A secret project 12 years in the making, a martial-arts film, a movie described as “Full Metal Jacket at Julliard,” and the strange, wonderful figure of Nick Cave. The 2014 Sundance Film Festival produced no lack of surprises. Here are our favorite movies from this year’s edition.
20. God Help the Girl
As the masterful pop songsmith behind Belle and Sebastian, Stuart Murdoch has always shown a flare for storytelling. His songs are filled with outcasts and rebels eager to take on the world, or at least find a little peace in it. So it’s only natural that his musical film is at once madcap and melancholy. The film is takes place over a summer in which two young women and one young man chase the idea of being in a band. Emily Browning has a magnetic screen presence as a mentally troubled would-be pop sensation trying to figure out what it all means, and Olly Alexander and Hannah Murray serve nicely as her friends. Murdoch sometimes resorts to overly literal representation of his lyrics and isn’t as judicious as he ought to be with cutaway gags. But he has an energetic spark. He imbues the film with pure fun and a sort of nostalgia for the present. Life won’t ever be perfect, but there is perhaps a moment of perfection just waiting to be achieved, if only the we would grab it. —J.M.
19. Life Itself
It’s an easy sell, okay? The life of the late, lamented, beloved film critic Roger Ebert, as written by the man himself and filmed by perhaps our greatest living documentarian, Steve James. But James makes the bold choice to specnd almost as much time in the then-happening present (the last four months of Ebert’s life) as in his glorious past. The result is a little like crawling into Ebert’s mind to recall the entirety of a life well lived, especially with his own words providing much of the voiceover (albeit in the actual voice of Stephen Stanton). It was always going to be hard to produce a film befitting the critical voice of our lifetime, but James has done it. —M.D.
18. Infinitely Polar Bear
One watches Infinitely Polar Bear and wonders if it was all quite as wistfully challenging as it plays out here. There’s a darkness on the edge of Ruffalo’s performance, but Cameron’s torment is mostly portrayed as a darned nuisance, rarely hinting at the serious ailment that would make Maggie so concerned about leaving her children in his care. With that said, Forbes’s affection for these characters rubs off on the viewer. The film doesn’t bear the sting of poverty that fills every frame of a Sunlight Jr., but it’s wise about the rather remarkable age this family was living through. Unknowingly, the Stuarts are gender-role trailblazers, boasting a mother who will be the main breadwinner and a father who stays at home with the kids. Forbes lived through it, and it’s her prerogative how she wants to tell her story. But in her insistence on finding the happy ending, Infinitely Polar Bear doesn’t find enough of the sadness and pain that would have made such a conclusion earned. —T.G.
Horror comedies tend to do one thing well. For the first half of Cooties, that’s most certainly the comedy. Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson and Alison Pill play elementary teachers in a love triangle complicated by the fact that the students are turning into ravenous zombies. As night descends and the threat intensifies, so do the horror elements. The combination works thanks to the writers behind both Glee (Ian Brennan) and Saw (Leigh Whannell), both of whom also steal their scenes as comic actors. —J.J.
This film went under a lot of festival-goers’ radar, perhaps because there’s not a huge audience clamoring for a 155-minute Bulgarian drama that follows a clinically depressed mother through communism’s stifling oppression and eventual fall. But the brave festival-goers who ventured to see it discovered a rich, emotional exploration of stunted spirits. Director Maya Vitkova recalls Tarkovsky with her deep sense of yearning and striking use of fantastical poetic imagery. Yet the film works equally well when it dips into the waters of absurd comedy, as a child grows up with an inflated ego after the country’s propaganda machine turns her birth abnormality into a cause for national celebration. —J.M.
15. Rich Hill
Rich Hill is everything you don’t expect it to be. It’s a documentary about three struggling, lower-class boys from Rich Hill, Missouri, but it forgoes the typical gritty documebtary look in favor of a sort of meditative poetry. Directors Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos reach a remarkable level of intimacy with the kids and their families. One scene in particular contains heartbreaking revelations about one of the subjects as he casually talks while walking down the street on Halloween. The movie doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to hard, cold reality, yet it also takes the time to live life with the boys on their own terms — to spend time with them as they try to smash ice puddles or light fireworks. The families depicted aren’t presented merely as anecdotes of how bad life can be. They’re living, breathing people who have had a string of bad luck starting t a very young age. That Rich Hill lets us truly know them is one of the great achievements of Sundance 2014. —J.M.
14. 20,000 Days on Earth
It’s hard to imagine a more “Nick Cave” Nick Cave doc than 20,000 Days on Earth. Ostensibly a day in the life of the Australian-born musician—his 20,000th day alive—it’s more self-reflective meditation than biography. At turns meditative, intimate, poetic and strange, the film captures Cave talking to his therapist, his bandmates and even a series of ghosts as he travels around his adopted home of Brighton, England. Those ghosts are no longer content to lie in the dark, and this documentary is about, more than anything else, Cave confronting his past as he visits a team working on his archive. But he’s still making music and still living for those moments on stage, trying to terrify the front row. So it’s fitting that the film culminates in a pair of performances, broken up with a quiet moment eating pizza and watching TV with his kids. —J.J.
Kat Candler’s Hellion is set in the aftermath of a family losing its matriarch, and no one is handling her death very well. Jacob (Josh Wiggins) is the titular hell-raising pre-teen who takes his younger brother on dangerous adventures in vandalism. Aaron Paul is his grief-stricken father trying desperately to hold the family together. Jacob sees a motocross rally as his chance for some redemption, but this is no heart-warming sports movie. It’s an intimate look at a difficult childhood offering no easy answers, but one that leads you to care deeply about its flawed but sympathetic characters. —J.J.
12. The Sleepwalker
Perhaps the most daring film in the US Dramatic Competition, Mona Fastvold’s The Sleepwalker is an elliptical, borderline surreal study of childhood trauma and repressed memories. Director Fastvold lets the story simmer as the action builds in and around a secluded, half-renovated house in the woods. Ingenious use of sound design and atmospheric score drive the psychological turmoil as the film slowly reveals what the characters have been through. Actors Gitte Witt, Stephanie Ellis Christopher Abbott and Brady Corbet (who co-wrote the screenplay with Fastvold) create a mounting feeling of tension as odd behavior, inappropriate dinner stories and poor manners bring out everyone’s madness. —J.M.
Ida is a compelling examination of how the past shapes us, even when we don’t know anything about it. Pawel Pawlikowski’s quiet Polish film takes place in the 1960s, when World War II has ended, yet still has the power to grip people’s lives. In the title role, Agata Trzebuchowska brings the perfect mixture of naiveté and curiosity to the part of a nun-in-training who learns that her family was Jewish and killed during Nazi occupation. She embarks on an odyssey to find their graves with her cynical, alcoholic aunt (Agata Kulesza), who used to be a prosecutor for the communist government. The relationship between the two characters grows more and more complex as they go deeper down the rabbit hole. Shot in black-and-white and academy ratio (1.37:1), Ida uses its frame to distinct effect, often framing characters in the lower third of the screen (so much so that in a couple scenes, the subtitles have to go up above their heads). The effect can be unsettling, but intriguing. That space could contain the watchful power of Ida’s lord, but it could also be nothing more than an empty void. After a life of certitude, Ida has to decide for herself. —J.M.