This year’s Sarasota Film Festival was the first with Paste movies editor Michael Dunaway as director of programming. It was also my first time to Sarasota and my 16-year-old daughter’s first time to any film festival. From the curation of the films to the spectacle of the parties to the loveliness of Sarasota in April (beats Park City, Utah, in January), it’s a festival I highly recommend. I also recommend taking your kids to a film festival. It made for some wonderful discussions and cherished memories.
Between all the movies we saw last week and those the Paste movies crew had already watched, we couldn’t narrow it to 10. So here are the 14 best films from the 2015 Sarasota Film Festival.
Director Kahlik Allah worked as a still photographer for two years of nights at the corner of 125th and Lexington in Harlem, capturing images of the colorful cast of regulars he found there. But eventually he found that still photos weren’t enough to fully chronicle the lives and experiences of the often broken people of that corner, so he began filming. Eventually he made the brilliant choice not to sync the sound and the images in the final film, so we watch beautiful, heartbreaking images while we hear disembodied voices speaking. More than nearly any film I’ve ever seen, Field Niggas feels just like a dream. And sometimes a nightmare.
Directors: Chris White
At any festival you’ll encounter your share of $1 million films that feel like they were made with 20 times that. Then there are the truly indie movies that may not always look and sound like Hollywood, but you’re so glad you got the rare chance to watch them. Cinema Purgatorio falls in the latter camp. Directed by and starring Chris White, the story follows a filmmaking couple (White’s wife Emily co-wrote the screenplay) taking a career step backwards to enter a 48-hour film festival when they learn that Bill Murray was going to be a judge. It’s uproariously funny and good-hearted, offering a realistic look at both marriage and chasing a dream.—Josh Jackson
Academy Award winning actress Rachel Weisz is an Executive Producer on Tom Browne’s debut as a writer/director, but she never appears in the film. That’s because Radiator has only three characters of note—a man and his elderly parents. When he returns to take care of his ailing father at the family homestead, he finds that family dynamics have not gotten any easier. It’s a slow story, told at a slow pace, but with such immense beauty and sensitivity, you won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen. Radiator made its US premiere at the festival, and it’s a coming-out party for a major new talent in Browne.
Director: Antonia Bogdonovich
Antonia Bogdonovich is no stranger to film. The daughter of Peter Bogdonovich and Polly Platt was acting beside Audrey Hepburn by the time she was 12. Phantom Halo is her directorial debut, but her experience around movies shows. Featuring stellar performances from Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Sebastian Roché, Rebecca Romijn and newcomer Luke Kleintank, Phantom Halo is the story of two boys raised by a single alcoholic and gambling-addicted father. Samuel (Brodie-Sangster) recites Shakespeare for tourists while Beckett (Kleintank) picks their pockets, but the brothers have ambitions to get out from under their fathers’ stern rule. The key may be in the wisdom of Samuel’s favorite comic, the titular Phantom Halo. The sometimes violent, sometimes funny movie succeeds most within the family dynamics, with a tragic failed Shakespearean actor as patriarch.—Josh Jackson
The life and music of Brian Wilson come into artful, often devastating focus in this unsentimental portrait of the Beach Boys maestro’s struggles with mental illness. All but deaf in one ear from a blow to the head by his abusive father, the young Wilson (an outstandingly nuanced Paul Dano) swaps one manipulative patriarchal figure for another as a middle-aged man (John Cusack steps in for Dano), when he gets gaslighted by his resident pharmocologist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, good as ever in a bad wig). Aside from Cusack’s and Dano’s deliberately unique—director Bill Pohlad kept the actors from comparing notes—though eerily simpatico performances as the older and younger Wilson, respectively, what resonates long after the credits roll is Atticus Ross’ surreal soundtrack. An aural journey through the voices in Wilson’s head, Ross’ score uses snippets of recognizable Wilson compositions but muddles them in an ambient production that comes off as immediately familiar but far off, removed—a harmony you can almost touch yet won’t leave you alone. The effect is altogether unsettling, and approximates the symphony inside the troubled genius at the heart of Love & Mercy.—Amanda Schurr
Director: Alê Abreu
The Boy and the World (O Menino E O Mundo), like any should-be classic of kids’ cinema, is laced with images of pure, incomprehensible terror. Nearly wordless, this Brazilian animated film is also a subcutaneous wonder: heartbreaking and sumptuous and sometimes so gorgeous you feel like you should weep in appreciation, at near microscopic levels The Boy and the World excels. As Cuca, our eponymous boy—defined mostly by his Charlie Brown head and infectious giggle—is literally swept up on a hallucinogenic journey, political iconography and economic devastation gradually devour the vibrant, weird colors that define his idyllic home. Your kids probably won’t recognize the fascistic implications of Abreu’s designs—which culminate in an actual battle between the pitch-black Reichsadler and a rainbow phoenix (birthed, of course, from the music of the oppressed lower classes)—but the feeling he wants to give them is easy enough to understand. The World may be a big and scary place, he admits, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less amazing.—Dom Sinacola
Directors: Susan Lambert, Stefan Moore
Two years ago, the opening night film at Sarasota was Blackfish, a documentary that ended up changing the way Sea World does business. This year, Tyke Elephant Outlaw hadn’t even world premiered at the fest before Ringling Brothers announced they’d be phasing out elephants from their acts over the next three years. But this documentary is more than just a call for social action; it’s also a heartbreaking story of the elephant that went on a rampage in the streets of Honolulu in 1994 and was put down in a rain of bullets. And it’s a compelling portrait of Tyrone Taylor, Tyke’s trainer and best friend. And it’s the start of some larger, and important, conversations about the way we tolerate animal cruelty for our own amusement.
Director: Ross Partridge
Just reading the plot description of Lamb makes you squirm in your seat—a mysterious middle-aged man meets a young girl and takes her on a cross-country road trip with mysterious intentions. It’s a testament to first-time director Ross Partridge that he never quite lets you get too far from that feeling in the pit of your stomach; it’s one of the tensest films in recent memory. But it’s also a compelling portrait of a man who may not always do the right thing, but is trying to figure life out. Just like the rest of us.
Director: Steve Prince
Veteran producer and actor Steve Prince makes his directorial debut in a wide-open exploration of American spirituality. Equally generous to faiths of all stripes as it is to skepticism, Prince borrows heavily from his own childhood exposure to TV preachers and hippie gurus alike. Billy Burke (Revolution) stars as Jack, a spiritually and personally detached womanizer who’s asked by his producer friend (Patrick Warburton) to come on his cable access channel. When the public starts to respond to his folksy philosophizing (a non-judgmental blend of humanism, universalism, EST and self-help), Jack finds himself the reluctant leader of a movement even he doesn’t understand. The movie balances its earnest heart with sharp comedy, and its intelligence keeps it from veering too deep into gooey sentimentality. Even the antagonist, the Christian fundamentalist preacher whom Jack replaces on the show, is sympathetic in his own pitiful way. He’s the archetypal self-righteous televangelist, but The Good Wife’s Gary Cole keeps him from feeling like a caricature. Like Jack, Divine Access might not have all the answers, but it’s an original vision that asks some pretty big questions.—Josh Jackson
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
Director: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy
When director Slaboshpytskiy lost this year’s Ukrainian foreign language Oscar nomination to Oles Sanin’s The Guide, he was unabashed about his indignation, making admittedly relevant but ultimately bitter-sounding claims about corruption in the selection committee. In so many words, he was probably right, but it practically didn’t matter: The Tribe (Plemya) is such a peerlessly angry feature-length debut, there’s little one can imagine the director accepting but uncompromising accolades for what he’s done. What he’s done, though—the reality this film proposes—feels like nothing less than prescient, his boarding school for the deaf not so much set within the fringes of society as festering at its surface, the silence of its main characters an oppressive din. For over two hours, there is no moment that passes without the threat of something or someone ready to pop, and as the plot careens predictably towards devastation, the interactions between students—told without subtitles for their sign language, conveyed via body language intuited by an audience presumably not fluent—grow desperate, as if every sound’s a struggle. That a film like this hasn’t come before is almost laughable; Slaboshpytskiy seems to be rendering the experience of a deaf person almost too literally, pushing the audience into the shoes of someone who forever seems to speak a language society refuses to. But that he then keeps pushing, acting the cold witness to one harrowing piece of these teenagers’ lives after another, makes the conclusion he’s wrought the most significantly hopeless, brutal representation of the human condition I’ve seen on film in recent memory. This is the story of Outsiders who will preternaturally turn on each other, because turning on each other is all they know. And for that? They die—totally alone and forever misunderstood.—Dom Sinacola
Director: Olivier Assayas
In just about anyone else’s hands, Clouds of Sils Maria could try one’s patience. A character study of actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) revisiting one of her earliest theatrical triumphs—except this time, she’s playing the older, more tragic character, not the young, confident beauty—the latest from French filmmaker Olivier Assayas risks being such an insular, rarified project that it never escapes its navel-gazing concerns about creativity and celebrity. But Assayas largely transforms such potentially precious material into something far more rewarding and, ultimately, ambivalent. It’s not new for an artist to create a work about the nature of making art, but Clouds of Sils Maria soon becomes a larger portrait about how we interpret (and reinterpret) that art based on our own experiences and biases. A movie of internal puzzles, it consistently hints at something more sinister or provocative just around the corner. It’s a movie so psychologically rich that its outer trappings soon give way to universal anxieties about what exactly defines us. With a film this attuned to the complexity (and unraveling) of identity, it’s barely a surprise when one of the characters literally disappears from the story.—Tim Grierson
Director: James Ponsoldt
The latest from director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, Smashed) is about journalist/author David Lipsky as much as it is the late author David Foster Wallace. Adapted from Lipsky’s book about his sometimes-confrontational interview with Wallace just after the publication of Infinite Jest, The End of the Tour raises some of life’s most difficult questions about identity, the perception of others and intellectual honesty. But Jason Segel’s performance as the earnest Midwestern author is the grounding heart of the film. Wallace’s eventual suicide is a specter haunting the entire affair, but it’s never maudlin or manipulative. Instead, these few days in the passenger seat are welcome, listening to an original man’s original perspective on life and loneliness. —Josh Jackson
Director: Kornél Mundruczó
White God isn’t the first film to suggest that humanity’s cruel treatment of others will one day come back to haunt us—but it certainly makes its point with potent force. Winner of the top prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year, and set in modern-day Budapest, White God begins as a deceptively lighthearted girl-and-his-dog story: 13-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta) hangs out with her best friend, a mixed-breed named Hagen. When she’s stripped of her closest companion, the withdrawn Lili must learn to interact with a world of enigmatic teenagers and demanding orchestra conductors. Hagen, clearly meant to be a symbol for minorities and perceived second-class humans of all kinds, is exploited and dehumanized (so to speak) for other people’s benefit. What elevates White God beyond the forcefulness of its commentary, though, is the precision of its execution. Eschewing special effects to bring Hagen to life gives the ordeal has a palpable realness—a legitimate sense of stakes—that’s all the more remarkable because we know we’re not watching a CGI animal. The drama’s finale builds to a series of powerful sequences that revel in their primal catharsis. It can be terrifying but, also, oddly comic, Mundruczó tweaking horror conventions—such as the familiar sight of the killer popping up in the background of a frame—by replacing the murderous psychopath character with a few unloved mutts. However, the brief laughs stick in the throat, an acknowledgment of the very human reasons that oppressed groups resort to violence when more peaceful avenues prove futile. White God is a dark twist on the underdog story, its tense, ambiguous ending a bitter reminder of what happens when we all just can’t get along.—Tim Grierson