Watching great movies is always a joy—but knowing about great movies before your friends do, that’s priceless. After bingeing last week at the Sundance Film Festival (and its underrated sidekick, Slamdance), I can now expound on the next wave of cinematic treasures months before they hit the local art-house theater, casually destroying any friends who believe their cultural knowledge to be superior to mine. Study my list of Park City favorites below, and you can be the one with insider info, like your pal who dissects high-school recruiting sites, running his mouth all day about some sophomore cornerback with 4.3 speed out of Tupelo, Mississippi, or the guy at work who’s down with obscure indie bands six years before they open for Wilco.
These are the 20 movies, in ascending order, that made the biggest impression on me last week, which the world will soon be hearing much more about, perhaps from you:
Three suburban teens — inspired by Catcher In The Rye — play hooky from school and head downtown, with plans to lose their virginity. Written, directed by and starring Andrew Edison (20 years old) and Luke Loftin (21), Bindlestiffs is raw, filthy, and funny enough to make Superbad look like a Merchant Ivory Production. When they took home the Audience Award at Slamdance, Edison held aloft the trophy and announced, “This is going next to our bong!”
19. Getting Up
After legendary L.A. graffiti artist Tony “TemptOne” Quan was stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease, he found himself stuck in a hospital bed — his mind fully alert, but his body frozen. In this lush, moving documentary, filmmaker Caskey Eberling follows a team of techies and street art aficionados who collaborate to create the Eyewriter, a breakthrough system that allows TemptOne to produce art and communicate with friends, family, and loved ones just by moving his eyes. It’s game-changing technology that has begun to be widely adopted by ALS sufferers worldwide.
18. John Dies At The End
Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep) directed this shaggy-dog comedy/horror-thriller that feels like a psychoactive mash-up between Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Dune. (I mean that as a compliment.) Two college dropouts high on an otherworldly drug known as “soy sauce” try to save the world from forces of evil. I can’t say I always understood what was happening, but by the end of the movie, I felt like I was on the sauce myself, and it was a welcome rush. Paul Giamatti joins the fray as a journalist investigating the paranormal happenings in his town.
The Zellner Brothers, David and Nathan, weave a strange, merciless, and hypnotic tale of a young Texas girl (Sydney Aguirre) whose warpath of wanton destruction is interrupted when she discovers a portal to another world hidden deep in the woods behind her house. Childhood hurt, confusion, and wonder have rarely been laid so bare.
16. The Other Dream Team
In 1992, the USA Dream Team’s smug march to gold felt predestined. But the real drama surrounded the Lithuanian team, freshly freed from Communism, as they outfought Russia, their former oppressors, to claim the bronze, aided by an unlikely alliance with The Grateful Dead. Director Marius Markevicius tracked former Lithuanian team members down all over the globe to compile the interviews for his riveting documentary, which could easily stand with the best of ESPN’s 30 for 30s.
In this charming, intelligent caper, Jesse Eisenberg plays a piano prodigy who must help his drug-addicted mother (the always-electric Melissa Leo) score smack so she can gain entrance to the rehab clinic that has turned her away. As far as I’m concerned, Eisenberg is the most engaging, highly-watchable actor in movies right now—he brings every scene to immense, pleasurable life—and 30 Rock‘s Tracy Morgan is on hand as a small-time dealer to toss understated mayhem into the mix. The tone here, guided by writer/directors Phil Dorling and Ron Nyswaner, is pitch-perfect.
14. Save The Date
Michael Mahon’s look at the interpersonal orbits among a crowd of indie artists and musicians is a quiet wonder. Based on real-life stories from graphic novelist Jeffrey Brown, Save The Date‘s fine cast, which includes Lizzy Caplan of Party Down, and the talented Mark Webber, punches home the ups and downs of late-20s wanderlust with heartbreaking aplomb. The issues Mahon’s characters face may be fairly described as “White People’s Problems,” but their emotional plumes are rendered with skill, urgency, and a sweet, optimistic touch.
13. West of Memphis
A comprehensive look at the wrongful convictions of The West Memphis Three, this engaging documentary, directed by Amy Berg and produced by Peter Jackson, also explores who the real killer might have been.
12. Red Hook Summer
Spike Lee’s latest got a bad rap at Sundance — I thought it was one of his best films in years. The story involves a tech-savvy private school kid from Atlanta who spends the summer with his grandfather (Clarke Peters), a preacher in the Brooklyn projects. Ambitious in scope, fiery in temperament, and eager to engage the complexities of urban America’s shifting demographics, Red Hook Summer recalls Spike’s earliest outings—brilliant one moment, awkward the next. Clarke Peters (The Wire‘s Lester Freamon) is an absolute wonder as a man of conviction torn apart by his dark past, and it’s a joy to see Spike reappear as an aged Mookie, the pizza man from Do The Right Thing. Spike has even cast Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (another Wire vet) in a supporting role, who lets loose a one-line utterance that will delight any fans of the HBO series. Spike Lee funded the film independently, outside of the studio system, as he made clear in a defiant rant during the Q&A that followed the premiere, and pieced it together with help from his grad students at NYU. Whatever the movie lacks in polish it more than makes up for with its passion, sly humor, and embrace of challenging material.
11. Black Rock
Three longtime friends, played by director Katie Aselton, Lake Bell, and Kate Bosworth, face Deliverance-style terror while camping on a remote island off of Coastal Maine. It’s refreshing to see a horror movie that doesn’t have to resort to monsters, aliens, or the supernatural to deliver its chills, and it’s invigorating to see female leads get the chance to kick so much ass. The rapt crowd at the midnight screening I attended at Park City’s Egyptian Theater was buzzing afterwards, discussing what they would do if they were stuck in a similar situation.
10. Welcome To Pine Hill
Keith Miller’s absorbing, meditative study of a Brooklyn bouncer’s final days shares the contemplative vibe of Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, as crossed with Jonathan Levine’s 50/50. Shot with non-professional actors in utterly natural settings, Pine Hill captures Brooklyn’s day-to-day rhythms so cannily and delicately, Spike Lee would do well to take notice.
9. We Are Legion
Anonymous is the mysterious cabal of computer hackers who have taken it upon themselves to protect Internet freedom and use their maverick skills to defend the global good. Brian Knappenberger’s rousing documentary traces the path of Anonymous from its roots as an insular online community with a perverse, eccentric sense of humor through its battles with right-wing radio hosts and Scientologists, to larger operations: shutting down the websites of PayPal and Visa when they refused to process donations to WikiLeaks, and eventually playing a critical role in the Arab Spring uprisings and the Occupy protests. The access Knappenberger gained to key players is impressive, and his film also raises serious questions about the prosecutions of 16 members of Anonymous now being charged for cyber-crimes, whose actions might also be read as a protected form of political protest. Ultimately, it’s thrilling to know that ordinary citizens in places like Nebraska and New Mexico, armed with rebellious attitudes and a dose of tech know-how, are working vigilantly to keep The Man in check.
8. No Ashes, No Phoenix
Imagine if at the end of every season, the four worst NBA teams were relegated to the D-League. That’s the dire situation facing the stumbling pro basketball team in the German industrial town of Hagen (think Buffalo, New York). Jens Pfeifer’s documentary, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance, succeeds on every level: It’s an inside look at washed-out college stars from the U.S. playing for pay abroad (Penn’s Michael Jordan, Pepperdine’s Chase Griffin, and Morehead State’s Quentin Pryor are featured among Hagen’s starting rotation); it’s a study of just how far one determined coach can lead his team; and it’s a thrilling against-all-odds basketball story, as the Hagen Phoenix, comprised half of German hoopers, half of Americans, try to cobble together enough wins to save their team from demotion.
7. Indie Game
Most popular video games are created by teams of hundreds. But in their study of indie video game designers, who slave alone or in pairs over their computers for years at a time to create a game—with no clear sense that players will flock to it—Canadian filmmakers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky shine a light on the nature of all solitary creative and scientific pursuit. Though the subjects of their documentary are designing video games—among them, Braid, Fez, and Super Meat Boy—the fierce, lonely road these designers walk will resonate with researchers, writers, musicians, and artists of all stripes, including, in particular, indie filmmakers themselves.
6. Lay The Favorite
Stephen Frears’ look at the world of Vegas sports gambling, based on Beth Raymer’s fascinating memoir, drew mixed reactions from audiences at Sundance, but I found it to be utterly likable and compelling. Bruce Willis shows real dramatic chops as a principled gambler named Dink, and Rebecca Hall, as an ex-stripper with a head for numbers, is a delight.
5. Your Sister’s Sister
Mark Duplass, who wrote, directed, and starred in The Puffy Chair and Baghead, among others, is my other favorite actor these days (along with the aforementioned Jesse Eisenberg). On-screen, his naturalistic manner dissects the odd tics and awkward quirks of human interaction with cringe-worthy precision. In this new film from the brilliant Lynn Shelton, who also directed the criminally under-appreciated Humpday, Duplass is left to untangle himself from a promising, but extremely delicate predicament, caught between the attentions of two half-sisters, played by Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt. Alternately whimsical and affecting, this is definitely one to catch when it’s released in theaters in June.
4. Shadow Dancer
James Marsh, who won an Oscar for his exquisite documentary Man On Wire — and followed soon after with the critically-acclaimed Project Nim, about the life of a charismatic research chimp — tries his hand at a political thriller, exploring the bonds and divisions of a small but potent IRA cell. Taut, tense, finely-crafted, and gradually accumulating, Shadow Dancer delivers where Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy had grand aspirations but fell flat. Clive Owen is excellent as a sympathetic cop, and Andrea Riseborough is something of a revelation, as an IRA operative caught between opposing loyalties.
3. Liberal Arts
I’ve never seen the TV show How I Met Your Mother, which stars Josh Radnor, but at Sundance I heard many folks compare him derogatorily to Zach Braff (Scrubs), who also made the leap from network comedy to indie film, with Garden State. This grousing seemed to me like the sour grapes of Grinches. Personally, I liked Garden State, and I thought Liberal Arts—which Radnor wrote, directed, and stars in—was even better. The story involves a Kenyon College grad in his mid-30s (Radnor), who returns to his alma mater and falls for a 19-year-old sophomore, played with impressive nuance and sensitivity by Elizabeth Olsen. Radnor is an unflinching humanist—his writing is sharp, funny, big-hearted, and ultimately hopeful—and he milks his stellar supporting cast, which includes Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, and John Magaro, for every ounce of their abundant talent. The movie explores our tendency to identify ourselves through our allegiances to certain books, music and movies; one hilarious thread involves Radnor’s character bashing the Twilight series. Liberal Arts also contains one of the funniest non-verbal scenes I’ve seen in a movie in years, as Radnor tries to sort out his conflicted romance on a piece of paper, rationalizing to himself the 16-year age difference between him and his collegiate love interest. At the after-party, Jason Mraz played “I’m Yours” while Radnor’s parents, in from Ohio, tipped back wine and hugged their son. I get the feeling you’ll be seeing a lot more out of this guy, which is a good thing.
2. Searching for Sugar Man
Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul tells the surprising, inspiring story of a Detroit folk singer named Rodriguez, who slipped away into obscurity in the 1970s, and a pair of dedicated South African fans who investigate the mystery of their beloved bard’s mysterious life and death. In many circles, this will be the most talked-about movie of 2012, Guaran’Sheed.
1. Sleepwalk With Me
Mike Birbiglia’s honest, hilarious, and self-effacing autobiographical tale details a New Yorker’s slow drift toward a marriage he may not be well-suited for as he attempts to elbow his way into the world of stand-up comedy. Things get more complicated when he suffers the onset of R.E.M. Behavior Disorder—a particularly bizarre and violent form of sleepwalking which has Birbiglia climbing bedroom furniture and bursting through 2nd-floor windows. Family dynamics, road adventures, city life, the evolution of an artist, and questions of romantic disarray all enter the frame and are treated with generous, earnest care. Adam Beckman’s cinematography is bright and appealing, especially in Birbiglia’s fantastical dream sequences, and Geoffrey Richman’s editing is deft, smooth, and propulsive. Comedians Marc Maron and Wyatt Cenac, in brief appearances, lend credibility to a finely-observed world of traveling performers, and even in his low moments, Birbiglia comes across as a genuinely nice guy who, like most of us, sometimes struggles to do the right thing. The tone, thoughtfulness, and insightful humor of Birbiglia’s debut is so different from what’s thrown in our face as comedy these days, I’ve found myself comparing him to a young Woody Allen—sensitive, innovative, and refreshingly vulnerable. Among the many standout films I caught at Sundance and Slamdance this year, Sleepwalk With Me was easily my favorite.
Davy Rothbart is the creator of Found magazine, editor of the Found books, author of the story collection The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, and a frequent contributor to public radio’s This American Life. He’s also the founder of an annual hiking trip for inner-city kids called Washington II Washington. His forthcoming book of essays (September, 2012; Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is called My Heart Is An Idiot.