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Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

All 37 of our reviews ranked for your leisure.

Sundance Film Festival
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    sundance cos 2This year’s Sundance Film Festival was a gorgeous, week-long escape for the Chicago-based film writers of Consequence of Sound. As we trudge through the aftermath of one of the city’s worst blizzards, which unloaded over 12 inches of snow on our city streets, we look back fondly at the still weather of Park City’s snowcapped mountains, the cozy theaters and great films, and that time we saw actor Richard Kind walk through a pizza restaurant. We also saw Kristen Wiig the day before she officially became a Ghostbuster, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about.

    In our inaugural year of Sundance coverage, Michael Roffman, Dominick Mayer, and I managed to review 37 films from January 21st through February 1st. While a smattering of works inevitably did not live up to our expectations (ahem, The Bronze), many surpassed them (Digging for Fire). We even feel we have a head start when it comes to discovering near-certain Oscar nominees (Jason Segal as David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour), soon-to-be cult classics (Entertainment), and groundbreaking documentaries (Call Me Lucky). Most of these films found distributors during the festival run, and those desiring to catch them should be able to find them in theaters, cable, or even VOD before the end of the year.

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    Tucked away in the mountains of Park City, the Robert Redford-founded festival has been going strong for over three decades. This year’s screenings were held in not only local cinemas but at community colleges, auditoriums, and even hotels. Some of these spaces could only hold an audience in the hundreds, but some were able to pack in thousands who were hoping to catch “the next big thing” or hear from the directors and stars of the films featured.

    We came. We saw. We reviewed a lot of movies. Now, for your leisure, we’ve ranked them all in order from worst to best. Regardless of the grades, however, one thing’s for certain: We enjoyed the ‘Dance. Even if we missed out on The Witch.

    –Justin Gerber
    Film Editor

    Note: All trademarks are the property of their respective owners.

    Hellions

    hellions1 e1422827072834 Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: D-

    Hellions has style to burn, but that only lasts for a few minutes before the film reveals itself as a disappointingly empty exercise in that and that alone. Whatever message the film has about the fear and/or joy in creating new life is lost in a fog of hackneyed character designs and nonsensical narrative turns that offer stylish images straight out of an industrial rock video but little in the way of anything truly frightening. It’s a film that assembles enough hallucinatory images and scary kid noises to masquerade as a horror movie but goes no further. It looks and sounds like a lot of other movies but never gets around to synthesizing those influences into something lasting, or even watchable. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    The Bronze

    the bronze Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: D

    After a while, The Bronze’s uneven tone becomes grating, and after an even longer while (the film clocks in at almost two hours, which is well beyond unnecessary), it’s genuinely unpleasant. The film attempts to identify with its many misfits but ultimately either sells them short or actively savages them. And then there’s nasty, vicious Hope, whose early abuses are all both forgiven and forgotten by the film when it’s time for her to learn lessons about growing up. To a point, the film teases that maybe it won’t end so easily, that maybe any of the awful things she does will pay off somehow. But The Bronze is so satisfied with its own winking crassness that it lets epithets constitute everything it has to say. Between that and the film’s scene-by-scene tonal shifts, what could’ve been an off-kilter curiosity curdles into a dull roar of disappointment. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    Knock Knock

    knock knock e1422827751875 Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: D

    Eli Roth’s career has taken a turn for the worst over the past three years. He filmed the cannibal-horror film The Green Inferno back in 2012, and it was due in theaters late last year, but behind-the-scenes issues with its distributor have shelved it indefinitely. Knock Knock can’t even satisfy his fans as a placeholder. If you want to see an unbearable, full-length adaptation of the scene in Gremlins 2 when Lenny the goofy Mogwai causes a mess in Billy’s apartment, then Knock Knock is for you. If not, all you’re left with is a film with direction, editing, and dialogue on par with a Lifetime movie. These are low blows to be sure, but Knock Knock deserves to be knocked out. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

    The Nightmare

    the nightmare Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: D

    Sleep paralysis is widely unknown to the public and is a subject ripe for the makings of a great documentary. Enter director Rodney Ascher, who experienced recent success with 2012’s Room 237. That documentary gave voice to those with wild conspiracy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. In Ascher’s new doc, The Nightmare, the director gives a voice to eight people suffering from sleep paralysis, but he can’t use clips from a masterpiece to best tell his story. This go-round finds the filmmaker far more concerned with breaking the form of the traditional documentary than he is with providing any kind of narrative flow. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

    Zipper

    zipper patrick wilson e1422828502566 Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: D+

    Zipper might be the tortured, unsung comedy of Sundance. There’s absolutely nothing promiscuous about this sexually-charged thriller. Instead, it’s a total romp with hilarious, predictable tension and unruly visual metaphors that press the tongue way, way beyond the cheek. We caught this film on a Wednesday afternoon at a Press and Industry screening and I lost count of the number of writers who picked up their belongings and shuffled out. It almost felt like a game of survival, seeing who could trudge through the next scene as the garbage piled higher in the theater. [Read Michael Roffman and Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    The Hallow

    The-Hallow

    Grade: C-

    Corin Hardy has outright said this is a film about the struggles of parenting. That much comes across in the film — two parents fight to the death to protect their child from ravaging monsters, we get it — but none of it resonates. When Claire dives after her toddler into the lake, it’s undoubtedly a terrifying image, but missing is a certain gravitas. I just don’t care. It’s a strange predicament because all of the elements are there, and they’re all connected, but the power’s just not surging through. Perhaps it’s the boiler plate characters, perhaps it’s predictability. Whatever the case, The Hallow is exactly that: a hollow piece of fantasy horror that opens the door before knocking. Hardy sure has an imagination; he just needs to sort out the details better. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

    Sleeping with Other People

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    Grade: C-

    Sleeping with Other People is the type of R-rated comedy you used to find a single video-box of on Blockbuster’s New Release shelf, displayed right beside The Phantom Menace’s 15. It’s the kind of straight-to-video rom-com that would have starred Jon Favreau and Famke Janssen or Edward Burns and whomever he was dating back in 2000. Director Leslye Headland’s problem is not that the story isn’t there; it’s that it was already there in the countless romantic comedies that preceded it. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

    True Story

    james franco true story e1422829081160 Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: C

    True Story is an okay film that should have been stellar. Given the A-list cast and the gripping true life story, this film could be haunting and invigorating. But it isn’t and its loose themes of truth, trust, and betrayal whimper to the finish line with very little weight and a ham-fisted knuckle sandwich to the mouth. At the end, Finkel’s giving a reading at a bookstore — if you think that’s a spoiler, how do you think this film was made? — and he sees one of his fans visualized as Longo, who asks him if he lost some of himself in the process of writing the book. Groan, right? It’s this lack of subtlety that downgrades True Story into a crumpled piece of questionable non-fiction. There’s something ironic about that. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

    Tig

    tig sundance Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: C

    Tig would have benefitted from letting the camera linger on the interviews with her throughout, because when it expands outward, there’s the strange sense that directors Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York (friends of Notaro’s, the film notes) are building a narrative out of what would probably have worked best as a series of commentaries on comedy, tragedy, and the ways in which life is informed by both of those things. While there’s a sweetness to both Notaro’s hunt for a surrogate mother and her tentative courtship with a previous co-star (in the Lake Bell vehicle In a World…), the proceedings are so perfectly rendered that one can’t help but be a bit suspicious of how it all came about. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    Cop Car

    cop car e1422832201213 Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: C+

    Cop Car is an effective enough indie thriller, one which sees its increasing dangers and even violence through the perspectives of kids who still don’t understand mortality enough to fret too much about it. Even if it could use a bit more discipline and some more fleshing out beyond that (Kevin Bacon’s scenes, in particular, occasionally feel like they were spliced in from a different movie), at the heart of it all is a throwback caper with real, grave implications. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    A Walk in the Woods

    a walk in the woods Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: C+

    We’re all going to die. That’s something Robert Redford struggles with in Ken Kwapis’ adaptation of Bill Bryson’s 1998 memoir, A Walk in the Woods. The Sundance Kid plays the best-selling author, who decides to walk the Appalachian Trail after attending a friend’s funeral. At the request of his wife (an underused Emma Thompson), he invites an old friend (Nick Nolte) to tag along for what everyone considers to be a death trip. That might sound somber, but A Walk in the Woods never indulges in the darkness that such an excursion might warrant. Instead, Kwapis maintains the sentimental humor that Bryson’s hallmarked for decades, lowering the stakes and zeroing in on the light comedy between Redford and Nolte. And to his credit, he captures a rare, hearty chemistry that only two veterans of this caliber could scrounge up. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

    I Smile Back

    smile back Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: C+

    I Smile Back spends most of its 85 minutes working through the paces of every movie about an addict you’ve ever seen, but it has a secret weapon: Sarah Silverman. The comedian delivers a vulnerable, raw performance in a demanding role, and joins the ranks of stand-ups capable of tapping into an affecting darkness in the right context. As Laney, Silverman transgresses against all manner of stereotypes about the affluent suburban mother, in order to illustrate just how many layers those with deep-seated problems have. There’s an enormous depth to Laney, and the film’s largely rote setup suggests that it’s Silverman who gives I Smile Back its real power. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    The D Train

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    Grade: B-

    Yes Man screenwriters Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul, who make their directorial debut here, pieced together a very risky and original screenplay with The D Train, which is what attracted an all-star cast that includes Jack Black, James Marsden, Jeffrey Tambor, Kathryn Hahn, Mike White, Henry Zebrowski, and Kyle Bornheimer. Without spoiling too much, the two writers followed through on a literal bromance, tipping off all the crazy consequences that might come from such a chance encounter. For the most part, it works. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

    Slow West

    slow west michael fassbender e1421681488776 Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: B-

    Slow West is the biggest little movie set in the Old West we’ve seen in a long time. In his very first full-length feature, writer/director John Maclean realizes something about moviemaking that many aspiring or even established filmmakers do not: you don’t need a three-hour movie to tell a 90-minute story. He accomplishes this by capturing the sprawl of the Wild West without lingering for too long on one of cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s gorgeous shots. While the story is a bit of a slow crawl through its dangerous frontier, the film mostly pays off by the time its closing credits roll. It’s just too bad the filmmaker didn’t have enough trust in the audience to avoid unnecessary use of flashback and narration, adding brushstrokes to an otherwise fully realized painting. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

    Dope

    dope sundance Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: B-

    There’s much excess to Rick Famuyiwa’s coming-of-age comedy, Dope: a preponderance of meme-culture yucks, ostentatious action sequences, heavy-handed themes, drawn-out procedurals, gluttonous dollops of exposition, and an endless barrage of modern pop cultural references that will seem out of touch years from now. But, within the 2014 scrapbook are three very intelligent, very funny, and very quirky characters who are simply too diverse to ignore. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

    Ten Thousand Saints

    10k saints sundance Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: B

    Unless DeLorean Motor Company has plans for an upcoming revival of its line, complete with a working flux capacitor, it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever see the New York of yesteryear. In the meantime, Ten Thousand Saints works as an acceptable vessel to the remarkable past with an honest meditation on what a family represents in today’s day and age. It’ll tug at your heart and send you straight to your vinyl collection — that’s a good thing. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

    The Hunting Ground

    the hunting ground Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: B

    While the film volleys disturbing statistics throughout (on average, 88% of rapes on campuses go unreported), The Hunting Ground keeps the focus exactly where it should be: on the survivors. The film’s many harrowing stories offer a distinct rebuke to those who consider most accusations false and asks audiences to simply watch and listen, to table politics for a while and listen to the many, many young men and women who lived through something that nobody should ever have to and were ostracized when they tried to seek out appropriate justice. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    Best of Enemies

    best of enemies Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: B

    Best of Enemies is about an art form lost with time and modern technology and an era in which people still crowded around in communal form to hear ideas, when it was harder to surround yourself only with that which you agree and block out anything that might differ from your own ideologies. For the animosity between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr., and the eventual collapse into lifelong contempt, there was a certain begrudging esteem at work as well, from two minds at the heights of their respective powers locking horns. At least they were coming from a place of conviction. What’s that say about the many talking heads today, there to holler one another into utter incoherence? [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    Diary of a Teenage Girl

    diary of a teenage girl

    Grade: B

    The Diary of a Teenage Girl is very much immersed in the counterculture of the time, from the Stooges poster on Minnie’s wall to the cavalier attitude held toward substance use and sex in general. There are highs and lows, orgasms aplenty and emotional breakdowns, but the film uses its subject to examine the uncertainty of adolescence with a truly striking candor and realism. It’s never all bad or all good. It’s usually somewhere between the two, and in that shaky place Minnie thrives, and evolves, endlessly changing with the newness of burgeoning adulthood. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    Eden

    eden sundance Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: B

    Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden chronicles Paul’s life, and by proxy the French house scene of the ‘90s and early aughts, with a keenly observational eye that could only be informed by firsthand field experience. (The filmmaker’s brother Sven was a notable DJ in the scene at the time, non-fictionally.) Eden follows Paul in and out of clubs, musical phases, lovers, family quarrels, and his own increasingly reckless drug use, while avoiding most of the typical melodramatic traps evidenced by thematically similar films like Party Monster. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    Mistress America

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    Grade: B

    It’s tough being young and naive. It’s even more difficult standing around old and confused. Such is the plight of the hyper-intellectual souls in Mistress America, Noah Baumbach’s latest existential portrait of young adults wandering around helplessly in New York. The film seats him back behind the typewriter with his self-proclaimed muse, Greta Gerwig, as the two follow up their incredible 2012 joint collaboration, Frances Ha, with a decidedly more comedic offering. It’s manic, it’s enlightening, it’s witty, and it’s at times bizarre. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

    Cronies

    cronies sundance Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: B

    Shot almost completely in black and white, Cronies also features a striking sense of place. This St. Louis isn’t the one most news outlets have aggressively shown off in recent months, the land of chaos and discontent and violence, but a place where people live just like anywhere else, usually preoccupied with their own everyday struggles. Cronies is funny and moving in equal doses, a humane film about a handful of guys just trying to get by on the hands they’ve been dealt by life. A few lessons are learned, but they may or may not last. At the end of the day (or, more accurately, the start of the next one), they’re a little less sober and a little bit wiser, and sometimes that’s enough. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    Z for Zachariah

    z for zachariah Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: B+

    Z for Zachariah wisely avoids flashbacks (which 2009’s The Road should have done) and doesn’t care much for exactly what caused the powerful people of the world to destroy themselves. Zobel is more concerned with how people can never be truly content or forever grateful, no matter the catastrophes they manage to survive. Through Ann, John, and Caleb, we see mankind’s potential along with its inherent sins and are also given the opportunity to see both the positives and negatives of faith and science. The film never tries to answer the question “At what cost survival?”, and as a result, Z for Zachariahsucceeds by simply focusing on the question. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

    The Stanford Prison Experiment

    stanford prison Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: B+

    In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo held an experiment in the basement of Stanford University’s Logan Hall, home of its psychology department. The experiment was to see what would happen after volunteer students were assigned to play either the roles of a prison guard or an inmate, a study that was supposed to last two weeks only to end well before. The results were shocking, the test itself controversial, but ultimately valuable. Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s new film takes on the name of the study, The Stanford Prison Experiment, and manages to create a mood so disturbing, intense, and believable that it’s easy to forget we’re watching a movie in spite of all the familiar faces. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

    Wild Tales

    wild tales Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: B+

    Wild Tales is the very definition of a crowd-pleaser. Featuring five different stories of revenge, plots gone awry, and even love, Argentinian director Damián Szifrón had the audience breaking into applause several times throughout his anthology film at a recent Sundance screening. The lone thread connecting the five Spanish-language tales together is in how, you guessed it, wild they are, with stories ranging from outrageous in circumstance to over-the-top with action (and in the cases of some entries, both). It’s a breezy two hours full of surprises, humor both good-hearted and mean-spirited, a healthy dose of violence, and one hell of performance from actress Érica Rivas. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

    Welcome to Leith

    welcome to leith Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: B+

    At the center of the often terrifying documentaryWelcome to Leith is a question that we as a society seem to be struggling with more and more every passing year: to what extent can we trust the rigor of law to protect us from those who abuse it, who manipulate it to their ends to do evil wherever they can? The film offers no easy answers, and therein lies its strength. The story of a small, largely abandoned North Dakota town invaded by an infamous white supremacist, Welcome to Leith posits a scenario that could happen in virtually any rust belt town, any area so decimated by the death of American industry that it would take little to nothing for a particularly intelligent psychopath to come in and cause trouble. This is its disquieting power. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s review.]

    The End of the Tour

    end of the tour Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: B+

    The End of the Tour is a piece for its performers. James Ponsoldt’s film is a study of envy, acceptance, and the battles some face within themselves. While the framing device of the movie feels a little too Hollywood, the story of the trip David Lipsky takes with David Foster Wallace just about makes up for it. Jason Segel’s performance as Wallace won’t just be talked about in the months to come, but in the years to come. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

    Finders Keepers

    finders keepers Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: A-

    Finders Keepers joins the ranks of documentaries like The King of Kong in its firm unwillingness to gawk at what even those onscreen refer to as a freakshow. (That’s probably not an accident, given that Kong director Seth Gordon is one of this film’s executive producers.) It’s a remarkably empathetic movie and a sly commentary on class warfare as seen through the legal battle for a mummified foot. Finders Keepers might be based on an odd tale, but its larger themes of redemption, forgiveness, and the pitfalls of obsession are as universal as they come. And in John Wood and Shannon Whisnant, the film gives two guys who’ve endured too much in life their day. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    White God

    white god Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: A-

    White God could have been a disaster in the hands of a director other than Kornél Mundruczó. Hell, it should have been a disaster. The basic pitch: The Adventures of Milo and Otis marries the film Wendy & Lucy, which then gives birth to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and it all takes place in Hungary. Are you laughing yet? Why not? It sounds ridiculous and over the top. Based solely on its premise, it would be perfectly understandable to lump it in with the Sharknados and Sharktopusses of basic cable, screening it at midnight movies years from now when it gains a cult following. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

    Digging for Fire

    digging for fire e1422826581437 Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: A-

    Marriage is hard, parenting is impossible, and life will always invite mystery. Joe Swanberg and Jake Johnson know this first hand, and it’s that knowledge that empowers Digging for Fire. Rarely do films accurately juggle the pitfalls and treasures of marriage — in fact, they’re usually reduced to dramatic embellishments — but there’s a tear-jerking wisdom to this film that’s quite remarkable. The writers accept their characters’ faults, and they never appear to shame them. Not once. There’s something strangely cathartic about that. After all, we don’t always need a shovel to do the digging … it just happens. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

    Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

    Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

    Grade: A-

    At the risk of offering a copout, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a film that either will or won’t work for many. Those weary of the “Sundance movie” may approach it with cynicism; it’s not as though “twee” isn’t an appropriate descriptor for what happens throughout. But for a film this sincere and affectionate, and one with some truly striking emotional sucker punches in tow, it’s an oversimplification. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl cuts right through the noise, telling a story about teenagers that’s both familiar and rare, capturing them in all their messiness and optimism and fear and soul. Films that look and feel sort of like this one have become as perennial as summer disaster movies or Oscar season biopics, but they’re rarely this moving, this warm, this resonant, and this flat-out wonderful. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    Entertainment

    entertainment turkington Ranking: Sundance 2015 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: A

    Entertainment is filmed in 2:35:1 widescreen to make sure you see and feel every moment of empty space surrounding Neil. The story further skews the space between who Gregg Turkington the actor is and who he plays on screen to dizzying effect. It’s as aggressive as a boxing match despite long stretches of wordless expression. It will infuriate many but should at the very least initiate lively discussions. For those who respond in the positive, Alverson’s direction and Lorenzo Hagerman’s cinematography create a beautiful portrait of an ugly existence. Is your life best symbolized by Neil’s recurring dream (memory?) of himself as a sad and imprisoned rhinestone cowboy? For sanity’s sake, I hope not. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

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