Whether it’s SXSW or Sundance, when it comes to festivals these days, cynics tend to focus on the negatives. They’ll say it’s gotten too big for its britches, drowning in a sea of crass commercialism epitomized by gifting suites, pop-up nightclubs, and hard-partying philistines. But beneath its champagne-soaked, fur-clad veneer, the Sundance Film Festival remains a bastion of independent cinema.
A turning point for the festival came in 2006, when the ensemble dramedy Little Miss Sunshine notched a record-setting $10 million sale to Fox Searchlight. That same year, Paris Hilton, for god knows what reason, chose to throw her 25th birthday bash during Sundance. In the wake of these twin peaks, everyone’s favorite celebration of indie film found itself experiencing an identity crisis, for how can you reconcile “independence” with pricey indiewood movies and sex tape-starring socialites?
From a film standpoint, in the past few years Sundance has cut out a lot of the cinematic fat and returned to its gritty roots. The annual film festival was established in 1978 (first named the US Film Festival) by screen legend Robert Redford, and has since launched the careers of the Coen brothers (Blood Simple, ’85), Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape, ’89), Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, ’91), Darren Aronofsky (Pi, ’98), and countless others. Today, it attracts some 50,000 film lovers to the mountains of Park City, Utah.
The biggest attractions at last year’s edition were Whiplash and Boyhood, which have gone on to garner 11 Academy Award nominations between them. For the 2015 fest, which ran January 22 – February 1, 118 feature films were presented—culled from 4,105 submissions—45 of which come from first-time filmmakers.
So what were the highlights of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival?
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Like Whiplash, which last year took home the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, this year’s dual winner was Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who began his career as an assistant to Scorsese, Ephron, and Inarritu, and adapted by Jesse Andrews from his novel of the same name, Me and Earl centers on Greg (Thomas Mann), a high school senior with intimacy issues who hopes to graduate without forging any meaningful connections to anyone for fear of exposing his own perceived inadequacies. His only friend is Earl (Ronald Cyler II), a black kid from a poor part of town who makes inventive parody films with Greg, e.g. A Sockwork Orange (starring sock puppets) and My Dinner with Andre the Giant. One day, Greg’s mother forces him to hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl in his class who’s just been diagnosed with leukemia. A friendship blossoms, and Greg finds himself bridging a connection and being vulnerable for the first time.
Gomez-Rejon’s tearjerker of a film is a clever cross between Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep and The Fault in Our Stars, and is poised to be a big hit. Bidding for the film reached a record $12 million before Fox Searchlight acquired the movie for a seven-figure sum.
The 2015 Sundance Film Festival was one big celebration of male sexuality. Jack Black and James Marsden shared an intense sex scene in The D Train and James Franco engages in a brief three-way sex scene with Zachary Quinto and Charlie Carver in I Am Michael. But one of the most talked-about themes of Sundance this year was the amount of movie star penis on display. A coked-up Chris Messina takes his wedding tackle out in Joe Swanberg’s Digging for Fire, while one of the most memorable dick sequences at Sundance went down in the comedy The Overnight. At a dinner party, Jason Schwartzman’s character decides to go skinny-dipping and reveals a Dirk Diggler penis. He’s soon joined by Adam Scott’s character—and his micropenis—and the two share a dick-swinging dance. Ironically, while all this penis was on display, the reigning king of the swingin’ dick, Ewan McGregor, played Jesus Christ in the Sundance entry Last Days in the Desert.
The richest part of Sundance is its dazzling array of documentary films, with many of the best docs of the past two decades premiering at the fest. Searching for Sugar Man. Exit Through the Gift Shop. The Cove. Man on Wire. An Inconvenient Truth. Murderball. The list is endless.
And this year’s fest was packed with eye-opening documentaries. The latest from the world’s most prolific documentary filmmaker, Alex Gibney, is Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. It’s a comprehensive takedown of the Church of Scientology, from the manipulative machinations of its founder L. Ron Hubbard to its sadistic, abusive prison facility in Florida to the impact the faith has had on its most famous practitioner, Tom Cruise. Two-time Oscar nominee Kirby Dick (The Invisible War) took on the campus rape epidemic—and accused rapist/Florida State QB Jameis Winston—in The Hunting Ground, which features interviews with dozens of college rape victims whose cries for help fell on deaf ears, as well as several administrators who acknowledge that they helped sweep rape accusations under the rug.
Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is the first fully-authorized documentary on the Nirvana front man and provides a very intimate portrait of Cobain courtesy of unseen home video footage, unreleased music, journal entries, and other ephemera. Welcome to Leith is a gripping doc about a community under siege—in this case the titular tiny North Dakota town that sees a new visitor, white supremacist Craig Cobb, try to take over via hateful intimidation, while The Wolfpack tells the absorbing story of the Angulo brothers who are raised in captivity in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and forced to come to grips with the alienness of the outside world (although it does give me a strange Catfish vibe).
Perhaps I’m a bit biased as a ‘90s kid with a taste for old-school hip-hop, but my favorite film of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival is Dope. Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood), it’s a coming of age flick that centers on Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a Harvard-aspiring ‘90s-obsessed hip-hop head who spends his mornings jamming out with his two geeky friends in the rap-rock band Oreo, and afternoons dodging bike thieves and gang members in his native Inglewood. When a chance run-in with a drug dealer (A$AP Rocky) leads to several kilos of ecstasy falling into his hands, Malcolm must move the “dope” if he ever wants to have a future. Famuyiwa’s film is the most zeitgeisty movie of the fest; a manic mélange of memes, viral videos, bitcoins, and Pharrell’s catchy score. I can’t wait to see it again.
Jason Segel is an early candidate for a Best Actor Oscar nomination (really) for his fully lived-in performance as David Foster Wallace in James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, bringing the mysterious late author to thrillingly brilliant life. If her eminently likable turn in Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America is any indication, Lola Kirke (little sister of Girls’ Jemima) is going to be a massive star. She even outdoes fellow actress Greta Gerwig in the film, which is no easy task. Thomas Mann, who’s best known for the asinine high school comedy Project X, delivers a heartbreaking and complex performance as the closed-off, self-loathing, and terribly witty protagonist of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, while relative newcomer Shameik Moore, who used to be a back-up dancer for music videos, is every bit as magnetic as Cuba Gooding Jr. was in Boyz n the Hood as an overwhelmed geek from the ‘hood who gets in way over his head in Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope. Also, filmmaker Robert Eggers deserves plenty of plaudits for helming the astounding accurate, deeply spooky 1630’s-set horror film The Witch, replicating Salem-esque levels of paranoia and hysteria.