The 17 Best Movies at Sundance 2013

Movies Lists Best Movies
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Paste saw somewhere north of 50 movies in 10 days at Sundance 2013, between film writer Jeremy Mathews, film editor Michael Dunaway and editor-in-chief Josh Jackson. We didn’t catch everything, but enough to bring you a list of 17 worthwhile movies—comedies, dramas, thrillers and docs—a few of which already have distribution and will be making it to your movie theater very soon.

17. The Spectacular Now

spectacular-now.jpg

Director: James Ponsoldt
Stars: Miles Teller, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Shailene Woodley, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Shailene Woodley gives a performance of such fragility and power in The Spectacular Now that the rest of the movie almost feels dull by comparison. Director James Ponsoldt (Smashed) adapted Tim Tharp’s coming-of-age novel with heartfelt sincerity, and the result has wooed enthusiastic Sundance crowds. Miles Teller stars as Sutter, a high school senior with a great enthusiasm for human connection and partying, but little enthusiasm for classwork or future planning. Think Ferris Bueller with a concealed depression and an alcohol abuse problem. Woodley dominates every frame she’s in with sweet hesitations and a nervous smile. She provides a mesmerizing portrayal of young love. If only The Spectacular Now had been about its strongest character, it could have really been something.—Jeremy Mathews

16. Crystal Fairy

crystal-fairy-cera-300.jpg

Director: Sebastián Silva
Actors: Michael Cera, Gaby Hoffman, Juan Andrés Silva, José Miguel Silva, Augustin Silva
If Michael Cera was typecast as the poster boy for Type B romantic heroes—awkward but sweet, soft but humble, geeky but loveable—his turn in Sebastián Silva’s Crystal Fairy marks his arrival as an unlikeable Type A anti-hero. In one of the actor’s two Chile-based collaborations with Silva at Sundance (the other is Magic Magic), Jaime (Cera) is an ugly American, obsessed with mind-altering drugs and oblivious to his own self-centeredness. Stoned at a local party, he invites fellow American Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman)—a hippie, hairy, sometimes off-putting and often-naked free spirit—on his quest for a rare mescaline-producing cactus on a camping trip with friends. The sparse plot nonetheless provides opportunities for a little self-reflection and some original, dark humor, making the druggy affair a worthwhile trip to the theater.—Josh Jackson

15. The Crash Reel

crash-reel.jpg

Director: Lucy Walker
Even for those of us who have no interest in snowboarding or winter sports, The Crash Reel provides a remarkable story about family. What could have easily been a by-the-numbers recovery story about a niche sport is constantly compelling in the hands of one of our most talented young documentarians—Oscar-nominee Lucy Walker. It’s striking how different each of Walker’s movies are in both subject matter and feel, yet she’s remarkably consistent. She finds the right story and the right tone every single time.—Michael Dunaway

14. Afternoon Delight

afternoon-delight.jpg

Director: Jill Soloway
Stars: Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple, Josh Radnor, Jane Lynch
We often see films about male midlife crises, so it’s refreshing to experience one from a woman’s point of view. From the beginning of the movie, McKenna (Kathryn Hahn) feels like a fish out of water among her friends, and she’s losing touch with her husband (Josh Radnor). Director Jill Soloway does a really good job of building that frustration so when McKenna has a spark of chemistry with a young dancer at a strip club (Juno Temple), it’s more believable that she’d let her into her life. Her character is obviously well-intention, but her self-destruction isn’t sugar-coated. And we get to see a new side of Josh Radnor than we’ve seen before—darker, more troubled and internal.—Michael Dunaway

13. The Gatekeepers

the-gatekeepers.jpg

Director: Dror Moreh
Dror Moreh’s documentary has already played at Telluride and Toronto, and is even already nominated for an Oscar, but it plays Sundance this year in the Spotlight section, reserved for a select few films that have played other festivals. It earns its spot, and then some. Amazingly, Moreh conducted interviews with every single head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. The access boggles the mind, and some of the stories are riveting. If there’s a flaw in the film, it’s one of bias—the film dwells on Israeli atrocities while mitigating its criticisms of Palestinian terrorism. Still, it’s a fascinating look behind the curtain. And it’s a technical tour de force—Moreh does things with still photos that I’ve never seen done in a film before.—Michael Dunaway

12. Toy’s House

toys-house.jpg

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Stars: Nick Robinson, Nick Offerman, Moises Arias, Gabriel Basso, Alison Brie, Megan Mullally, Erin Moriarty
Comedies generally fare well at Sundance. After hours of watching dark, disturbing dramas and depressing documentaries, sometimes you just need a laugh. Toy’s House provides plenty. Like Superbad (but with less raunch and even more heart), it tells the story of three boys on the brink of becoming men—struggling to fit in at school and at home. Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) has had enough of his overbearing, miserable widower father (Nick Offerman) and decides to build a house in the woods for he and his friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso). Moises Arias steals scene after scene as the awkward third roommate who just kind of shows up.—Josh Jackson

11. Fill the Void

fill-the-void.jpg

Director: Rama Burshtein
Stars: Hila Feldman, Razia Israeli, Yiftach Klein, Renana Raz, Ido Samuel
The press materials describe the film as a Jane Austin novel set in Tel Aviv’s ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community, and that’s about as close to the mark as we can get. It’s more than just a peek behind the veil of a seldom-depicted society, though. The tender film is anchored by a sensitive bravura lead performance by Hila Feldman. Somehow her struggles with family and marriage, while maintaining a parcularly Orthodox spin, still seem completely universal, as well.—Michael Dunaway

10. Don Jon’s Addiction

don-jon.jpg

Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Rob Brown
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has come a very long way since Third Rock From the Sun (and a rich career as a child actor that preceded even that). He’s shown an amazing range in films like Hesher, Mysterious Skin and his recent run of blockbusters. And he stretches himself further in his first directorial effort, Jon Don’s Addiction, playing a New Jersey Don Juan whose routine involves his car, his gym, his club, his church, his women and his porn. It’s an interesting—and hilarious—look at both how men objectify women and how women objectify men. His seemingly irredeemable character finds redemption in surprising ways.—Josh Jackson

9. Cutie and the Boxer

cutie-boxer-sundance-sq.jpg

Director: Zachary Heinzerling
Cutie and the Boxer, Zachary Heinzerling’s fascinating documentary about Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko, studies the life of a man who is entering his 80s, but still dreams like he’s 20. Ushio, who spear-headed the Neo Dadaist movement in the ’60s, is best known for his “boxing paintings,” created by punching the canvas with paint-soaked boxing gloves. The documentary follows the passions and struggles of the couple as they live in their small New York City apartment with little income to support their lives and endeavors. Noriko emerges as the heart of the movie, as she recalls her life while writing a graphic novel about her rocky marriage. Heinzerling combines Noriko’s drawings with contemporary footage to create a story that isn’t only a tale of creative minds, but an honest love story.—Jeremy Mathews

Paste saw somewhere north of 50 movies in 10 days at Sundance 2013, between film writer Jeremy Mathews, film editor Michael Dunaway and editor-in-chief Josh Jackson. We didn’t catch everything, but enough to bring you a list of 17 worthwhile movies—comedies, dramas, thrillers and docs—a few of which already have distribution and will be making it to your movie theater very soon.

8. The East

the-east.jpg

Director: Zal Batmanglij
Stars: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgaard, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, Julia Ormond
Director Zal Batmanglij and Actress Brit Marling join forces again as co-writers in their fast-moving followup to 2012’s Sound of My Voice. The East is the story of a private-firm intelligence agent (Marling) looking to infiltrate a shadowy group of anticorporate terrorsists. Marling is wonderful as always, Alexander Skarsgaard is appropriately mysterious as the leader of the group, and Ellen Page turns in her best performance in years. The film was produced by Ridley Scott, and the Hollywood pedigree shows; Batmanglij seems to be making his bid for the brass ring here, and he should get it.—Michael Dunaway

7. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

body-saints.jpg

Director: David Lowery
Stars: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster
Ain’t Them Body Saints may be set in the present, but its story is ageless. It feels like the kind of classic outlaw tale that could have been in a film of any era. Director David Lowery and cinematographer Bradford Young have created a lyrical journey through golden fields, dark nights and run-down buildings of rural Texas. While it’s built on strong tradition, the compelling characters and gorgeous imagery ensure that it’s never routine. The film boasts superb performances by Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster. It builds suspense on multiple levels—not only from the characters’ situations, but from the personal, high-stakes decisions they each must make.—Jeremy Mathews

6. Touchy Feely

touchy-feely.jpg

Director: Lynn Shelton
Stars: Rosemarie Dewitt, Allison Janney, Ellen Page, Josh Pais
Lynn Shelton’s followup to last year’s wonderful Your Sister’s Sister is very different—not a chamber piece, less overtly funny, more challenging. At times it feels scattered. But Allison Janney, Ellen Page, and especially Josh Pais are strong in supporting roles, and Rosemarie Dewitt continues her emergence as one of the most interesting indie actresses around. As her massage therapist Abby worries about moving in with her boyfriend, she begins to experience a physical manifestation of her anxiety: an extreme aversion to touch. Dewitt brings immediacy and urgency to her desperate search for a fix.—Michael Dunaway

5. Muscle Shoals

muscle-shoals.jpg

Director: Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier
Stars: Etta James, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Gregg Allman, Alicia Keys, Bono, Aretha Franklin
By now there’s a formula for the music-scene documentary, but Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier wasn’t content to follow. For starters, the cinematography is blockbuster-worthy, bringing to life not just the iconic studios but the landscape of this quiet Alabama town on the banks of the Tennessee River, which feels like a character in the film. Add to that impressive archival footage and memorable modern-day interviews with musicians who cut records there (Percy Sledge, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin), the studio players who created that Muscle Shoals sound and the musicians they influenced (Bono, Alicia Keys), and you have the best documentary of the festival.—Josh Jackson

4. Upstream Color

upstream-color.jpg

Director: Shane Carruth
Stars: Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Amy Seimetz
Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color builds a stunning mosaic of lives overwhelmed by decisions outside their control, of people who don’t understand the impulses that rule their lives. Told with stylistic bravado and minimal dialogue (none in the last 30 minutes), the film continually finds new ways to evoke unexpected feelings. The visuals combine with extraordinary sound design and rhythmic cross-cutting to create a hypnotic portrait of the story’s intertwined lives. An elaborate, intellectual sci-fi concept fuels the film, but a rich sense of humanity gives it power.—Jeremy Mathews

3. Mud

mud.jpg

Director: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland
Two years ago, Jeff Nichols turned heads at Sundance with his second film Take Shelter. He’s back, this time in the spotlight section, with Mud, a coming-of-age thriller about two young boys who encounter a man on the run in rural Arkansas. Ellis (Tye Sheridan from Tree of Life) lives on the river with his parents, who are on the brink of splitting up, when he and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discover Mud (Matthew McConaughey) living alone on an island in the river. It’s a sweet tale that displays plenty of faith in humanity without ever veering into sappiness and always keeping you on the edge of your seat—just the kind of thing you hope to find at a festival like Sundance. And Nichols once again coaxes amazing performances from his cast.—Josh Jackson

2. Fruitvale

fruitvale.jpg

Director: Ryan Coogler
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Chad Michael Murray, Kevin Durand, Octavia Spencer, Ahna O’Reilly
Walking into Fruitvale, you probably already know what happens at the end; it’s based, after all, on the very high-profile 2009 shooting of a young African American by a subway police officer in Oakland on New Year’s Eve. Just in case you don’t know the story, director Ryan Coogler shows you the shooting in the first two minutes of the film. It’s a bold move, and it telegraphs his intent—the film is not about building up suspense around what will happen; it’s about showing the last day in the life of this young man, his good and bad choices, and the potential tragically cut short. The Wire’s Michael B. Jordan is perfectly cast, with his immediate and irresistible charisma, and Octavia Spencer is wonderful as his long-suffering mother.—Michael Dunaway

1. Before Midnight

before-midnight-sundance.jpg

Director: Richard Linklater
Stars: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Before Midnight concludes one of cinema’s great trilogies—assuming it stays a trilogy. Director Richard Linklater and stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke have built a beautiful study of life and love, each chapter of which stands on its own while adding emotional resonance to the other two. The series’ trademark intense, thoughtful and personal conversations remain. An early scene holds on one perfectly acted two-shot in a car for 13 minutes. The discussions are often as hilarious as they are engaging. Hangups, regrets and doubts have have become a greater part of Jesse and Celine’s lives, and the film reflects that. But it also reminds us what made the couple such a lovable pair that they could hold our interest for 20 years.—Jeremy Mathews

Also in Movies