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The Fabulous And The Forgettable

Which movies had Sundance sizzling…and which left our critic feeling cold? A discerning look at the festival’s cinematic highs and lows this year.

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Which movies had Sundance sizzling…and which left our critic feeling cold? A discerning look at the festival’s cinematic highs and lows this year.

THE SKELETON TWINS

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader powerfully portray siblings coping with a troubled family legacy. Hader is a revelation as the gay, depressed Milo: He doesn’t dial back the shade-throwing bitchery, but he builds it around a core of feeling. And Wiig, as she did in Bridesmaids, draws us into a conspiratorial relationship with her character’s bad behavior. Directed and co-written by Craig Johnson, this is a tenderly sincere, smart, beguiling, penetrating, and — yes — often very funny drama about ordinary messed-up people.

WHIPLASH

In Damien Chazelle’s electrifying jazz fable, Miles Teller (a Sundance breakout last year in The Spectacular Now) plays a brilliant, driven young drummer who attends the Shaffer Conservatory, where he comes under the tutelage of the school’s legendary taskmaster, a scarily exacting bebop maestro. Playing this drill sergeant of beauty, J.K. Simmons (Juno, The Closer) does a bravura turn, but it’s Teller’s brash, tormented, passionate performance that makes the movie work.

BOYHOOD

Shot over 12 years, starting in 2002, Richard Linklater’s beautiful stunt of a movie tells the story of a boy named Mason growing up in Texas. The hook is that Mason is played by an actor named Ellar Coltrane, who we literally watch grow up, year after year, on camera. Packed and lively and very entertaining, yet almost Joycean in its appreciation of the magic of everyday life, Boyhood touches on something deep and true: that we all grow up to be the people we are by letting every moment shape us.

LIFE ITSELF

You may think there’s little left to discover about the dearly departed Roger Ebert, but in this documentary, director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) puts the celebrated critic’s life together with extraordinary fascination and passion. From hard-drinking newspaperman to beloved TV personality to undaunted cancer victim, Ebert is presented as a man on a spiritual quest who has now become what Ebert himself would have hailed as a truly great movie character.

WISH I WAS HERE

It’s taken 10 years for Zach Braff to make his second feature (after Garden State, a movie I loved), and given that he funded it with a highly publicized Kickstarter campaign, Wish I Was Here became one of the event films of the festival. Some were enthralled by it, but I was mixed on this middle-aged odyssey about an out-of-work actor dad (Braff) who is faced, all at once, with losing his career, his ailing father (Mandy Patinkin), his children’s posh private-school education (the horror!), and his center.

CAMP X-RAY

Kristen Stewart makes a bid for indie integrity by playing a guard at Guantánamo Bay who befriends one of the detainees. Has he been unjustly imprisoned? Maybe. But as the film sees it, the real injustice is that he’s been locked up with no end in sight, and he’s nice. It’s hard to buy Stewart as a soldier because all she does is rein in her moody mannerisms and give an almost minimalist performance. The film conveys a journalistic sense of the day-to-day squalor of Guantánamo, but as drama, it’s mostly a dud.