Last weekend, the 30th annual Sundance Film Festival opened in Park City, Utah, drawing crowds from across the country and, to some degree, from around the world, for this annual celebration of American independent cinema. Thanks to The Stanford Daily mobilizing its resources incredibly quickly and the very generous Stanford community, including one amazing Stanford alumni family that hosted me in Park City, I managed to get a last-minute trip organized to cover my very first Sundance pilgrimage.
Although Sundance screens films from around the world, the most exciting films tend to come from domestic filmmakers; many great American directors were discovered here, such as Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh, Jim Jarmusch and Nicole Holofcener. These directors frequently return to screen their latest films and look for distributors: Linklater and Jarmusch both have films here this year. Despite the focus on homegrown talent, it is an important stop on the festival circuit for world cinema, since it’s often the place where gems that are not necessarily commercial, like 2011’s “Oslo August 31st,” get picked up for a North American release.
The festival happens about halfway through the film year, which officially starts with Cannes in May and then continues with the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Sundance offers a mix of films previously on the festival circuit — like “Stranger by the Lake,” “Only Lovers Left Alive” and “Blue Ruin” this year — as well as premieres of highly anticipated films by seasoned directors, like the world premiere of Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight” last year and his 12-year-project “Boyhood” this year.
Sundance is legendary for discovering new talent, often from films that had premieres with very little pre-screening buzz, like “Winter’s Bone,” “Fruitvale Station” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” from past years. Almost all of the premieres feature red carpets walked by the talent and are followed by a Q&A with the director and some of the actors.
Sundance is best known for being the start of the American documentary season: Favorites like last year’s “Twenty Feet from Stardom” and “Blackfish” were nominated for Academy Awards, a common trend for Sundance documentaries. This year, the opening night documentary, “Dinosaur 13,” was quickly snatched up for distribution. “Cesar’s Last Fast,” about Cesar Chavez; “Life Itself,” about film critic Roger Ebert; and “The Case Against 8,” about the lawsuit to overturn Proposition 8 in California, were all picked up by distributors before they even screened.
Although Sundance makes an effort to give Utah residents priority ticket selection, this is very much a destination event rather than one for the locals. The locals refer to us outsiders — who have the tendency to import viruses at the height of flu season — as PIBs: People in Black. These are mostly press and industry from New York and LA and film fans who can afford the $300-per-night hotel rooms, $20 hamburgers and the $40-plus fees for advanced ticket selection — almost all screenings sell out before individual tickets go on sale to the public. The serious film buffs try to cram in three to five films a day, often forgoing meals to do so, which is a bit easier for those of us in the press, since our screenings are all at the same venue. Those here more for the red carpet excitement will be trying to get into the many parties and receptions happening around town.
Screenings happen in venues across Park City in created screening rooms. The auditorium at the local high school hosts the big premieres like Maya Forbes’s “Infinitely Polar Bear.” The 1920s Egyptian Theatre, which is usually a site for local theater, hosts some of the more avant-garde films, like this year’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” the first Iranian vampire western. Even the local library gets transformed into a temporary screening room.
Some films have lived up to their buzz, like Lenny Abrahamson’s excellent offbeat comedy “Frank,” about a musician who lives inside a papier-mâché head, and Richard Linklater’s latest masterpiece, “Boyhood.” Others were not-so-surprising disappointments like Stuart Murdoch’s directorial debut, the musical “God Help the Girl.” As the frontman for the Scottish indie pop band, Belle and Sebastian, which performed here on Sunday night, his film got a lot of buzz, but despite some charms, it was too long, too inchoate and easily forgettable.
I haven’t yet had the chance to discover any great new filmmakers — most films by newcomers were okay but not great, with the best films coming from seasoned directors — but for a festival with more than 100 films, it’s not possible to see them all. And it only takes one to make the next Jennifer Lawrence, whose debut performance in “Winter’s Bone,” which premiered at Sundance, launched her into stardom.