Every January, Hollywood descends upon (or ascends to, technically) the picturesque snow globe that is Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. Since its founding in 1978, Sundance has been a forum for independent filmmakers to showcase their work. But since Wikipedia is a thing, I am going to go ahead and skip the historical stuff and tell you about my experience at the festival and which movies should be on your radar.
Sundance: not as exclusive as you’d think…
Before I got to Park City, I expected the festival to be a strictly invitation-only event for industry professionals and their friends and family, completely closed off from the proletariat masses. And while many theaters admitted only industry types with festival passes, getting a ticket for a Sundance movie is really as simple as having three things: 20 bucks, good timing on the ticket page and a way to get to the theater in time to grab a seat. Even locals who were unable to snag tickets participated in the festivities, bundling up to roam around Main Street in search of celebrities to take selfies with.
Prior to attending, I imagined the awards were carefully deliberated upon by an elite, Academy-style group of old white people behind closed doors. In reality, anyone catching a screening of a competing film was allowed and encouraged to rank it for the Audience Awards competition. I definitely enjoyed turning in my ballots and giving some films their laurels.
… but people still really know their shit
The crowd at Sundance was a stew of different types of people. But whether film and entertainment was their passion, their job or both, any given Sundancer proved very intellectual about the subject matter at hand.
This hit me when a guy next to me in a theater mentioned a film he saw at Cannes and, for a second, it didn’t register that he was talking about the French film festival because he didn’t pronounce the “s” because anyone who has been to France knows the French never pronounce the “s” at the end of the word. Most people I sat next to at screenings, stood with in line or schmoozed with at wine & cheese-ers were open and eager to talk about their cool jobs, projects they were working on, the movies they’d loved or hated and why they loved or hated them and, of course, celebrity spottings. Conversation was rarely superficial, and this respectful, reverent mentality created a unique, stimulating atmosphere in Park City.
A note on hype
This heightened atmosphere proved the ideal environment to watch movies in. Many of the films I saw at Sundance were world premieres, so audiences had nothing to go off of when taking their seats except for the cursory synopses on the festival’s website. This seemed absolutely crazy; when was the last time you saw a movie with zero expectations?
We live in the world of Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB reviews, where we watch trailers before YouTube videos of other trailers, where filmmakers and actors perform variations of the same interview with a billion different coverage outlets, where people tweet stuff like “Interstellar was the most mindblowing thing of my liiiffe” before we get the chance to let “Interstellar” blow our own minds. “Boyhood,” which debuted at the festival last year, was critically acclaimed, but some might argue that the simple slices of life in the film were undeserving of such hype. At Sundance, there isn’t any hype to live up to. The movies speak for themselves.
Also: Global warming is the worst.
Besides the movies, something I was really excited to experience was falling snow, something I haven’t seen in years. It snowed for a combined total of three minutes during the five days I spent in Park City. While it was definitely cold and there were layers on layers of snow all over the ground and on the slopes surrounding PC, Sundance has been marked by uncharacteristically warm weather for Utah Januaries in recent years. Which sucks. But I digress. In the words of Ari Gold, “You don’t come to Sundance for the snow, you come for the heat,” and the heat was brought in the festival’s strong lineup of films this year. Here’s a rundown of a few of the buzziest.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”
The hilarious and sad story of Greg (“Project X’s” Thomas Mann), a high school senior who reluctantly befriends a classmate with leukemia (the titular Dying Girl, “Ouija’s” Olivia Cooke), “Me and Earl” was greeted with a well-deserved standing ovation at its premier. Strong performances by stars Mann, Cooke and newcomer RJ Cyler (who plays Earl) are backed up by a great supporting cast including Connie Britton (“Friday Night Lights”), Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”) and Molly Shannon (“SNL” and, like, everything else).
“Me and Earl” gives a refreshing realism to teenagers by treating them like people dealing with complex situations instead of one-dimensional kids. Bolstered by Wes-Anderson-lite cinematography and a score as simultaneously heavy- and light-hearted as the plot is, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon presents a film that made audiences laugh until they cried and cry until they laughed, earning its Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the dramatic competition.
“Z for Zachariah”
“Z for Zachariah” is a post-apocalyptic love triangle starring Margot Robbie (“The Wolf of Wall Street”), Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”) and Chris Pine (“Star Trek”) as the last three people on earth. The film spends little time dwelling on the nature of the calamity that ended the world. Instead, it explores the tense, personal story of — to paraphrase director Craig Zobel in a Q&A session — how big the stakes are when the person you’re talking to is quite literally the only person you can talk to.
An intimate case study, “Zachariah” represents an especially noteworthy turn for Robbie. By balancing the moral greys of the men vying for her affections, she proves that she has many skills in her repertoire disparate from being Leo’s second, hotter wife.
“Sleeping with Other People”
Described by director Leslye Headland as “‘When Harry Met Sally’ for assholes,” “Sleeping” is a romcom about Lainey (“Community’s” Allison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis, “Horrible Bosses”), who lose touch after losing their virginities to each other in college and meet up by chance years later at a sex addiction meeting.
The movie has big laughs and scenes that could definitely go down in comedy infamy (the term “Dirty DJ” and bottles of green tea might not mean anything together now, but once you see the movie, your mind might begin to wander the next time you’re sipping on an Arizona). Despite its funniness, the film also deals with heartbreak and complex feelings not often included in the romcom package, and while there were times where it lost track of its tone while toeing the line between comedy and drama, I’d say it did its job in delivering both.
Displaying an artsiness characteristically absent in horror movies these days, “The Witch” is a dark film about a family with issues. The story is set in a painstakingly researched and recreated 1600s New England homestead on the edge of a foreboding forest harboring, you guessed it, a witch.
An appropriately haunting score of ghostly wails helps to carry the dark tale as it unwinds. The real scares here don’t jump out at you or stab you in the back; they creep up and come to heads as family members turn against each other when the worst starts to go down. It’s a “Shining”-style psychological terror. While it definitely could’ve been scarier, Robert Eggers deserves his Directing Award in the dramatic category for showing us that horror doesn’t revolve around thoughtless blood-soaked threequels.