The Best Sundance Film Festival Reviews of 2014

Kumiko The Treasure Hunter, Whiplash, BoyhoodU.S. Dramatic/U.S. Dramatic/Premieres

Every year, film enthusiast from across the land journey to the hinterlands of Utah to partake in the Sundance Film Festival. A yearly event which can only be described as the holy pilgrimage og independent film. This year’s festival is full of great films, but these ten works are the standout favorites that have garnered the most critical attention.

Everyone was sitting on the edge of their theater chairs to see the results of Richard Linklater’s wildly ambitious project Boyhood, which shot over 12 years and charts the life of a child from ages 6 to 18. It seems like the dozen years it took to make Boyhood were well worth it with with words like “masterpiece” popping up every so often in the rabble of critical praise. The film finds transcendance in the small and ordinairy moments that make up childhood, and the film’s relatability is one of it’s strongest merits Frequent Linklater collaborator Ethan Hawke and actress Patricia Arquette play the boy’s parents. Though some critics are saying that the film is a tad too long, most agree that it is a one of a kind experience not to be missed.
Best Review Quote: “Boyhood shines in its engrossing, experiential understanding and it’s a special achievement that should be cherished and acknowledged.” – Rodrigo Perez, The Playlist

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

A strange, whimsical story about a young woman who becomes obsessed with a movie and is unable to separate it from reality, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter stars Rinko Kikuchi as Kumiko, a shy office worker who sets out to recover the suitcase that Steve Buscemi’s character buries in North Dakota at the end of Fargo. Based on an urban legend, the film has been described as a spirited and sad adult fairytale [that] will surely baffle as many viewers as it enchants.” Directed by David Zellner and co-written with his brother Nathan, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is an artsy indie film that balances the absurdity of its premise with a grounded, human performance from Kikuchi that has been greatly praised by critics. It might be one of the odder films featured at this year’s festival, and it’s unlikely to win over a mainstream audience, but with Kikuchi at the center, it’s definitely a film worth looking up. 

Best Review Quote: “It’s a marvelous role for Kikuchi, who has the intensity of the great silent film stars, and who’s fascinating to watch even when Kumiko is doing nothing more than sitting solemnly by the window of her apartment eating ramen noodles as a rain begins to fall.” – Scott Foundas, Variety

Life Itself
This full-figured portrait of the late Roger Ebert delves into the well-lived life of the most famous and celebrated film critics of all time, and critics, some of which are his former peers, are praising its depiction of the late and great critic. The film is by turns, an unflinching and joyful appreciation of the man’s life, from it’s successful highs to its cancer-stricken lows. The film is being praised for it’s sensitivity and brevity, but also for not shying away from Ebert’s flaws, namely his alcholism and lust for women.
Best Review Quote: “There was a thunder in Ebert’s heart, and that was his love for movies, and he wanted to tell the world about films, both big ones and small. James should be high-fived every day of his life for telling the real story of Roger Ebert.” – Chase Whale, The Playlist

Listen Up Philip

The titular Philip is an insufferable jerk, a narcissistic author who spends much of the film insulting and berating the people around him and spending most of his time obsessed with himself and his novels. With Jason Schwartzman in the lead role, the film has been a critical favorite at the festival, with Schwartzman imbuing the right amount of charm to keep the hero from being completely unwatchable, and a sharp story that provides insight into the overbearing protagonist and the people in his life. The film has also been praised for its creative use of literary conventions, such as a voice-over narration that outlines what’s going on in Philip’s head, and chapters that shift the focus to the other characters, so that the audience can experience the story in the same novelistic way that Philip does. It’s not a film that will easily appeal to everyone, but the incredibly positive reviews should help earn the film plenty of attention and recognition.
Best Review Quote: “Importantly, the protagonist disappears for a sizeable chunk of the film’s mid section (a device Perry borrowed from William Gaddis’ novel, Recognitions) and we learn as much about him in absentia as we do from being in his overwhelming presence.” – Emma Myers, IndieWire

Love Is Strange
Bursting with truths that are both painful and fun yet all too real, Love Is Strange offers a portrait of love and separation. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina portray an older gay couple that gets married after 39 years of living together due to New York’s changing same sex marriage laws, but vows are tested in earnest when financial hardships suddenly divide the couple. Critics are enamored with the loving authenticity that’s layered at the film’s heart, and were impressed with the heartfelt performances from the two leads.
Best Review Quote:Throughout the picture … you understand the miracle and good fortune of finding love, and recognize the great changes in tolerance American society is currently (albeit slowly) undergoing.” – Jordan Hoffman,

Obvious Child
This year’s festival featured a number of films centered around a woman in her mid-to-late 20’s whose life is falling apart, but none of them stood out more than Obvious Child, the feature-length debut of writer-director Gillian Robespierre. An abortion rom-com, the film stars Jenny Slate as Donna Stern, an aspiring stand-up comic who becomes pregnant after a one-night stand, and is faced with the reality of being vastly unprepared for the sudden turn her life has taken. Critics have praised Obvious Child not only for doing away with the standard romantic comedy clichés and dealing with taboos head on, but also for handling the subject matter with realism and heart. Slate has also gotten praise for her performance, and should be able to break away from her short run on Saturday night Live in favor of being recognized as a solid actress in her own right. 

Best Review Quote: “There’s none of the expected movie-of-the-week scenes here—Slate never has an actorly monologue about her predicament, just a series of laugh-so-you-don’t-cry wisecracks […] And yet when Donna is laying sedated on an operating table and gravity sends her tears down her cheeks towards the clinical cold tile floor, you can recognize that her decision may be decisive, but it isn’t unfelt.” – James Rocci, The Playlist

The Raid 2: Berandal
The sequel to the Indonesian smash-hit actioner is getting acclaim from every inch of the festival for it’s wonderfully orchestrated yet absurdly violent fight scenes. Critics say that the film is a delight for genre fans who have a hunger for bloodletting, though the more squeamish members of the public should probably pack a sick bag if they want to make it to the end credits. The film is being called more ambitious than its predecessor, and some critics are divided if the larger emphasis on story and drama does the film and favors, but most agree that the sequel is a visceral and pulse-quickening follow up that certainly lives up to the first outing.
Best Review Quote: “This orgy of broken bones and vicious badassery makes its cult predecessor look like a peevish bitch-slap.” – David Rooney,  The Hollywood Reporter

The Skeleton Twins
If Will Forte’s turn in Nebraska wasn’t proof enough; Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are also striving to prove the dramatic acting chops of SNL vets with their well-received performances in the comedy-drama The Skeleton Twins. The pair play twins that are both suffering through bouts of depression, and the two characters struggle to regrow the sibling relationship that distance and shared pain had witherd away. Both Hader and Wiig are being praised for their nuanced performances as the duo confidently master the film’s nicely balanced tone, which flutters between comedy and drama, but doesn’t feel forced or jarring.
Best Review Quote:Hader and Wiig can play serious, can weave humor into their realistic performances, but what separates them from other actors and directors who attempt dangerously tired material is a foundation of collaboration. It’s easy to buy that they’re brother and sister because the rapport is established.” – Matt Patches, Vanity Fair

The Voices
Perhaps the most eccentric film premiering at Sundance this year, The Voices star Ryan Reynolds as a factory worker who is encouraged by his pets, a well-meaning dog named Bosco and a manipulative and evil cat named Mr. Whiskers, to commit murder. Described as a horror-thriller-comedy, the film does its best to do away with both genre conventions and horror film tropes in favor of a weirdly entertaining psychological drama that puts the audience on the same side as its mentally ill, serial killer hero. Critics have given Reynolds, who provided voices for Bosco and Mr. Whiskers in addition to playing the lead, rave reviews, praising his ability to commit to the character’s wilder moments while still keeping the film grounded and restrained. With such an insane premise, a compelling, committed performance and excellent direction from Marjane Satrapiartist and director behind both the graphic novel and film Pesepolis – The Voices has all of the key ingredients to become a cult favorite, and quite possibly, even a mainstream success. 

Best Review Quote: “The film’s combination of psychological drama — cue the childhood trauma — with blood-splattered limb-cutting, talking heads in the fridge and talking pets on the couch is a risky one that finally works because [screenwriter Michael R.] Perry and Satrapi find the right tonal mixture for the material, with Jerry’s reality recognizable yet strangely heightened from the start (all the overly joyous pinks in the factory should have been a give-away).” – Boyd van Hoeij, The Hollywood Reporter

Starring Miles Teller as an aspiring jazz drummer who is willing to give up everything in order to become one of the greats, and J.K. Simmons has his tyrant of a music teacher, who motivates his students through fear and torrents of insults, Whiplash is a film about the question of whether or not it’s worth it to dedicate everything you have in the name of art. The film earned rave reviews when it premiered on opening night, and critics have said that it boasts career making and defining performances from Teller and Simmons, respectively. It’s not the kind of music film that will leave audiences with a warm fuzzy feeling, but with two explosive leading men and a director who lived through it himself, Whiplash became the most attention-grabbing film to premiere at Sundance. Sony snapped up distribution rights on opening night, which means it’s definitely a film to look forward to in the coming year. 

Best Review Quote: “For those seeking perfection, one tiny slip threatens to jeopardize the ensemble as a whole. As a result, Fletcher’s strategy is to humiliate the stragglers in front of the entire group — the sort of abuse more commonly associated with locker rooms and war movies, whose high stakes [director David] Chazelle brings to bear on this more civilized arena.” – Peter Debruge, Variety