Christmas night begins one of the highest-grossing weeks of the year for movie theaters, but you won’t find me at the cineplex. I spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s at home catching some of the hidden gems that premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival last January and are just now making their way to video on demand.
Although the festival didn’t produce any box office bonanzas like the 2014 Sundance hits Boyhood or Whiplash, here are two documentaries and two dramas that shouldn't be missed and will tide avid filmgoers over until my reports on the 2016 Sundance Film Festival next month.
The Hunting Ground
The Hunting Ground, one of the year’s most talked about documentaries, provides a shocking and brutal exposé of the epidemic of rapes at institutes of higher learning, which often discount, ignore, “blame-the victim,” or cover up the alleged crimes. The stories are interwoven with shocking statistics — one out of five women will be raped or sexually attacked during her college years.
The Hunting Ground pulls no punches. Along with institutions such as Harvard, Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina, it takes on both the fraternity system and money-infested college sports programs, both of which the filmmakers believe foster a culture of rape.
This powerful, sobering documentary received standing ovations and rave reviews from the Sundance crowd. It premiered on CNN last month to high ratings and criticism from universities and conservative groups. But it has illuminated a topic that is rarely talked about, and several colleges have now changed the way they deal with campus sexual assaults as a result.
CNN will rebroadcast The Hunting Ground on Sunday December 27 at 10 pm. It has been named as one of 15 documentaries still in the running for the 2015 Academy Awards.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief was the topic of big buzz at Sundance, largely due to the titillation factor of church members Tom Cruise and John Travolta. But Prophet’s Prey was a much creepier and unsettling film in part because of its leader, Warren Jeffs, whose otherwordly hypnotic voice narrates part of the film. Jeffs, the polygamous leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) sexually abused and married dozens of young girls (90 wives at last count), some of whom were mere preteens.
Jeffs was on the run for three years before being apprehended in Texas and sentenced to life in prison. Part of his conviction was based on a taped recording of him raping a 12-year-old on their “wedding night,” which is included in the film. The film also features parents whose daughter was kidnapped within 24 hours after she returned to them. She has disappeared and the family believes they will probably never see her again.
Prophet’s Prey is especially heartbreaking because there is no petition to sign or cause to contribute to remedy the situation. All the viewer can do is feel hopeless. At the press conference following the film’s premiere, author Jon Krakauer, who wrote the book upon which the documentary is based, noted that Jeffs still controls his 10,000 followers from prison, which is even more unsettling than the film itself.
Available on Showtime on Demand
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Winner of the 2015 Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the story of a dorky high school senior (Thomas Mann), whose mom forces him to spend time with a classmate (Olivia Cooke) who was just diagnosed with leukemia. Sounds terrible and depressing? Not really. Sure, you will need a handkerchief, but the laughs and the sheer magic of the film will outnumber the tears.
Despite positive reviews, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl did not have the audience appeal of the similarly themed The Fault of our Stars, but in my opinion it is the more creative and original film.
Available on VOD
I’ll See You in My Dreams
I’ll See You In My Dreams is the story of Carol, a 70-year-old widow (played by the talented Blythe Danner), who must decide how to keep going once her beloved dog dies — the first of several events to disrupt her predictable routine. The film is a wonderfully funny, touching and sad testament about relationships, pushing boundaries, aging and the choices one makes as a result of loss.
In January, I wrote “this is one of those films I just want to shout from the roof tops about how poignant and good it is. And I want Danner to get the recognition she so richly deserves — if she is just peaking at age 71, a lot of the social security set are going to be inspired.”
While early Oscar talk for Danner has died down—no doubt due to so little publicity for the movie—it still gets my vote for my favorite Sundance film of 2015.
Available on VOD