My return to Sundance, 14 years after I worked as a volunteer at the 2001 festival, was far more luxurious if less climactic. Back then, as a twenty-something grad student, the idea of bedding down in the dormitory that Sundance supplies rent-free to its volunteers and free entry to any screening with available seating in exchange for daily eight-hour shifts seemed like an appealing way to spend ten days during my winter break. My beat was standing at the shuttle stops directing festival-goers, and I still remember those ten days as the most prolonged period of being cold I’ve ever experienced. I went through an economy-sized pack of pocket warmers and innumerable cups of cocoa. It was well worth it, though. I was there for the midnight world premiere of The Blair Witch Project, which I wrote about in Issue 4. I also had a fling with a fellow volunteer, with whom I ended up photographed on the front page of the Park City newspaper (my Google search for the evidence, alas, turned up nothing), and whom I then spent six months dating long distance. And I published a festival report in Senses of Cinema, my first film publication to appear somewhere other than a school newspaper.
Despite my fond memories of those halcyon days, my thirty-something self hasn’t the stamina for that brutal a Sundance boot-camp. This time, my “grown-up Sundance,” I stayed in a condo almost as conveniently located as the Main Street dorm, ate at least one meal per day in a proper restaurant (Park City has some great ones), and felt relieved on the volunteers’ behalf that the weather was relatively balmy. Park City’s location seems to prevent against the proclivity for sprawl, and so the festival still feels easily navigated and fairly intimate.
But I was taken aback by the nerve-wracking, price-inflated free-for-all that is the ticket-buying process, and I only experienced it secondhand. Our group’s planner extraordinaire, Anne Carson Thompson, ably commandeered the seriously challenging task of getting six people tickets to opening weekend screenings that didn’t overlap or promise to disappoint. She did commendably well, all things considered, and we had an overall excellent time complete with star sightings aplenty, such as the Viking-esque Alexander Skarsgård, whom my friend Ann Whittten Bourne informed presented his audience with a real “moral conundrum” in his role as the pedophile in Diary of a Teenage Girl. (It took him a minute, but we think he understood.) I even scored an extra 24 hours of movie-going thanks to the blizzard back east causing the cancellation of my flight home.
In the face of so many film festivals timed in such close proximity, programmers increasingly rely on exclusivity as a draw, touting as many titles as possible as premieres. This isn’t a flaw in theory, but for the typical festival-goer the result is that little word-of-mouth precedes the film. Looking through the Sundance catalog, the only films I’d heard any scuttlebutt about were those in the Spotlight section, culled from titles that had already found favor on the festival circuit. My attempt to do reconnaissance hindered, I was left to sort through the viewing options based on the synopses provided in the catalog and my knowledge of the filmmakers. Both, it turned out, proved misleading. No offense to the programmers, who I presume write the substantial synopses of each film that appear in the full catalog issued upon arrival to those purchasing ticket packages. But the shortened versions of these synopses that appear in the online catalog distributed in advance of the festival are abysmal. Witness the film that I immediately dismissed based on this cringe-inducing premise: “Sangaile allows Auste to discover her most intimate secret, and in the process, finds in her teenage love the only person that truly encourages her to fly.” Who’s to say how I’ll feel once I actually see it, but if the votes for the World Cinema Directing Award for Dramatic Feature are any indication, I judged The Summer of Sangaile incorrectly.
Falling back on what seemed a surer bet for selecting films based on filmmakers I knew and respected didn’t work as swimmingly as I’d have thought (another mark against auteurism). Though Andrew Bujalski’s latest appears on my top five list below, and overall is an entirely endearing film, it doesn’t come close, in my opinion, to what he achieved with his previous work. I felt far less generous about Leslye Headland’s sophomore effort Sleeping with Other People (none of the bite, heart, or feminist solidarity and spirit of 2012’s Bachelorette), and just plain disappointed by Mississippi Grind (from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the writer-director team behind the indelibly searing Half Nelson), Nasty Baby (from Sebastián Silva, responsible for the luminescent Gaby Hoffman-Michael Cera film Crystal Fairy), and The End of the Tour (from James Ponsoldt, director of the devastating indies Smashed and The Spectacular Now).
Hoping to add a few extra films to my docket, I looked into the offerings on eBay and Craig’s List and was shocked to see tickets routinely going for $75. At those prices, it makes one reconsider springing for the all-inclusive passes or attempting to score a press pass (both of which I’d have considered had I been staying for the entire festival). Another surprise, implemented since my previous time at Sundance, was the waitlist – another nail-biting experience that relies on split-second timing, an impeccable Internet connection, and a willingness to stand on line. Again, I’m not opposed to it in theory; on the contrary, with virtually every screening sold out a month in advance, I appreciate that those running the festival have constructed as fair a means as possible of ensuring that every seat gets sold while also underselling the aforementioned scalpers.
And yet, standing in my umpteenth line with fingers crossed that I’d get in to the premiere of Bujalski’s Results, I felt seized by the perceived injustice of a theater-full of patrons there on account of the film’s stars, Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders, in contrast to my own Bujalski devotion reaching back to his first feature Funny Ha Ha and its pioneering influence on the movement (or moment) known as Mumblecore (which I just happen to have written about). As ridiculous as it sounds, Sundance brought out this possessiveness and resentment in me; I couldn’t care less about what was going on behind the velvet ropes on Main Street where after-parties were in full swing, but I felt very strongly that those seeking admission to Bujalski’s latest should be tested on their knowledge of the director’s oeuvre. Crazy, I know.
So without further ado, here is my Sundance top 5:
- Take Me to the River – Directed by first-timer and UCLA grad Matt Sobel, about a gay teenager’s reckoning with family secrets at a Nebraska reunion, with especially unnerving performances by Josh Hamilton (as a menacing redneck!) and Ursula Parker (Louis CK’s younger daughter on Louie!). Hearing lead Robin Weigert (Deadwood, Concussion) speak during the Q&A cemented my love for her and this film.
- Cloro – Another first-time director – this one a NYU grad, Lamberto Sanfelice, working with the mesmerizing actress Sara Serraioccco. With its desolate ski resort setting, besieged siblings, and synchronized swimming sequences, it initially struck me as a Sister/Water Lilies mash-up but grew into something far more surprising and touching.
- The Tribe – 130 minutes in the un-translated company of sign-language-using students at a Ukrainian school for the deaf, with enough horrors that it made the gut-wrenching Sarah Silverman-vehicle I Smile Back look like a PG-rated romcom comparatively. I am still recovering from this one, but I will never forget it.
- Results – I add this one grudgingly, given the unacknowledged sense of entitlement described above and the knowledge that I might have opted for the cross-scheduled Beaver Trilogy Part IV. And yet the bizarro pairing of Kevin Corrigan and Guy Pearce somehow works, and Bujalski’s take on fitness fanatics is wry yet sympathetic.
- Unexpected – From filmmaker Kris Swanberg, and another Cobie Smulders-starrer. A small-scaled drama about the relationship between a pregnant teacher wary of motherhood and her also pregnant student, it gets truthfully at how women’s identity gets compromised through parenting and at the irreconcilable barrier of socioeconomic status.
And, perhaps the more important list, the Top 10 films (in no particular order) that got away – i.e., those that I heard promising things about but didn’t make it to, and thus await with great anticipation:
- Me and Earl and the Dying Girl– This year’s Whiplash, it swept the top dramatic awards.
- The Wolfpack – Another winner (Jury Prize for U.S. doc), it’s got the unbelievable premise of being about a real-life Dogtooth family.
- The Overnight – When I found myself standing in the waitlist line for a film starring Taylor Schilling, I realized I’d caught Sundance fever on top of a cold. I didn’t get in, and the tantalizing buzz that followed has haunted me.
- Western – This was touted as an exceptional verité documentary, about life on the Texas-Mexican border.
- Slow West – Not gravitating towards Westerns as a rule, I now regret overlooking this Michael Fassbender-starrer that won the Jury prize for World Cinema Dramatic Feature.
- Dreamcatcher – Knowing filmmaker Kim Longinotto’s reputation for brilliant observational documentaries focused on women’s lives, I should have made more effort to see her latest, a portrait of prostitution that won the Directing Award for World Docs.
- Entertainment – One of the more divisive films of the fest, judging from the Twitter-chat, but I have a hunch its dark tone and John C. Reilly performance would work for me.
- Tangerine – Executive produced by the Duplass brothers and filmed entirely on an iPhone, about transgender Los Angelenos on Christmas Eve, it was a surprise hit of the festival.
- The Royal Road – LGBTQ film archivist/advocate Jenni Olson directed what sounds to be a transporting experimental journey through her own history and that of California.
- Digging for Fire + Mistress America – These share a slot because my sadness at missing them is tempered by my certainty that Joe Swanberg’s and Noah Baumbach’s respective latest will get a release before long.
Needless to say, from my arrival at the festival, when I felt tortured at having missed the highly divisive The Bronze (featuring a sex scene of immediately notorious and apparently gymnastic proportions, or contortions), to my departing Sophie’s Choice of the much-touted Take Me to the River (which I hardly regret; see it’s #1 placement above) over Swanberg’s latest Digging for Fire (which was as well-received as I’d hoped/feared), I was in a constant state of what I’ve come to think of as “Sundance remorse.” Also fueling my sense of regret was nostalgia, no doubt rose-tinted, for what Sundance used to be – to me, during that frigid yet enchanted stint as a volunteer, and also generally, before there were waitlists and scalpers and model-actress-whatevers prancing down Main Street in stilettos.
My symptoms also stemmed, I have to acknowledge, from an awareness that I might have chosen the professional path of film criticism and/or festival programming rather than the path I did choose: a career in academe. When I was last at Sundance, I was months away from obtaining my Master’s in Cinema Studies from NYU, yet to depart on the Everest-scale climb that is the journey to obtaining a Ph.D. but equally unsure of my footing up the critic-programmer path. (Shout-outs to my UCLA colleagues Sudeep Sharma and Heidi Zwicker are much deserved, for having scaled that peak to reach the level of Associate Programmers for Sundance.) I was sure of my passion for film and confident about my writing ability, but otherwise uncertain whether to follow my longing to be a critic-programmer or what seemed the more pragmatic route into teaching and a tenure-track academic appointment. Given that the latter has thus far eluded me, I wonder whether the path I chose was in fact the safe route, as I told myself at the time.
While I love teaching, and still have the opportunity to write criticism and program the occasional screening event, I found myself amid the Sundance euphoria doing some tough reflecting on what might have been. I don’t want to romanticize the underpaid, often tenuously-employed (more even that teachers) status of contemporary critics and festival personnel. I suppose what I really long for is the opportunity to do both, to not have had to choose. Yet few people manage to keep a foot firmly in both camps. Those that do – the indefatigable Ruby Rich, for example – are exceptional.
To end on a hopeful note, though the year has only just begun, I’ve already seen three films that promise to earn spots on my Best 15 of ’15 list – though I didn’t see them at Sundance, and in fact all three were officially released in 2014. I was tempted to revise my 20 Best Films of 2014 list to include them, but I opted to maintain the integrity of my viewing experience and save them for next year’s. I’ll be writing more about Appropriate Behavior, Desiree Akhavan’s flawlessly rendered debut feature, because it’s a film told from a bisexual woman’s perspective. In other words, it’s the film I’ve been looking for all my life, and it’s now on VOD (and to be released on DVD in April).
The other two films are, in a way, opposite sides of the same coin: sharp take-downs of capitalism that use humanism rather than preachiness to convey the complexities of a system that normalizes human exploitation. J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year portrays the owner’s perspective, in this case a striving husband-wife team forced to confront their moral compass when their business and family are threatened. Leads Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are magnetic, and Chastain’s wardrobe swoon-inducing. Two Days, One Night, directed by the Dardenne brothers and featuring a searing lead performance by Marion Cotillard, depicts the lowly worker’s experience of utter vulnerability and desperation. It is one of the most affecting cinematic depictions I’ve seen of the cruelties of capitalism, how it makes decent people act inhumanely, but how interpersonal interaction can sometimes persevere to get people to do the right thing. It is, in a word, sublime. So despite my Sundance miscalculations, I feel buoyed by these riches already encountered and the prospect of my Sundance missed encounters coming down the pipeline before too long.
Coming attractions: Exhibition Spotlight: Berkeley, CA; exploring how digital technologies and on-line resources enhance film and media studies.