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The Best Films of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival

Sundance Film Festival Me and Earl

Variety’s top film critics have selected their favorite movies of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, which screened over 123 features in its 17th edition. All three of them agree: grand prize and audience award winner “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” was one of this year’s finest achievements in Park City. 

JUSTIN CHANG: Another Sundance has come to a close, and I think it’s safe to say that this year’s edition was a particularly fine one — distinguished, first and foremost, by a U.S. dramatic competition that offered the jury plenty of opportunity to spread the wealth. I had a bit of a hunch that “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” might sweep both the grand jury prize and the audience award, in the now de rigueur winner-takes-all manner of “Whiplash,” “Fruitvale Station” and “Precious” before it (or rather, “Fruitvale” and “Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire,” as they were known at the time). But it says something, I think, that the jury bestowed several runner-up prizes on a number of excitedly received entries that might well have come out on top in a different year. I was particularly pleased to see the frighteningly gifted first-timer Robert Eggers take directing honors for his eerie colonial gothic “The Witch” — an achievement that reminds me of the time Sean Durkin won this prize for “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (2011), another sharp, suspenseful tale of rural isolation and madness that the jury duly cited for its icily brilliant direction while reserving its top prize for something a bit more crowdpleasing.

I suspect many would argue that Marielle Heller’s tender and evocative “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” deserved more than just a cinematography award, just as others were probably unhappy to see Rick Famuyiwa’s much-buzzed-about “Dope” kissed off with an editing prize — though I gather, Scott, that you weren’t exactly one of them. As for “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” I would never have guessed that a film that looked like a must-avoid on paper — Wes Anderson’s “The Fault in Our Stars” — would instead turn out to be the one that all three of us can really get behind. Like “Diary,” Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s beautifully hand-crafted first feature doesn’t just pay lip service to its characters’ reckless creative impulses but actively embodies them in every frame, in the cleverness of its verbiage and the intricacy of its visual design. That doesn’t make it any less of a cancer-themed tearjerker, perhaps, but it’s also a movie about how we manage, to quote the great Lily Tomlin in Paul Weitz’s “Grandma,” to transmogrify our lives into art.

PETER DEBRUGE: As you know, Justin, I’m frequently referring to my inner grandma (who, like the inner 13-year-old who flipped for “Me and Earl,” pops up on occasion in my schizophrenic critic brain), and Weitz’s “Grandma” revealed her to have been a lesbian all along. Tomlin pretty much stole the show out from under Tina Fey in the few scenes she had in Weitz’s “Admission,” and this movie is a dream-come-true version of what she could do if given a full movie to dominate — and dominate she does as a caustic old feminist poet tasked with overseeing her mousy teen granddaughter’s abortion. Along with Justin Kelly’s “I Am Michael,” which handles the prickly subject of a gay activist’s surprising conversion to self-repressed Christianity with none of the same raucous energy, the year brought a wealth of complex LGBT portrayals that should have no trouble finding life beyond the gay fest circuit, my favorite being Sean Baker’s super-charged “Tangerine,” an iPhone-shot romp that demands to be seen on the bigscreen. I went back a second time, and the minute it ended, two 60-ish ladies turned to me, overflowing with enthusiasm, to share how much they loved it. Which is to say, even my inner grandma can get on board with “Tangerine.”

Yesterday was a catch-up day for me, finally giving me a chance to see the best-received movies that I hadn’t personally been the one to review. Justin, I totally share your appreciation — and then some — for Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s “Mississippi Grind,” which, like “Grandma” and “The End of the Tour,” uses a loose on-the-road premise to support exceptional character analysis and some mighty fine acting, in this case by Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds as a pair of born losers. Fleck and Boden, who debuted their films “Half Nelson” and “Sugar” in previous years at Sundance, have a rare sense for the poetry of potentially tragic everymen, which infuses every detail of this essential but not remotely commercial indie. There’s an Irish director, Gerard Barrett, who’s getting there with “Glassland,” giving Toni Collette and Jack Reynor the best roles of their careers as a self-destructively alcoholic mother and the son who’s determined to save her from drinking to death, though the film falls apart toward the end — a reminder, as with so many Sundance films, that the best way to hedge a big artistic gamble is with a rock-solid script, which “Grind” delivers in spades.

SCOTT FOUNDAS: In hearing about “The Witch” and its enthusiastic reception, some readers will doubtless flash back to 1999, when a little no-budget indie called “The Blair Witch Project,” exploded in Sundance’s midnight section and went on to earn almost $250 million at the worldwide box office (making it the “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” of horror fare). But aside from sharing an occult title character, the two movies couldn’t be more different — and the difference, I think, is instructive. “Blair Witch” came along just before the digital revolution in filmmaking and exhibition really started to take hold; it was shot on a mix of 16mm film and analog Hi8 videotape, and eventually transferred back to 35mm film for its theatrical release. But in its rough-hewn DIY aesthetic, self-reflexive docu-fiction style and ingenious viral marketing campaign, it left a profound mark on genre filmmaking that lingers to this day in everything from “Cloverfield” to the ongoing “Paranormal Activity” series and the current “Project Almanac.”

“The Witch” is something else altogether. Just as last year’s Sundance midnight breakout, “The Babadook,” seemed guided by the approving spirits of Murnau and Polanski, Eggers’ film is steeped in the lush yet low-budget period horror movies of the 1960s that Roger Corman (in the U.S.) and Hammer Films (in the U.K.) churned out en masse, with a dash of “Haxan,” Danish director Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 silent docudrama on the history of witchcraft and hysteria. Only, “The Witch” goes even further. Eggers is a detail fetishist with the obsessive zeal of a Stanley Kubrick, a Michael Cimino or an Erich von Stroheim. Like Cimino in the making of “Heaven’s Gate,” Eggers insisted on using only authentic period props and costumes for “The Witch,” or else manufacturing them using 17th-century technology, and while such affectations might sound impractical and/or overly precious (and, to potential financiers, scarier than a demonic ram), this is a case where the end more than justifies the eccentric means. In 15 years of attending Sundance, I have seen few films that so viscerally realize a bygone era, complete with all its attendant superstitions and psychoses. Even as I write this, the hairs on the back of my neck are still quivering.

CHANG: Mine too, Scott. I have to say, I’m not entirely sure what my own inner lesbian grandma would make of “The Witch” (maybe she could take Peter’s inner lesbian grandma along as a date), but I like to think she’d thrill to the film’s rigorous, old-fashioned craftsmanship as well as its thrillingly subversive feminist undercurrents. Incidentally, “The Witch” was one of several Sundance films this year that showed us a family dwelling in a state of extreme confinement and/or self-imposed exile — not all of which, of course, were quite so fatalistic. Rodrigo Garcia’s “Last Days in the Desert” tells a deeply moving story of how Jesus heals the wounds that a father, a mother and a son have inflicted on each other, a prefiguring metaphor for God’s ultimate act of reconciliation with humanity. And at least two other films — Crystal Moselle’s grand jury prize-winning documentary “The Wolfpack” and Australian director’s Ariel Kleiman’s “Partisan” — seem to bear mysterious traces of “Dogtooth,” Yorgos Lanthimos’ sickeningly great 2009 black comedy about two parents desperate to shield their children from the outside world.

By contrast, as Peter suggested, there were plenty of loose-limbed, on-the-road movies that offered an energetic respite from all that claustrophobic entrapment, from the crazy L.A. adventures of “Dope,” “Grandma” and “Tangerine” to the wry Middle American odysseys of “Mississippi Grind” and “The End of the Tour.” Speaking of the latter: Peter, not having read David Lipsky’s book about his five-day interview with David Foster Wallace, I can’t refute your earlier criticisms of the liberties that director James Ponsoldt and screenwriter Donald Margulies took with the material. But what I saw was nonetheless an exquisitely subtle, funny, perceptive and finally quite emotional meeting of the minds — two very great minds — that together made for some of the festival’s most rewarding onscreen company (and allowed Jason Segel, as Wallace, to give the performance of his career). “Off the Black,” “Smashed” and “The Spectacular Now” left little doubt that Ponsoldt is the real deal, and “The End of the Tour” pretty much seals it: He’s one of the most assured and empathetic American independent filmmakers we’ve got, someone worthy of these words spoken by David Foster Wallace himself: “If a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own.”

DEBRUGE: I’m so glad you connected with “The End of the Tour,” Justin. I did myself a major disservice by reading Lipsky’s book-length transcript of his Wallace interview first (published as “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself” after the Rolling Stone assignment fell through), since I did all my weeping when I first encountered the candid self-doubt he reveals there. It’s one of those “My Dinner With Andre”-style projects — just two guys speaking — that has clearly meant a great deal to a good many of the people who saw it at Sundance. As for me, I think it’s just about the best performance we’ll ever get from Segel, but that’s not saying much, and among the worst from his twitchy, robotically technical co-star Jesse Eisenberg, who’s played one too many neurotics at this point without varying his performance style — which brings us to that other strange phenomenon, where Oscar pundits take a break from handicapping this year’s race to guess which of the new Sundance movies could end up competing next year. I refuse to play that game here, but I would like to point out that a movie no one else I know even bothered to see, the Friday-night premiere “Lila and Eve,” features one of the best performances of the festival from Viola Davis as a woman devastated by her son’s murder, pushed to avenging it in true B-movie style. (If I were to be more direct about which films it resembles, it would spoil the surprise.)

By my account, the Lifetime-produced, still-up-for-acquisition “Lila and Eve” could prove to be the most commercial film to come out of this year’s festival — possibly even including the bomb-in-the-offing “Jupiter Ascending,” which Warner Bros. inexplicably sneak-screened for a partially empty, no-press audience on Tuesday night. Looking back on what has been one of the busiest Sundance festivals for acquisitions in recent memory, I’m astounded by some of the high-dollar sales that went down. Considering that Magnolia only managed to eke out $400,000 from (the far superior) “Humpday,” how does the Orchard plan to recoup its $4 million buy of “The Overnight,” a one-joke mumblecore-esque comedy about a swingers’ party? I’m far more optimistic for both “Dope” and “Me and Earl,” both of which should have no problem topping the surprisingly low $8 million ceiling set by last year’s top Sundance acquisition, “Whiplash.” Still, between “True Story” (which just isn’t very interesting) and “Mistress America” (Noah Baumbach’s hilarious but highly specialized New York comedy), Searchlight has its work cut out for it this year. Luckily, they also picked up “Brooklyn,” another of the festival’s big breakouts — a solid, emotionally rich example of the kind of period romance that studios once made, and simply wouldn’t exist any longer were it not for independent filmmakers determined to tell the stories that move them.

FOUNDAS: I responded strongly to both “True Story” and “The End of the Tour,” in part because they take on a subject rarely explored in movies: the strange codependency that can develop between writers and their subjects, and how that in turn affects the way the writer chooses to tell the story. And just as Segel proved to be a revelation in “Tour,” “True Story” contains some of the best work — maybe the best — that the ubiquitous James Franco has done yet in a movie, on par with his wannabe Rastafarian drug dealer from Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers.” Franco has become so prolific as an actor, producer and director of indie movies that there sometimes seems to be two of him, and both spread awfully thin. But as the convicted murderer Christian Longo, Franco was deeply committed and scarily good — an ingenious sociopath who lacks human empathy but understands a great deal about how to milk it from others.

One final thought: Sundance became a brand name decades ago, once movies like Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” started making significant waves in the commercial marketplace, but even in the 15 years since I first started attending, the festival has grown exponentially. Today, the largest screening venue — the famously center-aisle-deprived Eccles Theater — seems ill equipped to handle the teaming masses, and among journalists there is a color-coded caste system to rival the one in Cannes. But bigger isn’t always better, especially when it comes to prizes. Sundance now has four official competitive sections — U.S. dramatic, U.S. documentary, World Cinema dramatic and World Cinema documentary — and, per festival director John Cooper, this year he empowered each jury to give multiple special jury awards in addition to the standard prizes for direction, screenwriting, et al. The result was a closing-night ceremony that stretched toward the infinite, with so many “special” citations (including four in the U.S. documentary section alone) that, after a while, they stopped seeming so special and the evening began to resemble one of those infernal grade-school commencement ceremonies where every child receives a “participation” ribbon, lest he/she feel left out. Surely, this new Sundance initiative sprang from the best of intentions, but the festival would do well to remember that there is a very fine line between spreading the wealth and devaluing the dollar.

CRITICS’ CHOICES

Here are our reviewers’ five favorite films of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, listed in alphabetical order.

JUSTIN CHANG
“The End of the Tour”
“The Forbidden Room”
“Last Days in the Desert”
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”
“Tangerine”

PETER DEBRUGE
“Grandma”
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”
“Mississippi Grind”
“Mistress America”
“Tangerine”

SCOTT FOUNDAS
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”
“Entertainment”
“Experimenter”
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”
“The Witch”