Sundance 2014: Alex & Ethan's Top 10 Favorite Films of the Festival
by Alex Billington
January 27, 2014
The 2014 Sundance Film Festival has finally come to an end and to put a wrap on things and finalize our nearly two weeks of coverage, we have one more recap and the list of our favorites. After screening films for nearly 10 days straight, Ethan and I have put together a selection of the 10 films that we believe are the best of the fest, our favorites from Sundance 2014. Among them are a few docs, a number of comedies, but mostly outstanding, original, wonderful films. This is to wrap up our coverage of Sundance as the fest has concluded. As a final recap we present our 5 favorite films each, plus one last rundown of everything else.
Let's start at the top and take a look at our favorite films from Sundance 2014. While I saw many films that I liked (my full list of 32 here), this year there were quite a few films I missed even though I heard mostly raves about them. But these are our favorite films from this year's festival that we did get to see. Let's begin.
Alex's Top 5 Favorite Films:
Whiplash - Directed by Damien Chazelle
Whiplash - What a film. What a way kick ass and inspiring way to start the festival. This was, remarkably, the very first film of Sundance 2014 and ended up being my favorite all throughout the festival. I went nuts after it premiered and tweeted three times, saying "I have so much to say about Whiplash. This film just spoke to me in a very deep, very engaging, very inspiring way. Outstanding." It's so intense, but funny, it balances everything right, packs a punch in the right ways musically and energetically. Overall I just had a blast watching it, and even loved the excessively long jazz number at the end. Bring it on. As Jason Reitman tweeted after the premiere of the film: "Ladies and Gentlemen, Damien Chazelle has arrived." Indeed.
The Raid 2 - Directed by Gareth Evans
The Raid 2 - Holy. Shit. This was awesome. I sat in awe, for nearly 2 and 1/2 hours, at the premiere of The Raid 2 - with a momentary pause for a "medical emergency" in the audience" - and was blown away. This was the completely fresh, raw cut, that director Gareth Evans just finished, without having even shown the MPAA yet, totally uncut. And it was brutal and epic and brilliant and legendary. The experience was what made it for me, complete with every last punch, kick, half the audience walking out, but a deserved standing ovation at the end from those that remained. I compared it to The Dark Knight of martial arts action movies and that's pretty much what Evans has pulled off here. Let's hope he doesn't have to cut it down too much.
Love is Strange - Directed by Ira Sachs
Love is Strange - On the completely opposite spectrum from The Raid 2 comes this very moving, tender, beautiful film from director Ira Sachs. It was one of the few films that made me tear up multiple times, which I'll admit one of the times was because it has some gorgeous cinematography of my home, New York City, shots that just worked perfectly to capture the atmosphere of this generational drama about love. Alfred Molina & John Lithgow give outstanding performances as an elderly gay couple and they bring so much heart to it. This is the kind of film that makes you want to call someone you love right after seeing it.
The Guest - Directed by Adam Wingard
The Guest - Another totally kick ass movie, from the guys that brought us You're Next and A Horrible Way to Die - Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett. This is like some sick, twisted, totally insanely awesome throwback to 80's action, with a random guy that shows up and protects a family. That's about all you need to know, the rest is one hell of a joy ride from start to finish, it's really really awesome. That mysterious guy? Dan Stevens - he is now one of my favorite action heroes. So, so so badass, such a fun film. It was my very last film of Sundance 2014, but ended up making the cut here because I had an amazing time watching it.
The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz - Directed by Brian Knappenberger
The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz - I really, really love this documentary. Director Brian Knappenberger got everything perfect about telling the life story of the young Aaron Swartz, internet/coder prodigy, co-founder of Reddit, and political activist, who committed suicide in early 2013. While it is a tragic story at the end, which moved me to tears I'll admit, there is such a strong inspirational backbone to the film, that it really is motivating to watch. I can't recommend it enough and I hope everyone takes a moment to seek it out, not only to honor the legacy of Swartz and see what he stood for and why, but to enjoy an excellently arranged, engaging and powerfully moving documentary on how to change the world.
Honorable Mentions: Cutter Hodierne's Fishing Without Nets, Richard Linklater's Boyhood, Craig Johnson's lovely The Skeleton Twins, the Ebert doc Life Itself, The Overnighters is fantastic, and last but not least the funky but original Frank; plus the cinematography in Kumiko the Treasure Hunter.
Ethan's Top 5 Favorite Films:
Life Itself - Directed by Steve James
Life Itself - In a documentary that the film critic himself would have approved, Life Itself remembers Roger Ebert fondly and warmly. But with talking heads from iconic filmmakers, cherished family and longtime friends, the film paints a much more complete portrait of the man than even his books, articles and many public appearances could achieve. Complete with recollections of some less than fine moments during some darker alcoholic years and some of his more recognizable shortcomings, the film shows us Ebert as he truly was: a flawed but gifted cinephile, with a big heart and a brilliant mind.
I Origins - Directed by Mike Cahill
I Origins - For anyone who has a strong stance on evolution or creationism, this film is a truly provoking emotional bridge between science and faith. Director Mike Cahill (Another Earth) combines a character driven story with grounded sci-fi to make for a powerful, spectacular piece of work. Spectacularly performed by Michael Pitt, Brit Marling & Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, the film has many moments which will make your heart stop and take your breath away. Somewhere in this lies common ground on the divisive subject of the beginning of humanity, and it's a novel concept that people may never fully accept or understand.
The Skeleton Twins - Directed by Craig Johnson
The Skeleton Twins - Whether you're expecting "Saturday Night Live" stars Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig to turn in their usual comedy or an unexpectedly dramatic turn in this indie entry, there's absolute satisfaction on both counts. The Skeleton Twins features familiar indie pieces, but put together in a fresh way thanks to Wiig & Hader. The chemistry between these two comedy stars is palpable as siblings who are lost in life, and it makes both the hilarity and emotion from their reunion after being estranged for 10 years that much more effective. The film packs a punch to the heart with sentiment and the gut with laughter.
They Came Together - Directed by David Wain
They Came Together - In a world plagued by terrible parody films like Meet the Spartans, Epic Movie and A Haunted House, director David Wain and writer Michael Showalter have brought wit and quality back to the comedic subgenre. Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler play the typical romantic comedy couple in this parody which takes aim at films like You've Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally and other lesser films that have become more than predictable. Thankfully, They Came Together is full of hilarity, skewering every bit of romantic comedies, and adding Wain's trademark spin on a spoof-style reminiscent of Mel Brooks, Jim Abrahams and David & Jerry Zucker. The film is so funny, you'll be exhausted from laughter when it's over.
Boyhood - Directed by Richard Linklater
Boyhood - Richard Linklater has created an achievement in cinema that marks the most expansive coming-of-age story film has ever seen. Using actor Ellar Coltrane from the age of six all the way until his early adult years at 18, we experience a boy's life as he grows into the man he will become. There's a level of authenticity added by the fact that we watch Coltrane himself grow up before our very eyes, almost making him feel like our own child. Linklater shot for a few days each year as Coltrane aged, and it inspires an overwhelming amount of nostalgia for anyone's childhood years. The film doesn't venture into many of the typical milestones of boyhood, making the welling of tears all the more surprising at the most unexpected times. Boyhood is unlike any film you've ever seen, a beautiful time capsule that feels real and pure.
Honorable Mention: The Raid 2 would be at #6 if this list continued. It's bigger, badder and bloodier than the first film, with action that puts American blockbusters to shame. The story of warring crime families is familiar, but it's the outstanding direction of Gareth Evans that elevates this sequel to greatness.
As a recap, you can find more lists below of ALL our reviews of Sundance films published over the last two weeks. They are organized in order by the score given in the review to easily find the best Sundance films.
Alex's Sundance Reviews:
9.8/10 - The Raid 2 (dir. Gareth Evans)
9.5/10 - I Origins (dir. Mike Cahill)
9/10 - Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)
9/10 - Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)
8/10 - The Signal (dir. William Eubank)
8/10 - Ping Pong Summer (dir. Michael Tully)
7.5/10 - The Voices (dir. Marjane Satrapi)
Ethan's Sundance Reviews:
9/10 - Life Itself (dir. Steve James)
9/10 - They Came Together (dir. David Wain)
8.5/10 - The Skeleton Twins (dir. Craig Johnson)
8/10 - Obvious Child (dir. Gillian Robespierre)
8/10 - Ivory Tower (dir. Andrew Rossi)
7/10 - A Most Wanted Man (dir. Anton Corbijn)
5/10 - Life After Beth (dir. Jeff Baena)
5/10 - Wish I Was Here (dir. Zach Braff)
4/10 - Camp X-Ray (dir. Peter Sattler)
Sundance Blogs + More:
Our 11 Most Anticipated Films We Can't Wait to See
Covering Film Festivals in the Age of Social Media
We're Back in Indie Heaven at Sundance 2014
Sundance 2014 Pre-Film Bumper Honors Festival Greats
Blog: The Exhilaration of Experiencing the Unknown
Sundance Film Festival 2014 Awards Revealed
Blog: Wrapping Up Another Year After 32 Screenings
Who Bought Which Movies at the Indie Film Festival?
Well, that's pretty much it from Sundance 2014 folks. We'll have a few more interviews, recaps and reviews to post, but this covers everything and all of our experiences this year. As exciting and exhausting as it has been to be on the ground at the festival seeing these films, we hope we've been able to translate some of that excitement to everyone else, highlighting the films we feel are most worthy of being mentioned. Sundance is a great place to discover and enjoy so much unique independent cinema, and after the fest, we just want to share all of that with everyone. We'll be back in Park City next year, but for now, it's time to get some rest.