I’ve been covering the Sundance Film Festival on and off for the past 15 years. During that time, I’ve had an aisle seat to watch the rise and fall and rise of the independent film movement, I’ve been forced to check under the bed in my hotel room after returning from the first midnight screening of The Blair Witch Project, I’ve had my mind scrambled by a young filmmaker named Christopher Nolan (Memento), and most recently, I’ve been knocked out by what eventually would become my two favorite films of last year, Whiplash and Boyhood.
This year’s festival was no different. There were movies to make your heart swell, movies to make your brain swirl, and movies that left you haunted with cold sweats and night terrors. In short, there was no shortage of films that I look forward to writing about and revisiting until I return to Park City, Utah, next year. So without any further blather, here are the five best things I saw at Sundance 2015…
Kurt Cobain: A Montage of Heck This year’s edition of the festival hosted no fewer than 118 features. Like anyone else, I only managed to see a fraction of those. But without question the best one I saw was Brett Morgen’s documentary bio of the live-fast-die-young grunge godhead and Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain: A Montage of Heck. Morgen, who bowled me over with his rollicking 2002 Sundance documentary about legendarily leathery Hollywood producer Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture, confirmed why he’s one of the non-fiction genre’s most talented filmmakers. Normally, I’m skeptical when a documentarian gets into bed with his subject as Morgen did here (he had the full cooperation of Cobain’s family, Courtney Love, and his daughter Frances Bean). But in this case, that cozy relationship allowed him to have full access to Cobain’s childhood home movies and his journals. The result is a portrait that’s at turns confessional, confused, and yes, even at times happy, that bring Cobain—a man who’s snowballed into myth since his 1994 suicide—to life in a way that no other film or book has. We finally get to see the man instead of the myth. And, it goes without saying, the music is amazing.
It Follows “Park City at Midnight” has always been one of my favorite sections of the festival. It’s where real genre-hounds can get their late-night rocks off after a day of submersing oneself in Sundance’s more earnest and self-serious smorgasbord. There was a lot of buzz this year around Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare, but unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to catch up with it. I’ll have to wait until it comes to lower altitudes. One of the midnight movies I did catch and really, really dug was David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows. The film is actually being released nationally in March, so I’ll have more to say about it when the time comes. But for now, I’ll just suggest that Mitchell’s atmospheric chiller feels like the kind of movie John Carpenter might have made somewhere between Halloween and The Thing. It’s smart, original, rich with allegory, and has a handful of white-knuckle scares that will creep you out long after you see it. Horror fans have known for decades that teens having sex were lining up for the bodycount, but Mitchell takes that trope and it gives it a smart new twist.
Dope If you cross-pollinate Yo! MTV Raps and Risky Business, you might end up with something like Rick Famuyiwa’s inner-city coming of age caper, Dope. Shameik Moore stars as Malcolm, an awkward high-school brainiac who lives in the Inglewood section of L.A. and who’s obsessed with old-school hip-hop. His high-top fade haircut says House Party, but Famuyiwa’s comedy has more on its mind than Kid n’ Play. Narrated by Forest Whitaker (who’s also one of the film’s producers), the movie kicks into giddy gear when Malcolm and his two best friends (Kiersey Clemons and The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori) get swept into a drug deal gone sour. During a shootout at a club, a local dealer puts his stash into Malcolm’s backpack and now he has to figure out how to unload the goods without jeopardizing his dreams of going to Harvard‑or, at the very least, getting killed. The movie has a real rat-a-tat energy, the retro details are spot-on, and the movie has real style.
Dope isn’t perfect. It could really use a smart editor to whip some of its shaggier narrative cul de sacs into shape. But it’s smart and it’s got heart and leaves you with an itch to do the Humpty Dance. And how many movies can you say that about?
Jason Segel in The End of the Tour Better known as “The David Foster Wallace movie”, The End of the Tour isn’t a perfect film by any stretch. But it made me see the tall drink of Apatovian water, Jason Segel, in a new light. He’s not just a comedian and a Muppet aficionado. The dude’s a real actor. Directed by James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now), the film chronicles the prickly and poignant relationship between the genius novelist David Foster Wallace (Segel) and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) when he went to interview the author for a 1996 magazine profile during the release of his magnum opus, Infinite Jest. The two men are equally insecure and proud in their own ways, and the reporter/subject dynamic gets a real workout and has the ring of truth (at least to this occasional celebrity profiler).
I suspect that the movie doesn’t dig deep enough to get at the real Wallace and probably oversimplifies what made him tick and I’m getting a little numb to Eisenberg playing Eisenberg over and over again. But, like the much better but similarly themed Almost Famous, the film is a vehicle for a real headturning turn. In that case it was Kate Hudson. Here, it’s Segel. At first, his performance as Wallace feels like bandana-festooned mimicry. A collection of tics. But he slowly melts into the character and his intelligence comes through loud and clear. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.
The Return of the Adult Sex Comedy Although this year’s opening night movie, Bryan Buckley’s The Bronze, was a mixed bag and a remains a bit of a question mark for why it landed that coveted slot, it did contain one of the festival’s most memorable—and acrobatic—scenes. A ridiculously vigorous, raunchy, and bendy sex scene between two gymnasts played by The Big Bang Theory’s Melissa Rauch and Sebastian Stan. It was like the boot-knocking scene in Team America: World Police, but with real people instead of marionettes. It wasn’t the only film to stick its piggy toe into the hard-R grotto of a long-lost genre known as The Adult Sex Comedy. In addition to The Bronze, there were two other films I caught that allowed adults to act like the prurient, pubescent peeping toms from Porky’s. The better of the two was Patrick Brice’s The Overnight, which stars Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling as a married couple whose sex life has gotten routine bordering on dysfunctional ever since they had their son. Maybe even longer. Newly relocated to L.A., they meet a friendly stranger (Jason Schwartzman) with a son the same age as theirs. He invites the couple over to dinner to meet his wife and finally make some friends in their new city. Once there, things go from slightly strange to totally bonkers. It’s not clear whether Schwartzman and his French wife (Judith Godreche) are being nice or if they’re swingers on the make.
The Overnight takes place over 24 hours and deliriously spirals into a 21st century Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice with full-frontal male nudity. Schwartzman is tornado of funny. The second Adult Sex Comedy I caught up with was Leslye Headland’s Sleeping with Other People. I think I was a little more lukewarm on the film than the packed house I saw it with, but it’s still got plenty of salty laughs. If The Overnight is Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, then Headland’s film is more like When Harry Met Sally with masturbation gags. Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie play two sex addicts who reunite years after losing their virginity to each other in college. And the movie is more or less a familiar tap dance of will-they-or-won’t-they tension. I’ve always liked Sudeikis’ brand of smug, smarmy charm and Brie seems to be having fun letting her hair down and be a little naughty here. But the sum of the film isn’t quite as good as its parts. Headland, who previously brought her tamer film Bachelorette to Sundance, is obviously very funny and seems to have first-hand experience with toxic relationships (she admitted as much introducing the film at its premiere). But compared to The Overnight, it felt a bit less dangerous, a bit more predictable. That said, Sudeikis’ tutorial teaching Brie how to masturbate using an empty iced green tea bottle as his model was one the more memorable movie moments I’ve had at Sundance.