Another Sundance has come and gone, with all of its celebrity red carpet appearances, sold-out screenings, corporate gifting suites, secret concerts and—oh, yeah—a movie or two as well. This year we saw a number of compelling characters, from cartel fighters to loser gamblers to Jesus Christ himself (who looked a lot like Obi-Wan Kenobi), but none more compelling than a brilliant sensitive soul who spoke to us from beyond the grave. Who would have guessed that your first Oscar contender of 2015 would be Jason Segel? Not us. But there he is.
Here are our ten favorite films from Sundance 2015.
10. Welcome to Leith
Directors: Michael Beach Nichols, Christopher K. Walker
This documentary begins with a nightmare scenario, then forces us to carefully consider the path the nightmare must travel. The tiny town of Leith, ND, population 24, enters turmoil when white supremacist Craig Cobb decides to buy land there and turn it into a haven for white power groups. The townspeople naturally react with anger, knowing that the hate groups could easily obtain a voting majority due to Leith’s rather meager population, and are further antagonized by Cobb, who seems to revel in aggravating them. Things come to a head when Cobb and his companion, shotguns at the ready, walk through town “on patrol,” hoping to provoke a reaction.
With intimate access to parties on both sides of the battle, directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker constantly challenge our initial impressions and feelings. The townspeople’s fight against the hate groups has shades of anti-immigrant activities, as they try to drive the outsiders away. And yet, when you remember that they’re fighting against Nazis who want to take over their town, it’s hard to argue that they should be more relaxed. Welcome to Leith never offers explicit instructions on how to think, it just quietly observes, leaving the audience to grapple with bigger, more complex questions about assumed belief and deep-seated prejudice. —Jeremy Mathews
9. Last Days in the Desert
Director: Rodrigo García
There have been many attempts to humanize Jesus in film, but in Rodrigo García’s arresting Last Days in the Desert, Ewan McGregor manages to bring both humanity and deity to Christ. There are only five characters in this gorgeously shot imagining of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, meaning a tremendous amount of the film’s burden lies on the McGregor’s shoulders, but thankfully he’s up to the task as both Jesus and Jesus’s foil, the tempting Devil. It’s a quiet, contemplative movie—Jesus looks for purpose and clarity among the messiness of humanity and all its shortcomings—a rare religious film that is relatively faithful to its traditions but more questioning than dogmatic. —Josh Jackson
8. Sleeping With Other People
Director: Leslye Headland
The romantic comedy is a genre crying out for an update. We’ve had a few worthy entries in the 21st century—the imaginative Amelie, the clever and quirky Silver Linings Playbook, even the irreverent Knocked Up. But none of those films embraced the genre and all its tropes quite like the latest from Leslye Headland does. With her third film, which is little more than 90 minutes of sexual tension building between two friends, Headland has managed to create a direct descendent of Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron—and make it just as uproariously funny as its forebears’ best works. Sleeping With Other People pushes at every boundary without ever feeling unnecessarily tawdry; it’s the Cards Against Humanity version of When Harry Met Sally (there’s even an “I’ll have what she’s having” moment involving a bottle of tea). Alison Brie could be our decade’s Meg Ryan, and Sudekis could be our Hanks—but there’s no doubt that Leslye Headland will keep making us laugh for years to come. —Josh Jackson
7. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Each year, the Sundance crowd favorite either inspires a lot of laughs or packs a big emotional punch. This year it did both, picking up the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the process. In Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Thomas Mann stars as Greg, an awkward high school student who befriends Rachel (Olivia Cooke), his classmate dying of cancer. Though he and his friend Earl became Werner Herzog-loving cinephiles at a young age, spending their formative years making childish parody-homages (Senior Citizen Kane) to the art they adore, when Greg is forced to confront some deep emotions, to express something truly personal, he has no idea where to start.
The film runs the risk of depending too readily on a garish barrage of indie quirk, but its characters and performances are so rich and likable, and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s direction so energetic, one has little option to do anything with it but to fall in love. —Jeremy Mathews
6. James White
Director: Josh Mond
As intuitively as James White captures its title character’s rage, aimlessness and confusion, writer/director Josh Mond ’s true achievement is in his ability to afford multiple dimensions to characters who only have one or two scenes. Christopher Abbott (Girls, Martha Marcy Mary Marlene) confirms his talent in a big way, playing James, a quickly aging New Yorker still lost in a world of clubbing, casual sex and even more casual drug use. He finally begins to find purpose in caring for his sick mother (Cynthia Nixon—also great) as she suffers with cancer; one scene in particular, in which James helps his mother to the bathroom, then tries to comfort her as best he can, is a perfect encapsulation of the movie’s strength, and already feels like one of the most powerful cinematic moments of 2015. —Jeremy Mathews