(Photos Clockwise: James White, The Hunting Ground, The Overnight, Me & Earl & the Dying Girl and Stockholm, Pennsylvania)
Park City, Utah, stands about 6,900 feet over sea level. If you are used to, say, the 39 feet Philadelphia sits above the Atlantic, that’s a hell of a long way up. You feel this most walking from the outskirts of town — where the critics and press screenings are mostly ensconced — up the slight-but-treacherous-upgrade mile into the downtown area, where all the celebs, parties and nightlife take place. A couple of times I made this very trek while trying to talk on the phone and found myself unable to speak coherently for all the huffing and puffing I was doing. an apt metaphor for the distance between the Talent and the (digitally) ink-stained hoard that appraise them. Let’s not dwell on it.
For this reason among a host of others, I pretty much kept it to the movies on this, my first visit to this annual American Indie showcase, and on that score, I wasn’t disappointed. Sundance 2015 may have been the usual mountainous smorgasbord of indie films, celebs, parties, very long lines, and much grousing on the part of the surly critics contingent. But there were also many highlights, both intentionally amusing and not, amidst a pretty solid slate of films. The official prize-winners of the festival may have been announced, but that won’t stop us from designating a few of our own highlights and holding them up for celebration (or ridicule).
The Secret to Success Award
This one goes out to the delightful Mindy Kaling, who during a panel titled ‘Serious Ladies’ (including Kristen Wiig, Lena Dunham and Orange is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan) declared of her upbringing, “My parents raised me with the entitlement of a tall, blonde, white man, I guess. Just picture yourself as Armie Hammer on the outside.”
The Women Come to Kick Ass Award
Believe it or not, the Sundance press corps is not just a bunch of slovenly looking, pasty dudes with scruffy beards (though they are certainly in attendance). There are many, staggeringly talented women amongst us (@alisonwillmore, @TheAmyNicholson, @ldbahr and @katerbland to name but a few), and a growing number of female directors presenting their work at this year’s festival: Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden remains one of the more-buzzed about films currently making the festival rounds; Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl sold to Sony Classics for a reported $2 million; and everywhere you looked, female-centric films (Tig, Princess, Dreamcatcher, Brooklyn, Songs My Brothers Taught Me) dominated the proceedings. The fact that the all-female Ghostbusters cast was announced on the sixth day of the festival was simply icing on an already decidedly XX-chromosome cake.
The Most, er, Ballsy Award
Yes, they were technically wearing prosthetics but Adam Scott (tiny!) and Jason Schwartzman (huge!) let it all hang out in the guffaw-worthy comedy The Overnight. At one point in the proceedings, in a scene destined to become a viral sensation, the two men bust out an ugly, gyrating dance completely in the buff to impress each other’s respective wives. It’s about time men’s genitalia got played for belly laughs. Bravo. And if that weren’t enough male flesh exposed, Chris Messina also dropped trou in Joe Swanberg’s otherwise ill-received Digging for Fire.
The Awkward Choice in Doc Scheduling Award
In moment of awful, unplanned synergy on Saturday, a public screening of Kirby Dick’s The Hunting Ground, a doc about the rise of rape culture on college campuses, butted up against a screening of Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus’s Hot Girls Wanted, a doc about the rise of amateur porn sites and their insatiable need for new young talent. Truthfully, both films depict the ways in which young women are exploited and used by male-dominated cultures, but it was still difficult to tell people you were seeing the latter.
The Sobbing Convulsively Award
There were a number of films that got its audience misty-eyed over the course of the festival, but none seemed to bring on the waterworks quite like Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, a comedy about an even-keeled high-school senior who’s forced by his mother to befriend a female classmate after she’s been diagnosed with leukemia. Forewarned, I had prepared myself mentally for the ordeal of the ending, which had critics gushing over their balled-up Kleenex, but by the end, it still pulled it out of me. There was so much sniffling going on in the audience by that time, it became difficult to hear some of the dialogue. Snapped up by Fox Searchlight, it will be making its way to theater near you in the future. Bring a dry dishrag.
The Break-Out Male Award
Technically, this is a bit out of my field of expertise, but even I can see how the smoldering intensity of Christopher Abbott in the excellent drama James White would win over more than a few new hot-blooded fans. You may recall he’s the actor who left Girls a couple of seasons ago, amidst claims that his character had nothing interesting to do. He might have taken some heat at the time, but as this movie suggests, his talent is remarkable, and he’s more than ready for the big screen. Good call, Christopher.
Runner-Up: Ben Mendelsohn has long been a favorite of critics, as the character actor has had a wide-ranging career of different genres, and almost always been a stand-out. Here, in the gambling-addicts buddy pic Mississippi Grind, along with a rejuvenated Ryan Reynolds, he gets to carry a picture and seems more than up to the task. He’s also equally good in a much smaller role as the villain in the engaging Western Slow West.
The Break-Out Female Award
The aforementioned tear-jerker comedy Me & Earl & the Dying Girl earned a great number of fans and rave reviews for its inventive comic approach, and its visual panache, but the real star of the film is 21-year-old Olivia Cooke, who plays the film’s doomed Rachel (the Dying Girl of the title). She is absolutely devastating in the role, playing Rachel’s wit and suffering in equal doses. Without her to anchor it, the film would have fallen flat; with her, it has a chance to develop a serious following.
Runner-Up: Two major actresses showed up in multiple Sundance screenings this year, Saoirse Ronan, who is absolutely stunning in Brooklyn (one of my festival faves), and equally good in the much more uneven Stockholm, Pennsylvania; while Cobie Smulders, not only a stand-out in Andrew Bujalski’s Results, is also reportedly pretty damn good in Kris Swanberg’s Unexpected.