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A Conversation About Sundance 2015

Our staff and contributors who attended this year’s Sundance Film Festival reflect on the event in a series of emails—Brian Tallerico, Sam Fragoso, Erik Childress, Nick Allen and Patrick McGavin. Read all of this year's coverage, film by film, here.

BRIAN: Being the over-working completist that I am, I often come out of festivals like Sundance lamenting what I missed as much as praising what I saw. So, while I got to 36 films this year (and had seen 2 more at TIFF), I regret not having hit Sean Baker's "Tangerine," Matt Sobel's "Take Me to the River," Craig Zobel's "Z For Zachariah," Kirby Dick's "The Hunting Ground," Alex Gibney's "Going Clear," Patrick Brice's "The Overnight," and Marielle Heller's "The Diary of a Teenage Girl." The fact is that it's impossible to hit everything. I had a great Sundance in 2014 and missed "Love is Strange," "Obvious Child," and "The One I Love," among others. So, one thing that interests me as we get this conversation going is this--other than assignments from your editor, how do you choose what to see at a fest like Sundance? And do you think you made the right choices this year?

SAM: Thankfully, I did have an "over-working" editor guiding me this year—telling me what I needed to see, and what I could see. In years past my process is fairly simple: First, choose the films by directors I'm familiar with. Second, put an asterisk next to films that sound interesting. Third, stay away from movies that have already premiered at other festivals. At least for coverage purposes, you're not going to get a lot out of "Eden" or "Wild Tales," no matter how great they're are (note: they are both amazing). Fourth, don't worry about missing any movie that already has distribution. "The End of the Tour," "Mistress America," and "True Story" are good examples of larger films that will doubtlessly play at a theater near you soon enough. Lastly, leave room in your schedule for movies that unexpectedly gain buzz during the festival. There are always a handful of pictures that become favorites All that said, I'm still convinced I never see enough movies -- or the right movies. This year I left Park City without seeing "Brooklyn," "Me, Earl, and The Dying Girl," and "The Witch." I'll live, hopefully. 

ERIK:I tend to read the descriptions of the films first as I begin the first of 11 phases of planning my schedule. Go through the entire list, note what sounds intriguing, then go over it a second time to see which filmmakers I recognize. Those I do get asterisk number two. Those I may have been burned with at a festival in the past lose one. Then I keep an eye on the casts. Who are the leads? Is it a good ensemble? Favorites always come into play when you have to narrow down a list to roughly 20% of the entire festival schedule.

For many years I would tend to stick to my original schedule through hell and high water. I've learned over time how to read buzz at a festival and recently that has helped adjust my schedule on the ground. Normally at Sundance if you miss something everyone is raving about, you do not get a chance to catch up with it unless there is still a public screening you can get a ticket to or the fest schedules a second press screening. But if you hear a lot of negatives from voices you trust and respect and there is another option in that impending timeslot, I could go sight unseen into something else and maybe THAT becomes the next can't-miss film. I was one of the many locked out of the initial showing of "The Witch" and I'm sorry that I missed "The End of the Tour" and "Brooklyn," but it only increases my excitement for their eventual release.

NICK: Before my first Sundance this year, I was lucky enough have experienced the festival craziness of South by Southwest in 2011 and 2012. I took away from those ventures the importance of discovery; you’ve got to hit film festivals like these with your pioneer cap on. When you’re a filmgoer like me who wishes they could go into every new film knowing only a title, Sundance is giddy terrain of hunches, fuzzy insider buzz, and even straight-up incorrect projections. Nothing aside from “Me & Earl & The Dying Girl” was pitched like an absolute guarantee, and even then I did not feel love for that soon-to-be indie monument. 

To provide some order to a chaotic schedule, I did have my must-sees. I wasn’t going to fly to Utah, chug along on a frighteningly small amount of sleep, and miss the unveiling of unseen films like Jared Hess’ “Don Verdean,” or the Neil Hamburger experimental project “Entertainment” (both of which I am glad I didn’t miss.) And a few other titles provided shape, such as “Knock Knock” and “Sleeping with Other People.” But a good amount of titles came into my life through a day-by-day perspective. In an environment where three movies a day feels like a disappointment, but a three-hour nap feels like a life-and-death sacrifice, you really do have to accept that seeing everything is impossible within a certain festival-going window. I found that it was best to throw your schedule into the fateful winds of convenience, regarding the titles that are screening closest together in both geographical and time terms. 

So, like Erik, I too will wait a bit longer to witness “The End of the Tour, “Brooklyn,” and “The Witch.” But at the same time, by steering myself mostly by proximity, I experienced documentaries like “Listen to Me Marlon” and “Pervert Park.” Those two discoveries only happened because I didn’t strictly stick to a movie-going map. 

PATRICK: This was my 24th Sundance. Some of those years I worked as a reviewer for the trades, and I had very specific assignments. This year, I had a couple of very concrete gigs I had to satisfy, but otherwise I was free to roam. All festivals have their own rhythm and rituals, and as the first significant festival of the year, Sundance often sets a particular tone or sense of expectation.

I have an inverted pyramid format I adopt, privileging the dramatic competition titles (this year I saw 13 of the 16 titles) and then pursuing, in order of importance: Next, the premieres, documentaries and the occasional Spotlight title I missed elsewhere. Structurally the festival is different than the others I cover. At most festivals, a film will play two or three times within a very specific time frame.  At Cannes, Venice or Berlin, for instance, the accredited press primarily sees the same film at the same time and opinion coalesces around a film very quickly. At Sundance, the dramatic competition titles or the documentary competition titles play five or six times over the duration of the festival, and point of view or word of mouth works very differently.  

You can't satisfy everything, and I regret not seeing more of the world cinema competition or the Frontier titles. At some level all festivals are an abject lesson in failure and disappointment, because it is impossible to see all the things you want. Also, Sundance is not a vacuum or an isolated event, it's the first stage of a year-long odyssey, the way I look at it. The movies I missed are now part of my consciousness in a way they maybe weren't two weeks ago. And I already know the titles I want to see again or those I need to track down.

BRIAN: Were there any themes that seemed particularly resonant across multiple films this year? It's tempting to say that the theme of Sundance 2015 is that there is no theme of Sundance 2015. I mean, competition films like "Dope" and "The Witch" couldn't have less in common, and I liked that diversity in terms of selection this year. I saw a wide variety of filmmaking styles, protagonists, genres, periods, etc. The only that stands out at all across a few of my favorite films might be how we see ourselves through the prism of pop culture. The kids in "Dope," Greg & Earl in "Me and Earl...," even the way the Davids (Lipsky & Foster Wallace) respond to fame and journalism in "The End of the Tour." As pop culture becomes even more intrinsically rooted in how we communicate with each other, this is a theme that I expect will become even more prominent in film. What did you see thematically this year that struck a chord?

ERIK: While it would be easy to jump on the standard theme of "how we deal with impending death" as seen in "James White" and "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl", there was a far more intriguing one that dealt more with how we live. Particularly men. For a long time we have heard of the underlying "fear of women" that can manifest itself mentally to as far as economically. The distance that males project from the fairer sex was on ample display in films at Sundance this year. In the aforementioned "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" the lead character is forced into a friendship with the titular dying girl by his mother and while he insists through narration that the story is not a romantic one, it may just be a denial that also prevents him from asking out the school beauty despite her frequent attention. All part of the closed-off path he has chosen for himself in high school. To show how far the bond (or frequent lack thereof) between men and women, the western "Slow West" is built upon the young protagonist reading far more into the friendship with the girl he is trying to rescue than she ever did. Flash forward to the future where "Z for Zachariah" goes from a one-woman tale of apocalyptic survival into a power play of which second-to-last man on Earth is going to bed her down; each careful to keep their distance just enough to not frighten her away.

"Sleeping with Other People" takes the more traditional "When Harry Met Sally" approach to old friends who are not ready to admit they have feelings for the right person in their lives. But then there was "Results" which is patterned around a triangle of three characters who are never quite sure what they want out of one another. Kevin Corrigan's new millionaire is not a bad guy but takes a physical fascination with Cobie Smulders' fitness trainer who is too wrapped up in her routine to consider anyone beyond momentary pleasure. Yet it is her that must assert herself into the life of her boss (Guy Pierce) for him to believe there is the potential of a future with her. "Mississippi Grind" features two characters unsure of how to react to women who clearly want their company. Ben Mendelsohn's Gerry may have an alternative view of Analeigh Tipton's call girl but he never follows through on the assumed baser instincts. Likewise Ryan Reynolds is indecisive of mapping out a life with escort Sienna Miller who has more of a financial than romantic stake in their relationship.

Then there was also the unfortunate flipside that could be led by Eli Roth's "Knock Knock" which sees family man Keanu Reeves desperately trying to keep his urges in check when two young nubile females show up to his home during a rainstorm. As they are the aggressors in the situation, it is hard for him to resist the "free pizza" forever. Just as Patrick Wilson's attorney samples every flavor of an escort agency in "Zipper" and Alexander Skarsgård can't keep his girlfriend's 15 year-old daughter from coming onto him in "The Diary of a Teenage Girl." Further appalling behavior could be seen in "The Tribe" and Kirby Dick's doc "The Hunting Ground" when men react violently against the non-reciprocation of their desires. Almost makes the porn at the center of the documentary "Hot Girls Wanted" feel like a healthy alternative by keeping the male fantasy at a necessary distance. Makes one wonder if the overall theme of Sundance was actually that men also have feelings and women have needs too.

NICK: To add onto what Erik has said, there seems to be an unofficial centerpiece to these expressed notions in Sundance's programming of the documentary of "The Mask You Live In." That film diagnosed many of the ideas about physical and sexual aggression and emotional regression within males in particular. Director Jennifer Siebel Newsom's documentary (executive produced by six women, and co-written by a woman) boiled it down to an unachievable masculinity, in which from a young age men are raised on these standards of power that comes from "being a man," which nonetheless creates these tough exteriors housing scarred insecurities throughout the rest of their lives. Perhaps too perfectly, J.K. Simmons' first emasculating tirade from last year's machismo hit at Sundance "Whiplash" was included amongst "The Mask You Live In's" many pop culture visual footnotes. 

Though the documentary's form was often too preachy and filled with a thousand fades to white to outright recommend, its initial message sounded off an alarm the way that Steve James' "The Interrupters" did about the disease of violence: if we can stop coaching these ridiculous notions of masculinity that also see femininity as second-level in comparison, the world wouldn't be overflowing with the men explored in these various films, who hurt others and themselves when wrapped up in these fantastical notions of emotional fortitude and superiority. Because of these ideas, a lot of these men that you've mentioned in these films don't know exactly how to open themselves up, (like Greg in "Me & Earl & The Dying Girl," or Gerry in "Mississippi Grind"), or they don't know how to treat women (as in "Zipper"), or outright have an active disrespect for women (the basis of "The Hunting Ground"). Even "Z for Zachariah" turns a single female's existence in a post-apocalypse into a type of clash of masculinities, where what's at stake most of all is power, and the woman in the love triangle. Newsom's film argues that this is destructive programming that is passed on from older generations to the next, and certainly not something inherent within how males are different than females. (Frida and Lasse Barkfors' award-winning doc "Pervert Park" also makes necessary note of the harmfulness of the cycle, expressing mental illness about sexuality as often a trait of an abusive family history, and one that often starts at a young age.) ["Pervert Park" was screened for press right before "The Mask You Live In."]) 

As Newsom's film argues, and I agree too, the current sad state of men's relationship with themselves (just watch the final act brawl during this year's Super Bowl, and then the Always "Like a Girl" ad) as dealt with by the rest of the world (women) would be better off if toughness was treated more as a myth than an attainable ranking. The festival's discussion of this notion is proof for me, more than introducing new filmmakers, that Sundance is committed to the progression of cinema. Buzzy films will come and go, but the ideas within them can make the most resonant impressions, while influencing a different, progressively healthier perspective for modern media. 

PATRICK: Sundance is always about the primacy of youth, especially the dramatic competition where the films are primarily representative of a first or second feature. What I noticed was the film equivalent of a literary conceit, the Bildungsroman, a novel that tracks the education, development and emerging sensibility of a young protagonist. It definitely fits the emotional architecture of "Dope," "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," "Diary of a Teenage Girl," "Brooklyn," and a few other movies.

"Diary" was a pretty polarizing title, but I really liked it, in part because of how it trafficked in a kind of amorality and nonjudgmental attitudes about young female sexual desire that I've always identified with a certain kind of French say, the "single girl" trilogy by Benoit Jacquot some two decades ago. That actress Bel Powley was remarkable, and probably because a woman made it, the movie never felt exploitative. It was audacious, bracing and unexpected, which is what you want in the movies. One of the problems I had with "Dope" is, by contrast, the women are fetishized and denied any real personalities, pure male fantasy figures, reflected in their behavior and actions and how they relate to the lead characters.

With "Earl," I interviewed the director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, and I think it's pretty obvious from the nature of my questions that I liked a film a lot. I liked the discrete, off-handed ways it deals with very serious issues, and how it played with the very ideas of the form, in this case, the high school movie. The movie starts out almost identically to "The Spectacular Now," a slow pan inside a room to a young man sitting before his computer, and telling us of a story that's about to unfold. As a scenario, the movie sounds unwatchable; of course, we know better, and what carries it aloft are the sensitivity and power of the direction and the actors. The fact is moves so expressively through very different emotional registers, from euphoria to an unbelievable sadness illustrates the emotional believability of the characters, the subtlety of characterization and what the leads and supporting players bring to their parts.

Also, how interesting that the two big winners, in the dramatic and documentary sections with "The Wolfpack," celebrate a very particular kind of cinephilia.

SAM: ​Certainly a conversation with Cooper and Groth would be useful here. It's damn near impossible to know what films they rejected, and why. I do think Sundance, like many festivals, is inching closer and closer to becoming mainstream. Every year the festival picks a whole host of movies that are clearly there to bring in recognizable faces. TIFF does this plenty, too. But I think if Sundance wishes to continue labeling itself the King of Independent cinema, they should be a bit more judicious in their selections. Ardent festival goers will still make their way to Park City if James Franco isn't in a movie; Main St. may just not be as popular. 

PATRICK: The great paradox (and beauty, I think) of festivals is they exist very much in the present, the immediate, but they require time and space to adequately capture and assess. Sundance cuts between two paths, the market and acquisition side as the deals are examined and the eventual box office weighed. The second and to my mind far more interesting aspect is assessing the artistic merit of this year's festival. That takes time (and effort), because even if you're saw 35-40 movies, that's roughly a third of the program.

Last year, my impression at the time was the dramatic competition, outside of "Whiplash," and "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter," was fairly weak. The other programs, especially Next, with "Listen Up Philip," "Land Ho," "Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," "Obvious Child," "Inappropriate Behavior," was quite strong. Of course, any festival that premieres "Boyhood," the film of the year (probably the decade), is going to look strong in retrospect.

I suspect a year from now, we'll look back at say, the dramatic competition was the strongest in the last two or three years, Next was done by comparison though still interesting, the premieres had nothing at the level of "Boyhood," but some highly idiosyncratic and impressive work, like the Ponsoldt, the Almereyda and the Boden/Fleck movies.

I didn't see enough of the documentaries to make a definitive declaration, though I will say, based on what I did see, I agree a lot with Anthony Kaufman's piece in indieWire the festival has to open up its programming to a more experimental vein and not just the standard, social issue-oriented, television broadcast format that dominates the documentary competition.

The final issue, which I think is a significant one, is that certain movies might be turning up at Berlin, SXSW, Cannes even, that were turned down by the festival. I think John Cooper and Trevor Groth are much more transparent than the previous director in the selection process. For the record, I was talking with a producer whose film was in Next, and he felt the festival "got it right," not just with his film, but the balance of the programming. 

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