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The 10 Best Movies of Sundance 2012

February 2, 2012  |  11:21am

Paste film editor Michael Dunaway and contributing writer Jeremy Matthews spent 10 days in Park City for Sundance 2012, seeing multiple movies every day. Here’s their combined judgment on the best of the fest.

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10. That’s What She Said
I was more then a little bit nervous going into a midnight screening of Carrie Preston’s That’s What She Said at the Prospector Theater. Most people know Preston as a hugely talented film actor or from the casts of True Blood and The Good Wife, but I know her primarily as one of my best friends for more than 25 years (disclaimer: she’s also on the Board of Advisors for my film). If the movie didn’t work, I was going to be in for an uncomfortable time writing a review. I needn’t have worried. Preston’s girl-power take on the Apatow-style bawdy bromance comedy (she loves to call it “a chick flick, but not for pussies”) is a delight from start to finish. It’s an examination of, among other things, how women talk about themselves and each other, by talking about men. Her three leads are perfectly cast. Alia Shawkat makes the audience squirm with all sorts of delicious uncomfortableness as the neurotic, weird new friend of the trio. Marcia DeBonis gives a brave comedic turn as the frumpy, hapless girl with a heart of gold. And Anne Heche is pure comedic lightning in a bottle. Sexy, sardonic, punky and utterly hilarious, hers just may be the best performance of the festival.—MD

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9. Indie Game: The Movie
Thanks to the revolution of digital distribution, the first-person shooters at Walmart aren’t your only videogame options. You can play as a skinless “Super Meat Boy” — who runs through impossible obstacles while trying to avoid a bloody demise — or as a 2D man whose fez unlocks the secrets of a 3D world. These aren’t blockbuster games made with armies of developers and coders striving to one-up the latest graphics and specs. They’re ambitious endeavors, usually made by one or two people who pound away at their keyboards to design and code something fun and distinct. While it’s fascinating to learn about the scene, Indie Game: The Movie’s real pull comes from its investment in the people behind the games. Directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky track the development of two different projects, and in the process dig out the lovability of their socially awkward, nerdy creators. The result is a touching ode to the struggle, apprehension, self-doubt and exhaustion that comes with making something personal and sending it out into the world.—JM

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8. Nobody Walks
Ry Russo-Young’s third feature continues her movement forward as she continues to develop into one of our finest woman filmmakers. She’s always worked beautifully with actors (she’s an actor herself), but marrying her efforts to a surprisingly restrained, tense script co-written by Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture) proves to be just the right choice as the performances she gets are even better than those in her previous efforts. Olivia Thirlby is especially notable as the houseguest who throws a wrench into the seemingly idyllic marriage of a suburban couple, played by John Krasinksi and Rosemarie DeWitt, also both outstanding. And India Ennenga (Treme) confirms that she’s got a bright future ahead of her. As does Russo-Young herself.—MD

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7. The Surrogate
After years of fine work in supporting roles (including standout performances in recent Sundance hits Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene), John Hawkes was due a chance to be a film’s centerpiece. He takes his opportunity with wry gusto in Ben Lewin’s The Surrogate. Hawkes portrays Mark O’Brien, an iron-lung-confined poet who, at age 36, decides he wants to lose his virginity, and employs a sex surrogate therapist (Helen Hunt) to get the job done. The film explores the relationship between sex-doctor and patient, examining the emotional ties with sincerity and affection. Lewin’s screenplay doesn’t fall into cheap melodrama, but carefully considers each character, including an understanding priest played by William H. Macy, who reminds us how wonderful a performer he is. Hawkes mixes dry wit with deep pain and longing, creating a memorable character who faces his fears with hope, humor and devastating honesty.—JM

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6. West of Memphis
Perhaps the buzziest documentary of the festival is also one of the very best. The involvement of Peter Jackson (one of the film’s producers), Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, and others, as well as the very recent dramatic developments in the case, ensured that. The film itself is enormously moving. Any investigative documentary, especially dealing with the wrongly accused, walks in the gargantuan footsteps of Errol Morris and his seminal The Thin Blue Line. Director Amy Berg received an Academy Award nomination for her Deliver Us From Evil, but the fact that she lives up to the legacy of that film may be an even greater accomplishment. In addition to chronicling justice, West of Memphis actually helps enact it. What higher calling can there be?—MD

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5. Queen of Versailles
If you want to make the case that Americans are wasteful, needlessly extravagant, irresponsible and clueless, David and Jackie Siegel are your exhibit A. The subjects of The Queen of Versailles are the quintessential conspicuous over-consumers, and the perfect lens through which to view the bursting of the country’s economic bubble. Lauren Greenfield’s documentary starts as a gasp-inducing depiction of the couple’s excess — including the construction of the biggest house in America — but really reaches its height after Sept. 2008, when David’s timeshare empire goes bust, and the husband and wife desperately grasp at the lifestyle that is slipping away. Greenfield doesn’t pull any punches in her depiction of a vulgar lifestyle, but she also succeeds in generating sympathy for these people who were living large and foolishly before being reality punched them in the gut.—JM

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4. Ethel
It’s hard to separate Ethel, the film itself, from the experience I had seeing the World Premiere here. I counted over a dozen Kennedys on the red carpet, and the reserved section in the theater filled to bursting. What followed, once the lights went down, was the best documentary at Sundance thus far, as well as an historic night. It’s our great fortune as a country that our most fascinating and inspiring political family has produced as talented a filmmaker as Rory Kennedy, and that she’s made what must have been an incredibly difficult decision to create a film about her family. As the title would suggest, it focuses on her mother Ethel, who may be the most entertaining character in any festival film this year, but of course the careers of her uncle John and her father Robert form a large part of the story. Rory made the decision to only interview her mother and siblings, and the film feels like an intimate step into the Kennedy living room. It’s a true gift.—MD

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3. I Am Not a Hipster
Depicting a depressed asshole is no easy task — films that try often end up monotonous and frustrating. But I Am Not a Hipster achieves a warm, funny, poignant character study of an indie rocker who’s worshipped by scenesters and unknown to everyone else. Dominic Bogart leads the excellent cast as a man whose misery leads him to act completely aloof at some times, and lash out at others. But the film’s key is that he’s also full of surprises — including a sweet, authentic relationship with his three visiting sisters. Writer/director Destin Cretton continually introduces new puzzle pieces to challenge first impressions and make an endlessly compelling journey through one man’s dark times.—JM

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2. Liberal Arts
When Josh Radnor’s happythankyoumoreplease won the Audience Award at Sundance 2010, expectations skyrocketed for his second directorial feature. Armed with one of Sundance 2012’s most talented cast ensembles, Radnor knocks those high expectations out of the park with Liberal Arts. Elizabeth Olsen is perfect as Radnor’s age-inappropriate-friend-maybe-more, and Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney are delicious in their supporting roles. But the real star of the film is Radnor’s writing. It’s funny, moving, thoughtful, true and—above all—ennobling. He’s such an openhearted and earnest writer, and the journeys his characters go on are, among other things, beautiful explorations of how life should be lived and understood. The audience in the 2,000-seat Eccles Theater was eating out of Radnor’s hand, spontaneously bursting into loud applause at least three times at particularly brilliant moments, and it took him nearly a full minute at the podium to convince the crowd to let him speak. An exciting confirmation of Radnor’s staying power as a writer/director.—MD

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1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Briefly describing Beasts of the Southern Wild is like trying to explain the inner-workings of an airplane to someone who’s never seen a wheel. In his feature debut, director Benh Zeitlin has stirred up a magic pot of poetry, neo-realism, surrealism, pre-historic creatures, the ice age, childhood and lost cultures. The film is a symphony of curiosity that builds toward a glorious crescendo. It’s set on an island known as “The Bathtub,” located outside the Louisiana levees. It’s a forbidden land — off-limits according to the government — but misfits still inhabit it, living in makeshift shelters and using vehicles that would be at home in a post-apocalyptic world. If Zeitlin’s sheer ambition weren’t enough, the film’s young star and narrator, Quvenzhané Wallis, was born with a magnetic screen presence.—JM

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