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Hard Times, Happy Festival

The strongest lineup in years launches a passel of new stars.

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Festival favorite Carey Mulligan.   

Call it the Obama Sundance. In the midst of our 44th president’s inauguration, upbeat romances and comedies bloomed and a polyglot cast of talent ascended. Dire, agitprop pessimism faded; humor and narrative roared back in new guises. The following five films are our picks for the festival’s most promising hopefuls.

An Education
Directed by Lone Scherfig.
Sony Pictures Classics.

No film generated as much excitement as An Education. Directed with a psychoanalyst’s insight and a memoirist’s warmth by Dutch veteran Lone Scherfig, this 1961 period piece is a classically well-made coming-of-age romance scripted by Nick Hornby (About a Boy)—and features an undeniable star-making performance from 23-year-old Brit Carey Mulligan. As Jenny, a naïve teenage prig with a small-minded father (Alfred Molina), Mulligan falls for the dreamy grifter (Peter Sarsgaard) who promises to make all her Jane Austen fantasies come true. At Sundance, the actress (recently on Broadway in The Seagull) spurred standing, weeping ovations. “This film is about timing and believability—about every scene, every moment, and she was better than I had hoped,” says Scherfig. “At first, I thought, ‘She’s surrounded by a dream team [including Emma Thompson as her headmistress]. They’ll hold her up if she falls.’ But it went so well, after a few weeks I said to her, ‘Let’s use more keys—let’s use your whole piano.’ ” Sharply comic and expressive, Mulligan shifts seamlessly between Audrey Hepburn spriteliness and tart composure. “I am not bored. I am not jaded,” says Mulligan of all the attention. “I am having an out-of-body experience.” —L.H.

Humpday
Directed by Lynn Shelton.
Magnolia Pictures.

It sounds horrible: a low-budget comedy about two straight buddies who decide to make an art film of themselves having sex. But no film was more surprising. Lynn Shelton’s movie begins profanely and hysterically, then surprises at every turn, gradually evolving into a heartfelt drama about two guys (one bohemian, one married) struggling to live lives less ordinary. —L.H.

Don’t Let Me Drown
Directed by Cruz Angeles.
No distributor at press time.

Cruz Angeles’s Brooklyn story about puppy love between a Dominican girl and a Mexican boy in the months following 9/11 could have become mired in a festival of ethnic-movie clichés. Instead, it gave us a world of surprising beauty, peopled by delicately drawn characters—a bracing corrective to the ghetto hysterics this genre usually offers. Confidently directed and acted, the film (workshopped at the Sundance Institute) encapsulates why the festival still matters. —B.E.

500 Days of Summer
Directed by Marc Webb.
Fox Searchlight.

Marc Webb’s time-jumping debut features Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s most mature performance to date, as the office drone whose heart is shattered by the new secretary (Zooey Deschanel, we now forgive you for The Happening). The anti-romantic script, full of flashbacks and flash-forwards, is a whizbang showcase of verve, nerve, and explosively funny gags—but, honestly, Webb had us at hello with this preface: “Any resemblance to people living or dead is purely accidental … Especially Jenny Beckman … Bitch.” —L.H.

The Cove
Directed by Louie Psihoyos.
No distributor at press time.

Louie Psihoyos’s documentary about dolphin-trainer turned activist Ric O’Barry is agitprop sexed up as a breakneck action film, dramatizing his struggle to stop the slaughter of dolphins in a small town in Japan. The film is passionate, exciting, and frightening, with nary a beat of a bleeding heart. It also features the most riveting and heartbreaking finale of the festival. We won’t spoil it for you. —B.E.


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