Best of Sundance 2014

The film writing community is still catching up on sleep, getting over festival flu and showering off the stink of their blogger condos, but there's no escaping it: the Sundance Film Festival is over for another year. For over thirty years, the festival has provided a welcome opportunity to shake off awards season, and to start to look over some of the movies and faces that we'll be talking about for the next twelve months.

The general consensus superficially seems to be that this wasn't exactly the best year of all time—there was no "Beasts of the Southern Wild"-style near-universal critical favorite, for instance—but it was a pretty strong year nevertheless. To wrap up our coverage from Park City (for the most part), we've picked out our ten favorite fiction films and five favorite documentaries, below, while our correspondents also picked their personal top fives on the following pages. Take a look, and let us know what you're most looking forward to seeing in the comments section. Additionally, you can find the full list of Sundance award winners here.

Frank, Sundance

Director: Lenny Abrahamson (“Adam and Paul,” “Garage,” “What Richard Did”)
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy
What’s It About? An unassuming young man accidentally becomes the keyboard player for an experimental pop band, drawing him into the enigma of their leader, a mysterious man who wears a giant head.
Why Is It Worth Seeing? Going into Sundance, "Frank" certainly looked like one of the most curious propositions of the festival, if not the year: that movie about a band where Michael Fassbender spends the whole thing encased in a paper mache head. But as it turned out, it was also arguably the best movie of the festival, proving to be a favorite of both head Playlister Rodrigo Perez and correspondent Cory Everett. The film—based very, very loosely on writer Jon Ronson's ("The Men Who Stared At Goats") experiences with Mancunian musician/correspondent Chris Sievey, aka Frank Sidebottom, and directed by Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson, in a sharp about-turn from his excellent last feature "What Richard Did"—was, according to Rod's A grade review, "an off-the-wall and terrific paean to the misfits and freaks of the world, their dreams, visions and togetherness." One of the more convincing movies about being in a band, "like a mutated 'Inside Llewyn Davis,'" and accompanied with "so many laugh-out-loud little flavors and shades," it's "unlike anything you've seen in recent memory." Featuring tremendous performances from the whole cast which, aside from Fassbender, also includes Domhnall Gleeson, Scoot McNairy and a "scene-stealing" Maggie Gyllenhaal, "it certainly won't be for everyone, but this terrific and sublime experience, and strikingly original film, is mandatory watching for the adventurous viewer."
When Can I See It? Magnolia have the rights, and it should be in theaters in the summer.
Our Review: Rodrigo’s A grade review is here

"Listen Up Philip"
Tribeca Film "Listen Up Philip"

"Listen Up Philip"
Director: Alex Ross Perry (“Impolex,” “The Color Wheel”)
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter
What’s It About? On the brink of the publication of his second novel, a celebrated writer is invited to the retreat of his idol, which further threatens his already crumbling relationship.
Why Is It Worth Seeing? His last film, "The Color Wheel," became a serious favorite in the critical community, but after "Listen Up Philip," the cult of director Alex Ross Perry is likely to grow much, much further. In part, it's that he has some bigger names involved: Jason Schwartzman takes the lead role, with Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, Dree Hemingway, Jess Weixler and Kate Lyn Sheil among the supporting cast. But more than anything, according to Rodrigo Perez's review from Park City, it's that it sees the flourishing of a new voice with its "deeply misanthropic portrait of narcissism" that's drawing comparisons to Noah Baumbach's earlier work. "A hilariously acidic look at the New York literary world and the complex and fragile egos within," it gives Schwartzman "his best role since 'Rushmore'" as a self-absorbed on-the-rise author whose relationship is deteriorating and who falls under the spell of his idol, though Moss and Pryce are equally good, the latter in particular delivering a performance that might be his career best. Perry evokes "a pricklier Woody Allen, a less fastidious Wes Anderson" and even John Cassavettes, but carving out its own groove as well, the film's also beautifully shot, by Sean Price Williams, and scored, by Keegan DeWitt.  
When Can I See It? There’s no distributor yet, but we’ll assume that’ll change fast and you’ll see it later this year. It feels like a perfect movie for the indie spring season. Our Review: Rodrigo’s A- grade

Love is Strange

"Love Is Strange"
Director: Ira Sachs (“Forty Shades Of Blue,” “Married Life,” “Keep The Lights On”)
Cast: Alfred Molina, John Lithgow, Marisa Tomei, Cheyenne Jackson
What’s It About? After 39 years together, Ben and George are finally able to get married, and are about to tie the knot. But, when the Catholic school he works for finds out, George is fired, the pair lose their apartment, and they’re forced to live separately, crashing with their respective children, and putting their relationship to the test.
Why Is It Worth Seeing? Nine years after winning the Grand Jury Prize with "Forty Shades Of Blue," filmmaker Ira Sachs was back at Sundance with his latest, "Love Is Strange." Like his last film, the excellent "Keep The Lights On" (which was at the festival two years back), it's a low-key love story between two men, but while that dealt with twenty/thirtysomethings, "Love Is Strange" follows a couple, played by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, who've been together for nearly forty years, and who are about to finally tie the knot. Fortunately, the film is just as humane and lovely as its predecessor, according to James Rocchi's review. "If 'Love Is Strange' were nothing more than a showcase for its performances, it would still be superlative," he wrote, calling the central duo "perfect... with all of the feeling and fights and closeness that a real couple would have." But Sachs isn't just telling a love story, with the movie also addressing "New York economics, subsidized housing, prejudice's more socially acceptable forms and how the rent is, in the words of the sage prophets, too damn high." But it's the central relationship that most are responding to: as James' review concludes, "I doubt I'll see a more finely performed and beautifully crafted love story, with or without any mere modifiers, up on the big screen this year."
When Can I See It? Sony Pictures Classics acquired the film so we may be able to expect it in the summer, but it could even arrive in awards season if they want to push it in that direction.
Our Review: James Rocchi’s A- grade piece is here


Director: John Michael McDonagh (“The Guard”)
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd, Aiden Gillen, Isaach De Bankole
What’s It About? A gentle priest in a small Irish town is told during confession that he’ll be murdered, and sets out to find which of his parishioners will be the culprit.
Why Is It Worth Seeing? Whether you liked it or loathed it, most agreed that "Seven Psychopaths" was something of a step down for writer/director Martin McDonagh from his excellent debut feature "In Bruges." But there's been no such sophomore slump for his brother John Michael McDonagh for his second movie: if anything, "Calvary" might be a big step up for the man behind the delightfully offensive "The Guard." A quieter, darker film about a small-town priest (Brendan Gleeson, reteaming with the filmmaker) who's told that he'll be murdered by a member of his parish. Rodrigo Perez praised the film's "precision and control" that "evokes a modern Bresson, if Bresson were directing a particularly wordy Samuel Beckett play." It's not as uproariously funny as its predecessor (though it is funny), but "what it loses in laughs it gains in profoundly moving drama and emotional texture," and among a tremendous cast, "Gleeson is in perfect form, effortlessly moving from comedic barb to high drama and back again." A complex film that probably won't be for everyone, but "its unwavering commitment to the intelligent thorniness of its themes, and the masterful control McDonagh exerts over the shifts in tone are worth cherishing, bringing it soaring close to something divine."
When Can I See It? Fox Searchlight picked up the film. Look for them to push Gleeson in the next awards season.
Our Review: Rodrigo’s A- take can be found here