I've been wanting to write about my previous vacation before I went off on my next. That would be the Sundance Film Festival, which I tackled solo. I've been to showings as part of local festivals before, I'd never quite done something like this - away from home base and extremely intense, where the whole town of Park City gets subsumed under the festival. I went in knowing relatively little about the nature of the thing and left with a substantive education on how to make the most out of attending a festival, or at least Sundance. Not counting a film shorts collection, I saw twelve feature-length films over eight days - but Sundance is really more about the people. The ticketing system could be made more efficient, and it's a tempting thought that I'll read in all of the data and produce a handy tool for next year that puts the current digital system to shame, yet it eventually became clear that the systematic inefficiencies of ticket acquisition were built-in and retained to make sure you actually talked to the people around you. I'm not the most gregarious person; waiting in line with a bunch of people who also love and/or make movies turns out to be a great way to make new friends. And so it is at Sundance, the great snaking lines through the synagogue-, hotel-, community rec center-turned-theaters so key to the majority experience, for getting seated or waiting to see if you have a chance of getting seats, are all about starting conversations. Of course, the actual industry players get passes, so the unwashed compare their notes and look through but never pass through the invisible, impenetrable barrier of celebrity. It's a democracy on one side and aristocracy on the other, an oddly functional pairing our general society reinforces.
And you watch movies. You could maybe fit in four a day if you were really good. There's a box office that opens before the crack of dawn from which you might obtain some tickets previously held in reserve but released as numbers solidify. You could also go directly to the theater and get a number a couple hours before the showing, then get in line and wait for any of the remaining reserve to trickle out, if any. But you have to factor in transit and location and eating and sleeping - it's one big constraint optimization problem that I'll re-iterate once more demands a better digital solution. I tried to factor it all in while making my own package ticket selections ahead of time but missed a lot. The program guide does not tell you enough! You need IMDB and Google in front of you to make a dent in it, maybe an excited companion to help you along.
It seems like there are two major modes in which to operate; one is to catch everything that will make it into theaters ahead of time, the other is to try to catch everything that won't. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to do both, though both are a sort of gamble; I decided fairly early on that I wanted to do the latter but was hampered by my slightly uninformed earlier selections. There is buzz at Sundance, and it is so very tempting to follow the buzz. The major buzz film I just barely missed was Escape from Tomorrow, highly unlikely to be distributed as it was guerrilla-shot on Disney property and a ticket coveted for that reason. Was it any good? I'm not sure. Everybody really wanted to see it.
Ultimately I made about a 50% rate of films I was glad I chose, and the others left me hoping I might do this again some day, and do it better. The films, and some idea of where they've landed, in the order I saw them. (I'll finish this list eventually.)
- American Promise feels like a great film in the moment, but it didn't have much staying power for me. Black parents document the path of two black boys and their families over the course of much of their primary and secondary education, beginning in a presitigious private school and following both until they reach the age of 18. Simply observing for twelves years yielded a wealth of natural drama and pathos, the path before two growing young men imperiled at many a turn yet hopeful. Perhaps parents and educators will have more to connect to here.
- Stories We Tell is by far the most brilliant movie I saw, hands down, you have to see this. My enthusiasm for it is only slightly dampened by Sundance being its fourth festival showing. Sarah Polley is an incredible maker of movies, and I'm excited to catch up on her other films. I believe this is in theaters now, I saw a review for it a couple weeks ago. You don't need to know what it's about, really. See it.
- 99% is a collaborative film about the Occupy movement, focused on Occupy Wall Street and its sibling movements in other cities. I would be surprised if this got picked up; it's unsurprisingly pulled in too many directions and, even for someone who appreciated the Occupy worldview, was so lopsided that one of the subjects didn't realize the filmmakers weren't Occupy members themselves (she was there and asked).
- In A World... is hilarious. It was my introduction to Lake Bell, its star and director, and I'm a little bit in love. It's a comedy about voice-over artists, and it's good to its female characters without coddling them or holding back from the real experience of a woman in a male-dominated industry. As the director mentioned during her Q&A, she wanted to explore why it is that voiceovers, the voice of omniscience, are so uniformly male.
- Gideon's Army covers public defenders. You have to see this. It puts faces on a corner of our justice system that almost nobody ever looks at unless you're in that world. American citizens have an intrinsic right to legal representation, and the people who make that true are inspiring, as is this documentary. Look for more from first-time director Dawn Porter, herself a lawyer (though not a PD).
- I've seen The Future and have little to say about it. I wouldn't avoid it, but there are so many movies out there that I'd rather watch before I ever got to it.
- Touchy Feely also elicits little commentary, but I liked it for what it was. It sets up a convincing little world, heavy emphasis on little, and positively enjoys its characters.
- Computer Chess is hard to watch if you know the subject matter sufficiently enough that plot matters related to A.I. and chess hold no narrative interest. What's left is Austin-weirdness with a healthy dose of self-satisfaction on the director's part.
- C.O.G. was a major let down. It's the first film based on David Sedaris' writing, often laugh-out-loud hilarious or punctuated by extreme hilarity; sadly, the movie is tonally inconsistent with his writing. There's very little to laugh about, and the protagonist as avatar for Sedaris is particularly unlikeable. It may be the point that a spoiled and naïve college kid looking for the common man experience by way of manual labor needed to face reality, but spoiled and naïve for almost the whole movie is hard to sit through.
- Twenty Feet from Stardom is a phenomenal documentary about backup singers, session artists who have gone largely unacknowledged and almost entirely unexplored in any form of literature. This is one of the first looks ever at the people behind the music superstars who are integral to the sound yet never heard, super-talented but just shy of center stage. It's amazing. One of the stars, Judith Hill, was just booted off a reality singing competition, which seems an injustice. I'm not sure when the movie drops, but it's definitely coming one of these days. I would love to get an entire album of Lisa Fischer doing solo jazz improv.
- The Lifeguard was a last-minute grab in my package selection as things I'd hoped to see were sold out. I didn't really want to watch it; again, it's a young adult who should know better making gratingly poor choices for no motivating reason other than a consuming nostalgia for teenage days that most of us are glad to leave behind, nor does there appear to be much of a believable change by the end. The script dictates a character arc, but the characters follow it mechanically without much truth, with lots of threads started and never concluded. I think this got picked up but have generally avoided dwelling on it since suffering through it.
- MANHUNT was meant to be held up next to Zero Dark Thirty. It re-told in documentary form the story of solving the mystery that Kathryn Bigelow dramatized with guns blazing. As the last film I caught right before I hopped on a shuttle to the airport, early in the morning, after a week of a great festival, I confess I fell asleep in a few parts. There's nothing really wrong with it, and I think it's already aired on HBO, but it's nothing new if you paid attention to the news. I was the wrong audience.
Mud and The East (and a few others I'll try to recall later) were films I was pretty sure would get picked up and could watch in the theater or later on disc, though I'd tried to see them anyways. They're both out now, as is Fruitvale Station, which won the festival insofar as any film can do that.
Those of you in Los Angeles, the LA Film Festival is going on during the month of June; consider going, it's so much easier when you can just hop on the subway to hit up downtown to get a glimpse of what's coming down the cultural pipe.
So, Sundance. I'd love to go back. I can do better. I think it would go well with a group. Who wants to do Sundance 2014?