Even if Whiplash falters from time to time, the performances never do. Teller again shows his ability to play an outsider who’s not a stereotypical rebel or misfit but someone with great sensitivity and surprising anger. Quietly, Teller starts to reveal the depth of Andrew’s desperation, not just to become a world-class drummer but also to escape his father’s career failure and to prove to Fletcher that he’s got what it takes to succeed. Simmons is a fine complement in a far showier role. Fletcher is a little too maniacal and abusive to be completely believable—he’s more a convenient representation of artistic obstacles than a fully fleshed-out antagonist—but Simmons mitigates that problem by giving Fletcher an uncompromising steeliness. The character may be a dramatic exaggeration, but his intensity is such that he becomes a force of nature, albeit a somewhat one-dimensional one.—T.G.
9. Happy Christmas
Happy Christmas generates such warmth that you might not mind that one of its principal characters doesn’t always make a lot of sense. Writer-director Joe Swanberg’s latest is agreeably loose-limbed, touching on family and the crucial differences between people in their 20s and their 30s. And although it lacks a great thematic hook like Swanberg’s recent Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas still boasts plenty of modest pleasures thanks to its gentle observations and likable manner. —T.G.
8. A Most Wanted Man
The typical critical clichés used to praise thrillers are overused expressions like “pulse-pounding” or “a white-knuckle ride.” The superb A Most Wanted Man can’t be described with those adjectives, but that’s because director Anton Corbijn’s film is colder and more cerebral—and yet, when the film reaches its final stretches, it’s extraordinarily gripping. The film’s confident tonal control is a compliment to Corbijn’s skill, but it’s also recognition of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s wonderfully controlled central performance. You don’t realize how stunning the whole experience really was until it’s over. —T.G.
Blind combines the inventive freedom of the French New Wave, the emotional complexity of a great novel and the dirty mind of a 14-year-old kid. Ellen Dorrit Petersen plays Ingrid, a woman who copes with the loss of her eyesight by secluding herself in her apartment and writing salacious fiction that morphs into fantasies of what her husband does when she’s not around. The film isn’t just about insecurities and hangups, but how we can deal with those hangups through creatitve invention. Norwegian director Eskil Vogt brilliantly blurs the lines between reality and imagination, simultaneously studying the creative process and the struggle for visualization when you can no longer see. Real life events seamlessly give way to Ingrid’s latest writing, and it’s amazing how smoothly we can go from a real conversation between Ingrid and her husband to a fake online chat between him and a girl who doesn’t exist. When Ingrid reworks the details as she’s writing, or starts to sort out her emotional issues on the page, it makes for some truly lively cinema. —J.M.
6. Song One
In her first major role since winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for_ Les Misérables_, Anne Hathaway gets back in touch with her indie side for Song One, a modest but affecting drama that finds her delivering a gentle performance that contains none of the melodramatic fireworks of Fantine. Writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland’s feature debut about a woman reconnecting with her brother through his songwriting idol has a delicate, melancholy tone that’s fragile but strong enough to sustain this minor-key tale. —T.G.
5. Love is Strange
First of all, let’s get something straight—this isn’t “the gay marriage movie.” It’s much more than that. The things that make the movie great would have been great in a movie about two women, or a man and a woman, or a man and an alien for that matter. And above all, what makes the movie great are two utterly stunning naturalistic performances by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, possibly the two best performances of any Sundance film. Even if the film had nothing else to recommend it, it’d be worth watching for these two alone. But oh, what more it does have to offer. Ira Sachs has a gentle touch as a director, and it shows in all the great performances he gets, and in the heartfelt storytelling that results. Marisa Tomei would easily be the standout in nearly any other Sundance film. But as it is she’ll have to settle for being one more perfect little piece ion Sachs’ beautiful mosaic. —M.D.
4. The Skeleton Twins
OK, I’ll admit it. I thought the hype around this film coming into Sundance was because everybody loved Saturday Night Live twins Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig so much that they’d overfluff an average movie. What I didn’t notice was that the film was directed (and co-written) by Craig Johnson, the man behind the underrated indie True Adolescents. Even had I realized that, I’m not sure i would have been prepared for what I saw — two fantastic performances from actors who had never really moved me before, a fantastic script that deservedly won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the end of the week, a couple of brilliant supporting turns from Luke Wilson and Ty Burrell, and a film with a heart as big as the moon, about two messed-up people just trying to get by. The characters move into and out of likeability, but the movie never does. —M.D.
It’s hard out there for a priest. The clerical collar and cassock of the Roman Catholic Church once represented morality, self-sacrifice and humble wisdom. But for many, it now calls to mind decades of child molestation and coverups. Brendan Gleeson’s character in Calvary is a good priest, but that doesn’t do anything for his small Irish town’s dwindling faith. In fact, his goodness is exactly what makes him such a great target, according to the man who threatens to murder him in the film’s extraordinary opening scene. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh uses that promise not to start a mystery story, but to make a contemplative film about faith, family, integrity and doubt, wrapped around the same biting humor that graced his first feature film, The Guard (2011). Calvary is a moving film thanks to its rich, distinct characters, but its power lies in its subtle details and existential turmoil. —J.M.
2. The Raid 2
When Sundance announced the running time for The Raid 2 at 148 minutes, there was plenty of reason to be concerned. The original was a rambunctious, incredibly violent, utterly giddy action movie—but at 100 minutes, it was also overlong. How much more pummeling was this sequel going to be? Quite a lot, actually, but the happy revelation of The Raid 2 is how writer-director Gareth Evans has used that extra time to expand the scope and geography of the first film. More an elaborate crime thriller than a straight-ahead martial-arts flick, The Raid 2 finds our hero Rama (Iko Uwais) going undercover to infiltrate a feared mob boss’s inner sanctum. Electrifying both in its ambition and its action sequences—there’s a car chase in this movie that may be the finest of the 21st century so far—this is the best action-thriller since The Dark Knight, and also the best sequel since then. —T.G.
Of all the achievements in Richard Linklater’s career, perhaps what he will be best remembered for is his depiction of time. Dazed and Confused chronicled teenage life with precision, but his Before trilogy showed how the passage of time shapes and changes people in ways that they can’t see, precisely because they’re on the inside, lacking the necessary perspective easily available to us on the outside. Now with Linklater’s new movie, Boyhood, time is examined in a new, incredibly moving way. As is Linklater’s custom, Boyhood is profound in such a casual way that its weighty themes feel nonchalant, effortless. This movie might make you cry for reasons you can’t quite articulate. You won’t be alone in feeling that way. Because of the ambition of the project and the amount of years it covers, Boyhood might initially seem underwhelming. By design, Mason’s life isn’t particularly momentous, and there are no major revelations or twists. Instead, everything that happens is a matter of gradation—say, for example, how Mason begins to develop an interest in art or how his mother’s partners start to repeat similar patterns of behavior. These moments aren’t commented on—they’re simply observed—and one of Boyhood’s great attributes is its generous spirit. Linklater, who also wrote the script, doesn’t care about indulging in soap-opera melodrama to elevate the drama because he’s too busy being jazzed by the casual flow of life. There’s enough going on with most people that he doesn’t need to invent incidents. —T.G.