Spending a week at the Sundance Film Festival, you can see a little bit of everything: horror movies, activist documentaries, experimental low-budget indies, even mainstream comedies starring the leads from Parks & Recreation. It's impossible to catch everything—scheduling issues kept me from buzzy titles like The Spectacular Now, Fruitvale, Escape From Tomorrow, and After Tiller—but of the 25 films I did see, here are five that I think we'll be talking about this year at the movies. And since festivals always give out a flurry of prizes, I'll give each of my picks its own special award.
Most Interesting Use of Your Famous Friends in a Movie: Don Jon's Addiction
Joseph Gordon-Levitt made his feature directorial debut with Don Jon's Addiction, a romantic comedy he also wrote and stars in. It's about a club-hopping, one-night-stand-loving porn addict who decides to be a better man after he falls for Scarlett Johansson's Newww Joy-seeee girl. (Remember Johansson's "Marble Column" sketch from Saturday Night Live? That's basically her character in this movie.) Meant to be a frank, raunchy comedy about men's obsession with unreal representations of sex and women, Don Jon's Addiction isn't so good, but it does feature the sort of stellar cast that you can only pull together if you're a well-connected guy like Gordon-Levitt. Beyond Johansson, there's also Julianne Moore as a woman who teaches this porn addict a thing or two—and several high-profile cameos that are funnier if you don't see them coming.
Biggest Sleeper: C.O.G.
This U.S. Dramatic Competition entry went home empty-handed, but writer-director Kyle Patrick Alvarez's comedy-drama has lingered in my memory, in part because I fell so deeply love these characters. An adaptation of the David Sedaris essay included in Naked, C.O.G. concerns a gay young preppy named David (Jonathan Groff) who travels from the East Coast to Oregon so he can do "real work": picking apples at an orchard. Of course, he soon learns that he's not really cut out for manual labor, and the film follows him as he moves from job to job meeting a collection of interesting "regular" people, most notably a Gulf War vet (Denis O'Hare) who won't stop talking about how Jesus changed his life. Kind to all its characters, no matter how flawed, C.O.G. is the sort of bright little gem that festivals like Sundance are designed to champion, creating a portrait of small-town life so beautiful and nuanced that it deserves comparison to Junebug, which also launched at the festival.
Best Terrence Malick Impression: Ain't Them Bodies Saints
Malick's latest, the underrated To the Wonder, will be coming to theaters in April, but it's not the only Malick-like film we'll be seeing in 2013. Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a loving (and, admittedly, a bit slavish) homage to the filmmaker's poetic style. Set in Texas in what appears to be the 1970s, the movie stars Casey Affleck as a small-time crook who gets sent away for life, leaving behind his young bride (Rooney Mara) and child. But once Affleck escapes from prison, the local sheriff (Ben Foster) gets involved, although he's just as interested in the woman as he is in finding his man. Fans of Malick's Badlands and Days of Heaven will feel as if they've stepped into a stunning re-creation, but writer-director David Lowery shows real skill at conjuring up a dreamlike world in which the problems of three little people amount to a lot more than a hill of beans, becoming almost mythic tragic figures in the process.
Best Example of Living Up to the Hype: Upstream Color
When you go almost 10 years between films—and your last one is the mind-bending Primer—it's easy for expectations to build up. Thankfully, writer-director Shane Carruth's sophomore effort, Upstream Color, survived all the buzz precisely because it's not Primer. Rather than being another time-traveling riddle, this sci-fi/thriller/sorta-horror movie/romantic drama is an exciting attempt to say something incredibly personal about the need for connection through an elaborate, complicated structure that eventually starts to make sense once we reach the end. It's almost better not to explain what the film's about, but I will say that it concerns a young woman (Amy Seimetz) who becomes a guinea pig for a bizarre con, only later falling in love with a man (Carruth) who helps her unravel exactly what had happened. The movie is heavily symbolic—in a post-screening Q&A, Carruth explained that different colors represent different themes in the story—but I was more struck by how deeply emotional Upstream Color was. Of all the expectations I had walking in to the movie, that was one I didn't imagine.
Best Film: Before Midnight
After directing his first two films, Slacker and Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater recruited rising stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke for a movie about strangers who meet on a train in Europe and spontaneously decide to spend a day in Vienna together. Nobody would have imagined that that film, 1995's Before Sunrise, would end up becoming part of Linklater's greatest achievement. Eighteen years later, the third movie in the series, Before Midnight, brings us to the present to show what has happened to Celine (Delpy) and Jesse (Hawke) since 2004's Before Sunset. This new film is perhaps the least conventionally romantic of the three—there are more arguments and hard conversations than in the previous two films—but in showing how a relationship morphs from the sticky-sweet, puppy-love phase to something deeper, richer, and far more interesting, Before Midnight is incredibly insightful and moving. I can't wait to see where these two characters are in 2022.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.