If you couldn't tell from the reactions on social media, It was a very good year in Park City (well, at least on the narrative side). The 2015 Sundance Film Festival featured a dramatic competition with far fewer bad eggs than usual, a NEXT slate which once again got people excited, a number of the noncompetitive premieres that surprised (we're looking at you “Brooklyn”), two closing night films that were reportedly pretty good (a rare occurrence for any film festival) and acclaimed movies that landed distribution deals which you'll be talking about all year long.
While we endeavored to post as many individual reviews as possible the intensity of Sundance often makes it quite difficult to review everything. Especially, when you've seen 23 1/2 movies over 8 days.* Therefore, this post will include a number of capsule reviews for films HitFix has not individually reviewed, my thoughts on films Drew McWeeny and Dan Fienberg may have taken a crack at and links to the complete reviews filed over the festival. Basically, it's a one-stop shop for all the major independent releases you'll be seeing in your local multiplex or art house theater over the next 12 months.
*The 1/2 is for one film I walked out of that I hope to fully catch down the road. No. 23 will come later this week.
Lowdown: Kim Farrant's directorial debut finds Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes as two parents trying to adjust to a recent move to a small town in the Australian outback. One night their sexually rebellious teenage daughter Lily (Maddison Brown) and introverted 12-year-old son Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) head out for a walk in the desert and – surprise – don't come back. Admirably, Farrant and screenwriters Michael Kinirons and Fiona Seres are much more interested in the impact this event has on Kidman's somewhat repressed character than the inevitable search itself. Kidman is quite good here. In fact, it might be one of her finer performances this decade. The problem, arguably, is that Farrant is too precious with the material. She attempts to throw layers upon layters of artistic significance to the story which drag out the proceedings (oooh, another moody aerial shot over the desert). The result is a drama with impressive performances across the board (including Hugo Weaving as the equivalent of a local Sheriff) that simply leaves you wanting at the end.
“Songs My Brothers Taught Me”
Lowdown: Already one of the more underrated films of this year's festival, “Brothers” is a captivating portrait of a Johnny (John Reddy), a young Native American who plans on leaving South Dakota's Pine Ridge reservation and following his girlfriend to Los Angeles after high school graduation. His 13-year-old sister, Jashaun (Jashaun St. John), takes this news particularly hard and begins to venture out in the community looking for other male role models to fill his expected void. Johnny, who sells alcohol on the black market, is just trying to survive the threat of reservation gangs and the local police catching him in time to make the trip. Writer and drector Chloé Zhao fashions an absolutely heartbreaking and compelling tale that provides an insight into this little seen part of modern day America without becoming preachy or becoming distracted from her narrative. Outside of the charismatic performances from local residents, Zhao benefits from the exemplary camerawork from cinematographer Joshua James Richards.
Lowdown: Director Andrew Bujalski has his fans after mumblecore classics such as “Computer Chess” and “Funny Ha Ha,” among other films, but his first effort with real Hollywood talent just doesn't work. Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders play physical trainers who appear destined for a romantic relationship, but only their insufferable client (Kevin Corrigan) seems to recognize it. Unfortunately, the film's biggest problem is that Pearce and Smulders just don't have any natural chemistry on screen together. The fact Corrigan's character is also incredibly grating and unsympathetic only makes the proceedings less compelling. Anthony Michael Hall shows up towards the end as a funny Russian Cross Fit advocate, but when he's really the only character generating any laughs (and this is clearly supposed to be a comedy), you've got issues.
Lowdown: Sebastián Silva returns to Sundance two years after “Crystal Fair” and “Magic Magic” with a Brooklyn-set story about a gay couple (Silva, TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe) trying to have a baby with one of their best friends (Kristen Wiig). While the film's main plot line centers on Silva's character trying to convince his partner to donate his sperm once his own is deemed insufficient, “Nasty Baby” also focuses on the seemingly constant disruption caused by an older neighbor (a very good Reg E. Cathey) who is clearly suffering from mental issues (and harasses Wiig's character on a number of occasions.) Silva takes the story down a very dark road, but why is truly unclear. “Baby” often seems like two films. One, a modern take on the complexities of three people trying to have a baby together (never easy no matter how good the intentions) and, two, a window into the clashes gentrification can lead to on just one city block. In theory, both subjects are ripe for a realistic portrayal on the big screen, but Silva can't make it work cohesively. Wiig and Adebimpe, in particular, give strong performances that help elevate the material when it needs it.
“Z for Zachariah”
Drew McWeeny's review: A-
My take: Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor are fantastic in Craig Zobel's adaptation of the classic Robert C. O'Brien novel. Unfortunately, the ending feels anti-climactic (especially when you learn how the book ended).
“I Am Michael”
Drew McWeeny review: C+
My take: James Franco gives one of his better performances in recent memory and Justin Kelly is more talented than he's been given credit for so far, but you question whether the film's insistence of trying to play both sides of this “Ex-Gay's” story was the right way to go. Is it irresponsible? Is it fair? I still can't decide.
Drew McWeeny review: C+
My take: Melissa Rauch came up with a great idea. Hope, a former America's sweetheart who dramatically won a Bronze medal, can't get over her one shot in the spotlight and, 12 years later, is forced to coach the nation's next potential gold medal gymnast (a wonderful Haley Lu Richardson). There is a lot that should work here, but Rauch should have excused herself from playing the title character. She just can't make Hope likable enough so that when the redemption arc hits in the third act the audience actually cares. Moreover, outside of one amazing sex scene with Sebastian Stan (seriously, it's great), the movie just isn't funny enough and, often, that's because Rauch's one note portrayal of Hope. Worth noting, however, that Thomas Middleditch comes close to saving the movie as Ben, Hope's unexpected love interest.
“The Stanford Prison Experiment”
Drew McWeeny review: A –
My take: Kyle Patrick Alvarez fashions an intentionally uncomfortable drama about the notorious 1971 psychological experiment that might make you angry it happened in the first place (which is a good thing). More impressive, the up and coming twentysomething cast is superb across the board. Not a false note from any of them.
“The End of the Tour”
Dan Fienberg review: B+
My take: Jason Segal is very good as David Foster Wallace, but its hard to understand why the weekend the film depicts meant so much to David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg),a reporter assigned to interview the famed author. James Ponsoldt, who brought a soulful realism to “The Spectacular Now” and “Smashed,” might have been better served by a screenplay that didn't diminish some of the darker revelations from Lipsky's memoir the film is based on, “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.”
Drew McWeeny review: A
My take: Gorgeously shot with strong performances, Robert Eggers' period thriller is not as original as it portends to be until a surprising third act which leaves you wishing the film had teased it's ending a bit more.
Drew McWeeny review: B
My take: If you love movies about hustlers and people with gambling addictions than “Grind” is for you. It's well made and has some wonderful lines of dialogue, but, boy, you need to love the subject matter. That being said, it's nice to see that Ryan Reynolds has realized if he plays characters with a little less snark he can be the new George Clooney for the next decade (and that's a compliment).
Here's a listing of films I fully reviewed with links to the complete review included.
“I Smile Back”
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”
Grade: A –
“The D Train”
“Summer of Sungaile”
A review of the fantastic “Tangerine” will be coming later this week.