1. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, US)
The creepiest film at this year's Sundance follows Curtis, a hard working father and husband who is either truly having premonitions that a terrifying storm is a-comin', or is slowly slipping into a mental breakdown. Michael Shannon's performance is not only played to an absolute perfection, but the director's script truly takes the time to let these characters earn their merit badges. And similar to previous festival experiences like Donnie Darko (2001) and Downloading Nancy (2008), the eerie tone and consistent pacing will either send you for the exit door (quite a few impatient audience members stormed out) or it will clamp around you, not letting go until the jaw-droppingly unexpected finale. The metaphor-filled Take Shelter is a genuine treasure that lingers for days after — here's hoping it gets a higher-profile post-festival life than the previous Nichols-Shannon collaboration, the impressive Shotgun Stories (2007).
2. The Off Hours (Megan Griffiths, US)
Originally chosen to compete in the Dramatic Competition, this haunting ensemble piece was unexpectedly bumped into the NEXT category, which showcases innovative low-budget features.
Whatever the reasons the film was shifted around, Megan Griffiths (who also produced Todd Rohal's wacked-out Catechism Cataclysm) has created the type of movie that used to rake in Sundance awards. Spiraling around a group of stagnated small-towners, these late-night diner waitresses and regional truck drivers are portrayed with complexity, depth, and the kind of melancholy that makes you want to jump into the screen and help them get out of there. Griffiths (who wrote, directed, and edited the film) makes you care about every single character — special nod to both Amy Seimetz, the shining star of Adam Wingard's brilliant little horror flick A Horrible Way to Die (2010), and Ross Partridge, who crackled in the Duplass Brothers' Baghead (2008). Did I mention Griffiths shot this on a digital Canon camera (5D)? Suggestion: turn this film into a quiet, off-beat TV show for IFC. It's on par with Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) and should not be missed.
3. Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, US)
It was my favorite film at the Toronto Film Festival and it only got better this second time around. Not only is Jon Raymond's subtle and layered script one of the most important of this era, the film's artistic reveal is as profound as the genuine cinematic classics that it was inspired by. With this "minimalist Western," Kelly Reichardt has delivered yet another astonishing, contemplative road trip (see: 2006's Old Joy and 2008's Wendy and Lucy). Do whatever it takes to see this on the big screen. Due to it being shot in the now rare 1932-1952 Academy ratio (1.37:1) format, only a limited number of screens in the world even have the capability to properly project this gorgeous square frame. Not only does cinematographer Chris Blauvelt's camera masterfully pack in countless vertical horizons throughout this Oregon Trail trek, Reichardt edits this nuanced journey pitch-perfectly. Take a deep breath, pay attention to the small details of these pioneers' struggles, and let the film happen all around you. It's one of those small films that doesn't patronize you for one second, yet it is able to confront our country's very serious political confusion. Reichardt and Raymond have made a movie for the ages.
4. Pioneer (David Lowery, US)
This 15-minute short Pioneer stars Will Oldham (aka singer Bonnie "Prince" Billy, star of Reichardt's Old Joy) as a father telling a bedtime story to his son; it's easily as powerful as any of the 37 features (out of the 120 programmed) that I saw at this year's festival. As dad continues to read the book and as the story continues to go deeper and darker, the simple and priceless interaction between father and son may remind you of some moments long forgotten. If you are looking for an hypnotic child actor for your next film, track down Myles Brooks immediately!
5. Old Cats (Pedro Peirano and Sebastián Silva, Chile)
This follow-up to Peirano and Silva's stunning second film, 2009's The Maid, is yet another mini-masterpiece, this time following an elderly woman who is disrupted one afternoon by her angry, bulldozing daughter who won't stop complaining for one single minute. The film plays out in real time and you truly feel as if you are stuck in this apartment with the characters. With Peirano and Silva writing, directing, and even shooting this hypnotic cinema-verite, they yet again capture family dynamics in a way that is sometimes too much to bear. Small stories about small people seem to hit the hardest and I was truly a wreck when the lights came up.
6. Uncle Kent (Joe Swanberg, US)
Amy Taubin (Film Comment's enfant terrible) unabashedly stated three years ago that Joe Swanberg's films LOL (2006) and Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) were so useless, they were "reason enough to bring back the draft." But this has not stopped one of the originators of the mumblecore genre. (Unfamiliar? Mumblcore = modern-day hipsters sitting around rambling about stuff like Seinfeld episodes, Ebay auctions, and who sexted them last night.) While Swanberg has been smoothing out his cocky kinks the past few years, he has delivered some extremely rewarding films, including the spot-on take on the frustrations of long distance relationships in Nights and Weekends (2008), and Alexander the Last (2009) which sensitively uncovers the difficulty of being an artistic young married couple.
Uncle Kent is hands-down his greatest achievement to date. An exploration of social networking, this little ditty follows Kent, a down-on-his-luck 40-year-old, over the course of one weekend as he meets up with a girl from Chatroulette, and follows them as they go on Craigslist to find a partner for a threesome. (This layered, poignant, Greenberg-esque look at the boundaries of modern day relationships even won over Taubin, who admitted to me that she "really liked the film"!) If you've never heard of Swanberg or think he's a waste of time, start with this short (72 minute), smart, and sexy flick.
7. In a Better World (Susanne Bier, Denmark/Sweden)
Susanne Bier's latest accomplishment not only won the Golden Globe this year for Best Foreign Film, but is a good bet to take home the Oscar later this month. It's a hypnotic look at how similarly confusing childhood and adulthood can be. Showcasing many Dogme 95 actors, this Danish gem swims nicely alongside Claire Denis' most recent masterpiece White Material (2009).
8. Without (Mark Jackson, US)
That's right, yet another low-budget indie film made in the Northwest. But boy, is it memorable. Winning a Special Jury Mention at this year's Slamdance Film Festival for Joslyn Jensen's "creative, nuanced and moving performance", you can't help but feel isolated and even trapped in this character study's life. The almost-silent film follows a young girl as she tends to every detail for an invalid over a three-day period; it captures that alone time that for many is the ultimate fear. Warning: this film is not what it seems. A truly chilling and meditative experience all at the same time!
9. Pariah (Dee Rees, US) and Circumstance (Maryam Keshavarz, USA/Iran/Lebanon)
Both of these films bravely and triumphantly confront familial conflicts in the context of modern day same-sex relationships. Fleshing out Rees' brillant 27 minute short film by the same name in 2007, Pariah not only embodies that gritty New York realism that independent filmmakers dream of, it succeeds just as powerfully due to its bar-none vision and sincerity to each one of its diverse characters. (Not only that, newcomer Adepero Oduye needs to be nominated for an Oscar.)
After Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (1995's The White Balloon; 2006's Offside) was recently sentenced to prison (six years!) for making films that explore controversial subject matter, the director of the Audience Award-winning Circumstance filmed her movie in Lebanon to protect her cast and crew. Many of them are now banned from ever returning to Iran. The feelings of impossibility and utter frustration towards life, love, and everything in between reach amazing heights in Keshavarz's debut feature. The film blends Deepa Mehta's Fire (1996) and Steve McQueen's art-house exploitation film Hunger (2007), all the while premiering during the first days of Egypt's uprising. Looking for this year's Winter's Bone (2010)? It's gonna be Pariah or Circumstance -- hopefully both.
10. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, US)
Mary Kate and Ashley's younger sister Elizabeth Olsen delivers one of the best performances of the year (I know it's early but trust me on this) as a young girl who falls prey to a modern day cult. John Hawkes gives another captivating performance though slightly less complex than his Oscar nominated role in Winter's Bone. This is a gen-u-ine horror film and if you let it work, you will have goosebumps running down your arms all the way down to the last freakin' shot.
11. Submarine (Richard Ayoade, UK)
I'm calling it now. This is the best grumpy teen romance of the year!
12. The Mill and Cross (Lech Majewski, Poland/Sweden)
Experimental art cinema for the digital age! It's truly like taking a class on Bruegel's The Procession to Calvary. But seriously, the film has at one point 143 digital layers! Even if that doesn't make any sense to you, know that this director is insane and profound all at the same time.
13. Like Crazy (Drake Dremus, US)
This Grand Jury Prize winner will be a hard sell to people wanting relief from their own difficult relationships. For those that stick through it, it will expose your darkest and weakest secrets about your fears of being alone versus being with someone to fill the void.
14. Hobo With a Shotgun (Jason Eisener, Canada)
Just like Machete (2010), Hobo With a Shotgun was a fake trailer before it became a real movie. (Eisener won a South by Southwest competition held by Tarantino and Rodriguez, circa 2007's Grindhouse, and the trailer was included with certain screenings of that film.) Brace yourself for Rutger Hauer playing... a hobo with a shotgun. This first-time filmmaker captures the perfect balance of irony and sincerity.
New trailer (for the movie made after the original trailer):
15. The Troll Hunter (André Øvredal, Norway)
This Norwegian horror film sits perfectly right along side Sweden's Let the Right One In (2008) and Finland's Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010). It starts with the age-old folklore of trolls, revises the details into very tangible mythology, and presents it in the "found footage" style of Blair Witch Project (1999) and you've got yourself yet another contemporary Scandinavian horror hit.
Check back soon for Ficks' picks, 2.0: 2011 Sundance documentaries!
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks has been teaching Film History at the Academy Art University for six years and has curated MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS for 10 years, a film series devoted to screening 35mm prints of dismissed, underrated, and overlooked films in a neo-sincere way.