This year, Sundance started a week late to bypass Martin Luther King Day. Perhaps that’s why buyers bid on films like sprinters racing after lost time. Thanks to their spending spree, every movie on this list should eventually make it to a theater near you — or at least to your TV. No matter the screen size, these fifteen films are worth the wait.
Finders Keepers — A wheeler-dealer buys a used smoker grill. Inside is a severed human foot — and its one-legged owner demands its return. Their public tussle, waged on the North Carolina news, makes Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel’s doc the most quotable movie at Sundance, but the pulse of this hysterical true tale bleeds into loss and desperation.
Tangerine — Here’s an L.A. story you’ve never seen: two transsexual prostitutes stalking Santa Monica Boulevard in search of one’s cheating fiancé (and pimp). Fierce and full of life, Sean Baker’s dramedy was shot on an iPhone 5 — a nimble tool for forever dashing after its stars, both cast from the LGBT Center in Hollywood.
The End of the Tour — Journalists were shivering at James Ponsoldt’s retelling of the five days Rolling Stone scribe David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) spent prodding David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel, excellent) just after the latter published Infinite Jest. Wallace, a near-recluse in Illinois, reluctantly gives up a few profane, cocky pull-quotes. Yet envious Lipsky would rather have his genius.
The Wolfpack — Documentarian Crystal Moselle’s out-of-nowhere wallop introduces us to seven homeschooled siblings imprisoned by their father, a paranoid Peruvian who locked them inside a Manhattan tenement. With their Rapunzel-long hair, they’re living a real-life Grimm fairytale. Butt their own obsessions are modern pop. Bored indoors, they shoot remakes of Pulp Fiction with handmade cardboard pistols.
Entertainment — A floundering comic (Gregg Turkington, channeling his persona Neil Hamburger) ping-pongs between pathetic clubs in the California desert. No patrons get his absurdist jokes (though we’re bent over cackling). He’s increasingly unsure himself, both of his career path and his own mental health. Enter his rich cousin (John C. Reilly) with unhelpful advice: “Consider a little less of the weird stuff.”
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief — If you’ve read the book, you’ve seen the movie. Undaunted, director Alex Gibney charges on to publicly accuse L. Ron Hubbard of quackery, and his successor David Miscavige of much, much worse. Fast, thorough, and furious, it ends by beseeching Tom Cruise to wise up and speak out.
The Stanford Prison Experiment — In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) flipped a coin and divided 24 college boys into guards and inmates. Within days, his subjects had shredded each other’s sanity. Zimbardo proved that authority turned good men into monsters. Kyle Patrick Alvarez and his young fireplug ensemble hammer home the point.
Cop Car — This bloody kiddie caper had audiences screaming. Two ten-year-old runaways discover a sheriff’s sedan with the keys inside. They drive off, slowly at first, but floor it when they find out a crooked officer (Kevin Bacon) is hunting them down. Jon Watts’s efficient thriller is fueled by kid logic. Wielding a gun with the safety locked, they shrug that it must be broken. Big mistake.
Listen to Me Marlon — When Marlon Brando died in 2004, he left hundreds of hours of audio diaries and a digital scan of his face. Combining both, documentarian Stevan Riley resurrects Brando’s ghost to explain his life: his frightful Nebraska childhood, his Tahiti fixation, and why he made decades of stinkers when he had the talent — and ego — to burnish his screen immortality.
The Second Mother — Live-in maid Val (Regina Casé) adores her wealthy employers. They like her just fine, as long as she knows her place. When Val’s estranged teenage daughter (Camila Márdila) visits São Paulo, she shatters every unspoken rule: Jéssica swims in the bosses’ pool, eats at their table, sleeps in their guest room, and forces both families to acknowledge their castes.
Cartel Land — “Back in the day, vigilante wasn’t a bad thing,” grouses self-appointed Arizona border guard Tim. A thousand miles south in Michoacán, an idealistic physician argues the same. Village by village, El Doctor leads a civilian assault on the cartel that beheaded his neighbors. Neither has his government’s blessing. Can they win ours? Yes, if we survive this doc’s heart-attack-inducing shootouts.
Dope — Relentlessly charming and hipper than heck, Rick Famuyiwa’s South Central comedy tracks three Nineties-obsessed high school seniors who dress like Kid ‘N Play and crush after the local gangster’s girl (Zoë Kravitz), a dead ringer for Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice. Sounds gimmicky, but Dope has heart, wit, and bite. The Cross Colours are old school, but the result is totally fresh.
The D Train — Loser Dan Landsman (Jack Black) has a bold plan to salvage his rep at his twenty-year reunion: He’ll convince his class’s coolest dude (James Marsden), an L.A. actor, to fly home and act like his friend. Black’s need-to-please pathos borders on repellent, but midway through, directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul hit us with a twist that upends everything, to our agonized delight.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck — Yes, the Nirvana frontman’s death was a suicide, insists Brett Morgen’s doc, slamming down Cobain’s spiral notebooks — a treasure of diary scraps, song lyrics, and sketches — as Exhibit A, alongside shockingly personal home movies of Kurt and Courtney high on heroin and each other. Case closed. Yet we’re equally entranced by footage of Cobain’s childhood and hyperactive artistic evolution.
Slow West — It’s 1870 and a Scottish virgin (Kodi Smit-McPhee) thinks he’s in love. His sweetheart has fled to America to escape a murder charge. Can he trust his guide (Michael Fassbender) to escort him through Colorado intact — or, worse, trust quick-shooting Silas not to claim the bounty on his lady’s head? This bleak beauty by debut filmmaker John Maclean has its roots in John Ford but sets out to stake its own claim on the canon — it looks small and thinks big, which made it the perfect capper to a week of Sundance.