by Scott Tennant
The 83rd Academy Awards were presented on February 27, 2011, and nine films that were presented at the prior year’s Sundance Film Festival were nominated for awards, including two best picture nominees in Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right. This was significant because it proved that the Sundance Film Festival is not only a showcase of highlighted independent films, but a source of truly high quality cinema that has now become a force in the movie industry. Each year since the 2010 Sundance Film Festival has seen increased national prominence, as well as more and more movies being acquired by major studios for distribution. There has been a lot of buzz about Nate Parker’s tour de force The Birth of a Nation (no, not the KKK propaganda silent film from 1915) coming out of this year’s festival as well. It is slated for release in October 2016, and already has a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. There have been a number of great films to come out of the festival in that time, and today I am going to list my five favorites.
Honorable Mention: Dope, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, The Stanford Prison Experiment, Safety Not Guaranteed, My Idiot Brother
#5: The Spectacular Now- Sundance 2013
I love coming of age movies. Stand by Me, Boyhood, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; they all resonate strongly with me. The Spectacular Now is easily one of the best coming of age movies I’ve ever seen. The dialogue is natural, the acting is brilliant, and the story of Sutter and Aimee (played by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley respectively) is warm and heartfelt. This film has a stellar ensemble cast of household names; the aforementioned Teller and Woodley, Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, and Bob Odenkirk amongst them. The performances are on point and the film is shot very well. This was not director James Ponsoldt’s first Sundance rodeo, as another film of his Smashed had premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival (and also starred Winstead), but it certainly is his career launching pad. After he directed 2015’s The End of the Tour (another well regarded film), he is the writer and director for the upcoming film The Circle, starring Tom Hanks, John Boyega, and Emma Watson. I am definitely interested in anything Ponsoldt is putting out, and this adaptation of Dave Eggers novel of the same name is no different.
#4: Fruitvale Station- Sundance 2013
The reason The Spectacular Now did not win the Sundance Festival Awards for Best Dramatic film in 2013 is because of the presence of this excellent movie. Fruitvale Station is the based on the true story of the death of a young Oakland citizen named Oscar Grant III. Fruitvale Station also serves as the breakout performance of Michael B. Jordan (playing Oscar Grant III) and director Ryan Coogler. This pair has gone on to make another great movie in Creed but it all begins here. The story is tragic and is crafted in a touching way. Grant’s death came in 2009 in a police shooting, and Coogler’s direction has the audience invest in Grant’s life right up to that tragic event. The delicate and compassionate storytelling on display here is expertly constructed, with Jordan’s performance really standing out. Coogler will lead the upcoming Black Panther film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; Black Panther will certainly have a different tone than Fruitvale Station, Coogler has proven himself to be an elite filmmaker and I have no doubt of his ability to run the Marvel movie.
#3: Beasts of the Southern Wild- Sundance 2012
Beasts of the Southern Wild came totally out of nowhere from the 2012 Festival, blowing me away completely. Benh Zeitlin directed and co-wrote this beautiful film alongside Lucy Alibar, who wrote Juicy and Delicious, the play that it is based off of. Beasts of the Southern Wild was nominated for four awards including Best Picture, and the movie very much so deserved it. Beasts of the Southern Wild is made in such a way that it almost seems like a dream but it’s not; the characters feel so real and grounded that I immediately felt attached to them. The visuals in this movie are strikingly beautiful and so are the performances; Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy is stellar, but for me, Dwight Henry as her father Wink was the real standout. The whole package is a joyous and well made film that is truly one of a kind.
#2: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl- Sundance 2015
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a very charming coming of age story that is quirky, grounded, and deals with difficult subject matter with a deft touch that is rare to see. The movie is based around three high school students, one of which is diagnosed with leukemia early in the movie. The reason this film succeeds so much is because the writing is extremely good and the filmmakers show an ability to control the emotional tone of the movie very well. The dialogue always feels natural and the characters respond to one another in a very realistic way, which further engrosses the viewer. Another touch that made me enjoy Me and Earl and the Dying Girl so much was the addition of the home movies that Greg and Earl had made. They are both funny and charming looks into their characters and friendship. Thomas Mann, R.J Cyler, and Olivia Cooke play the three title characters (Mann playing Greg aka Me, Cyler playing Earl, and Cooke playing Rachel aka the Dying Girl) and all have a natural chemistry that is evident on screen. This was one of my favorite movies of all of 2015.
#1: Whiplash- Sundance 2014
Whiplash is truly a fantastic movie and was honored as such at the 87th Academy Awards in 2015 where it garnered 5 Oscar nominations and took home 3 wins. It’s wins in Film Editing, Sound Mixing, and Best Supporting Actor for J.K Simmons highlight the film’s greatest strengths; it is an expertly put together movie led by star performances from J.K Simmons and Miles Teller as the two main characters. These two have a dynamic on screen that is enthralling and drives the entire movie (J.K Simmons really steals the show). The editing is terrific; the movie is about the student-teacher relationship between Teller and Simmons’ characters, but is built around the frame of the jazz production that they are both a part of and the movie plays around this very well. Much like the musical productions shown in the film, the film starts with a slow build and then the tempo picks up and then ends with a wild crescendo of intensity that concludes the film. This build up is perfect and the pacing of the film should be lauded for the way it works with the subject matter so well. All together, Whiplash is the total package and Damien Chazelle shows considerable talent; he was also one of the writers of 10 Cloverfield Lane (which you can read my thoughts on here). I look forward to seeing more of his work.
That’s it this week folks! Next week I’ve got another Top 5 list for you, so keep an eye out for that!