Our Sundance 2015 Awards

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Sundance Institute

Sundance Institute

It’s been just over a week since we left the snow-covered mountains of Park City, Utah, where for the week prior we had trudged around to cover the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. We saw a great many movies, wrote some reviews, had great conversations in line and overall had a pleasant week.

Now that we’ve named our Best Movies of Sundance list and we’ve finished publishing all of our reviews, it’s time to give away some awards. The film festival audiences and juries have given out the official Sundance awards, why shouldn’t we do the same? Some of these categories match that of the official awards, some not so much. We’ll leave it to you to do the math.

Best Narrative Feature: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

You might think that the best movie at a prestigious film festival would be some highfalutin artistic drama about a yak herder trying to teach his blind daughter the family business before succumbing to Alzheimer’s Disease, and honestly, if that film had played this year it probably would take the top spot – but it didn’t. Instead, the fest’s best film is a goofy, heartfelt, immensely creative and incredibly funny coming-of-age tale about a high school student and his two best friends. There’s love, cancer and stop-motion animation, and while it’s very funny the tears streaming down your face won’t be from laughter. Think (500) Days of Summer meets 50/50. Think immense creativity, honesty, energy and heart. Think that rare movie that entertains and inspires in equal measure. Think Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. (And then go see it when it opens later this year.) — Rob Hunter

Best Documentary Feature: The Russian Woodpecker

This film has it all: humor, terror, drama, politics, revolution, history, prophesy, secrets, lies, actual locations that look like they belong in science fiction and an eclectic protagonist who makes scenes seem even more fantastical or more real at any turn. Following a conspiracy theory involving the truth about the Chernobyl disaster, it’s both an important piece of journalism and a bewildering odyssey of an artist turned investigator (not unlike Gasland before it, although this makes that seem like a genuine news report). It pulls you down an unpredictable rabbit hole, yet you’re just as much likely to freely jump down and follow the rabbit at every turn, because it’s so damn intriguing. I can’t recall the last time a documentary surprised me quite so much. And I can’t wait to re-watch it. I think I’ll find even more to love on second viewing. Also even more to be paranoid about, too. — Christopher Campbell

Audience Award: I’ll See You In My Dreams

Charm is often overlooked when it comes to film festival movies – so many of the offerings at these sorts of things are dark and deep and painful, I cried in at least four movies this year – but there’s certainly something to be said about the refreshing spirit of a purely charming film. Make no mistake, I cried in Brett Haley’s I’ll See You In My Dreams, both at the beginning (rare!) and at its end (expected!), but that doesn’t dilute the pleasure of such a feature. Starring Blythe Danner in her first on-screen leading role (no, really), the film traces her Carol as she grapples with advancing age that hasn’t diluted her desire for something more. Engaging and satisfying in all the very best of ways, I’ll See You In My Dreams got – and totally earned – a standing ovation when it debuted at the Eccles theater. We all just needed something sweet. — Kate Erbland

Best Performance: Jason Segel, The End of the Tour

It’s not surprising Jason Segel had a performance this powerful in him. Looking at Forgetting Sarah Marshall or Jeff, Who Lives at Home, his dramatic moments in those films match his comic timing, and that fine balance is unquestionably a part of what makes his moving portrait of author David Foster Wallace so enticing. Some might peg End of the Tour as Segel “going serious,” but that’s only true to a degree, because his sharp sense of humor remains intact. This is a deeply nuanced performance. David Foster Wallace is not one thing; he’s funny, sad, and conflicted. Segel even makes Wallace finding pleasure in watching John Woo’s Broken Arrow surprisingly moving, and how many actors could pull that off? – Jack Giroux

Best Director: James Ponsoldt, The End of the Tour

Here’s an easy bet. Does James Ponsoldt have a film playing at Sundance this year? (Ponsoldt has directed films that have debuted at the festival in 2015, 2013, 2012, and 2006, so the odds on this one are pretty high.) Do people love the film? Oh, then there’s your best director. With each film, Ponsoldt does something surprisingly rare: he progresses and evolves. All of Ponsoldt’s films are somehow interested in the intersection of addiction and intimacy, and even with The End of The Tour, which could easily be his most distancing movie yet, Pondsoldt digs into these ideas with fervor. The result is something rich and true and, oh, what’s that? Well-directed to boot. — Kate Erbland

Best First Film: Marielle Heller, The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Writer-director Marielle Heller worked on bringing Diary of a Teenage Girl to the big screen for seven years. After initially adapting Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel into a stage play, Heller has now turned Gloeckner’s story into her fantastic debut film. This is the movie at Sundance that sent me out of the theater on a high, excited about what Heller had accomplished and what she’s going to do next. This isn’t a coming-of-age movie that simply shows us events most of us have been through, in some form or another, but a film that actually has something to say about those events, and how they shape us as people. You don’t need to be a girl or to have slept with your mother’s boyfriend to relate to Diary of a Teenage Girl. It’s an unflinchingly honest story about the wide-range of emotions we all go through at a young age, and the way Heller brings those emotions to screen – with animation, narration, and Bel Powley’s performance – is stunning. Keep an eye on Marielle Heller, because she knows how to cast right, how tell a drama visually and viscerally, and more. She’s the real deal. – Jack Giroux

Most Surprising Leap from Last Film to Current Film: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Directors tend to stick close to a particular genre from film to film, and when they do shift it’s usually in small ways. An action director may make an action/comedy, a rom-com helmer might deliver a musical, but more drastic shifts are rare. Kevin Smith is probably the most recognizable name to have made a big change going from comedies to whatever the hell Red State and Tusk are, but Sundance saw another filmmaker make a 180 degree turn from his last film to his current one. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s feature debut was last year’s reboot/sequel, The Town That Dreaded Sundown. It’s a gory slasher that while technically well-made is not that good of a movie. So imagine our surprise when Gomez-Rejon followed it up with the festival’s best film, the sweet, funny, emotional minefield that is Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Regardless of the genre, we’re incredibly excited to see where he goes next. — Rob Hunter

Most Likely to Kill An Audience Member: Princess

There were films at this year’s Sundance that had us choking on laughter (The Overnight) or threatening to stop our hearts due to boredom (Strangerland), but one film actually came closest to killing some of its audience. People talk about breathtaking moments in movies, but Princess, the Israeli film about a young girl at risk of molestation by her mom’s boyfriend, actually features a scene that caused an entire theater to hold its collective breath as particular events transpired onscreen. The air in the Prospector Square Theater came to a standstill, the only sounds were those coming from the film. No music, no sound effects – just an unwavering camera capturing the sights and sounds of a girl struggling with a man’s unwanted attention. I don’t know exactly how long the scene is, but it felt like several hundred of us sat there, not breathing, for two or three minutes. It serves a necessary purpose as part of a fantastic film, but it’s also incredibly difficult to watch. When the scene ended the auditorium echoed with a return to inhalation, exhalation and uncomfortable shifting in seats. — Rob Hunter

Most Buzzed About Film We Didn’t See: Slow West

A “American-British action thriller western film”? Sign us up. Unfortunately none of us at the site got a chance to this much buzzed about American-British action thriller western at Sundance, which, based on all the love it received, is a shame. Thankfully A24 picked up the film before its Sundance debut, so we’ll all have a chance to see John Maclean’s feature directorial debut soon, which stars Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-Mcphee, and Ben Mendelsohn. Some critics have made comparisons between Slow West and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, which can only mean we’re in store for one wacky, funny, bloody, and cool western. – Jack Giroux

Best Sam Elliott Movie Based on Facial Hair: I’ll See You In My Dreams

And how would you like your Sam Elliott today? Hollywood’s number one perma-babe (we did a poll) appeared in three films at Sundance: Joe Swanberg’s Digging for Fire, the Lily Tomlin-starring Grandma and the Blythe Danner feature I’ll See You In My Dreams. In one film, he sported facial hair (a signature ‘stache). In the others, he went bare-faced. Is there really any debate here about the best Sam Elliott film based entirely on facial hair? It’s the stache-centric I’ll See You In My Dreams. Grandma, you’re just going to have to deal with second place…based on facial hair. Sorry. — Kate Erbland

Best Improvised Male Nudity: Chris Messina, Digging for Fire

One of the hallmarks of Sundance 2015 was the abundance of male nudity. Patrick Brice’s The Overnight used it as a rather clever plot device (and an excuse to use some spectacularly funny prosthetics). But it was The Mindy Project’s Chris Messina who took the full-frontal cake this year with his brief debriefing in Joe Swanberg’s tour-de-young-talent Digging for Fire. During a Q&A for the film, it was revealed that Messina’s nude moment was completely improvised on set, surprising everyone involved. Somehow it worked perfectly and no one else in the scene – including Sam Rockwell and Anna Kendrick – lost focus. Well done, everyone. — Neil Miller

Special Jury Award for the Longest Ending: Results

There’s a curious feel to the last 45 minutes of Andrew Bujalski’s Results, which stars Cobie Smulders and Guy Pearce as personal trainers exploring their own tense relationship and trying to find their way in life. It all prattles on pretty reasonably and logically for a while, then it (thematically, almost certainly in the mind of the audience) ends. About 45 minutes later, much to our surprise, the movie has carried on through what feels like 3 or 4 more ending points. It’s not a bad movie by any stretch. In fact, it provides some interesting commentary on a world in which people conflate fitness tips and life philosophy. But it almost comically overstays its welcome. Luckily, we like hanging with Cobie Smulders and Guy Pearce. Otherwise this would have been less of an accomplishment and more of a disaster. It’s like that by now you feel similarly about this very article. — Neil Miller

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