By Bears Fonte
So it’s time once again to make the yearly trek into the cold of Park City and check out the films that will most likely dominate the festival circuit for the rest of the year. It’s my 5th year in a row at Sundance, and I must say this year has been the hardest to take in the schedule and pinpoint what I want to see. Not that there aren’t amazing options here, but not as many of them are coming built in with a high profile director or pre-fest buzz.
On one hand, this is great because at times Sundance can feel less like an indie film festival and more like part of the studio machinery. Last year it felt a bit like an extended promotion for Netflix and Amazon. We’ll see what last year’s big spenders drop their cash on this year but because of the way Netflix works, we’ll never really know what they are getting on their investment. Amazon in contrast is raking in the awards with MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Fox Searchlight appears to have picked up last year’s biggest dud by the dollar in THE BIRTH OF A NATION but that can hardly be blamed on them when the director and co-writer spent the entire release discussing the details of an alleged rape and harassment that occurred in 1999. It is unlikely anyone is going to shell out another reported $17.5 million for a unknown.
Which is too bad, because this year at Sundance is the year of the unknown with 37 first-time filmmakers – including 20 in competition. Women will be well represented, both in the over eighty films written and/or directed by woman in the festival, including the all-female-helmed Horror anthology XX, and in the Women’s March on Main, the sister march to the rally taking place in Washington the day after Donald Trump is inaugurated. Also, for the first time ever, the Festival is focusing its programming efforts to drive attention and action around a specific theme: climate change and environmental preservation. The New Climate program builds on the Institute’s longstanding commitment to showcasing environmental films and projects, and kicks off with opening night film AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL, possibly the laziest and yet still entirely effect title for a film ever.
While it’s hard to know what is going to be great at an over-flowing festival like Sundance, here are the films I am most looking forward to, with descriptions lifted from the Sundance program and then rewritten by myself as if I had anything illustrative to say without seeing it.
Director Alexandre O. Philippe
Alfred Hitchcock’s shower sequence in Psycho may be the most important three-minutes in film. In 78 setups and 52 cuts, the meticulously choreographed shocker redefined cinema’s definition of horror. It also upended Hitchcock’s own acclaimed narrative structure by violently killing off a heroine a third of the way through his film, without explanation, justification, or higher purpose. After Psycho, anything could happen to anyone at anytime. In 78/52, Director Alexandre O. Philippe breaks down this most notorious and essential scene shot for shot, enlisting the help of film buffs and filmmakers alike—including Guillermo del Toro, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Eli Roth, and Peter Bogdanovich. I always applaud Sundance for shoving a doc into the Midnight section (THE NIGHTMARE, THE BLACKOUT EXPERIMENTS) and this one seems like the best one yet.
BEFORE I FALL
Director Ry Russo-Young
Screenwriter Maria Maggenti
Sam’s beautiful, rich, and popular, with the hottest boyfriend and the most loyal friends. But also a bit of a bitch; since elementary school she and her posse have relentlessly bullied one of their classmates. After a should-be-life-ending car crash, she wakes up in a Groundhog Day–like time loop. Sam must unravel the mystery of why the last day of her life keeps repeating again and again. Based on the bestselling young adult novel, Before I Fall features Zoey Deutsch as Sam, one of two films the WHY HIM? star has at Sundance.
Director/ Screenwriter David Lowery
Texas filmmaker David Lowery, last at the Festival with the poetic Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), goes even more ethereal for a haunted tale about a spectral figure (Casey Affleck), prematurely taken from this Earth, who must make his way toward his former home, where he is fated to remain forevermore. Shrouded in a white sheet, he observes the lament of his grief-stricken lover (Rooney Mara). Bearing unseen witness to her pain, the wisp stands sentry for years to come, interacting only with time as it hurtles further and further forward, the remnants of his humanity quietly evaporating. With a description like that, this is surely more of a passion project than say, PETE’S DRAGON.
SECTION Special Events
Director Rashida Jones
This Netflix series put forth the idea that porn has gone mainstream and asks ‘can we handle it?’ This exploration of the intersection of sex and technology is told through the stories of the people whose lives are defined by the current explosion of internet porn—whether they’re creating it, consuming it, or both. This particular episode, ‘Women on Top,’ directed by Rashida Jones, explores a subculture of women bringing feminist philosophies into their workplace, with the idea that female-friendly porn can exist. The new series follows the 2015 documentary that premiered at Sundance (and I covered here).
SECTION U.S. Dramatic
Director Gillian Robespierre
Screenwriters Elisabeth Holm, Gillian Robespierre
The Manhattan of 1995: a land without cell phones, but abundant in CD listening stations, bar smoke, and family dysfunction. Enter the Jacobs family. Eldest daughter Dana’s looming marriage to straight-laced Ben prompts a willful dive into her wild side, while her younger sister, Ali, is still in high school but leads a covert life of sex, drugs, and clubbing. After discovering love letters penned by their father, the sisters try to expose his apparent affair while keeping it from their all-too-composed mother. Basking in ’90s nostalgia, Gillian Robespierre follows up (one of the strongest debuts in a decade) OBVIOUS CHILD with a new subversive comedy about poor choices and sibling rivalry.
SECTION U.S. Doc Comp
Director Adam Bhala Lough
Making a printable gun landed Cody Wilson on the government’s watchlist. Together with British programmer Amir Taaki, they founded Dark Wallet, a Bitcoin app that allows its users to ‘go dark.’ But Dark Wallet was more than an app, it was a way of expressing their ideals valuing human freedoms over controlling governments. For crypto-anarchists, ensuring freedom of information and challenging economic structures are the best way to hold truth to power. But taking on the government means you don’t always get to go home. Look, my wife is a fin tech lawyer (@paymentslawyer) so I pretty much hear about the evolving world of modern currency on a daily basis, I can’t wait to have something to add to the conversation.
Director Mark Palansky
Screenwriter Michael Vukadinovich, Mark Palansky
Famed scientific pioneer Gordon Dunn (Martin Donovan) unveils his l most groundbreaking achievement—a device that can extract, record, and play a person’s unfiltered memories and is inexplicably found dead shortly after. Gordon’s reclusive wife, Carolyn (Julia Ormond), recedes into her own private world until a mysterious man (Peter Dinklage) knocks at her door, claiming to be a past acquaintance. With questionable motives, he steals the machine in an attempt to unravel his own personal demons, launching an exploration into a troublesome past filled with guilt, grief, and betrayal. I run a SciFi film festival so there is not a chance I am missing the most obvious genre entry at this year’s Sundance, and add in Peter Dinklage who to me is one of the true Sundance success stories, making his screen debut in 1995’s LIVING IN OBLIVION and taking home a ton of awards for THE STATION AGENT, both of which premiered at Sundance. Dinklage is also on the Sundance jury this year.
Director Shawn Christensen
Screenwriters Shawn Christensen, Jason Dolan
Sidney Hall harbors a precocious talent for writing. His classroom essays exhibit a danger that some find off-putting, though one teacher recognizes his talent and urges Sidney to pursue a writing career. Early success with his first novel makes Sidney a celebrity, though his dystopian observations about suburbia provoke tragic outcomes among some young readers, cloaking his name in scandal. When the disillusioned writer has all but disappeared from public life, a mysterious detective seeks the answer to his mystery. Oscar-winner (Narrative Short – CURTAIN) and stellastar* rock god (those of us who know, know) Shawn Christensen returns with his second feature after the indie gem BEFORE I DISAPPEAR.
SECTION Doc Premieres
Director Banks Tarver, Ted Bourne, Mary Robertson
In a behind-the-scenes look at the biggest political upset in recent history, Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, and Mark McKinnon offer unprecedented access and never-before-seen footage of candidate Trump, from the primaries through the debates to the dawning realization that the controversial businessman will become the 45th president of the United States. So… that’s all of a description they have given us on this one but I’m not going to miss this. Like most people attending this festival, I know absolutely no one who voted for Trump so hopefully this documentary will be illuminating as to exactly what the hell went wrong with this election. Two main concerns, one: with three ‘directors’ and three ‘producers,’ I will be shocked if this film has anything resembling a cohesive vision or throughline and two: with the election only a couple of months in the rear view mirror, this film feels both conspicuously opportune and naturally unable to achieve any perspective. We’ll see. They are probably color-correcting it as this article goes to print.
SECTION World Doc
Director Adam Sobel
When FIFA selected Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, the petroleum-rich country used its vast and wealthy resources to begin constructing state-of-the-art stadiums and facilities utilizing millions of migrant workers. The Workers Cup follows a group of these men—from India, Kenya, Nepal, and Ghana—who, stuck in isolated camps, working arduous hours for unlivable wages, eagerly escape into a corporate-sponsored “workers welfare” soccer tournament of their own. While the tournament amounts to little more than a marketing ploy for those at the top, the laborers embrace the rare opportunity to let loose, compete, and prove themselves bona fide soccer champions. Look, FIFA is possibly the most corrupt international organization in existence. The selection of Qatar was not only ludicrous but also stinking of deceit and bribery. I will be attending this film to see how that is handled. I am sure these men have fascinating stories of their own, but they became pawns in a well-constructed advertising campaign that joins the smokescreen of garbage distracting us from how inherently evil this country is where flogging and stoning are legal, news crews are jailed without charges, the kafala sponsorship system basically amounts to human trafficking, gay men may serve up five years in prison for sodomy, and women don’t even have the right to divorce unless they can prove their husband has failed to uphold his marital duties.
Sundance Film Festival runs January 19-29. I will be covering it start to finish so watch AMFM Magazine and my twitter (@bearsfonte) for updates.