Best of the fest
When Robert Redford opened the Sundance Film Festival 2015 on 22 January, one of his key words when describing the fest's programme was "diversity". And from gripping dramas to surprisingly open-minded comedies, that word definitely applied to many of the movies we caught at the fest.
Jack Reynor riveted in brittle drama Glassland, The Witch scared us so much we can't make eye contact with old ladies anymore, and Cop Car injected murky thrills into the fest's Midnight strand.
So, yes, diversity was alive and well at Sundance 2015. But which movies were our favourites? Well, with over 100 films showing at the fest, we've whittled the list down to the ones that made us scream, cry and beg for more. So long Park City, thanks for another great year of movies...
This year's festival kicked off with a bang. Or, at least, with The Big Bang Theory's Melissa Rauch (aka TBBT's Bernadette) ditching her squeaky clean image for something equal parts shocking and hilarious. Scraping off the make-up, she plays bitter, washed-up gymnast Hope Greggory, a kleptomaniac who still lives with her father (Gary Cole) and imagines herself as the queen of her small town.
When she's lumbered with coaching newbie Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson), she fights the temptation to sabotage the youngster's fledgling career, while also fending off competition in the form of A-list gym coach/lothario Lance Tucker (Sebastian Stan).
Though far from perfect, The Bronze is as ballsy as it is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. With Rauch spitting quotable one-liners like they're going out of style (Shut your cock-hole!), she delivers a bravely unsympathetic performance and takes part in one of the most hilariously batshit sex scenes since Team America's puppet pirouettes.
It might have looked unlikely on paper, but historical horror The Witch which won director Robert Eggers the Best Director Award in the US Dramatic Competition quickly became the talk of Park City this year, leaving swathes of festivalgoers (including Total Film) trembling in its wake
Set in mid-17th Century New England and featuring a script written entirely in archaic dialect and based on accounts from actual historical journals, The Witch follows a Puritan family headed by gravel-voiced father William (The Office star Ralph Ineson) and sternly devout mother Katherine (Kate Dickie, aka Game Of Thrones Lysa) as they are cast out, or banish-ed, from their settlement and forced to fend for themselves on the edge of a dark, creepy wood.
When their baby son is snatched away from under their noses by the titular crone and the rest of the children start to succumb to dark forces, the exiled family begins to implode on itself, fuelled by fear, paranoia and intense religious hysteria.
Theres no doubting the raw, visceral power of Robert Eggers impressive debut which spends its first two acts deftly building a real sense of creeping dread before letting it all unravel in spectacularly shocking style. Eggers cleverly plays around with established horror tropes and satanical cliches, lending even the traditional witches cackle a terrifying new lease of life. If youre a fan of supernatural horror, this is definitely one to keep an eye out for.
Z For Zachariah
One of the first films to garner serious buzz at this year's festival, this post-apocalyptic drama from director Craig Zobel (Compliance) boasts a killer cast (Margot Robbie, Chris Pine and Chiwetel Ejiofor), a dreamy aesthetic and a subdued undercurrent of menace that marks it out as a refreshing spin on end-of-the-world flicks.
Inspired by Robert C. O'Brien's 1974 novel, Z For Zachariah is set in a post-apocalyptic America, where a mysterious radioactive agent has wiped out much of the population. Believing herself to be the only survivor, Ann (Robbie) lives on a remote farm cradled in the wilderness, a dog her only company.
When intense stranger Loomis (Ejiofor) unexpectedly stumbles onto her land, fatally sick with radiation poisoning, she has no choice but to take him in. And as the two grow close, things are complicated further by the arrival of a second stranger a twinkly-eyed presence, Caleb (Pine) threatens to rupture the farm's delicate equilibrium anew.
Though it takes great liberties with O'Brien's book, Zobel's film is equally riveting, serving up an incongruous vision of a weirdly lush yet deadly future. With Robbie stealing the show, lending Z For Zachariah a trembling frailty, this is a lean, affecting drama where the action is almost exclusively internal its emotional payloads are elegant, unhurried and ultimately devastating.
One of the buzziest titles of the fest (playing in the innovative 'NEXT' strand), this blistering cult breakout from director Sean Baker is an often hilarious and at times quietly moving tale of friendship on the seedy streets of Los Angeles, as two transsexual working gals go tearing through Hollywood on a sun-soaked Christmas Eve in search of the pimp that broke one of their hearts.
Seemingly largely improvised and utilising the natural talents of a host of local non-actors, Tangerine features a fierce and fiercely watchable double-header performance by leads Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, as well as as a colourful supporting cast that wouldn't look out of place in a John Waters movie. The fact that the entire project was shot with iPhones (cleverly allowing full access to authentic locations without the need for permits) makes Baker's achievement even more impressive.
Easily one of the best films screening as part of Sundance's Midnight strand, Cop Car blends Coen-style dark humour with Tarantino-esque shoot-outs for something that starts softly and builds to one heck of a crescendo.
Ten-year-olds Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) have run away from home when they stumble across an abandoned cop car in the wilderness. Deciding to take it for a spin, they're blissfully unaware that the car belongs to the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), who was in the middle of a body-dumping mission when his wheels were taken.
Both dark coming-of-ager and breakneck, bloody thriller, Cop Car leans on riveting performances in its tension-cranking first hour (the kids are fantastic, as is an unhinged Bacon, and Camryn Manheim does wonders with a tiny role as a concerned driver) before all hell breaks loose in the gripping final act.
Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck
Director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays In The Picture, Crossfire Hurricane) has sifted through mountains of previously unseen and unheard material to craft the definitive portrait of the troubled Nirvana frontman a revealing look at the tortured genius behind one of the world's biggest rock bands.
Fusing surrealist animated sequences and vivid renderings of Kurt's own sketches with intimate home movies, electrifying concert footage and poignant talking heads (including a candid Courtney Love), Morgens anarchic tribute turns the rock doc up to 11.
Montage Of Heck is loud, messy and unlike anything you've seen before fitting, perhaps, for a man who was anything but ordinary. This wasn't supposed to be cohesive, Morgen explained at the emotionally charged Sundance premiere, surrounded by Cobain's friends and family. It's meant to reflect the subject.
I don't have an anger problem, I have an asshole problem. When people are assholes, I get angry. That's just one of the gems delivered with steely magnetism by Lily Tomlin, the titular grandma and lovably caustic lead in this drama the fest's closing night film from writer/director Paul Weitz (About A Boy).
Taking her cue from other cinematic curmudgeons like Melvin Udall (As Good As It Gets), and adding a pinch of the sparkly-eyed, OAP charm of Harold & Maude, Tomlin is mesmerising from the moment we meet her one-time hotshot poet, Elle. Breaking up with her much younger girlfriend (a great Judy Greer), whom she brands a footnote in her romantic life, Elle goes on the rampage in an attempt to rake together the $600 her granddaughter (Julia Garner) needs to get an abortion.
If that sounds heavy-handed, don't worry. Weitz's sharp script is both non-judgemental and limber, focussing exclusively on Elle's relationships with the women (and, in the case of a fantastic Sam Elliot, men) in her life. Whether she's trading blows with her daughter (Marcia Gay Harden, yet more spot-on casting) or sobbing in the shower, Tomlin's portrayal is faultless.
Acerbic but utterly human, it's impossible to take your eyes off her, not least when she's handing out both verbal and physical penalty cards to the young idiots who get in her way. If there's any justice in the world, this will take her all the way to the Oscars.
The End Of The Tour
What could have been a disastrous shift into serious drama for funny guy Jason Segel reveals him as a surprisingly adept dramatic actor in this pseudo-biopic, based on David Lipsky's 2010 book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.
Playing real-life writer David Foster Wallace, Segel dons a bandana and a perpetually earnest expression as he's followed around during a book tour by Rolling Stone journo David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg). Taking the form of a buddy road movie and injecting it with indie cool, director James Ponsoldt (Smashed) deftly plays out the tensions between the two men one a big-time bestseller, the other part fan, part struggling author.
The result is a series of deep conversations that would rival the likes of Aaron Sorkin for dialogue-to-action ratio, all of which are beautifully played by Segel and Eisenberg. The focus remains squarely on them and unlike other bromantic fest flick Mississippi Grind The End Of The Tour always has something interesting to say. While there's also a fun small role for Joan Cusack, who gets the film's biggest laugh, this is really about writing, writers, and the strange fiction so often bound around those in the limelight.
Winner of the Audience Award in the 'World Documentary' competition (and deservedly so), this against-all-odds Welsh doc tells the inspiring tale of a small-town syndicate who scrape together the cash to breed a horse fit to challenge the racing elite.
After winning a number of high-profile campaigns, the animal dubbed 'Dream Alliance' is the toast of his village but thanks to his feisty, headstrong nature (a typical Valleys boy as one of them puts it) it's not all smooth sailing for his inexperienced owners...
It's no wonder that this heartwarming film won over the Park City moviegoers. Director Louise Osmond perfectly pitches the warmth and humour of her unassuming cast alongside some thumping, edge-of-the-seat racetrack sequences, making for a crowdpleaser to rival cinemas best sporting underdog stories.
The D Train
If there was a common theme at this year's Sundance Film Festival, it was sexual ambiguity. Of the many films revelling in the Kinsey scale's murky middle area, though, The D Train tackled it with the most gusto, cannily taking 'bromantic' comedies to their inevitable conclusion.
Jack Black plays Dan Landsman, a self-important oaf who's always been kicked to the fringes of his community. While planning his high school reunion, he discovers a foolproof way to attract reluctant ex-classmates he'll convince popular jock and successful actor Oliver Lawless (James Marsden) to attend. Making up a fake business trip, Dan heads to LA to get Oliver on side...
We'll refrain from spoiling the film's surprises, but suffice to say, things don't go to plan. And while The D Train's second act twist is a stroke of genius, the real surprise here is Black, who turns in a vulnerable, impressively nuanced performance that's easily his best since School Of Rock.
True, there are stumbles (the business subplot is tiresome), but by the time the John Hughes-esque finale comes around, you'll be grinning from ear to ear.
Jack Reynor nabbed the Jury Award For Acting for his turn in this sparse Irish drama, and it's not hard to see why. Playing the impoverished son of an alcoholic, he essays a disarmingly quiet performance that's so realistic, the film almost plays out like a documentary.
Set on the outskirts of Dublin, the plot follows John (Reynor), who divides his time between working as a taxi driver, playing video games with buddy Shane (Will Poulter, providing light relief) and keeping an eye on his errant mother Jean (Toni Collette). The latter is a loose cannon who goes out all night, only returning when she's so booze-soaked she can barely stand. And despite John's best efforts, her behaviour shows no signs of abating.
The relationship between John and Jean is at the heart of Glassland, and director Gerard Barrett (Pilgrim Hill) captures every screaming fit and loving glance beautifully. Alternately demonic and downcast, Collette is as uncompromisingly raw as you'd expect, but this is Reynor's film, and his journey through the darkest planes of desperation is quite something to behold.
I Am Michael
An assured debut from director Justin Kelly, this true-life drama expertly sidesteps preachy moralising as it examines the life of Michael Glatze, the one-time gay rights activist who found God and 'cured' himself of homosexuality. We meet Michael (James Franco) as an energetic twenty-something, living it up in San Francisco with his boyfriend Bennett (a level-headed Zachary Quinto). After moving to Canada together, though, Michael starts to question his life and eventually turns to the Bible for answers.
It's a tricky role that Franco plumbs for remarkable depth, effortlessly navigating Michael's complex inner world. He nails the drama, inspires giggles with a single look, and never overplays the tragedy of Michael's blind denial.
Despite its heavy subject matter, Kelly's film is light and fast-paced, but never fly-away in nature. For all its talk of sexuality and religion, it excels most as a portrait of a man desperately searching for happiness in all the wrong places.
With its uncomfortable close-ups, frantic opening scenes and free-style camerawork, it's easy to draw early comparisons between James White and its studio siblings Martha Marcy May Marlene and Simon Killer. Made under the BorderLine Films labels, which comprises filmmakers Sean Durkin, Antonio Campos and Josh Mond, it marks the latter's directorial debut (he was producer on MMMM and Simon Killer).
Those early comparisons quickly become redundant, though, as James White interrupts its titular slacker's boozy nights out and messy domestic confrontations with something far more hard-hitting. When his mother (Cynthia Nixon) suffers a relapse in her fight against cancer, James (Christopher Abbott) is the only one who can look after her. What follows is a sad, at times harrowing portrait of his mother's physical and mental decline.
In interviews, Mond revealed that he wrote the film's script in the wake of his mother's death, and every scrap of that trauma is evident in James White. Unflinching in its portrayal of a family's darkest hour, the film is buoyed further by Abbott and Nixon, the latter delivering a performance of such devastating, uninhibited honesty that it's often difficult to watch.
Another one of Sundance 15's biggest crowdpleasers, this vibrant coming-of-age indie came with some big-name backing (it's produced by Forest Whitaker and exec produced by Sean 'Puff Daddy' Combs and Pharrell Williams) and played like a modern-day, street-smart John Hughes movie.
A genuinely funny comedy-drama that fizzes with energy and verve, Rick Famuyiwas pacey, knowing teen caper follows a trio of geeky, 90s hip-hop-loving buddies (newcomers Shameik Moore and Kiersey Clemons along with The Grand Budapest Hotel's Tony Revolori) who unwittingly become involved in a major drug deal en route to graduating high school and use their nerdy knowledge of computers, business models and bitcoins to try and get themselves out of it.
With the central trio's in-movie pop-punk band also boasting songs penned by one-man hit factory Pharrell himself, Dope also boasted one of the catchiest soundtracks of the fest. An instant teen classic.
OK, so Mia Hansen-Lve's dance-music epic might have already premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year, but Eden playing in Sundance 2015's 'Spotlight' section was nonetheless one of Total Film's favourites. Following the rise and fall of French garage DJ Paul (the excellent Flix de Givry) from a wide-eyed teen navigating the underground rave scene to a thirtysomething struggling with debt, drug addiction and letting the glory days go this sprawling, ambitious portrait of a young man intoxicated by dance music is in turns funny, tragic, triumphant and poignant.
As you might expect, the film boasts a killer soundtrack, too propped up by several songs from electronic duo Daft Punk, fictionally portrayed sans helmets in the film as regular acquaintances of Paul and his pals while writer/director Hansen-Lve (who also served on the festival's awards jury) nails the highs and comedowns of '90s and '00s Euro-club culture.
Me And Earl And The Dying Girl
Though it features a cast of relative unknowns and wasnt on anybodys Must See list at the beginning of the fest, this wildly creative and quietly absorbing indie comedy ended up the toast of Park City when it was handed both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Feature.
Its appeal is evident from the off as teen hero Greg (Thomas Mann) introduces us to his world. A social mingler who belongs to no particular group at his high school, he spends most of his time shooting low-budget, tongue-in-cheek tributes to cinematic big-hitters with buddy Earl (RJ Cyler). When his overbearing mother forces him to hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), whos been diagnosed with leukaemia, Gregs carefully-crafted life of blending into the background is thrown into disarray.
With its animated stop-motion intermissions, comical chapter headings and the brilliantly zany movie tributes crafted by Greg and Earl, the film works as a love letter to cinema and provides a gloss-free all-access pass to teen-hood. Its part Freaks And Geeks, part Napoleon Dynamite, and while director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (American Horror Story) occasionally overindulges his films quirky sensibilities, theres no faulting the emotional power of its final moments.