Sundance Gems

Sundance gems: 4 don't-miss, crowd-pleasing movies from America's fave film festival

Sundance gems: 4 don't-miss movies from America's fave film festival

Miles Teller in Whiplash
Miles Teller plays a mean set of drums in Whiplash. Photo by Daniel McFadden/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Alive Inside, Sundance Film Festival
An Alzeimer's patient recognizes her voice in Alive Inside. Photo by Eyeball NYC
Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass in The One I Love
Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass have a strange weekend encounter in The One I Love. Photo courtesy of Radius-TWC
Boyhood Richard Linklater
The remarkable Boyhood traces the life of a young man over 12 years. Photo by Matt Lankes/IFC Films
Miles Teller in Whiplash
Alive Inside, Sundance Film Festival
Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass in The One I Love
Boyhood Richard Linklater

While the weather outside may be frightful, the week between Christmas and New Year is the time that even casual moviegoers flock to theaters or their couches to catch flicks. Since 2000, Christmas night begins one of the highest-grossing weeks of the year for movie makers.

For the last six years I have reviewed films at the Sundance Film Festival, which takes place in Park City, Utah during the last two weeks in January. Each year there is a panoply of films—some Oscar-worthy (think Twenty Feet from Stardom), some truly awful, and a lot in-between. To be honest, the 2014 Sundance Film Festival was not my favorite. Maybe I didn’t choose the right films — with 128 choices it is easy to miss some good ones, but only a few grabbed me. And grab me they did. 

Here are a few recommendations until 2015’s crop of films comes around later this month.

Whiplash

Whiplash was the first major deal of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and also the big winner at the fest’s awards ceremony, capturing both the both the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award. The suspenseful and electrifying film is about a young talented drummer, played by Miles Teller, his sadistic demanding teacher, played by JK Simmons, and the drive to achieve perfection at all costs.

Sometimes a description of a film doesn’t begin to describe its power and emotional intensity. Such is the case with Whiplash. The editing and use of drums made my heart pound and palms sweat, and at the end I was emotionally exhausted.

And who knew Simmons, the ever present Farmers’ Insurance pitchman usually seen in comedy roles, could turn in a darkly dramatic Oscar-worthy performance? This film is not a feel good movie and has no heroes, but it will stay with you long after the last drum beat.

Whiplash will be available on VOD on Feb. 3.

Boyhood

Boyhood, from Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater, breaks new ground by filming a coming-of-age story through the eyes of protagonist Mason over a 12-year real-time period using the same actors. We literally get to watch the characters — Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the parents, and Ellar Cotraine as Mason — grow up and grow older before our eyes.

Those looking for edge-of-your-seat drama might be disappointed and some will be bored by the film’s 165-minute length. But life itself is at times mundane.

Linklater avoids gimmicks and manipulative drama. The plot is slow, leisurely and nuanced, but still leaves you with a “wow” at the end. I was enchanted by the uniqueness and intimacy of the film and conscious that we will probably not see such a bold approach to filmmaking any time soon.

Boyhood has already won several major film awards and is a probable Oscar nominee (Oscar nominations will be announced Jan. 15). The film will be released on DVD and VOD Jan. 6.

The One I Love

Some films are not Oscar worthy, don’t inform or educate, and aren’t realistic, but still provide a great escape for a Saturday night at home, and your friends to whom you recommend such a movie will thank you.

This is what you can expect from The One I Love, an intriguing comedy/drama with a slightly Twilight Zone feel as an estranged couple escape to a vacation house to save their marriage.  Without divulging too much, the trip begins as a romantic getaway until some disturbing – well actually bizarre — things begin happening and continue until the final scene. Even then, you will use the rewind button to make sure you saw what you thought you saw. 

Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass are in every scene and have challenging and nuanced character swings to make. With lesser actors, this movie might be unremarkable. But it is a pleasure to watch these two talented actors tackle these challenges, which they do with charm, humor and a tiny wink to the implausibility of it all. My husband I discussed the unpredictable ending the entire weekend after we saw it. 

Currently on Netflix, VOD and DVD.

Alive Inside

We all know someone — perhaps even a parent or loved one —who is or has suffered from dementia or Alzheimer’s. Alive Inside is a jewel of a documentary that shows the power of music to reach those who are unreachable because the part of the mind that deals with music is the last to be affected by dementia.

The filmgoer is introduced to elderly nursing home patients who have hardly uttered a word in years and don’t recognize their families. Headphones are placed on them as their favorite song is played through an iPod. The result is jaw dropping — miraculous. The patients start smiling and singing; one person speaks in full paragraphs.

The film makes other points about our health care system, where it is easier to write a prescription than buy an iPod and headphones, and about the depressing nature of the nursing home industry, but those themes are overshadowed by the miracle of music.

The movie played to packed theaters at Sundance and reaction was more akin to a revival. Audience members cheered and cried, and as they left the theater they discussed how to get iPods into nursing homes. Isn’t that what a good documentary is supposed to do — get a conversation going? 

Alive Inside, which snared the coveted Audience Award winner for U.S. documentary at Sundance, is available on VOD.