For Robert Redford, Sundance’s opening day was a bummer. He woke up to learn the Academy had snubbed him for a (deserved) Best Actor nod for the sparse yachting drama All Is Lost, and had to spend his typically triumphant morning press conference swatting down questions about being sad. Luckily for the rest of us, the festival was a smash, or at least a sizzle. There wasn’t a surefire champion, but most films earned warm, welcoming buzz that buyers stoked by writing check after check. Five years ago, covering Sundance was like selling a mote of gold: A film might be the real deal but was almost impossible for anyone else to see. Thanks to VOD, now odds are that everyone can (eventually) catch the best of the fest. Here are ten you shouldn’t miss.
Calvary — The McDonagh brothers, Martin (who wrote and directed In Bruges) and John Michael (who wrote and directed The Guard and this), specialize in bleak, witty thrillers given gravitas by actor Brendan Gleeson. It’s a specific niche, and a great one. In Calvary, Gleeson plays a small town Irish priest warned he’ll be murdered in a week. He knows who’s angry, he knows he’s blameless, and he refuses to run.
Fed Up — We’ve conquered cigarettes and tamed weed. The new public enemy is sugar. This doc attacks the food industry by frightening us with the facts: the rise in Type 2 diabetes among children, the obesity-related drop in life expectancy. Warns a nutritionist, “If a foreign nation were doing this to our kids, we’d go to war.” Maybe we should.
The Voices — After the Oscar-nominated cartoon Persepolis, director Marjane Satrapi about-faces with this savage comedy about schizophrenia. Ryan Reynolds stars as a recluse whose talking cat orders him to kill. It’s all fun and games until people start dying — and then shaken-up attendees started walking out. A bold blend of laughter, tragedy, and empathy that makes this a must-see.
Web Junkie — In America, we joke about Internet addiction. In China, it’s classified as a disease, and with good reason. Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam’s doc tracks a generation of only children who relieve their loneliness online, and the estranged, high-pressure parents who liken their kids’ video game habits to heroin. Meet the drill sergeants and patient therapists tasked to help these teenagers join the real world — or get locked in solitary confinement.
Frank — Here’s a bold casting move: Hire Michael Fassbender and hide his face in a mask. Fassbender plays the frontman and mystic of the unpronounceably named band Soronprfbs in this riff on real-life musician Chris Sievey, aka Frank Sidebottom, who was rarely photographed without his fiberglass head. Energized by a dizzying soundtrack, Frank is a parable about creativity, talent, and the painful truth that some people aren’t born to be stars.
Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart — You’ve heard of convicted murderer Pamela Smart, the temptress who hired three teens to kill her husband. And you’ve seen Nicole Kidman play a version of her in To Die For. But even before the jury was selected, the frenzied media had so blurred fact and fiction that documentarian Jeremiah Zagar makes a convincing case that Smart, still serving a lifetime sentence, never got a fair trial.
The Guest — Dan Stevens, aka Downton Abbey‘s doomed heir apparent, kills in his first star role — literally. In this stylish, subversive horror-comedy, Stevens shows leading man potential as a questionably discharged vet with a surplus of rage and charm. And when it comes to genre credentials, the filmmaking team of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett (You’re Next) has nothing left to prove.
Happy Valley — The name Joe Paterno triggers a dozen different reactions: Was the disgraced Penn State football coach hero or coward, martyr or accomplice? This measured documentary by Amir Bar-Lev’s (My Kid Could Paint That, The Tillman Story) explores every possibility. Instead of pinpointing a villain — besides, of course, Jerry Sandusky, whose adopted son gives the film’s bravest testimony — Bar-Lev indicts everyone from the NCAA to the press and fans for feeding on the spectacle.
What We Do in the Shadows — Take MTV’s Real World, then multiply months of roommate tensions by a millennia. Add a hunger for blood and you’ll get Taika Waititi’s hysterical mockumentary about a household of New Zealand vampires still trying to get the lazy one to wash the dishes after 200 years. With Waititi’s longtime comedy accomplice Jemaine Clement, of course.
The Overnighters — They haven’t even handed out last year’s Oscars yet and I’m ready to call the Academy’s attention for next year to this doc about a narrow-minded North Dakota town deluged by desperate men seeking six-figure fracking jobs. The pastor who tries to keep the peace is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a human saint — which makes him a target for the neighbors eager to kick these strangers out of town. It’s the kind of small, wrenching story that Sundance makes famous. Maybe Redford could star in the fictionalized remake.
Amy Nicholson is reporting on the Sundance Film Festival for the Voice. Follow her on Twitter at @theamynicholson.
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