As a companion to my longer look at the Good, Bad, and Forgettable of Sundance 2015, here are shoutouts to six other (premiering) Sundance 2015 films in the middle of the pack of the 15 or so more I screened as apart of the press corp for this year’s festival:
Last Days in the Desert (Ewan McGregor, Tye Sheridan)
McGregor is Jesus as well as Satan taking on his image of Jesus to tempt and torment in this spectacularly visual film (substitute a burning bush for a burning body). Through helping a family living in the desert with issues of the father’s expectations for the son, which mirror his own inner conflicts with his Father, the film paints a grounded, humanistic view of the divine; he is surprisingly and refreshingly portrayed as being scared and unsure in both his path and his command of his ministry. McGregor relatability aids in this endeavor. The film never soars to any epic proportions but does offer intriguing reflective moments.
I Smile Back (Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles, Thomas Sadoski)
You have never seen Sarah Silverman like this before, and the film is all the better for it. Silverman totally possessed the role of the self-abusing, drug addicted, mentally ill housewife in a perpetual state of grief, not for any true death but for what her life could and should be. Though the story goes through the usual roller-coaster of the addiction tale (the healing and hurting of the protagonist), it finds ways to combine moments of dark comedic humor (where Silverman would be expected to and does excel) to visually compelling drama that shock and amaze.
True Story (Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones)
Based on the true story and continued “friendship” of the ex-New York Times writer Mike Finkel (Hill) and the convicted murderer who stole his identity (Franco), the film is very much cat-and-mouse 101 but it’s entertaining in its own right and reflective on ethical responsibility in an increasingly irresponsible world. It’s Franco who plays through all the memorable moments, baiting with his charm and adoringly sad eyes and then revealing manipulation through sly winks and even slyer smiles. Felicity Jones, relegated to playing the part of housewife to Hill, is surprisingly given what I think is the most powerful scene in the film, a calling out of bull shit if you will, which is the only time that perfectly crafted veil of Franco’s character is dropped before it slips back into place.
Slow West (Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn)
The film is visually beautiful (not talking just Fassbender), awe-inspiringly, and endearing story of living and not just surviving. It may be too soft, slow, and simplistic for fans of the confrontational, gritty, redemption-storied western (eg, True Grit) but there is still a lot to like. In the backdrop of the barren yet beautiful Old West (the South Island of New Zealand in all its glory subbed in for filming), we follow a boy who wants to be a hero and a man who sees himself as anything but a hero; they meet and develop a friendly understanding under often violent and witty circumstances, cementing its own ode to partnerships in the West.
The Stanford Prison Experiment (Ezra Miller, Ty Sheridan, Billy Crudup, Olivia Thirlby, Michael Angarano, Nelsan Ellis)
A showcase of some of the brightest young male talent currently in Hollywood, this film retells the famed 1971 psychology experiment which pitted Stanford college students against each other (prisoners vs guards) in a simulated prison in a basement on campus. The film will make you want to learn more about the actual experiment, which stripped away the very identity and masculinity of the captive and questioned what (personality or authoritative situation) can drive someone to demean and humiliate someone. While the film hits the beats of the real-life intense moments, it losing some of its lingering effect by choosing not dedicate time to what happened to this guys after the experiment ended. Ezra Miller is touted as the star, the ultimate powerless victim, but Michael Angarano as a guard is the one who truly captivates the audience with his John Wayne-esque bravado he used to dominate that simultaneously entertains in its impressionistic manner and horrifies in its lack of humanity.
Knock Knock (Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo)
Eli Roth’s Knock Knock is Hard Candy + Funny Games but with a threesome-having, attempting-to-be-personable, mostly panicky Keanu Reeves, Spanish accents adorning beautiful women, and a so-bad-you-may-think-it’s-funny script. His whole motivation stems from constantly projecting that ‘art does not exist’ and comparing easy-to-come-by sex to free pizza. There has never been a movie more perfect for the unrefined frat boy.
Had you heard about any of these Sundance movies before? Any of them peak your interest?