I was lucky enough to have coffee with John Cooper & Trevor Groth, head programmers of the Sundance Film Festival, and the Ebert Scholars (and Eric Kohn & Sam Adams), on the first day of my third year in Park City. The conversation was a stimulating one for sure, but I found Cooper & Groth’s answer to what journalists get wrong about their fest most interesting. They expressed concern that too many writers try to capture the entire event in their recaps and reporting without recognizing that they’re only seeing a portion of it. With over 120 films screening at Sundance this year, our entire staff on location worked incredibly hard and didn’t even get to HALF of them. So, journalists who like to claim it was a “good” or “bad” Sundance should recognize that they’re only seeing a small portion of what’s been programmed. It’s true, and yet it’s the first question we’re often asked upon return. Was it a good Sundance? So, with the caveat that I saw 36 films—a ridiculous number that still doesn’t get close to half—I would say it was a good-not-great one. My personal Park City journey started incredibly rocky, going 2 “thumbs up” out of 10 films over the first couple days. And then it really turned around. Sunday through Tuesday were incredibly strong. So, I had a Tale of Two Sundances, and, as Mr. Cooper and Mr. Groth would want me to note, only two Sundances out of hundreds possible. My five best films:
“The End of the Tour”: Comparing a film to Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy is not something I do casually. And yet those films are the ones I kept returning to when considering James Ponsoldt’s fantastic drama about David Foster Wallace. It has been some time since a film featured such razor-sharp dialogue that I wanted to go home and read the script as soon as possible. And to have these fascinating conversations brought to life by two actors at the top of their game right now only makes them more resonant. Read more.
“James White”: The most emotionally devastating experience of Sundance 2015 (sorry, Dying Girl) is in Josh Mond’s brutal, unsparing tale of youthful indiscretion defeated by the responsibility that comes with caring for an ill parent. Cynthia Nixon has never been better and Christopher Abbott may be relatively unknown at the beginning of 2015, but won’t be by the end. Read more.
“Brooklyn”: It may be old-fashioned; it may be sentimental; it may be melodramatic. I don’t care. John Crowley’s adaptation is cut from the same emotional cloth as Jim Sheridan’s “In America,” and I adore that film too. This is a work that people will fall rapturously in love with when it’s released, holding it close to their heart for the rest of their lives. My Italian-Irish background and general sentimentality may have made me an easier target than some critics, but I can’t deny how emotionally I responded to this piece. It’s really sweet. It’s really beautiful. And in a rather cynical Sundance year, it was like a splash of cold water in the face—invigorating. Read more.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”: So much has already been written about Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Grand Jury Prize winner that I think it’s likely that many of you will be disappointed when you finally see it. It’s the odd cycle of a Sundance film that can go from entirely unknown commodity to overrated in a day. I hope viewers can go in as cold as possible because there’s so much filmmaking joy on display here that it’s infectious. In the end, in both Greg and Rachel’s arcs, it’s a film about the importance of art. It’s a movie that left me not disappointed but wanting to go create something. It’s a movie about death that made me want to leave a mark. That’s an accomplishment. Read more.
“Dope”: The funniest, most vibrant film at Sundance this year could arguably use one more edit to tighten some of its set pieces and conversations, but it’s too much fun even as is to ignore. In Rick Famuyiwa’s vision of modern Inglewood, kids don’t just observe pop culture, they take it in and reconfigure it into an essential part of their lives. And his ultimate point—that not only is judging a book by its cover misguided but even the first few chapters may be misleading—has stunning social resonance in an era when perception still fuels action. Read more.
Sundance is great because the people who attend it are great. That’s what made reading WIRED’s Jordan Crucchiola on journalists being the “worst people at Sundance” so heartbreaking. No one gets into criticism for the money; it’s for the films, and then the people whom you can talk about the films with afterwards. Festivals like Sundance create this inimitable environment for people from all walks of life—critics, distributors, artists, festival goers, locals—to talk about the movies they’ve seen. Then, slowly, depending on the venue and alcohol intake, various people engage in conversations that veer into something more personal. Save for Crucchiola, everyone knows traversing Main Street, standing in long lines at the Holiday theater, and paying for overpriced beverages/food at the Yarrow are only worthwhile experiences because of the people you’re surrounded by.
This was my 3rd time traveling out to Park City to cover Sundance. And I know only one thing is certain about 2016: I’ll be back here again 11 months from now.
“Listen To Me Marlon”: After combing through over 300 hours of audio recordings, director Stevan Riley created an unfettered document of Marlon Brando’s storied life. This is Brando on Brando, granting us full access into the dark recesses of his mind. The good, the bad, and the ugly of his life and career plastered onto the silver screen. It’s as if Riley is giving Brando an opportunity to deliver one last performance —his magnum opus. Read more.
“Tangerine”: No film was as formally interesting at Sundance than Sean Baker’s latest: a slick uproarious seriocomedy shot on an iPhone 5s. Adorned with various aesthetically spellbinding filters, Baker’s follow-up to “Starlet” is accompanied by an unbeatable logline: “A working girl tears through Tinseltown on Christmas Eve searching for the pimp who broke her heart.” And tear through grimy LA she does.
“Western”: The more I sit with Bill and Turner Ross’s latest examination of humanity, the more I love it. The dynamic brother duo have created yet another inimitable experience. Stop, sit, and watch as you sink lower in your seat, hypnotized by these people in front of you —their moods oscillating from happy to sad rapidly, unexpectedly. Read more.
“The Royal Road”: A cinematic video essay that examines unconsummated love with intimacy and wit. Writer/director Jenni Olson is a marvel. Read more.
“Mississippi Grind”: There was no film at Sundance that I enjoyed basking in more than Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s wooly, restless “Mississippi Grind.” While not as emotionally impactful as some of their previous efforts (“Half Nelson,” “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”), this a tried-and-true road trip movie. Two addicted gamblers (played by Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds) travel down south to make money, pay off their respective debts, and find happiness. Some of those goals are reached. Read more.
Any festival experience is directly related to just how good the films are. In my now 13th year as a festival goer I have always proclaimed that if you can hit a 50/50 positive-to-negative ratio, that was a solid year. I saw 27 films in six days at this year's Sundance and I was positive on 14 of them. That is a pretty darn good year, especially considering there have been years where I had seen over 30 films and liked less than 10.
Between the fun and relaxed atmosphere of my condo (filled entirely by members of the Chicago Film Critics Association), the sometimes beautiful weather unmatched in the 12 years prior (either a result of the fest taking place a week later or the whole global warming thing) and keeping a closer ear on avoiding the negative buzz on a few films I scheduled, 2015 was kind of the perfect storm on how to enjoy a festival.
Now here are five films I will not be forgetting anytime soon.
"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl": If you are the kind of person who discovered The Criterion Collection on laserdisc, thought "Be Kind Rewind" didn't go far enough and "The Fault In Our Stars" went too far, or was just an awkward teenager that grew up with a big heart, it is impossible to not kind of love this film. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon makes one of the better coming-of-age tales out of Jesse Andrews' 2013 book that moviegoers of all backgrounds and cinephiles of all aesthetics should appreciate. Read more.
"Call Me Lucky": Bobcat Goldthwait remains one of the most interesting voices in cinema and this time he turns to the documentary form to allow another voice to take center stage. The story of '80s stand-up Barry Crimmins is an emotional landslide of comedy, politics, pain and, ultimately, activism. The double standing ovation the premiere received for Goldthwait and Crimmins was not just deserved, but essential. Read more.
"Mississippi Grind": Joining the likes of films such as "California Split", "Owning Mahowny" and 1974's "The Gambler," this was a welcome return to form for the voices of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds are both excellent as the traveling gamblers seemingly on the road to either redemption or nowhere. Read more.
"The Hunting Ground": Kirby Dick has been doing some of the most important work in documentaries for the past decade and this is no exception. A companion piece to "The Invisible War", this moves the discussion of the rampant cover-up of rape from the military to college campuses everywhere. Another infuriating experience that rightfully shames universities and at least one potential NFL prospect.
"The Tribe": It was not a Sundance premiere, but catching up on Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's daring debut utilizing sign language (without subtitles or a single voice) and bold single take vignettes was a disturbing, uncomfortable and yet riveting endeavor destined to join the infamous pile of titles like Larry Clark's "Kids" and Gaspar Noé's "Irreversible."