Sundance 2015: Our 7 Favorite Feature Films - The Best of the Fest
by Alex Billington
February 3, 2015
The 2015 Sundance Film Festival has finally come to an end and to put a wrap on things and finalize our nearly two weeks of coverage, it's time to present our Best of the Fest. We're doing things a bit different this year and presenting combined favorites between Ethan and I (since we loved so many of the same movies). Instead of one big list, like year's past, we're splitting up our favorites between the best 7 Feature Films we saw and the best 7 Documentaries we saw. We obviously couldn't see every film playing, but did catch over 40 between us and felt like these films below deserve to be highlighted for standing out over the others. As our final recap of Sundance 2015, which has now concluded, we present these 7 favorite feature films.
While I saw many films that I liked (my full list of 30 here), there were quite a few I missed even though I heard good things about them. But these are our favorite films from this year's fest that we did get to see.
Dope starring Shameik Moore
Directed by Rick Famuyiwa
So awesome! Dope is an excellent film that both of us instantly fell in love with, and couldn't stop raving about the entire fest. It's energetic, entertaining, incredibly smart, and connects with so many of today's issues. Dope stars newcomer Shameik Moore in a breakout lead role as Malcolm, a geeky kid living in "the bottoms" of Inglewood, California. He just doesn't fit in with any of the social groups that surround him, and neither do his two friends, played by Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori. The three of them get in over their heads with a drug deal gone bad, and where it takes them is even crazier, but oh so much fun. The way it references modern geeky ideas and yet stays honest and entertaining is what makes it so damn good.
From the kick ass soundtrack that features all kinds of 90's hip hop songs and more, including original tracks from their punk band, to sleek cinematography that never gets in the way or distracts, the film is near perfect. The cast is full of fresh faces, and even the goofy moments work because they all bring something unique to it. I'm expecting to see plenty more from director Rick Famuyiwa now that he has made quite a impact with this, and I'm sure it's only just the start. I expect this to play to big crowds once it hits theaters. I know I'll be raving about it all year long, and I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of the soundtrack, too.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Directed by Marielle Heller
Another outstanding film that both of us loved. Introducing actress Bel Powley as Minnie, and director Marielle Heller – we'll be hearing a lot about these two from this point on. Adapted from the book of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner, this 1970's San Francisco-set story of a quirky teenage girl coming into her own is powerful, funny, and endearing in all the right ways. In response to her single mother's carefree attitude, Minnie dives deep into her own sexual awakening, and expresses her feelings through drawings and tape recorded missives. She falls into a pleasurable but nonetheless problematic relationship with her mother's boyfriend Monroe, played by Alexander Skarsgård, and learns how not to let men rule her life.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a very honest, intimate trip into the mind of a teenage girl, and doesn't hold back in that regard. There's more sex in this film than just about any film we saw at Sundance, but it's told completely from the perspective of a woman and that makes such a difference. It's amusing and heartfelt, and yet raw and real when it needs to be. I wasn't expecting to be this entertained by this film, but it's so perfectly conceived and crafted that I fell for it. As Ethan wrote in his glowing review, it's "sincere, funny, passionate" and "serves as a breakthrough for Heller as a filmmaker and Powley as a bright future star."
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
If you were even remotely moved by The Fault in Our Stars, then there's a good chance that Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl will break your heart. Thomas Mann (also seen in The Stanford Prison Experiment) leads this tale of unlikely friendship as Greg Gaines, an awkward acquaintance of everyone in high school who keeps everyone at the perfect calculated distance so as to avoid any conflict and drama, making it easy to coasting through his adolescence. But that all changes when his mother forces him to hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), one of Greg's classmates, who has been diagnosed with leukemia.
What starts as a doomed friendship turns into the most cherished of relationships, making for a stunning, heart wrenching story that will tug at your heartstrings relentlessly. But there's also plenty of laughter to be found, especially in the seemingly endless library of sweded Criterion and arthouse films that are made by Greg and Earl, played masterfully by Mann and the scene-stealing R.J. Cyler. Meanwhile, Cookie is the perfect dream girl, but not in all the cliche ways. The three are supported by an exceptional adult cast that includes Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon and Jon Bernthal. This film is the kind of movie magic that isn't created by visual effects. It's just full of love in more ways than one.
The End of the Tour with Jason Segel
Directed by James Ponsoldt
This film contains the best performance of the festival - Jason Segel as the late author/writer David Foster Wallace. The End of the Tour focuses on the time that journalist David Lipsky, played by Jesse Eisenberg, spent hanging out with Wallace during the end of his promotional tour in the 1990s for his book Infinite Jest. It's a profound film in a very alluring way, drawing the audience into Wallace's brilliant mind through candid conversations and light but thoughtful moments of companionship. It also explores the relationship between interviewer and interviewee in one of the most realistic (and kind of painful) ways, and ends with a poignant conclusion that fits within the story but also hangs heavily on our minds well beyond the theater. This is a film I couldn't stop thinking about the entire festival, and one I wanted to see again while there.
Over the last few years at Sundance, I've come to really, really love director James Ponsoldt and the films he makes. Between Smashed, The Spectacular Now and now The End of the Tour, I will make the case that he's one of the best directors working today, capable of not only getting amazing performances out of his cast, but also telling very heartfelt and thoughtful stories about relationships. He continues to prove how talented and intelligent he is making films that are meaningful and engaging, and I can't be happier with the way The End of the Tour turned out. I will be revisiting this film many, many times over the next few years.
Z for Zachariah
Directed by Craig Zobel
The follow-up to Compliance, one of the most controversial films of Sundance 2012, from filmmaker Craig Zobel is this adaptation of the sci-fi novel of the same name by Robert C. O'Brien. The film follows actress Margot Robbie as Ann Burden one of the only survivors of a nuclear apocalypse, who has reestablished a basic semblance of life in a valley untouched by radiation. She first encounters Loomis, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, another lone survivor and takes him in as he grows fond of her. But then Caleb, played by Chris Pine, shows up and screws everything up as he draws her attention. The film explores relationships and religion in the most nuanced of ways, and has numerous layers behind its subtle themes. Not to mention it has some of the best cinematography out of any film at Sundance, credited to cinematographer Tim Orr.
While many at the festival were instantly comparing it to Compliance, I think this is a completely different film that has grown on me the more I think about it. There's so much to it beyond what's on the surface; Zobel hides many of the bigger ideas about humanity, rebirth, religion, betrayal, and love deep down. There isn't much dialogue but what we do get is engrossing, and it never feels overbearing, that's what makes it work so well. This may take repeat viewings to really get into it, but it's worth analyzing in further depth.
Sleeping with Other People
Directed by Leslye Headland
For every fantastic romantic comedy produced, there are about a dozen bad ones. Thankfully, writer and director Leslye Headland (Bachelorette) has delivered one of the treasured romantic comedies that treads familiar territory, but raises the bar with some of the most authentic and funny writing the subgenre has seen in a long time. Sleeping with Other People is essentially a remake of When Harry Met Sally (Headland says it's for assholes), but stands on its own two feet thanks to a career-defining performance from Jason Sudeikis, proving that he's more than just a fast-talking funny guy.
Opposite Sudeikis is "Community" star Alison Brie, also making waves as a lead actress. Her relationship woes are played up in a much more intense fashion, which makes for an interesting pairing opposite the more casual relationship issues that Sudeikis has. When these two are together, their chemistry makes for sincere romance, the kind audiences will cling to and love, much like the bond between Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks or Billy Crystal. Beyond the romance though, there is some truly hilarious and raunchy comedy, making this a perfectly entertaining portrayal of adult relationships, warts and all.
Directed by Sean Baker
There's plenty of times where a couple of white guys get to have all the fun that a night on the town can bring, but this energetic indie lets a couple of feisty transvestites trek all over Los Angeles on Christmas Eve. The story follows Sin-Dee (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) who has just been released after spending a month in prison for drugs, and she's just met up with her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), only to learn that her pimp and supposed boyfriend has been messing around with another woman, and she's not going to have it.
And so begins a citywide adventure across Los Angeles, one that takes a side road to show the struggles of a cab driver (Karren Karuglian) who has a penchant for hitting up transvestite hookers around town, and is a regular of Sin-Dee and Alexandra. The different paths of our characters around town make the film feel like Crash meets Go, all powered by a lively soundtrack. The film has garnered some buzz for being shot entirely on an iPhone 5S, but this film is vivid, gorgeous and just as good as any big budget city romp. It's a truly independent film full of unique characters that Hollywood hasn't effectively brought to life on the big.