The Best and Worst of Sundance 2015 (Narrative Edition)

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Come Sunday, the screens will go dark, the volunteers will turn in their vests, the tents will fall, and the 2015 Sundance Film Festival will come to a close. But as it winds down, we’re taking a look at some of our favorite and not-so-favorite films of this year’s fest. Yesterday, we ran down and ranked this year’s documentaries; now, to the narrative films, spinning fiction while still (hopefully) telling truths.

WORST OF THE FEST

Zipper

Full disclosure: I bailed on this one 75 minutes in, and maybe it got ah-mazing in the third act, but there’s only so many hours in the day to spend on reheated ‘90s Michael Douglas movies. Patrick Wilson (apparently laboring under the Keanu Reeves fallacy that lawyer = Southern draaaaaawl) is a righteous federal prosecutor who falls prey to sex addiction, which gets the full Reefer Madness treatment (best/funniest moment: a plunging office neckline sends him into a fit of sweaty, hyperventilating web surfing). The narrative is all cliché and the dialogue is the worst kind of clumsy exposition — Wilson’s boss actually refers to him as a Boy Scout, for Chrissakes. How this unintentionally hilarious mess got into Sundance is anybody’s guess, but hopefully it won’t make it out.

ALMOST-WORST OF THE FEST

Don Verdean

Fish-in-a-barrel screenwriting, indifferent to sloppy filmmaking, the subtlety of an overlong SNL sketch — you get what you deserve when you hand yourself over to Jared and Jerusha Hess (Napoleon Dynamite, Gentlemen Broncos), and you may be tempted, as I was, to ignore all the red flags because of the top-notch cast they inexplicably drew to this one. And to be sure, Sam Rockwell, Jemaine Clement, Amy Ryan, Danny McBride, Will Forte, and Leslie Bibb all get laughs (even a couple of big ones), yet it’s almost in spite of the material, rather than because of it. The Hesses can’t get any comic momentum going — it’s all fits and starts — and you never get a sense that they love, or even like, their characters. So why should we?

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Sleeping With Other People

There’s no great pleasure to be had in watching a real talent defanged, and that’s what happens in the last third of so of the latest from Leslye Headland. The trash-talking writer/director of Bachelorette situates her scrappy characters and likably crass dialogue at the service of a depressingly formulaic, trace-it-out-from-frame-one romantic comedy. There’s much to recommend here — every performer shines, and stars Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis generate both warmth and heat — but Headland ultimately finds herself boxed in by the immovable walls of the genre. (Read more here.)

SUNDANCE GONNA SUNDANCE

Ten Thousand Saints

From the opening narration, some sort of gobbledygook about how life is a river, there’s a real sense of “filling the Sundance bingo card” to the new film by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini: ’80s period piece, coming-of-age story, dead friend, pregnant girl, New York nostalgia. There are two saving graces: Ethan Hawke (who’s making something of a bizarre specialty of playing semi-deadbeat dads) as a father who could maybe be a little less honest (“I’m not judging, I mean, I met your mom at an orgy”), and the great Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), who shows a verve and versatility hinting at bigger things to come. But their energy can’t dilute the “been there, done that” air of the enterprise, and we’re getting to a point where American Splendor is just a little too far in Berman and Pulcini’s rearview.

I Smile Back

Rehab narratives are a dime a dozen, in Park City and everywhere, so you have to have something noteworthy to stick out; director Adam Salky has it in star Sarah Silverman, who turns in an astonishingly raw and unguarded performance as a wife and mother who can no longer hide her drugs, booze, and day sex with other men. The script (by Amy Koppelman and Paige Dylan, from Koppelman’s novel) offsets its predictability with keenly observed scenes from suburban life, and Silverman fits into them snugly, creating tiny tragedies everywhere she goes, as fragile and tenuous as an open wound. It shouldn’t be a surprise when a great comic actor is a great dramatic actor, but Silverman is nonetheless smashing in this sensitive drama. (Read more here.)

ENJOYABLE DIVERSIONS

The Overnight

Once you reach a certain age, it’s just a helluva lot harder to “make friends,” which is the dilemma faced by recent LA transplants Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) when they’re invited to a dinner party with the parents of their young son’s playmate. Throw in the kind of psycho-sexual tension that’s just under the surface of many long-term relationships, and the table is set for a playful, funny, and sometimes shockingly candid comedy of errors from writer/director Patrick Brice, who turns his small cast and (basically) single location from an indie standby into something that retains the power to surprise. (Read more here.)

Results

Andrew Bujalski’s last film, Computer Chess, beautifully aped the fuzzy, chunky look of early ’80s video; here, he seems interested in the crisp, bright studio comedies of the same era, creating a film that crosses a John Hughes love triangle with Perfect and his own off-kilter dialogue style. Cobie Smulders exhibits movie-star moxie and Guy Pearce is wonderful as a boisterous gym owner sweetly bereft of self-awareness, but the standout is Kevin Corrigan, who turns in a gloriously eccentric performance as a stoner loser and new millionaire. Scenes occasionally run too long and some of the strands don’t really go anywhere, but it’s off-balance, frisky, and enchanting.

RUNNERS-UP

Christmas, Again

Every year, the trailers roll into the neighborhoods, and a certain kind of (usually) guy sets up shop, selling Christmas trees to the locals and sleeping in the generator-heated trailers between shifts. Charles Poekel’s seriocomic drama concerns one of those guys, a heavy-hearted guy named Noel (of course), who’s been doing it for five years but is having a tougher time getting in the holiday spirit this season, thanks to a recent break-up. Poekel doesn’t manufacture conflict and doesn’t even get that concerned about plot; he just gets into this guy’s head for a while, tracking the logistics of this particular, peculiar gig, and ably capturing how heartbroken desperation can lead you to seize on any kindness from the desired sex. It’s a modest film, to say the least, but the kind of lived-in character study we don’t get enough of anymore.

Digging for Fire

It takes a while to tune in to the frequency of Joe Swanberg’s latest, which seems at first glance to be a meandering compilation of half-overheard conversations (even by Swanberg’s standards). But it soon becomes clear that he’s not looking for straight-ahead narrative but a collection of moments, of small truths and realizations, and the film works best within that framework. The cast is vast and impressive (and occasionally wasted), but Jake Johnson continues to carve out a place as an excellent indie Everyman, while Rosemarie DeWitt’s putting together a body of work that’s more than just good acting; it’s a vibrant reflection of 21st century motherhood and femininity. (Read more here.)

BEST OF THE FEST

6. The End of the Tour

James Ponsoldt’s film, and the David Lipsky book it’s based on, could have both been the worst kind of exploitation of a dead cult hero (in this case, David Foster Wallace). Instead, The End of the Tour is a celebration of his life and talent, but even more, of his ethos; the more time you spend with Jesse Eisenberg (very good) and Jason Segel (even better) as the slightly jealous profile writer and the author on the rise, the more it transcends the specifics of these particular men and becomes a story about friendship, about adulthood, and about the inherent (and sometimes tragic) loneliness of a writer’s life. (Read more here.)

5. 99 Homes

Michael Shannon has never been better (which is saying something) as a gangster real estate broker in this urgent topical drama from Rahmin Bahrani (Man Push Cart). Andrew Garfield is a desperate construction guy who loses his family home to Shannon before they form an uneasy, unexpected alliance — a deal with the devil, really. Bahrani beautifully dramatizes the conflict: he does terrible work for incredible reward, and the filmmaker ends up slyly testing the entire concept of empathy for the protagonist. Garfield is very good, giving a timely reminder that there’s a fine actor hiding under the Spidey suit. But it’s Shannon’s show all the way, particularly in his killer “America doesn’t bail out the losers” speech, which is good drama, good writing, and great performance, all at once. Some of the storytelling is overly coincidental and the ending’s a bit too tidy, but the picture is sharp, intelligent, and infuriating.

BEST OF THE FEST (CONTINUED)

4. Girlhood

The title may be accidental, but Céline Sciamma’s chronicle of a teenage girl falling in with “a bad crowd” ends up functioning as the kind of gender-switched Boyhood many were longing for; like Linklater’s Oscar nominee (and breakout hit of Sundance 2014), Girlhood takes a slice-of-life approach to the story of Marieme (Karidja Touré), told from her home and school, with her family and friends. Initially an outcast, she falls in — with surprising ease — with a trio of queen bees, roaming malls, talking shit, getting in fights. But she soon finds that life to be nearly as exhausting as her previous one, if merely a warm-up for the unexpected detours of Sciamma’s third act. That turn almost feels like another movie, but there’s a method to the structure, and once it becomes clear who our protagonist is turning into, it becomes just as clear why we must understand who she was. The acting is low-key and convincing, the photography gorgeous, and even the simplest hangout scenes have a ground-level reality that’s downright revelatory.

3. Mistress America

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s fruitful collaboration continues with this sparkling screwball comedy, with Gerwig as the dizzy dame and (in a clever gender swap) Lola Kirke as the straight arrow who gets drawn into her orbit. Kirke makes an impressive debut, but this is Gerwig’s party; she crafts a complex character whose affects are all but impossible to differentiate from her actual personality. Its tonal shifts are wildly unpredictable yet somehow successful, while allowing Baumbach to indulge in his most purely comic sequences in well over a decade. A shrewd and boisterous picture, and, at its best, an utter delight. (Read more here.)

BEST OF THE FEST (CONTINUED)

2. Dope

Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa’s wonderful debut film, 1999’s The Wood, was weirdly overshadowed by the thematically similar (and far inferior) The Best Man that same year. He’s been working quietly and sporadically ever since, waiting for the big breakthrough film. With any luck, this will be it. It’s a cinematic mixtape, equal parts Dear White People, Pulp Fiction, and Boyz N The Hood, but its tonal shifts and influences are smooth as silk, delivered at a fever pitch and with an abundance of wickedly quotable dialogue (the scene of gangstas discussing drone strikes legitimately recalls the “Royale with Cheese” conversation). It’s joyful and energetic, but the pathos and thoughtfulness of its closing passages reframe the picture as more than empty fun. What a tremendous movie.

1. Brooklyn

Comparisons have been drawn between one of last year’s best films, The Immigrant, and this, the best film I saw at Sundance. And they make sense; both tell immigrant stories, both are sumptuously photographed, and both will make you cry like an infant. But director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby (working from Colm Toibin’s novel) are drawing from a very different emotional slate; few films in recent memory more evocatively convey the emotion and intensity of homesickness, and of how the place where you’re most comfortable can become an inescapable flypaper. It’s a warm and enormously empathetic movie, and Saoirse Ronan is intoxicating in the leading role.