Strip away the spectacle and the snow, and Sundance is all about one thing: movies. For its 30th anniversary year, the film festival debuted an incredibly diverse selection of titles, ranging from the funny to the violent to the just outright odd. Below we’ve collected some of the films we liked the most so you know exactly what to look out for in the year ahead.
THE VERGE FAVORITES
Richard Linklater’s film covers the evolution of a family by catching up with them at annual intervals over the course of 12 years. It could have come off as a gimmick, but fantastic performances and brazenly honest writing result in a movie full of realistic moments and small insights about our lives. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette are remarkable as two divorced parents, but it’s the work of Ellar Coltrane — who grows from a six-year-old to a high-school grad before our eyes — that will really stick with you. -BB
Dear White People
Justin Simien’s first feature film will knock you out: it’s a deliciously layered portrait of love and identity politics on a fictional Ivy League campus. Simien, who wrote and directed, rips an all-too-common occurrence from the headlines — a house party where the theme is racist black stereotypes — and considers the motivations of the people who throw it. (Not all of them are white.) Four complex protagonists play off one another in beautifully realized scenes where everyone has something smart to say. Dear White People is written like Sorkin, composed like Wes Anderson, and funny in a style that is all Simien’s own. See. This. Movie. -CN
The Internet’s Own Boy
As an inventor, a coder, and an activist, Aaron Swartz made an outsized impact on the world before he died at the age of 26. In a compelling new feature-length documentary, Brian Knappenberger (We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists) examines Swartz’s diverse contributions to the modern internet, which include key roles in the development of RSS, the Creative Commons, and Reddit. Swartz’s activism leads him to copy millions of documents from a digital library, resulting in a prosecution that the film argues drove him to suicide. While it occasionally veers toward agitprop, The Internet’s Own Boy is an honest and infuriating account of a tragedy that still feels entirely preventable. -CN
Life After Beth
The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice keeps coming back from the dead, so why not turn it into a zombie comedy? Jeff Baena’s Life After Beth stars Dane DeHaan as a lover who can’t let go and Aubrey Plaza as Beth, the girlfriend from hell. The plot is somewhat rickety, and it never becomes as funny as you hope it will, but amid all the shouting and carnage the film does have a beating heart. (Beth eats it.) -CN
How did a chubby know-it-all from Urbana, Illinois come through decades of alcoholism and loneliness to redefine film criticism? Hoop Dreams director Steve James chronicles the improbable life of Roger Ebert with sophistication and wit, charting his evolution from small-town newspaperman to great American writer. The heart of the film lies in its portrait of the critic’s unlikely partnerships: with his wife, Chaz, whose love he describes as “a wind forcing me back from the grave,” and with Gene Siskel, his one-time nemesis who evolves over the decades to become a great friend. -CN
The Raid 2
I go into further detail in our full review, but suffice to say that Gareth Evans’ sequel ups the ante on mayhem while also delivering a full-bodied gangster drama with echoes of The Godfather. The result? One of the most spellbinding action film in years. Don’t worry if you didn’t like The Raid: Redemption; you’ll like this one. -BB
Writer-director Will Eubank largely flew under the radar with his debut Love, but he’s returning to sci-fi with the thriller The Signal. Brenton Thwaites and Beau Knapp play two MIT students who track down the location of a notorious hacker in the desert. But after being mysteriously attacked they find themselves quarantined for exposure to extraterrestrials — and the mind games start from there. Laurence Fishburne lends the necessary gravitas as the scientist overseeing the quarantine, and while the film does meander down a narrative dead-end or two, genre fans will no doubt appreciate Eubank’s clever take on some familiar themes. -BB
Wish I Was Here
Zach Braff’s latest feature may have drawn ire from those that felt he was taking advantage of Kickstarter, but everyone that contributed will be thrilled with the end result. Braff stars as a husband and father of two who’s trying to find his way in life while also dealing with his emotionally whacked-out brother (a hilarious Josh Gad) and dying father (Mandy Patinkin). It sounds like it could be a self-indulgent groanfest, but Braff’s movie is funny, quirky, and will probably move you to tears before the credits roll. -BB
With a festival as big as Sundance, it’s nearly impossible to see every movie — and that’s when actual human interaction becomes so important. Whether you’re in line, on the bus, or packed inside a cramped bar, odds are the person next to you has seen something amazing. Here’s what we heard getting talked up the most.
Audiences have been enthusiastic about Kristen Stewart’s performance as a young woman who escapes her small town by enlisting in the military, which stations her at Guantanamo Bay. Her unlikely friendship with a detainee forms the heart of the film.
Michael Fassbender wears a giant fake head in this movie. That may be all you needed to hear, but word on the streets of Park City was that this comedy was quite good as well. A quirky film about art and the nature of creativity, it also features Maggie Gyllenhaal as a theremin player (which once you think about it, makes perfect sense).
Netflix made a festival appearance with this documentary about 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Focusing on the man rather than the politics, director Greg Whiteley’s work drew approval from both sides of the aisle — and in true Netflix style, it’s already available for streaming.
Damien Chazelle’s portrait of a promising young drummer and his merciless teacher was one of the festival’s most talked-about films even before it won the US Grand Jury Prize for drama. J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller are drawing acclaim as teacher and student.