Before I made my trip to Park City, Utah for the 2009 Sundance Film Festival I gave you a list of the 13 films I was most interested in seeing. And now that I’ve come and gone, surviving another year in the hustle and bustle of America’s great festival, it is my duty to bookend my coverage with a list of the best films of this year’s fest. In total, I saw 37 films during the 10 day festival and reviewed them all — for individual reviews, please feel free to head over to my Sundance ’09 Review Index. Out of those 37 came these 13, the almost undisputed best of the fest. And before we go any further, a disclaimer: If you are one of those nit-picky folks who is going to go back and compare the grades from my reviews to the order of these films, save yourself some time. The grades don’t exactly match — but looking back on the festival as a whole, these are the 13 best films, in order. (Click any of the titles below to see my full review)
Authentic and raw, the feature debut from director Cruz Angeles combined a smart, moving story with an amazing cast of youngsters. On the shoulders of their performances, Don’t Let Me Drown established itself quickly as one of the best dramas of the fest. Not to mention one of the best urban dramas we’ve seen in a long, long time. Think Boyz in the Hood meets Romeo and Juliet.
As predicted, Black Dynamite was funky fresh and filled with laughs. A cleverly written spoof on 70s Blaxploitation, Scott Sanders’ film is a badass throwback to an era of big hair, pimp canes and plenty of kung fu. With a hilarious delivery from the film’s star Michael Jai White and an assortment of fun characters, this movie starts with a burst of energy and never lets up. In the end my theory is that it is best served as midnight fair, but I have a feeling that it will still be enjoyable even when it hits DVD.
This selection is the first in what will probably be a few romantic comedies on this list. What can I say, it was a really good year for romantic comedies, quirky or otherwise, at Sundance. And for every romantic comedy that did make it onto this list, there were probably 2-3 more that didn’t, but deserved to nonetheless. Philip Morris though, is a special one. Jim Carrey gives one of his career best performances as a resourceful gay conman who falls in love with one of his prisonmates (Ewan McGregor) and risks life, limb and dignity to find a way to be with him. I laughed, I cried (from the laughter, of course) and I was caught off guard by the films clever irreverance. Put simply, its as if the Farrelly Brothers and Coen Brothers teamed up — seriously.
This year’s Sundance surprise screening — a surprise we all saw coming days in advance — was a look at a rough cut of Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming film The Girlfriend Experience. And despite the fact that Soderbergh’s last “on the fly” film Bubble was a wreck and the fact that he’d cast porn star Sasha Grey in the lead role, this one turned out to be great. The visuals were fantastic, the story was strong and the performance from Ms. Grey was a big surprise. Who knew that porn stars could act? Beyond that, who knew that Steven Soderbergh could actually pull of a solid film with minimal budget and scripting? I for one, was pleasantly surprised.
Its hard to predict whether or not the opening night selection will be good or bad, even though we should assume that it will be good. And this year’s opening night selection, a claymation film about friendship, depression, autism, alcoholism, procreation and turtle flatulance was really something special. Director Adam Elliot’s attention to detail and ambitious storytelling made Mary and Max the perfect offbeat opening night film, setting the tone for a very unique slate of films throughout the entire festival.
Behold the rise of Carey Mulligan, Hollywood’s next ‘it’ girl. In this adapation of a novel by Nick Hornby, Mulligan shines on screen as a 16-year old British schoolgirl who willingly risks her bright future to follow an older, more cultured man into a world of art galleries, hip parties and weekends in Paris. Its a wonderfully directed 60s period piece, showing off a brilliant attention to detail and some amazing performances — not the least of which belonging to Ms. Mulligan.
Over the course of the fest’s final weekend I took in a few really awesome documentaries. Among them was the second film from the infamous activist troublemakers known as The Yes Men. In their sophomore effort, these sneaky anti-consumerists take on some of the world’s biggest corporate criminals in some of the most creative ways you could possibly imagine. And all along the way, we get to have a lot of fun as we watch their devious schemes play to near perfection. No matter where you sit on the political fence, there is no denying that these guys have a certain charm about them.
Winner of both the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award — this doesn’t happen often. But underneath all the acclaim, Lee Daniels’ film is a brutal yet hopeful story told through a few fantastic performances. It is shocking, tragic and at times very intense, but it never loses its amazing energy, making it an overwhelmingly special moviegoing experience. It also gets bonus points for being the first film to prove that Mariah Carey might be able to act.
Sam Rockwell was all over this year’s festival, and for good reason — he had two great performances in two different, but good film. The best of the two was Moon, from director Duncan Jones. A truly amazing achievement in indie filmmaking, Jones crafts the engaging story of a man whose mind begins to slip away as he finishes a 3-year term as the solo operator of a mining station on the surface of the moon. It goes beyond his mental state though, dealing with layer upon layer of interesting themes, including corporate responsibility and genetic manipulation. It’s a must-see for anyone who loves a clever bit of sci-fi in their life.
If you are reading this article, then this is the documentary for you. Before YouTube and MySpace allowed us to sacrifice personal privacy for moments of internet fame, there was Josh Harris. Describes as the greatest internet pioneer you’ve never heard of, Harris is the subject of director Ondi Timoner’s fascinating doc. We follow along as Harris creates a cult-like experiment in a bunker in NYC, broadcasts his relationship and mental meltdowns across a fledgling internet and ultimately becomes so connected to technology that it drives him mad. Its riveting, insightful and for lack of a better word, frightening for anyone who spends their time online.
Many of you were already familiar with the Derrick Comedy group prior to the release of their first feature film. They are the cats that brought us popular online shorts such as “Bro Rape” and “Blowjob Girl.” And while those videos, each earning millions of views on YouTube, are hilarious, you haven’t seen anything like the shenanigans they pull off in Mystery Team. Trust me, this is something entirely different and even more ridiculous — which translates into even more fun.
I have a rule about Zooey Deschanel — if she’s in a movie, I’m seeing it. And nine times out of ten, I’m also liking it. This is no exception. In fact, 500 Days of Summer is the epitome of what I love about quirky romantic comedies. It sports some really charismatic performances from Zooey and Joseph Gordon Levitt (among others), has a killer soundtrack and is delivered in a very clever and unique way. That and it has a really infectious quality about it — the kind of film that makes you want to see it over and over again.
The minute I walked out of the press screening for Bobcat Goldthwait’s super-dark comedy about teen suicide, I knew that it was the best film of the festival. Never have I laughed so hard at such off-color material than in that room. Combining a dark sensibility with two fantastic performances from Robin Williams and Spy Kids’ Daryl Sabara, Goldthwait has delivered a comedy that exists on another level — a comedy so provacotive and dark that no studio would dare make it. A comedy made with two giant brass balls.