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The Only Movies From The Sundance Film Festival You Need To Know About

We watched a lot in Park City, so you didn't have to — and these are the films worth talking about.

Originally posted on
Updated on

1. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Chung Hoon Chung

Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Written by: Jesse Andrews

Starring: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Connie Britton, Nick Offerman

With that title and one of the most twee descriptions in this year's Sundance catalogue — the film, it promised, "will tickle your funny bone and tug at your heart" — Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was positioned to be a manipulative quirkfest. But it turned out instead to be the best surprise of the festival. The YA tearjerker is a vibrantly directed ode to the power of movies and to how opening yourself up to someone is worth the hurt it can bring. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl ended up dazzling crowds, winning over resistant critics, sparking a heated bidding war, and earning both the audience and grand jury awards in the U.S. dramatic competition. It's a trick that Whiplash, now a Best Picture nominee, pulled off last year, so expect to be hearing a lot more about Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. —Alison Willmore

Distribution: Fox Searchlight and the film's production company, Indian Paintbrush, teamed up for one of the festival's heftier acquisition deals, and while there's no exact date yet, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl will be reaching theaters in 2015.

2. Dope

David Moir

Directed by: Rick Famuyiwa

Written by: Rick Famuyiwa

Starring: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Zoë Kravitz, AS$P Rocky, Chanel Iman, Blake Anderson, Quincy Brown

Dope features a smart, fantastic young cast and introduces newcomer Moore, who gives an inspired performance as a nerdy black kid trying to navigate the unsavory streets of his Los Angeles neighborhood. In his most Sundance-y feel of a film yet, Famuyiwa aptly tells the story of a teen who feels like an outsider, and, eventually, discovers who he really is. —Kelley L. Carter

Distribution: Open Road/Sony will release the film on June 12.

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3. The Wolfpack

Crystal Moselle

Directed by: Crystal Moselle

The Wolfpack is stranger than fiction, especially in the ways it collides with fiction. Moselle's movie, which won Sundance's documentary Grand Jury Prize, follows the six Angulo brothers, who have lived their lives trapped inside their apartment by their paranoid, unhinged father. They are movie fanatics who have constructed their identities and gotten their ideas about how people interact by watching, acting out, and filming scenes from popular films. It's an insane story, but, as we watch the boys age and come into their own, it's also a riveting, funny, and tragic one. You would think that these kids would barely be human — but instead, they're articulate, emotionally present, and charismatic. Their mother, and, yes, their father, are also fascinating characters. You will leave with questions — there are no talking heads here — but more than that, you will root for these kids. —Kate Aurthur

Distribution: Magnolia has acquired the movie and will release it in the second quarter of 2015.

4. Tangerine

Augusta Quirk

Directed by: Sean Baker

Written by: Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch

Starring: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O'Hagan, Alla Tumanian, James Ransone

Tangerine pulses with frenetic energy from start to finish: Shot primarily on an iPhone 5s, the film follows two transgender prostitutes, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), fresh out of prison and looking to reunite with her pimp boyfriend Chester (James Ransone), and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), Sin-Dee's more level-headed best friend. Tangerine captures a side of Los Angeles rarely seen on-screen, and the seedy underbelly of the city has never looked better. The film excited audiences by being one of the most vibrant and offbeat offerings of the festival, but it's fully grounded in real human emotion. And that's all the more impressive given that the characters at its center — transgender women of color and sex workers — are so seldom given the opportunity to portray their own stories. —Louis Peitzman

Distribution: Magnolia Pictures acquired Tangerine with a deal reportedly "in the high six figures." No release date has been set.

5. Unexpected

Dagmar Weaver Madsen

Directed by: Kris Swanberg

Written by: Kris Swanberg and Megan Mercier

Starring: Cobie Smulders, Gail Bean, Anders Holm, Elizabeth McGovern

The third film from Kris Swanberg — who is married to indie film wunderkind Joe — centers on Sam (Smulders), a Chicago public school science teacher who discovers that she is pregnant with her first child as her school is closing. Sam wanted to try for her dream job, but that possibility seems even more tenuous with a baby on the way. When Sam discovers that one of her brightest students, Jasmine (Bean), is also pregnant, the two form an unlikely friendship. Sam hopes to transform Jasmine's life, but discovers that Jasmine has a better grasp on the realities of her situation than her would-be savior does. Unexpected doesn’t shy from addressing the position of white privilege that Sam comes from, offering an ending that is equal parts uplifting and heartbreaking. This movie could have slipped into Lifetime territory, but stellar performances from Smulders and Bean (a true Sundance breakout) instead keep this sharply written drama afloat. The result is a beautiful and bittersweet film that explores the difficult choices working mothers face and the necessary sacrifices that need to be made once a child is born. That Unexpected does so with such winsome spirit is cause for celebration. —Jace Lacob

Distribution: None yet, sadly.

6. Slow West

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: John Maclean

Written by: John Maclean

Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann

This film's title and premise — a 16-year-old Irish boy (Smit-McPhee) pursues his beloved into the American West, aided by a ruthless outlaw (Fassbender) — suggests it could be a ponderous and grim period movie. Instead, Slow West proved to be one of the most delightful films at Sundance, sparking bursts of shocked laughter during the premiere, courtesy of the film's playfully wicked sense of humor — even (and especially) during moments of harrowing life-and-death violence. Slow West was such a satisfying crowd-pleaser that it walked away with the festival's World Cinema Jury Prize for a narrative feature. —Adam B. Vary

Distribution: It will debut on DirecTV, and will then open theatrically via A24. No date has been set for either release.

7. 3 ½ Minutes

Participant Media

Directed by: Marc Silver

British filmmaker Silver attempts to take on the death of teenager Jordan Davis in this documentary, repainting the narrative of how — and why — the 17-year-old Floridian lost his life when he refused to turn down the loud hip-hop music coming from his friend's car. Yes, Michael Dunn was found guilty of first-degree murder and of three counts of attempted murder, but this emotional documentary is about Davis' friends and his parents telling their stories of the teenager lost. It also includes never-before-heard phone recordings of Dunn and his fiancée. —K.L.C.

Distribution: HBO acquired the film, but an air date has not yet been announced.

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8. Mistress America

Sam Levy

Directed by: Noah Baumbach

Written by: Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig

Starring: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear

Noah Baumbach movies tend to have a distinctive edge and darkness to them, which is part of why Mistress America is such a pleasant surprise. It's not that the film isn't dark — the script from Baumbach and his partner-slash-muse Greta Gerwig is predictably biting — but it's also perhaps the funniest and most consistently enjoyable movie he's ever made. Gerwig is exceptional as Brooke, a professional dilettante and self-described autodidact who takes soon-to-be stepsister Tracy (Lola Kirke) under her wing. From the moment Brooke arrives on screen, she's a force of nature, spitting out questionable bon mots and generally behaving as more of a character type than as an actual human being. You keep expecting her to slow down, but she doesn't, which contributes to Mistress America's unique charm. It doesn't judge Brooke so much as it lets her exist, and that's a feat in and of itself. While the film may reveal some depressing truths about her lifestyle in the end, it never makes any effort to change her. —L.P.

Distribution: Fox Searchlight wisely bought Mistress America before its Sundance premiere. The film will hit theaters later this year.

9. The Overnight

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Patrick Brice

Written by: Patrick Brice

Starring: Taylor Schilling, Adam Scott, Jason Schwartzman, Judith Godrèche

In this raucous sex comedy from Patrick Brice (Creep), Schilling and Scott play Emily and Alex, a married couple recently transplanted from Seattle to Los Angeles. After their sons meet at a local park, Emily and Alex spend an evening at the home of some newly met moneyed acquaintances, Kurt (Schwartzman) and Charlotte (Godrèche). But their dinner party turns darkly sexual as it becomes clear that Kurt and Charlotte may be after more than just friendship. Though there is quite a lot of full-frontal male nudity played for bawdy laughs, The Overnight isn't just a broad comedy — it's also an investigation of sexual dynamics, body image issues, and the delicate tug-of-war of male friendships. As the quartet’s night unravels in an alcohol- and weed-induced stupor, uncomfortable truths are dragged out of the darkness. There may be an attention-grabbing sequence involving prosthetic penises that left audiences roaring, but The Overnight has more to offer than just shock value. —J.L.

Distribution: The Orchard reportedly acquired the film for $4 million, but a release date has yet to be announced.

10. James White

Matyas Erdely

Directed by: Josh Mond

Written by: Josh Mond

Starring: Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Kid Cudi

Mond's fantastic feature film debut, which won him Sundance's NEXT Audience Award, is an emotionally taxing story about the unraveling of a young man (Girls' Abbott) who is coping with his father's estrangement and the impending loss of his dying mother. James White is also some of Nixon's best work ever, as she depicts a conflicted mother and grieving ex-wife on the losing end of a long, arduous battle with cancer. —K.L.C.

Distribution: None yet.

11. The End of the Tour

Jakob Ihre

Directed by: James Ponsoldt

Written by: Donald Margulies

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack, Mamie Gummer, Mickey Sumner

The End of the Tour tells the story of five days in the lives of David Foster Wallace (Segel) and David Lipsky (Eisenberg) during which Lipsky was sent by Rolling Stone to profile the Infinite Jest novelist, who had exploded into both literary and pop culture with the book's publication. Compared with most Sundance movies, it had gotten a lot of advance publicity — but not the kind a film necessarily wants. Last April, Wallace's estate, family, and publisher issued a unified statement blasting the movie's existence, which included the following: "There is no circumstance under which the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust would have consented to the adaptation of this interview into a motion picture, and we do not consider it an homage." (Presumably, they felt the same way about Lipsky's 2010 book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, from which The End of the Tour was adapted.)

So how is The End of the Tour when you're not a particular fan of Wallace, and have no stake in this story? I'm surprised to say I liked it so much! It unfolds as basically one long conversation between the two Davids, as they try to prod, charm, and incite each other. The movie could be a bore or, worse, a sledgehammer, but instead, it's exciting and moving. Eisenberg uses his awkward dickish qualities to great effect as Lipsky, but Segel — man, is he good. He's just completely different here from any other role he's ever had, and plays Wallace as a likeble, brilliant, troubled man with a thousand shades. It's a transformative role for Segel...if he wants it to be. Oh, and one more thing: The End of the Tour is the only movie I've ever seen that gets feature journalism right, as the transference and countertransference flow back and forth between the subject and the author. I'm excited to see this one again. —K.A.

Distribution: A24 will release The End of the Tour sometime in 2015.

12. Sleeping With Other People

Linda Kallerus

Directed by: Leslye Headland

Written by: Leslye Headland

Starring: Alison Brie, Jason Sudeikis, Amanda Peet, Jason Mantzoukas, Natasha Lyonne, Marc Blucas

In the latest from Leslye Headland (Bachelorette), Lainie (Brie) and Jake (Sudeikis) meet-cute in a college dorm and end up losing their virginities to one another on the roof before they go their separate ways. Years later, they run into each other at a support group for sex addicts: Lainie has been cheating with her affianced doctor boyfriend (Scott) for years, while Jake has become a casual womanizer. The two hit it off but choose to remain friends, growing closer over time. Yes, there is a clear homage to When Harry Met Sally at play here, but Headland creates a crowd-pleasing and ultimately commercial film that is overflowing with debauchery (the scene in which Jake teaches Lainie how to masturbate with his own terms — "dirty DJ," "tap the roof" — is a particular standout), but also a rare tenderness not often found in sex comedies. Brie and Sudeikis' intense chemistry is palpable, and the supporting cast — particularly Peet (so good in everything these days!) and Mantzoukas — transform this look at male-female friendships into a tartly sweet concoction that is impossible to resist. —J.L.

Distribution: IFC Films will distribute, with no set release date yet.

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13. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Stephen Shames / Polaris

Directed by: Stanley Nelson Jr.

Nelson constructs one of his most gripping documentaries with Vanguard of the Revolution, which showcases the rise of the Black Panther Party and the FBI's war against them. Through archival footage and fresh interviews — with former Panthers, journalists, and former law enforcement members — we see what contributed to the downfall of the organization, and learn about the internal battles, the sexism, and the group's quest for social change. — K.L.C.

Distribution: PBS has announced it will distribute the film in select theaters later this fall. The film also will air in February 2016 on PBS.

14. The D Train

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

Directed by: Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul

Written by: Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul

Starring: Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Jeffrey Tambor, Mike White, Kyle Bornheimer

Like The Overnight, The D Train explores the murky boundaries of male friendship, this time through hapless family man Dan Landsman (Black), who's struggling to get by in his dull, ordinary existence. When he spots former high school classmate Oliver Lawless (Marsden) in a Banana Boat commercial, Dan becomes obsessed with tracking him down in Los Angeles and bringing him to their 20th high school reunion, making himself a hero in the process. When Dan goes so far as to invent a business trip to the West Coast, he ends up meeting Oliver and the two begin a debauched weekend together, which ends with them — SPOILER ALERT! — sleeping together.

Rather than agonize over the implications of their encounter, The D Train takes it at face value. For Oliver, who identifies as bisexual, the distinction between this and any other sex doesn't register; but Dan is changed. The D Train explores the thin line between homosocial relationships and homoeroticism, as well as the often sexual underpinnings of hero worship. But the fact that the film, which Sundance audiences appeared to thoroughly enjoy, presents these issues so matter-of-factly is what separates the darkly sweet The D Train from others that have come before it; there is a sharpness to Dan’s lamentations for how his life has turned out, as well as a willingness to engage in the fantasy that Oliver is selling. —J.L.

Distribution: IFC Films picked up The D Train, which will be released later this year.

15. Pervert Park

Lasse Barkfors

Directed by: Frida Barkfors and Lars Barkfors

To say that Pervert Park is hard to watch would be a major understatement: This is a documentary in which, at one point, a mother speaks openly (and with tearful regret) about raping her 8-year-old son. But as painful a viewing experience as it is at times, it is a brave and thoughtful film. Pervert Park is deliberately challenging, focusing on the small trailer park community of Florida Justice Transitions, where registered sex offenders live out their days and work toward reintegrating into society. It's easy to categorize these people as monsters, and the documentary may not change any opinions there, but at the very least it forces viewers to think about what happens after these people pay for their crimes. Can they ever live normally again? And should they be able to? By focusing on a handful of offenders, Pervert Park also brutally showcases the cycle of abuse, revealing how many of the abusers were themselves abused at a young age. It's not an excuse, and the film is careful to never ask for forgiveness, but it's valuable context that complicates an already uncomfortable narrative. While the subject matter may instantly turn off some audiences, the documentary lingers in a way that ensures it will be a subject of conversation long after its release. There's no question why it earned Sundance's World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Impact. —L.P.

Distribution: Perhaps unsurprisingly given the uncomfortable terrain Pervert Park explores, it has not been picked up yet.

16. Best of Enemies

Getty Images / ABC Photo Archives

Directed by: Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon

When you're watching a documentary about the infamous 1968 televised debates between American intellectual titans William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, you hope for a litany of dishy rejoinders and catty insults — and Best of Enemies certainly delivers. The rivalry between the two ideological opposites lasted to the bitter end, in fact: In the post-premiere Q&A, co-directors Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom) and Gordon recounted how they actually got to interview Vidal just before he died in 2012, but he was so certain they were shills for Buckley that he gave deliberately unusable answers — none of the footage from the interview made the film. But what elevates Best of Enemies beyond mere political junkie nostalgia is how clearly it points to our current poisonously polarized TV news landscape, and pines for a time when people of such loquacious erudition could be considered TV ratings gold. —A.B.V.

Distribution: Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media picked up the film. No release date has been set.

17. Grandma

Aaron Epstein

Directed by: Paul Weitz

Written by: Paul Weitz

Starring: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, Sam Elliott

Grandma is a cute movie, with a lot of talent and significant themes that never quite live up to the film's potential. But that doesn't mean it's not, for the most part, a joy to watch. Tomlin stars as the titular grandma, an acerbic, misanthropic lesbian poet whose granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) asks her for help in getting an abortion. The central story should be more compelling than it is, but as a narrative impetus, it ends up feeling tacked-on. The reason Grandma works at all is that it's filled with legitimately great scenes featuring some of the best working actors around. It opens with Tomlin's Elle breaking up with her girlfriend Olive (Judy Greer), and I found myself wishing the film were just about that — this messy intergenerational relationship we only get hints of throughout. But if Grandma is lacking on the whole, it's still a worthwhile showcase for the always deserving Tomlin, not to mention relative newcomer Garner and the pitch-perfect Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Elle's daughter Judy. While not the buzzworthy film it should be, at a mere 78 minutes, it's a pleasant enough diversion. —L.P.

Distribution: Sony Classics acquired Grandma, reportedly for $2 million. No release date has been set.

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18. What Happened, Miss Simone?

Peter Rodis

Directed by: Liz Garbus

Garbus takes us off the stage and into the personal life of one of the world's most influential singers and political activists, giving the audience a look into how Nina Simone did (and in most cases, didn't) battle her personal demons. What Happened, Miss Simone? is peppered with the singer's fantastic music as it explores her complicated, misunderstood world. — K.L.C.

Distribution: Netflix acquired this doc, which will be released on the streaming service this summer.

19. The Hunting Ground

CNN Films

Directed by: Kirby Dick

For the follow-up to their 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary on the epidemic of sexual assault and rape in the U.S. military, The Invisible War, director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering turned their attention to the plague of campus sexual violence that too often goes underreported and unpunished. Many of the depressing facts in the documentary have been already well-documented, and The Hunting Ground is strongest when it focuses on sexual assault survivors who are fighting back, such as Andrea Pino and Annie Clark's successful campaign to use Title IX to bring the federal government into the fight to end institutional neglect regarding campus sexual assault. The film has also already earned attention for the considerable time it devotes to the story of Erica Kinsman, who came forward for the first time to talk about her claim that Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston raped her, an allegation that rocked the college sports world in 2013 — and that's before Winston still handily won the Heisman Trophy. He is the only accused rapist, in fact, who is named in the film. —A.B.V.

Distribution: RADIUS-TWC will release The Hunting Ground in theaters on March 20.

20. The Stanford Prison Experiment

Spencer Shwetz

Directed by: Kyle Patrick Alvarez

Written by: Tim Talbott

Starring: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons, Olivia Thirlby, James Wolk, Nelsan Ellis

There is very little fault to be found in this astutely crafted depiction of the real-life psychological experiment that Philip Zimbardo (Crudup) conducted in 1971, in which a group of paid undergraduate male volunteers were randomly chosen to be either guards or inmates in a makeshift prison for what was intended to be a two-week exercise exploring institutional authority. Within hours, however, things went irreparably bad. Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Angarano (The Knick, Will & Grace) are especially powerful as a rebellious inmate and a sadistic guard respectively, and Talbott's taut screenplay deservedly won Sundance's Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. And yet the most common reaction to the film at the festival seemed to be weary admiration. After all, watching that much petty human cruelty, when the stakes are ultimately so pathetically low, can be an excruciating experience.

The Stanford Prison Experiment at least fared much better than Experimenter, the other narrative film at the festival about a real-life psychological experiment. Experimenter was not nearly emotional enough, spending too much time indulging in idiosyncratic storytelling flourishes. One example: As social psychologist Stanley Milgram, Peter Sarsgaard spends a great deal of time directly addressing the audience, as if delivering a lecture to one of his classes. Several screenings had walkouts. —A.B.V.

Distribution: Not yet!

21. Prophet's Prey

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Amy Berg

Based on the harrowing book by Sam Brower, Prophet's Prey dives into the closed-off community in southern Utah where the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints leader Warren Jeffs took multiple wives, many of them underage and unwilling. The firsthand accounts are horrifying, with indelible details of Jeffs' sexual abuse of minors and notorious powers of coercion. Filmmaker Berg handles her subjects well, but Prophet's Prey ultimately doesn't go any deeper than Brower's book. As with the much-hyped Scientology documentary Going Clear, Prophet's Prey is shocking only to those with little familiarity with Jeffs' story. For savvier viewers — or, frankly, anyone who saw the Lifetime movie Outlaw Prophet — it's all a bit of a retread. The film could have been as gripping as Berg's past works, including the devastating Deliver Us From Evil, if it weren't so surface-level. —L.P.

Distribution: Prophet's Prey — along with Sundance doc Listen to Me Marlon — was produced and developed by Showtime. It will air at some point this year.

22. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Sam Painter

Directed by: Alex Gibney

The Church of Scientology is a topic of such endless fascination in the filmmaking industry that it wasn't a surprise that this exposé about the church by esteemed documentarian Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) was one of the hottest tickets at Sundance. The film turned out to be light on fresh revelations, but it landed enough emotionally packed punches against Scientology that the church created a website attacking Gibney, author Lawrence Wright (whose book served as the basis for the film), and virtually all of the former Scientologists interviewed for the movie. —A.B.V.

Distribution: HBO will broadcast the film on March 16.

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23. Chuck Norris vs. Communism

Courtesy of Vernon Films LTD

Directed by: Ilinca Calugareanu

When a documentary uses re-enactments to tell its story, usually it's seen as a cheat, and often a clunky and cheap one at that. And yet, outside of on-camera interviews with people who lived through its story, virtually all of the footage in Chuck Norris vs. Communism is re-enactments. The film is basically a nonfiction/narrative hybrid that tracks how VHS tapes of Hollywood hits were smuggled into Romania in the '80s and overdubbed almost entirely by a single tireless woman named Irina Nistor — becoming one of the country's few forms of cultural expression. Director Calugareanu shot the re-enactments like they were part of a moody '70s paranoid European thriller, with smoky rooms, languid medium shots, and a matter-of-fact feeling of dread. The result looks more credible than some full-on narrative features, but it is clearly not for everyone — one review dubbed it repetitive and boring, and another festivalgoer told me he thought it was "pretty bad." But just as many in the premiere audience were charmed by the film, giving Nistor, who flew to Park City for the festival, a standing ovation when she stepped to the front of the theater. —A.B.V.

Distribution: None yet.

24. I Am Michael

Cara Howe

Directed by: Justin Kelly

Written by: Justin Kelly and Stacey Miller

Starring: James Franco, Zachary Quinto, Emma Roberts

Telling the true story of Michael Glatze, a former queer advocate who became a famous ex-gay, was never going to be easy. And unfortunately, despite strong performances from the lead actors, I Am Michael does not do it well. Is there no way to illustrate the internal struggles a gay man would have to be facing in order to renounce his life, his politics, and his partner? That's what I was left wondering after I saw I Am Michael, because it does not succeed in imparting the insight required to understand Glatze's story. There's also some sloppy filmmaking here, in that the movie, which unfolds chronologically, is out of order in two different spots. —K.A.

Distribution: Not yet!

25. Stockholm, Pennsylvania

Aaron Epstein

Directed by: Nikole Beckwith

Written by: Nikole Beckwith

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Cynthia Nixon, Jason Isaacs, David Warshofsky

In Beckwith's directorial debut, Leia (Ronan) returns home after being kidnapped as a young girl, to live with parents (Nixon and Warshofsky) she does not remember in a world that feels alien to her. Flashing back to her captivity, Leia recalls life in the basement she shared with her kidnapper, Ben (Isaacs), and how he told her the world had come to an end. In many ways, the frustrating Stockholm, Pennsylvania is the more dramatic counterpart to Netflix’s upcoming comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (about how a young woman, taken as a girl by a doomsday cult, reacts to life after being freed).

But this psychological drama becomes heavy-handed and operatic after a second-act twist entrenches it deeply in campy melodrama, which is a shame. The first half of the movie is fantastic, a searing tug-of-war between nature and nurture. It’s a shame then that the movie unravels as it goes on, resulting in a cliffhanger ending that is so ham-fisted and cloying (I was one of multiple audience members who audibly groaned) that Leia might as well sky-write “THIS IS THE THEME OF THE FILM!” in big looped letters. Ronan and Nixon push themselves to some dark places, but Stockholm, Pennsylvania's frustrating ending has all of the subtlety of an anvil being dropped from a great height. —J.L.

Distribution: None yet.

26. Ten Thousand Saints

Linda Slatter Kallerus

Directed by: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

Written by: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Asa Butterfield, Emily Mortimer, Julianne Nicholson, Hailee Steinfeld, Emile Hirsch

I went into Ten Thousand Saints hoping that it would be a return to form for Berman and Pulcini, whose American Splendor in 2003 showed such a specific and exciting vision, and whose movies since — especially 2011's Cinema Verite for HBO — have been disappointing. For the first quarter of Ten Thousand Saints, I was so happy. Set in the '80s, the story of Jude (Butterfield), a high-school fuck-up in Vermont with a hippie mom (Nicholson) and an absent dad (Ethan Hawke in the most Ethan Hawke-i-est performance since…well, Boyhood), brings you in with a warmth and an immediacy. But once Jude gets settled into his father's apartment in New York City's East Village, the movie falls off a cliff. It's trying to be a portrait of a time and place — one I'd love to see represented in a narrative film, because I lived it — as well as a morality tale and a family drama. With some laughs! In other words, it's a shambles. I laughed, for instance, during a climactic scene set during the Tompkins Square Park riot of 1988. I was not meant to laugh. But it was just so overwrought, and looked so fake, that I could not help myself. —K.A.

Distribution: Screen Media will release this one, in theaters and on VOD, in late summer.

27. Z for Zachariah

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Craig Zobel

Written by: Nissar Modi

Starring: Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine

I had such high hopes for this post-apocalyptic drama, based on the novel by Robert C. O’Brien, but those expectations were quickly dashed once the film — about three survivors of civilization-destroying nuclear fallout — started to unspool. Robbie is undeniably charismatic as the sweetly naïve Ann, who survives in the blessed valley she grew up in. But when two strangers enter her life, they begin to battle for her carnal affections, as she is, you know, the last woman on the planet. While Z for Zachariah is gorgeously directed — both the shots of destruction and of nature resonate sharply — it's undone by its lackluster script and outrageously predictable plot, which becomes torturously easy to foresee beat by agonizing beat well ahead of time. While some in the audience showered the film with rapturous applause, others seemed positively confused by what the ardor was for. Z for Zachariah ends up being so formulaic that the characters become placeholders for other, more interesting creations who fail ever to arrive in this Eden-like setting. —J.L.

Distribution: Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions acquired the film two weeks before the start of the festival, but no premiere date has been set.

28. Knock, Knock

Eduardo Moreno

Directed by: Eli Roth

Written by: Eli Roth, Nicolás López, Guillermo Amoedo

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana de Armas, Aaron Burns, Ignacia Allamand, Colleen Camp

Knock Knock largely confused audiences at Sundance, and with good reason: It's far from anything you'd expect from Eli Roth. Keanu Reeves stars as Evan Webber, a devoted family man whose life is turned upside down when the aggressively seductive Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas) show up at his door. After coercing Evan into a steamy threesome, the two women engage in psychological torture, a surprisingly gore-free twist from the man who gave us Hostel. As a campy dark comedy, Knock Knock has its moments, but its overall mission is muddled. If the film is intended to be feminist — as Roth told BuzzFeed News it was in an interview at the fest — it doesn't get the message across. Instead, it's likely to invite comparisons to Gone Girl, which attempted to subvert the evil temptress archetype and ended up being hailed as a document of female treachery by so-called men's rights activists. Above all though, Roth is interested in provoking audiences, and, as long as he doesn't mind the vastly divergent responses Knock Knock is bound to inspire, he can consider the film a success in that way. —L.P.

Distribution: Knock Knock was acquired by frequent Roth collaborator Lionsgate, which reportedly spent $2.5 million on the deal. The release date has not been set.

29. The Bronze

Scott Henriksen

Directed by: Bryan Buckley

Written by: Melissa Rauch and Winston Rauch

Starring: Melissa Rauch, Gary Cole, Thomas Middleditch, Sebastian Stan, Haley Lu Richardson, Cecily Strong

I laughed a bunch at The Bronze, but still, my abiding feeling after seeing it is that it's a tonal mess that should be cut down by 20 minutes. The Sundance running time was an hour and 55 minutes, which is suicide for an edgy comedy reliant on the audience not questioning the movie's outrageous journey. I did like Rauch as an angry, has-been Olympian who masturbates to the footage of her bronze medal triumph, but the world of The Bronze is too sour to carry us through the moments when the characters are meant to be real people who might change, instead of broad, spitting-joke monsters. There is no arc to invest in here, and that's a fatal flaw. I am curious to see what happens when The Bronze, which will get a pretty big release, hits theaters. —K.A.

Distribution: Relativity will release it this year.

30. I Smile Back

Eric Lin

Directed by: Adam Salky

Written by: Amy Koppelman and Paige Dylan

Starring: Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles, Thomas Sadoski, Mia Barron, Terry Kinney, Chris Sarandon

It's both a stereotype and the truth that comedic actors often make arresting, watchable dramatic ones. And that is certainly the case with Silverman in I Smile Back. Silverman inhabits her character, Laney, who is drug-addicted, an alcoholic, and an unmedicated bipolar, bodily — she seems to know her with every cell. The actor is both sad-eyed and wild-eyed, and, when Laney is trying to get better, kind and hopeful.

Yet the movie itself sets up both Laney and Silverman to be laughable, and to me, that's Sundance's saddest story. The character's trajectory would not pass the gates of Lifetime these days, and its use of sex to shock is best exemplified when Laney, so wasted she's tilting, ends up on the floor of her sleeping daughter's bedroom fucking the kid's teddy bear. It's impossible to describe how debasing and embarrassing that scene is. But trust me: This movie's future is as an unintentional comedy. I want to see Silverman in a drama in which she shows off her skills and range without any stuffed animals anywhere near her. —K.A.

Distribution: Not yet!

The entry for The End of the Tour was updated to make clear that the movie was adapted from David Lipsky’s 2010 book about David Foster Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.

This post has been updated to include distribution information for Sleeping With Other People.

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