July means that we’re officially halfway through the year. I’ve seen 52 films in the theatre which includes many at Sundance and SXSW of which most of this list is comprised. Like last year at this time, I still haven’t seen anything I would consider an “A” film yet but I have seen some very good films that will likely stick around for my end of year list. So here are the very best films I’ve seen this year so far (click for full reviews)…
For the second year I attended the Sundance Film Festival, packing 12 films into 4 very full days (+1 after the fact). With hundreds of films playing I made a decision to stick mostly to the U.S. Dramatic category (since that’s where most of last year's breakouts came from (“Like Crazy,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Take Shelter”) with a few Premieres thrown in. All in all, I think I did pretty well, between my press pass and the @DorDotson method I was able to see everything I had the energy to show up for. I had a great and exhausting time, caught many of the fest’s most buzzed about films and got the chance to interview a few of the actors/filmmakers behind those efforts. Here, in descending order are my favorites from Sundance 2012.
1. Nobody Walks (dir: Ry Russo-Young) Peter (John Krasinski) and Julie (Rosemary DeWitt) are a Silverlake couple whose marriage is thrown into doubt by the arrival of 23 year old NY artist Martine (Olivia Thirlby). Ry Russo-Young directs this unexpectedly sensual, comic drama that takes a surprisingly mature view of relationships with a sharp script (co-written by Lena Dunham) and pulsing electronic score by Fall On Your Sword. Read My Full Review
2. Smashed (dir: James Ponsoldt) Heartbreaking and oddly hilarious portrait of alcoholism starring Mary-Elizabeth Winstead (in a career-changing performance) and Aaron Paul as a hard-partying married couple. It may sound like an afterschool special but it’s never preachy and perfectly played by an ensemble cast including Nick Offerman (yes, Ron Swanson), Megan Mullalley and Octavia Spencer. Read My Full Review
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir: Benh Zietlin) The most acclaimed of the festival, the story features a 6 year old girl named Hushpuppy (an outstanding Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives in a post-apocalyptic wasteland called The Bathtub on the wrong side of the levee in New Orleans. Light on plotting but heavy on feeling, Benh Zeitlin’s impressive debut is the intersection between Terry Gilliam and Terry Malick. And the score made me cry. Read My Full Review
4. Simon Killer (dir: Antonio Campos) The latest from the Borderline films (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) crew was one of the most divisive films of the fest. Simon (Brady Corbet) is a college grad who escapes to Paris after a breakup with his longtime girlfriend and while there begins a relationship with a prostitute named Victoria (Mati Diop). Featuring a great indie-dance soundtrack, it starts a little slow but blossoms into an engrossing (but dark) character study. Read My Full Review
5. Safety Not Guaranteed (dir: Colin Trevorrow) Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass and Jake M. Johnson star in this film treatment of the infamous classified ad“WANTED: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” Hilarious and unexpectedly sweet, of all the films I saw at Sundance this year, this was the one with the most commercial potential. Read My Full Review
6. Save The Date (dir: Michael Mohan) Smarter-than-your-average rom-com starring an indie dream team of Lizzy Caplan (“Party Down”), Alison Brie (“Community”), Martin Starr (“Freaks & Geeks”) and Mark Webber (“Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”). Featuring strong performances by Caplan and Brie as sisters, Light without being completely insubstantial, this is what more romantic comedies should aspire to be. Read My Full Review
7. Bachelorette (dir: Leslye Headland) Produced by Will Ferrell & Adam McKay’s Gary Sanchez Productions, Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan and Isla Fisher star as a trio of bridesmaids behaving badly during a coke and booze filled bachelorette party in this dark comedy. While the synopsis might read like “Bridesmaids” revisited, it’s a much darker film that even makes “The Hangover” trio look kinda like pussies. Read My Full Review
8. Liberal Arts (dir: Josh Radnor) Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”) writes, directs and stars in his sophomore feature about a 35 year old college admissions counselor (Radnor) who takes a trip to visit his old alma mater only to fall for a 19 year old student (“Martha Marcy May Marlene” star Elizabeth Olsen). He attempts to keep their relationship platonic as he struggles with what it is to be a grown-up in this crowd pleasing comedy. Read My Full Review
9. Hello, I Must Be Going (dir: Todd Louiso) Amy Minsky (Melanie Lynskey) is recently divorced 35 year old who moves back in with her parents so she can put her life back together but finds herself reverting back into her teenaged self. Such a great vehicle for perennial supporting player Lynskey to get her role in the spotlight, she makes you want to overlook some of the films other flaws. Read My Full Review
10. For Ellen (dir: So Yong Kim) Paul Dano (“Little Miss Sunshine”) plays Joby, the struggling frontman of a hard rock band about to lose custody of his young daughter Ellen. Featuring finely tuned performances - including a supporting turn from an unrecognizable Jon Heder - and strangely funny moments, the film nonetheless fails to get into gear. Read My Full Review
11. Celeste & Jesse Forever (dir: Lee Toland Krieger) Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg star as Celeste and Jesse, inseparable former high school sweethearts now in their 30’s who have decided to get divorced. With a starry ensemble including Elijah Wood, Emma Roberts and Ari Graynor, this is a nonetheless disappointing effort from co-writer/star, (the extremely likable) Rashida Jones. Read My Full Review
12. Robot and Frank (dir: Jake Schreier) Set in the near future, Frank Langella stars as Frank a retired jewel thief living out his days in his upstate NY cottage whose son buys him a caretaker robot called simply, Robot (voiced by Peter Saarsgard). Initially resistant to this strange technology, Frank decides to stage a heist with Robot’s help. Liv Tyler and James Marsden co-star in this high concept, low key, heist/buddy film. Read My Full Review
13. The Comedy (dir: Rick Alverson) A supposed satire of aging hipsters starring Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy. A series of loosely connected skits featuring Heidecker as a trust fund kid now nearing his 40’s seemingly improvising non sequiturs through each scene. Only intermittently funny, the film was supposed to be a skewering the Williamsburg overgrown hipsters it’s depicting. Read My Full Review
The first film I saw at this year’s Sundance Film Festival turned out to be perhaps the most acclaimed of the entire fest, taking home the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Dramatic, with the NY Times exclaiming it as “among the best films to play at the festival in two decades.” The film is about a 6 year old girl named Hushpuppy (an outstanding Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a post-apocalyptic wasteland called The Bathtub that in actuality is a small community of fisherman and heavy-drinkers. Her world is so insular, it was about halfway through the film before I realized this was set in present day on the wrong side of the levee in New Orleans. Light on plotting but heavy on feeling, the story - told from Hushpuppy’s point of view as she narrates the film - features occasional fantastical elements that leave the film positioned just outside reality. Stylistically ‘Beasts’ is somewhere between Terry Gilliam (“Tideland” in particular) and Terry Malick (or at least, early David Gordon Green) with a dash of those Levis “Go Forth” ads.
This is the debut film from writer/director Benh Zeitlin, who adapted the film from his acclaimed 25 minute short “Glory At Sea” (see below), and co-wrote the Arcade Fire-ish score (along with Dan Romer) which is is one of the highlights. The cast of non-actors is impressive with Wallis as an absolute standout as the film’s strong-willed center. Too esoteric to be a commercial vehicle, it will be fascinating to see what Fox Searchlight (who picked up the film for distribution) does with it. (I had pictured it being more of an Oscilloscope release.) While I’m not quite as over-the-moon about the film as some - the middle section does start to drag - I can’t deny what a strange and powerful experience it was. At one point, much to my own surprise, I was literally brought to tears. After Hushpuppy encounters a mother figure, her and several other Bathtub children are walking over a hill and a triumphant music cue that kicks in. Before I knew it, tears were streaming down my face, without even being sure as to why. Without sentimentality or manipulation, the film nonetheless casts a strange spell that can’t be denied.