Sundance: Todd McCarthy's Picks for the Best of the Fest

Low Down Elle Fanning - H 2014

Low Down Elle Fanning - H 2014

In a year where no one film stood out, THR's chief film critic reveals which movies had the biggest impact on him.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

At Sundance, as at most film festivals devoted to world-premiering highly anticipated titles there is the tendency to identify individual editions according to the most famous films that debuted there, as in "the year of sex, lies & videotape," "the year of Beasts of the Southern Wild" or last year, arguably, for Fruitvale Station.

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As appealing as this short-hand might be, however, it's also a terribly reductive way of defining an experience that lasts 10 days and this year included 110 new titles. Even the most dedicated critic would be doing well to see even one-third of this total; we're all seeing different films and having different festivals. We hear things, scratch some off our lists and scramble to catch the last showings of others we've heard are good. Some of the hot titles coming in are not so hot coming out, and each day is dominated by amorphous "buzz" and word of what's selling and for how much. Without one or two defining titles, however, Sundance 2014 emerged in the end as all the more edifying for that very reason. It wasn't top-heavy. A number of solid titles buoyed the competitive categories, and the name-heavy, higher-profile Premieres section was less weighed down with time-wasters than in some past years.

But if I had to single out the one most notable aspect of this year's festival, it would be the exciting emergence of the Next section, the category typically reserved for new American features that are lower-budget, more esoteric and sometimes more difficult than what ends up in the dramatic competition.

I say "typically," however, because this year the boundary line separating the competition and Next films became virtually indistinct. Such Next titles as Gillian Robespierre's hilarious and quite likely commercial Obvious Child, Martha Stephens' and Aaron Katz's beguiling (and also commercial) road movie Land Ho!, Alex Ross Perry's literary high-brow critics' bait Listen Up Philip, Ana Lily Amirpour's eerie Iran-set, L.A.-filmed vampire tale A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Mark Jackson's compelling and superbly acted War Story, Michael Tully's ultra-accessible retro teen picture Ping Pong Summer, Desiree Akhavan's sexploratory deadpan comedy Appropriate Behavior and Malik Vitthal's Next audience award winner Imperial Dreams would have fit very comfortably in competition and maybe even captured some prizes. Of all the festival categories this year, Next had the highest batting average of films worth seeing.

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Along with Obvious Child, which is poised to launch the careers of writer-director Robespierre (any relation?) and its endlessly percolating star Jenny Slate, my other Sundance favorites this year included two major entries in the Premieres section: Richard Linklater's chronicle of growing up, Boyhood, filmed over a 12-year period and extraordinary because of its deliberately prosaic style; and Mike Cahill's second feature, I Origins, a highly ambitious work that is emotionally, intellectually and viscerally stimulating.

If I had been on the U.S. dramatic competition jury, I would have backed what turned out to be the winner: Whiplash, Damien Chazelle's pulsating account of a demented artistic rite of passage that is spiked by terrific performances from Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. It's so exciting, and rare, that a lifelong character actor like Simmons gets to play a big part like this and makes the most of it. In a funny way, the film may be this generation's The Red Shoes; it's about how far you're willing to go for art. Which, in a way, is what Sundance is about — or is supposed to be about — every year.

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Fine performances were in abundance this year, but two struck me in particular: Bill Hader, playing the quasi-suicidal, mordantly comic gay brother opposite longtime Saturday Night Live partner — and very good — Kristen Wiig in The Skeleton Twins, proves without a doubt his potential as a strong, multidimensional big-screen actor; and Rinko Kikuchi, who amazingly keeps the stylishly demented Kukimo, the Treasure Hunter afloat despite playing a character so recessive and antisocial that she can barely communicate.

The jury did right by honoring Christopher Blauvelt's exceptionally nuanced cinematography in the otherwise problematic Low Down.

And then there was Life Itself, Steve James' splendid documentary about his longtime friend, the late Roger Ebert. Even for those of us who knew Roger well through the years, there is new and unknown material here. Roger's character inspires warm and articulate comments from the many friends James has assembled to speak about him in a film that got nothing but very big thumbs-up from everyone who saw it at Sundance.