Best dramatic films
Casey Newton: Sean Baker’s buzzy comedy is notable for having been filmed almost entirely on an iPhone 5S. But the film itself sticks in your mind: a shaggy, draggy story about Sin-Dee and Alexandra, two trans women of color working as prostitutes on Christmas Eve and hell-bent on "finding the fish" — the biological female who slept with Sin-Dee’s man. The caper’s resolution is somewhat unsatisfying, but the journey is one to remember: dialogue comes fast and furious, and we expect to hear it quoted on RuPaul’s Drag Race for years to come.
Bryan Bishop: Writer/director Robert Eggers and his team painstakingly recreate 1600s-era New England in this drama about a family that is slowly torn apart by supernatural forces. The performances by Games of Thrones veterans Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson are wonderful, but the work of Anya Taylor-Joy — as a young girl accused of witchcraft — is the heart of the film. While The Witch isn't quite able to sustain the slow burn of its first two acts, the last half hour is some of the most confident filmmaking I saw this year.
Emily Yoshida: I wrote a lot of words yesterday about Jennifer Phang's mother-daughter drama, but it's worth seeking out for any philosophically-inclined science fiction aficionado. Leads Jacqueline Kim and Samantha Kim have beautiful, moving chemistry as a somewhat isolated parent and child who would do the unthinkable for each other in an increasingly unaffordable future-America.
Best documentary films
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Bryan Bishop: There have been plenty of films and books about late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, but in his new documentary Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) takes a different approach. Using a combination of interviews, animation, and previously unreleased audio and video recordings, Montage of Heck reveals the Cobain behind the persona he wore in public. The result is a film that’s both intimate and unsettling; a reminder that behind the hype and record sales there was simply one man unable to make peace with himself.
The Amina Profile
Emily Yoshida: While not necessarily the slickest of the documentaries I saw at Sundance, Sophie Deraspe's investigation into the truly bizarre mystery of activist blogger Amina Arraf was certainly the most surprising. More importantly, it uses the promise of a sensational story to bring home its final point — that our hunger for sensational stories often comes at the expense of other underreported, but equally urgent injustices.
Larry Kramer: In Love and Anger
Casey Newton: Jean Carlomusto's sympathetic biography of writer and activist Larry Kramer is a compelling look at a controversial figure. But it's also a mesmerizing pocket history of gay life from the the 1970s to today. As Kramer founds the Gay Men's Health Crisis and, later, ACT UP, we see clearly how the AIDS crisis forced gay men out of the closet and into political life. Kramer makes for an occasionally exasperating subject, but ultimately you believe the men in the film who say his activism saved their lives.
The Ones That Got Away
Alas, though we push ourselves to the limit at Sundance, there are only so many movies a human being can watch in a week. Here are our most regretted misses from the festival.
Emily Yoshida: Crystal Moselle's documentary about a family of homeschooled children locked in a Lower East Side apartment for most of their lives is already courting some controversy. Some reviewers compare its intimate portrayal of a dysfunctional home to Grey Gardens; while some say it's dangerously gawky about what essentially amounts to child abuse. I would have liked a chance to see it and judge for myself; it's certainly among the biggest "WTF" premises of the documentary program this year.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
Casey Newton: Writing duties kept me away from this period piece about the notorious 1971 study on the psychology of imprisonment. But riding shuttles around Park City, I kept hearing about it from other festival-goers. Based on real events, the film follows what happens after 24 male undergraduates at Stanford are randomly divided into two camps — guards and inmates. It's a grim tale with continued relevance in the bleak prison state that is America, and I'm sorry I missed it.
Bryan Bishop: The fifth film from writer/director Rick Famuyiwa focuses on a group of outcast Inglewood teens obsessed with ‘90s culture. When one of them accidentally ends up with a backpack full of molly from a local drug dealer, hijinks ensue. Dope kept surfacing in random conversations, usually with comparisons to some of my favorite indie classics (I'll avoid mentioning which ones, as they tended to infer things that are probably best unknown upon first viewing). Though I missed it this time around, I'll definitely get a chance to see it soon: Dope got picked up by Sony Pictures in one of the bigger deals of the festival.