With the Sundance Film Festival drawing to a close, it's time to reflect on the best movies that your friendly Moviefone staffers saw at the very-crowded film fest. Of the seven films that we were looking forward to seeing, we did get to watch five. Of those five, three are on this list. (Sorry, Red Lights and John Dies at the End.) Ahead, the best of the fest.
5. The End of Love
What a pleasant surprise this turned out to be. Mark Webber plays a fictionalized version of himself in a life that toes the line between absurd -- mainly Michael Cera and, briefly, Amanda Seyfried playing caricatures of themselves -- to heartbreaking: Webber raising his 2-year-old son (played by his actual son) on his own after the death of his wife. Worth viewing just to watch Cera brandishing a pistol at his own party.
4. The Surrogate
My not entirely bold prediction of the festival: John Hawkes will be nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Surrogate. Hawkes plays a man crippled by polio who explores his physical sexuality for the first time (his condition does not even allow for self pleasure, if you will) at the age of 38 with a hired sex surrogate (Helen Hunt).
3. Liberal Arts
I like Josh Radnor. I like him on How I Met Your Mother. I liked him in happythankyoumoreplease, even though I didn't care for quasi-creepy, quasi-kidnapping plot line. In Liberal Arts, Radnor, thankfully, focuses on the relationships between adults. As I told him at Sundance, this really was the Josh Radnor film that I had hoped happythankyoumoreplease had been.
2. Sleepwalk With Me
I knew nothing about this movie, Mike Birbiglia's comedy act or his dangerous sleepwalking episodes before Sundance. A scripted film based on Birbiglia's stand up, Sleepwalk With Me really is one of those "buzz" films that I've always heard so much about -- which basically means that more than five people told me, "You should see Sleepwalk With Me." Not just the funniest movie that I saw at Sundance, but the funniest movie that I've seen in the last year.
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
I've never seen anything quite like this. And it would be impossible to try and sum this film up with one paragraph. This story of a community living in the flood plains of the southern United States, on its own, made Park City, Utah, worth the trip.
This movie actually made me angry. Honestly, I have no idea what they were going for here. Let me restate that: If they were going for a movie that features characters who are not only stupid, but incredibly mean spirited, yes, this was an overwhelming success. This is worth seeing only if you are an Adam Scott completest -- who can't not be good, even in subpar movies. (Also: The always-likable-but-really-needs-a-break Kyle Bornheimer has a few good scenes, too.)
Celeste and Jesse Forever
This thing rode a buzz rollercoaster opening weekend -- one minute it was the hottest ticket in Park City, the next it was an overrated product of the "Shitegeist" (you'll get that joke when Sony Classics releases the movie later in the year). I probably saw it at the perfect time, once the first screening was over and expectations had been tamped down. Is it the perfect movie? It is not. But did I feel for the characters and LOL repeatedly? Reader, I did. Andy Samberg survives his first non-goofball acting effort ("It was fun for me not to be rapping or wearing a bird suit," he told the audience at the post-screening Q&A, though -- spoiler alert -- he does manually pleasure a tube of Chapstick), and Rashida Jones makes a credible claim for herself as a writer of comedies and maybe even a girl-next-door leading lady in the mold of Jennifer Aniston circa The Good Girl. And for God's sake, give them a break: They shot the movie, which has more sets than Time Bandits, in 22 days!
Red Hook Summer
I am old enough to remember being the only white person I knew who absolutely adored Do the Right Thing and didn't give a flying fig if it was "reverse-racist," so forgive me if I ignore the consternated clucking that arose after Sunday's screening of Spike Lee's latest ode to Brooklyn's sweaty season. No, this is not a masterpiece on the order of its 1989 predecessor (nor is it a sequel, as the director assured the audience). The premise has a hole the size of a pie from Sal's Famous, the structure -- or lack thereof -- would make Syd Field fling a trash can through a window pane, and the kids aren't exactly the next Haley Joel and Dakota. But Lee creates a fascinating and absorbing world; populates it with compelling characters, including a flawed preacher played by the amazing Clarke Peters (The Wire); and sweetens it all with candy-colored visuals and gorgeous music by Bruce Hornsby and newcomer Judith Hill.
It's official: If you need somebody to play a rich asshole banker type in your movie, just skip the casting call and hire Richard Gere. I'm not saying Jeremy Irons wasn't brilliant in Margin Call, but I am saying that Richard Gere is even more slithering and amoral -- in a good way! And so is everybody else in this Vanity Fair magazine story come to life, which attempts to show just how far a master of the universe will go to protect everything he holds dear -- especially when it's his own corrupt and despicable behavior that put it all at risk. In addition to Gere, you've got Susan Sarandon as his brittle, superficial wife; Brit Marling as his self-righteous, self-satisfied daughter; Laeticia Casta as his whiny, demanding mistress; Tim Roth as a bitter, evidence-forging cop; Nate Parker as a lying, lawyered-up accomplice -- the list goes on and on. Tell you the truth, the only character I felt for was the mid-'80s Mercedes Turbo Diesel that gets flipped in the first act. Still, it all adds up to some nasty fun. If it were the '80s and this came on TV, I would not turn it off.
For the first hour, you may find yourself entranced by Andrea Arnold's existential (and multi-racial) take on Emily Bronte's novel about horrible people venting their passions all over the Yorkshire moores. But by the middle of hour 2, if you're like me at least, you'll be yearning to be released from this world where bad actors do bad things to each other in very, very bad weather. If this is what the 19th century really felt like, I'll take global warming and Internet-induced ADD any day of the year.