Listen! Do you smell that? It’s the Sundance Film Festival, back for another year of showcasing new independent films and terrorizing the helpless town of Park City, Utah.
The mood is slightly muted this year, partly because there wasn’t much pre-festival buzz about any of the films, partly because Park City is a wintry hellscape, and partly because the first full day of the fest was also the day that a doll-handed rage demon became president of the United States. It never fails: Every time we inaugurate a 70-year-old toddler who has never held a job or known happiness, the mood at Sundance gets taken down a peg.
But hey, movies! Not to brag, but this is my 18th year covering Sundance, so I think I know what I’m talking about when I say that they show movies here. Let’s begin, shall we?
Day 1: Thursday, Jan. 19
The opening-night film was An Inconvenient Sequel, the follow-up to Al Gore’s documentary about climate change that captured America’s hearts 10 years ago and inspired everyone to recycle a little bit more for a few weeks. I skipped the film, as I’d just arrived in Park City from a 12-hour drive that had taken 24 hours because of adverse weather and was in no mood for a movie reminding me how bad weather is.
But I did catch another opening-night film (Sundance has like five opening-night films), the magnificently titled I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. This is a low-key comedy with abrupt tonal shifts about a disappointed-with-life woman (Melanie Lynskey) who sets out to find the creep who burglarized her house. She’s assisted by a neighbor (played by Elijah Wood), a Napoleon Dynamite type who’s obsessed with Japanese fighting and weaponry. The movie is solid, especially for a debut; it’s actor Macon Blair’s first time as a director. And Melanie Lynskey is so delightful — in this, and in everything — that it’s impossible to say her name without appending “the delightful” to it. Netflix bought the film, so it’ll probably go straight there without a theatrical release, which is what a lot of good movies do now that it’s the future.
I’m sharing a condo with, I don’t know, seven or eight other gentlemen from the online film community, representing such websites as That One Movie Site and That Other One and Geez, How Many Are There?.com. We are friends and colleagues who are about to become intimately familiar with the subtle differences between one another’s farts. Already there has been discussion of which bathrooms are off-limits for twosies.
Day 2: Friday, Jan. 20
The festival got into full swing today, and Mother Nature supported it by dumping a thousand inches of snow on us, all day long, forever. The running theme of my 18 years at Sundance has been that hosting a major film festival in a small mountain town in the middle of winter is a terrible idea, though I do admire the Sundance Institute’s stubborn commitment to it.
I watched a movie called Lady Macbeth, despite my fear that it was going to be another P.C. remake that would ruin my childhood memories of the real Macbeth. But actually it’s a slow-burning drama (with darkly comic moments) about a repressed 19th-century English wife who embarks on an affair with a stableman while her husband is away on business. She becomes empowered, hooray! Then she, uh, takes it too far. I mean REALLY too far. If I were in the business of writing Hot Takes, I would say the movie is a warning against letting women have too much freedom. But no, it’s actually a chilling look at how people (male or female) can explode after being restricted, and how stablemen are untrustworthy.
(Roadside Attractions is set to release Lady Macbeth theatrically this summer.)
Another running theme over the years at Sundance has been that there’s only one conveniently located fast-food joint in town, and it’s a Burger King. (Because Park City is Quaint with a capital Q, even the Burger King has to be designed to look like a rustic skiing lodge.) There isn’t always enough time between screenings to have a proper meal in a respectable establishment, so we in the press often find ourselves at BK. The veterans among us have learned to forestall the inevitable Burger King visit as long as possible, but I was feeling nihilistic today and thought, Screw it, I’m getting it over with. As with most resignations, it was delicious.
Something they flirted with last year that seems to be in full force this year is security checks, at public screenings as well as P&Is (press and industry). Before you can enter the theater, you have to open your jacket and backpack or purse so that a guy can glance at them. The guy I asked said they are checking for guns. So be warned: the only way you’ll be able to bring a gun into a Sundance movie is if you, like, hide it. Like in your pants pocket, or an inner coat pocket, or at the bottom of your backpack or purse. But if you have it strapped to your chest, or you’re just waving it around? BUSTED.
Next up was Person to Person, one of those shaggy ensemble comedies about various average New Yorkers whose lives intersect (or, in a few instances, don’t), with stories that ultimately tie together thematically into a cohesive whole (or, in this case, don’t). I liked so many of the characters: Abbi Jacobson as a timid rookie newspaper reporter, Michael Cera as her boss showing her the ropes, Philip Baker Hall as a watchmaker repairing a piece of evidence from a possible murder case, the pleasantly schlubby Bene Coopersmith as a record collector who gets duped. There are funny and/or charming moments. But there’s also an arch fakeness to everything, and about halfway through I thought: Oh, man, this isn’t going anywhere, is it? And I was right.
The reaction was generally negative among my immediate circle of pals/roommates, including such Internet luminaries as Neil Miller, Rob Hunter, and Jeff Bayer. We dissed it amongst ourselves as we trudged back to the condo, where Twitter brought word that a decent number of other folks had really liked it. So who knows? These are all matters of opinion, not objective facts like Park City being a forbidden wasteland not suitable for human habitation.
TO BE CONTINUED…