss and some of his employees and realizes how insensitive they are to the plight of the underprivileged, her blood begins to boil leading to a climactic confrontation. John Lithgow plays the billionaire president of the company who Beatriz ends up confronting, but the filmmakers really have made such a strong statement about entitlement and the world we now live in.
3. A Ghost Story
David Lowery’s “secret movie” done over the last summer as he was finishing Disney’s Pete’s Dragon was a quiet and meditative film starring Rooney Mara (from Lowery’s previous film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) teamed with Casey Affleck as the ghost of her lover who tries to find his way through the world after dying in a car crash. The movie handles death and loss in a different way than most horror or genre films, and better than Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper that covers similar territory.
2. The Hero
Brett Haley’s follow-up to 2014’s I’ll See You in My Dreams created an amazing opportunity for actor Sam Elliott to play a role that was clearly written for him. Elliott plays an aging actor, best known for his Western roles and about to get honored with a lifetime achievement award, shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. He meets Laura Prepon’s beautiful and significantly younger Charlotte, who he brings to the awards ceremony, and they begin a relationship while trying to come to terms with their age difference. It’s just a beautiful film that really spoke to me, and Haley is proving himself to be an amazing storyteller when it comes to telling stories about older people,
1. Call Me By Your Name
Director Luca (A Bigger Splash) Guadagnino’s adaptation of André Aciman’s novel, co-written with James Ivory and Walter Fasano, was one of the most moving coming-of-age films I’ve seen in a very long time. Granted, three of my Sundance favorites from last year were also coming-of-age films, but this one dealt with a teen exploring his sexuality in a far more honest and graphic way than any recent film in memory. Armie Hammer plays Oliver, an American staying at the house of his mentor (Michael Stuhlbarg) in Northern Italy, while trying to get his doctorate. At first, Oliver butts heads with his mentor’s teen son Elio--the fantastic young Timothée Chalamet in a breakthrough role--but soon, they realize that they’re attracted to each other, exploring those feelings in secret. This gorgeous and poignant film was so far above anything that normally shows at Sundance that it will be surprising if it’s not part of the Oscar conversation this time next year.
Three Honorable Mentions
The Incredible Jessica James – James Strouse wrote and directed this romantic comedy that plays upon The Daily Show correspondent’s Jessica Williams’ strong voice and personality, teaming her with Chris O’Dowd, for a movie that was made better due to her presence.
L.A. Times – Michelle Monroe’s directorial debut has her playing an L.A. woman who breaks up with her screenwriter boyfriend of many years (played by Jorma Taccone), and it was a comedy that was very much on point with the L.A. lifestyle in a way that even a diehard New Yorker (like myself) could enjoy.
Ingrid Goes West – In a similar way, filmmaker Matt Spicer created the perfect vehicle for the comic delivery of Aubrey Plaza as Ingrid, a mentally unstable stalker who becomes friends with an Instagram star (Elizabeth Olsen). Billy Magnussen as her d-bag brother who shows up to ruin Ingrid’s plans.
Plus Three Amazing Docs
(Granted, I only saw three docs this year.)
An Inconvenient Sequel – Fight to Power – This update of the Al Gore doc An Inconvenient Truth shows what the former Vice President has been doing to fight against climate change since the Oscar-winning doc.
78/54 – Already mentioned this doc by Alexandre Phillippe (The People vs. George Lucas) and its in-depth look into the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic Psycho as part of my Sundance Awards. It was picked up for release by IFC Midnight.
RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked the World – Presented as part of the World Cinema Documentary Competition, Catherine Bainbridge’s film looked at the Native American musicians who played a large part in the evolution of rock music. Featuring interviews with Martin Scorsese, Robbie Robertson, Slash and many more, it’s one of the better music docs I’ve seen.
That’s it for our coverage from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. We now return you to our regularly-scheduled coverage of all things fanboy-related.