Don Verdean (Sam Rockwell) and Boaz (Jermaine Clement) gaze solemnly at a chalice, in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival’s “Don Verdean.”
By Vanessa Zimmer
Throughout the history of the Sundance Film Festival, December has traditionally brought gifts of thoughtful cinema to the world.
The following five Festival films achieved wide release in the last month of the year — among them an Oscar-winning screenplay, an Oscar-nominated performance, and a religious satire involving the creators of indie-film darling Napoleon Dynamite.
So, if you’re looking for something a bit more challenging than a cheesy holiday romance this season (or you want to celebrate a special cinematic birthday), check out our list below.
Citizen Ruth (1996) — Alexander Payne’s dark comedy places drug-addicted, pregnant, and homeless Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern) in a tug-of-war between pro-lifers and pro-choicers. Payne co-wrote the script and directed, with an ensemble cast that includes Burt Reynolds, Mary Kay Place, and Swoosie Kurtz. “No matter what your own beliefs, you will see humor on both sides. But should we let ourselves laugh about such a serious issue? I think we have to,” wrote John Cooper in the Festival Film Guide. Cooper called Dern’s performance “flawless.” Available on Paramount+.
You Can Count on Me (2000) — Single mother Sammy (Laura Linney) welcomes her long-absent brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) home for a visit. The two were orphaned at a young age by a car accident, and Sammy has stayed in their small town, where she lives in the family home. She is seemingly the responsible one in this relationship; Terry is the wild wanderer. “In You Can Count On Me, [writer-director Kenneth] Lonergan has created a work which explores the emotional landscape of commitment and love, family and home, pleasure and responsibility,” according to the Festival Film Guide. Available on Pluto TV.
Blue Valentine (2010) — Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams bring intense performances to this film about a couple trying to save their marriage. (Williams was nominated for an Oscar.) The story poses a mystery that investigates those passionate beginnings and today’s indifference: What happened? Where did love go? “[F]ilmmaker Derek Cianfrance constructs an elegant set of dualities: past and present, youth and adulthood, vitality and entropy,” John Nein wrote in the Festival Film Guide. Available on Freevee, Pluto, Tubi, and Tribeca Shortlist.
Don Verdean (2015) — Don Verdean (Sam Rockwell) has given his life to biblical archaeology — that is, searching the world for artifacts that support his religious beliefs. Now, he may be veering from truth in an effort to uncover more significant pieces. Sundance alums Jared Hess and spouse Jerusha Hess co-wrote the screenplay, and Jared directed — just as with their wildly popular Napoleon Dynamite. “With a fantastic ensemble cast in tow, director Jared Hess returns to the Sundance Film Festival with this hilarious and biting satire that explores the thin line between faith and fabrication,” Adam Montgomery wrote in the Festival Film Guide. Available on Tribeca Shortlist.
Promising Young Woman (2020) — Carey Mulligan portrays a young woman who dropped out of medical school and now quietly works as a barista while living in her parents’ house. In the evenings, scarred by something in her past, she pursues a vendetta against men. “[Writer-director Emerald] Fennell and her team paint a perversely heroic portrait and a eulogy to the loss of potential that occurs when male cruelty claims yet another promising young woman,” according to the Festival Film Guide. Fennell won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Available to rent on Amazon Prime.