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10 Best Things We Saw at Sundance 2015

From a 17th-century horror movie to the definitive Kurt Cobain doc, here are our best of the fest.

From a 17th-century horror movie to the definitive Kurt Cobain doc, here are our best of the fest.

By David Fear and Phoebe Reilly

A little over a week ago, we pored through the 2015 Sundance Film Festival’s lineup and choose the 25 films we were dying to see. Now, as the fest winds down, we can look back at that list and, being so much older and wiser now, marvel at the choices we made. Some of our picks turned out to be mild disappointments (The D Train). Some were outright disasters (let’s pretend The Bronze never, ever happened). And some of what ended up being our favourite Sundance movies, such as The Witch, didn’t even make the original list — the idea that a left-field pick can suddenly go from virtually ignored to buzz-worthy to a best-of-show candidate is part of what makes the annual trek to Park City exciting. Here are the 10 best things we saw at this year’s fest. With any luck, they’ll all be coming to theatre near you, very, very soon.

‘Best of Friends’

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Relegated to be a third-place network, ABC decided to try something different for their upcoming coverage of the 1968 presidential conventions: Hire sworn ideological enemies William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal to summarise the issues in a nightly postmortem. For ten debates, the two men hurled insults at each other and attempted character assassinations instead of political punditry; it ended with Vidal calling his sparring partner a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley threatening to punch the novelist in the face on live TV. Culling together footage and providing a complete context around the media event, documentarians Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet From Stardom) make a compelling case that modern TV news — i.e. the victory of volume and rage over civilised discourse — starts here. Media history geeks, Christmas is about to come early. DF

‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’

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Director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) delivers the definitive Kurt Cobain portrait with this “fully authorized” documentary that includes the first on-camera interviews with Cobain’s parents and sister. (Frances Bean is credited as an executive producer). Morgen forgoes the usual treatment — tons of talking heads, pro forma label politics — and instead returns the iconic Nirvana frontman to human status by relying on Cobain’s art, journal entries, and unreleased music to frame the narrative. At the same time, fans are treated to a much closer look at his life via intimate footage from both his childhood and the years leading up to his tragic death. More than two decades on, hearts will break all over again. PR

‘The End of the Tour’

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First, the ultimate relief: Nobody failed David Foster Wallace in the making of this movie. The film unfolds during the final days of the Infinite Jest press tour, which reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) spent with the late author (Jason Segel) for a never-published Rolling Stone interview. Director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) has proved incapable of shallowness, and here he captures the nuances of the journalist/subject relationship with an almost uncomfortable precision. Both men oscillate between arrogance and insecurity, mutual appreciation and envy, wariness and camaraderie, until there is nothing left to be said, only the sense that a moment has passed. PR

‘Mississippi Grind’

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Two gamblers — one a down-and-out sad sack (Ben Mendelsohn) and one a life-of-the-party smooth talker (Ryan Reynolds) — decide to hit the road to get in on a $25,000 card game in New Orleans. What they get is a whole lot of heartbreak, hope and high-stakes bets. What we get is a character study that’s something close to a masterpiece, with the Australian actor Mendelsohn proving he’s more than a weary face and Reynolds officially kicking off the Ryanaissance period of his career. DF

‘Mistress America’

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This latest offering from director Noah Baumbach and co-writer/star Greta Gerwig represents their first flirtation with old-school screwball. It begins in familiar Baumbach territory: 18-year-old Tracy (Lola Kirke) finds herself adrift at Barnard when she’s rejected from an elite literary society. She ends up borrowing more than just inspiration from her manically loquacious stepsister-to-be, Brooke (Gerwig). Then the film makes a hard left into highly choreographed ensemble comedy, full of enough social satire and trademark observations about growing up to satisfy the cultural appetite for coming-of-age-in-New-York stories. PR

‘The Overnight’

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Even with the great cast and a promising setup, The Overnight could easily have gone off the rails at any point, and yet it never did. When L.A. newcomers Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) join Kurt (Jason Schwarztman) and Charlotte (Judith Godréche) for dinner at their palatial home, the mood is definitely a little kooky. The visitors just chalk it up to good, good, good vibrations. Soon, though, writer-director Patrick Brice sends the foursome in a hilariously random and raunchy direction that’s totally surprising without being deliberately shocking — a distinction makes all the difference. PR


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There’s an unsavoury history of movies about white teachers working in predominantly black or underprivileged schools, but director Kris Swanberg and cowriter Megan Mercier deftly sidestep those stereotypes here. A science professor named Sam (How I Met Your Mother’s Cobie Smulders) and her best student, Jasmine (Gail Bean), are on parallel journeys as they each confront an unplanned pregnancy, but the film neither glosses over the differences in their experiences nor positions Sam as saviour, even when she tries to be. Instead, both women struggle with the sacrifices required of them in this honest, often funny, and genuinely smart story that feels big even though it’s perfectly small. PR

‘Welcome To Leith’

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As scary a piece of cinematic journalism anything that came out of this year’s fest, Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker’s documentary about notorious white-supremacist Craig Cobb trying to turn a North Dakota burg into a haven for our nation’s hate-mongering fringe dwellers presents a chilling “it could happen here” scenario. While the locals and neo-Nazis battle it out in city council meetings, threats of violence percolate on the perimeter; by witnessing rural Small-town USA trying to remove a racist cancer in its midst, you’re reminded that there’s a very angry — and very vulnerable — America out there. DF

‘The Witch’

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Robert Eggers’ slowburn horror movie takes viewers back to 1630, where a devout Christian family has just been banished from their community. Wandering on the outskirts of the woods, they began to find themselves asking some interesting questions: Why are the twins acting so weird? What’s up with the mysterious goat that just showed up? And who, exactly, stole their baby and why? All we’ll say is the way Eggers mines so much dread out of age-old fairy tale conventions, ye-olde-English dialogue and primal fears makes us think that the genre may have just gained a new heavy hitter. Also, someone needs to give that goat his own movie stat. DF

‘Z for Zachariah’

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Craig Zobel’s adaptation of Robert O’Brien’s 1974 cult sci-fi novel majorly tweaks the story by adding in a third character (Chris Pine’s coal miner) to turn its tale of life after nuclear meltdown a love triangle. More importantly, the Compliance director shifts the tone from YA pulp to postapocalyptic mood piece, as a farm girl (Margot Robbie) and an engineer (Chiwetel Ejiofor) find their agrarian paradise interrupted by Pine’s mysterious stranger. Only who’s the serpent in this Eden? It’s a simply told, straight-ahead work that trades in bells and whistles for atmosphere and great acting — an adult take on adolescent-lit that’s gets under your skin. DF