Wrapping up Sundance 2012

January 30, 2012

Whenever someone asks me, “How was Sundance?”, I always wonder, What do you mean by that?

When I mention I’m going to the Sundance Film Festival, most people say, “Oh, that sounds like fun” – until I tell them that I see four or five movies a day, every day. Then “That sounds like fun” turns into “How can you do that?” (Years of conditioning is the answer.)

So how was Sundance? Well, I feel as though I had a successful festival. By that, I mean that I achieved my main goal: I saw a lot of films that made me want to share them with the film clubs I program.

Which, to be honest, is my first priority when I go to Sundance or Toronto, the two festivals I travel to: I’m scouting for movies for my film clubs. Once upon a time, when I was primarily covering the festivals for publications, I had a different agenda: looking for news (or gossip), trying to be the first person into print praising (or slagging) the films I’d seen.

Which meant arriving in time for the first day of the festival and racing from film to film – and line to line – to get into the most buzzed-about titles. This year, however, I tried something different, opting to attend the last half of the festival instead of the first. Most of the same titles were still being shown, minus that “me first” pressure that seems to guide so much coverage.

Did I see everything I wanted to? Of course not – nobody can. There are literally hundreds of films at a festival like Sundance and, inevitably, schedules never line up to allow you to get to all the films you’d like to see. Even if you went for the whole festival – something I’ve done and have no interest in doing again – you couldn’t see everything you wanted to. Even if your list was limited, you inevitably hear about things you hadn’t considered and try to fit them in as well.

As I said, schedules simply don’t allow it – and if schedules do, logistics often don’t. It’s sometimes as simple as not having enough time to get from one side of Park City to the other in time for a curtain.

So there were movies I wanted to see that I couldn’t, but that I still hope to: films like the dramatic competition award winner, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”; Josh Radnor’s “Liberal Arts”; Nicholas Jarecki’s “Arbitrage”; and James Marsh’s “Shadow Dancer.” They’re all films that either found or will find distributors and will make their way out into the world.

The films I was most excited about? I firmly believe that Ben Lewin’s “The Surrogate” could be one of those movies that pops up next fall and turns into the kind of Oscar-bound sleeper that “The Artist” is this year. Last year at this time, no one had heard from Michel Hazanavicius’ silent film; now it’s the odds-on Oscar favorite. In the same way, Lewin’s film, based on a true story, features the kind of heart and intelligence with which audiences and critics connect a la “The Descendants.”

There were a number of others I really liked, including Jonathan Kasdan’s sweet, smart “The First Time”; Michael Mohan’s “Save the Date”; Marshall Lewy’s “California Solo”; Michael Walker’s “Price Check”; and “The Words.”

Of course, if your sole exposure to Sundance was the press coverage, then you came away with different impressions: that the festival was something of a dud, based on low-key (read: cautious) deal-making; that the festival was full of weird, artistic leaps (based on some critics’ predilection for films that vigorously avoid the mainstream); or that the festival was one big commercial mash-up, based on the endless parties, product placements and celebutante sightings around Park City during the week.

All of which are true – but also false, depending on your perspective. Because Sundance is too big and sprawling an event to generalize about what it means in any given year or even from year to year – and certainly not while it’s going on.

But that, of course, is the pundit’s role, for better or worse: to extrapolate the macro from the micro. My micro was pretty enjoyable. If anything, the festival felt even better organized this year, run by friendly and helpful volunteers and staff.

On the other hand, the way I approach it – seeing as many films as physically possible in four days (my total was 17, including the ones I walked out of) – it also felt like work. There were days where it seemed as if my life consisted of either watching movies or standing in line to watch movies. I would literally walk out of one film and into the line for the next one (occasionally fleeing to the Fresh Market near the multiplex where the press screenings were held to grab some protein).

Was it work? Sure. Did it work? Absolutely.

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