1. Dear White People
Directed by: Justin Simien
Written by: Justin Simien
Starring: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Teyonah Parris, Brandon Bell
Simien’s feature debut is a sharp, hilarious, intelligent, fast-moving, Election-like examination of race on a fancy, mostly white college campus. I had high hopes for this movie, and they were all met. Exceeded, actually. The performances, especially Thompson’s and Williams’, were so nuanced and likable. I found myself trying to remember the movie’s jokes as I heard them, because they were so on-point and repeatable. Like this one: “Dear White People on Instagram: You own an iPhone and you go on hikes. We get it.” So funny! And sweet, and good-hearted. Also, I would argue that there’s never been a good movie about college? But now there is. —Kate Aurthur
Distribution: Not yet!
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltraine, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Arquette
Shot over 12 years, this ambitious, sprawling narrative follows a boy from the age of 6 all the way through to his freshman year of college. Linklater recruited young Ellar Coltrane to act alongside Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and his daughter Lorelei Linklater. Coltrane’s own life and development — as well as the turmoil felt by the world at large — helped determine the story’s direction. A masterful work and amazing accomplishment, this is the sort of rare gem that makes you believe in the power of cinema. —Jordan Zakarin
Distribution: IFC will release Boyhood sometime in May.
3. The Skeleton Twins
The Skeleton Twins
Directed by: Craig Johnson
Written by: Craig Johnson, Mark Heyman
Starring: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Joanna Gleason
The log line for this film — twin siblings Milo (Hader) and Maggie (Wiig) reunite after a mysterious 10-year estrangement when news of Milo’s attempted suicide interrupts Maggie’s own attempted suicide — sounds like a total Sundance-y downer. But this was easily one of the most entertaining, crowd-pleasing movies of the festival, with a breakout performance by Hader that proves he’s every bit the multifaceted movie actor that Wiig is. Co-writers Heyman and Johnson (who directed) started working on the script eight years ago, and their attention to detail — both in storytelling and in character — shows in the best way. —Adam B. Vary
Distribution: Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, releasing in late summer 2014.
4. Obvious Child
Directed by: Gillian Robespierre
Written by: Gillian Robespierre
Starring: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, David Cross
A sweet, hilarious comedy about love, sex, Brooklyn, money, being in your twenties, and…abortion. After getting dumped by her boyfriend and going on a bender, a 28-year-old stand-up comedian (Slate) has a one-night stand with a wholesome business school student from Vermont (Lacy) — and gets pregnant. Robespierre shows it’s possible to have a light touch with controversial, serious subjects. —Doree Shafrir
Distribution: Through A24. Release date sometime in 2014.
5. The Case Against 8
Directed by: Ben Cotner, Ryan White
It’s hard to make a documentary about a topic as well-covered as California’s Proposition 8 — especially when the story’s conclusion was international news — but Cotner and White have managed here. The co-directors, who met at Sundance five years ago, decided to team up to follow the nascent attempt to overturn Prop 8, which passed in the 2008 election and banned same-sex marriage in the state. It’s a portrait of all the key players: the two couples who brought the suit, their families, and the LGBT activists who pushed it along. Most of all, though, The Case Against 8 showcases the two lawyers who argued the case, David Boies and Ted Olson. The ideologically opposed men, who battled each other in 2000 in Bush v. Gore and became friends throughout that mess, provide The Case Against 8’s core relationship, as well as the case’s symbolic power: Here is an issue upon which we should all agree, and all soon will. I wept throughout! —K.A.
Distribution: HBO produced The Case Against 8. It will likely get a small theatrical release for Oscar consideration later this year, but it will definitely be on HBO in June.
6. Cold in July
Directed by: Jim Mickle
Written by: Jim Mickle, Nick Damici
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard, Vinessa Shaw, Nick Damici, Wyatt Russell
When I heard that the cast of Cold in July included Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, and Sam Shepard, I was very excited. Luckily, the film didn’t disappoint, especially in the badass area. Fresh off Dexter, Hall stars as Richard Dane, a man who unintentionally kills an intruder. And while it may seem like Hall is going back to the killer genre, the character of Dane is actually deeply disturbed by what he’s done. It’s that inner reflection that leads him to right his wrongs, and to seek out help from an ex-con named Russel (Sam Shepard) and his old war buddy, Jim Bob (Don Johnson). The film is darkly funny at times, while terrifying at others, and most importantly, it will surprise you. —Erin La Rosa
Distribution: IFC Films will release Cold in July theatrically and on Video On Demand this summer.
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
The opening-night narrative film at Sundance has traditionally been something of a snoozer, but not this electrifying story of a young driven jazz drummer (Teller) and the dictatorial teacher (Simmons) whose abusive, maniacal instruction pushes his pupil to his breaking point. There is already awards buzz over Simmons’ performance, and Teller pours everything he has into his part. But perhaps the most exciting thing about this film is that it announces Chazelle — who debuted a short version of Whiplash at last year’s Sundance — as a filmmaker with an authentic cinematic voice. —A.B.V.
Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics, but no release date yet.
8. Camp X-Ray
Directed by: Peter Sattler
Written by: Peter Sattler
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Payman Maadi, Lane Garrison, J.J. Soria, John Carroll Lynch
On paper, this movie sounds like a joke: “How will Kristen Stewart try to break away from Twilight?” “Oh, by playing a guard at Guantanamo Bay.” And yet, Camp X-Ray surprised me more than anything else I saw at Sundance. And unlike narrative movies I did not like during the festival — most notably the interminable, indulgent Low Down and the aimless God’s Pocket — Sattler presents a clear vision in every scene of where he wants Camp X-Ray to go. Stewart is fantastic: She’s both dynamic and subtle. And Maadi pulls the performance out of her in the same way his character prods hers — with humanity and genuine connection. — K.A.
9. Wish I Was Here
Directed by: Zach Braff
Written by: Zach Braff, Adam Braff
Starring: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Ashley Greene, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon
There’s been so much discussion about the way Zach Braff went about raising money to make his directorial follow-up to 2004’s Garden State (Kickstarter; he did it on Kickstarter, everybody) that you still may not have heard much about the film itself. It’s about Aidan (Braff), an out-of-work actor who decides to homeschool his children (King and Gagnon) after his disapproving father (Patinkin) falls ill and can no longer afford to pay for their Yeshiva education. It’s also about Aidan’s recluse brother (Gad), and his attempt to woo a nascent “furry” (Green) at Comic-Con while avoiding dealing with his issues surrounding his father. It’s also about Aidan’s wife (Hudson), who has to support the family by way of a dead-end job with a lecherous cubicle-mate (Michael Weston). And it is also about Aidan’s father coming to terms with his relationship with his two sons. It is about a lot of things, you guys! —A.B.V.
Distribution: Focus Features, but no release date yet.
10. Love Is Strange
Directed by: Ira Sachs
Written by: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias
Starring: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Darren Burrows, Charlie Tahan, Cheyenne Jackson
George (Alfred), a music instructor working in a Catholic school, and Ben (Lithgow), a retired painter living off a pension, are legally married after 39 years together. But shortly thereafter, George is fired from his job, and the couple has to split up and bunk with family and friends until they can find another New York apartment they can afford together. It is still exceedingly rare to see a feature film about a same-sex couple devoted to each other after decades, let alone one made with such subtle, heartbreaking grace. —A.B.V.
Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics, but no release date yet.
11. Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger
Directed by: Joe Berlinger
For 30 years, crime boss Whitey Bulger ran amok in South Boston, never getting as much as a traffic ticket. He fled Boston in 1995 after getting tipped off that he was about to be indicted, and conventional wisdom held that he was, in fact, a longtime FBI informant. Bulger was finally captured in 2011 and brought to trial last summer. But through a series of fascinating interviews, Berlinger (the director of Paradise Lost, the trilogy of docs that helped free the West Memphis 3) introduces at least a modicum of doubt about the widely reported version of those events — and offers the much more sinister possibility that the FBI was instead paid off by Bulger all those years. —D.S.
Distribution: CNN will broadcast the film, but no theatrical distribution yet.
12. Happy Christmas
Directed by: Joe Swanberg
Written by: Joe Swanberg
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Lena Dunham, Joe Swanberg
Happy Christmas is Swanberg’s latest improvised feature, and though it’s only 78 minutes long, it manages to do a lot of lovely things in a short period of time. It’s the story of Anna Kendrick’s Jenny, a lost, selfish, funny 27-year-old who has broken up with her boyfriend and moves in with her brother, Jeff (Joe Swanberg); his wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey); and their two-year-old son (the adorable Jude Swanberg, the best baby actor I’ve ever seen). Jenny is invading their happy home, and disrupts it, of course — mostly by showing Kelly, inadvertently, that she should resume her career as a novelist. At that point, the movie’s focus shifts slightly to Kelly’s point of view, and it’s wonderful. Pop culture is currently flush with images of twentysomething women trying to find themselves, but a mother in her thirties who is mostly happy, but not entirely? That’s rare. Lynskey steals the movie; wait, Jude Swanberg steals the movie. Forget it! They’re all great. I just loved Happy Christmas. —K.A.
Distribution: Magnolia will distribute Happy Christmas theatrically and on VOD, probably in the summer. (If you care, Paramount will release it internationally and on DVD.)
13. Infinitely Polar Bear
Directed by: Maya Forbes
Written by: Maya Forbes
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Imogene Wolodarsky, Ashley Aufderheide
Forbes based the story of Infinitely Polar Bear on her own experiences growing up with a bipolar father in the late ’70s, and the resulting film — starring Ruffalo and Saldana as the parents of two adorable, wise-beyond-their-years daughters in Cambridge, Mass. — is both affecting and hilarious. (Forbes’ real-life daughter Imogene plays the older daughter, Amelia.) —D.S.
Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics sometime in 2014.
14. The Voices
Directed by: Marjane Satrapi
Written by: Michael R. Perry
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver
Part horror flick, part dark comedy, part affecting drama, you have likely never seen anything quite like The Voices, about a schizophrenic factory worker (Reynolds) who talks with his loyal dog (voiced by Reynolds) and homicidal cat (also voiced by Reynolds). Director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) brings a deadpan, technicolor mania to the proceedings that somehow works with its ultimately grim and grisly story. And Reynolds hasn’t been this good in ages. But, let’s be clear, this movie is weird. —A.B.V.
Distribution: Not yet!
15. Ivory Tower
Directed by: Andrew Rossi
It’s not news that the cost of college has gone up in the last few years or that graduates are struggling to pay off their loans. But in this thought-provoking (if depressing) documentary, Rossi (who also directed the New York Times doc Page One) shows just how much those costs have gone up, just how much people owe, and just how much responsibility the colleges themselves bear for spiraling tuition costs. (A lot.) —D.S.
Distribution: Not yet!
16. Land Ho!
Directed by: Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz
Written by: Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz
Starring: Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson
The collaboration of two young rising indie directing stars and two aging gentlemen made for one of the surprise hits of the festival. The story is pretty basic: Former brothers-in-law go on a road trip in Iceland, to “find their mojo” again after some marital and career problems. Nelson is a big, gregarious natural, with a sharp tongue that delivers a lot of the laugh lines; he’s also a non-actor, doing his cousin, Stephens, a favor. Eenhoorn was the star in last year’s Sundance favorite This Is Martin Bonner, and provides a perfect, soulful straight man to play off Nelson’s antics. —J.Z.
Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics, for release in 2014.
Directed by: David Wnendt
Written by: Claus Falkenberg, David Wnendt, based on the novel by Charlotte Roche
Starring: Carla Juri, Christoph Letkowski, Meret Becker, Axel Milberg, Marlen Kruse, Edgar Selge
To avoid disappearing into yet another shame spiral of regret by describing this tale of an 18-year-old German girl (Juri) and her personal journey of genital exploration and body fluids in any detail, let me direct you instead to this story I wrote after I first saw it. That way, you get to choose if you want to read it, and I don’t have to deal with writing phrases like “simulating and rating sex with various raw, phallic vegetables” ever again. Dammit. —A.B.V.
Distribution: Strand Releasing, in late summer 2014.
18. The Overnighters
Directed by: Jesse Moss
I’ve never seen a documentary like The Overnighters before. It takes such a crazy turn near the end, and even if you see it coming, you’re left with plenty of questions. That Moss doesn’t answer all of them is an interesting choice, and one that I didn’t really mind. (But maybe a little.) This is all to say that The Overnighters is both a compelling dive into the weird world of Williston, N.D., the oil boomtown, as well as a close character study of one man, Jay Reinke, the local pastor who takes in homeless men who’ve come to Williston looking for work. Along the way, The Overnighters paints an ugly picture of the current desperate state of American joblessness. I haven’t gotten the movie out of my head, and can’t wait for more people to see it. —K.A.
Distribution: Not yet!
19. The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
Directed by: Brian Knappenberger
This documentary starts as a galvanizing celebration of the legacy of Aaron Swartz: As one of the designers of RSS, Swartz was an internet prodigy before he’d fully gone through puberty — and then, he went on to co-found Reddit. But, as Swartz’s relentless drive for social justice and open information puts him inexplicably in the crosshairs of a federal investigation (which ultimately drove him to commit suicide at 26), the film becomes just as galvanizing an indictment of government overreach and misconduct. —A.B.V.
Distribution: Not yet!
Directed by: Kat Candler
Written by: Kat Candler
Starring: Aaron Paul, Juliette Lewis, Josh Wiggins, Deke Garner, Jonny Mars, Walt Roberts
This film, and breakout star Wiggins, will break your heart. It’s the story of a 13-year-old boy who’s been mostly abandoned by his alcoholic father (Aaron Paul) and is trying to find a way to keep his younger brother safe. But when he realizes that doing that is nearly impossible, he risks everything to fix his broken family. Hellion is a really beautiful film that’s filled with insightful writing and directing by Kat Candler that really gets to the heart of father-son relationships. —E.R.
Distribution: Not yet!
21. Nymphomaniac Vol. One
Directed by: Lars von Trier
Written by: Lars von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Shia LaBeouf, Stacy Martin
The first part of von Trier’s sex epic was the “secret screening” at Sundance, where select media members were invited to see the buzzy movie for the first time. Gainsbourg plays a mysterious woman who Skarsgård’s character finds splayed out in the street, battered and bruised; she refuses medical care, but takes him up on his offer of a cup of hot tea and a warm bed. She tells him her life story, which is largely filled with sexual exploits and emotional emptiness (Martin plays the younger version of the character). Beautifully shot and quite often funny, the film feels incomplete — because, well, it is, since there’s another half that will be released in theaters shortly after this one. And at times, it can be boring. There’s little emotional investment in the characters, which maybe is what von Trier wanted. —J.Z.
Distribution: Magnolia Pictures, releasing Vol. One on demand Mar. 6, and in theaters Mar. 21; Vol. Two on demand Mar. 20, and in theaters Apr. 4.