Wrapping up the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

January 24, 2014

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I look back on this year’s Sundance Film Festival as an immersive experience, the recipe for which is: See 20 films in four days, then hop on a red-eye back to New York.

I “festival” (yes, even that has become a verb) in my own particular way, because I have a specific agenda. Yes, I want to see the best of what’s new and upcoming – and, perhaps, to discover something – a film, a filmmaker – that will explode in a wave of publicity later on. I’m also scouting films for the film clubs I program, so I’m looking specifically at titles that either already have distribution or look like they have the potential to find their way into theaters (and will appeal to my audience).

My festival experience itself was fairly self-contained: I get up and I go to movies. Then I go back to my room and write about what I’ve seen. Then I go to bed and start the whole process over again. No parties, no meals eaten with another person (except for an annual home-cooked dinner with a group of people who have become friends and aren’t in the business), no socializing beyond occasionally running into someone I know in line for a screening or in a theater. I don’t even do interviews anymore.

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I go mostly to press screenings, all in the same little multiplex, though I saw films at three other venues this year. I rarely strayed from roughly the same square mile of Park City to see a movie in the course of the time I was there; the less time spent traveling between screenings, the more screenings you can squeeze in.

I’ll admit that seeing that many movies in that little time is like being in a semi-dream state for several days in a row. You are submerged in that world of movies – and waiting for movies and writing about movies. It’s exhausting and exhilarating, particularly when the movies are good.

This year, despite blogger verdicts that it was a weak Sundance (based on the size of the sales of those films that sold), I felt like I saw a lot of tasty, entertaining, provocative stuff. The majority were titles I absolutely would show with enthusiasm at one of my series.

And the best part was going in knowing as little as possible, something that becomes increasingly difficult with each passing day because of the proliferation of movie-centric media.

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Thankfully, no one told me anything about “The One I Love,” an exceptionally clever romantic-comedy with a twist, starring Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss. So its central surprise was, in fact, a surprise. It could be an extremely difficult movie to review without including spoilers.

And no one could have prepared me for “The Girl from Nagasaki,” as wild and visionary a film as I’ve seen in a long time. Based on “Madame Butterfly,” it’s a dazzlingly provocative film, combining a variety of visual and cinematic styles to create a work that deconstructs Puccini’s opera in a startlingly modern way.

(Even more amazing: While sitting at the Salt Lake City airport with a group of people waiting to go home, the film came up in conversation – and I found myself arguing in defense of it with a female colleague whose tastes led me to consider her a supporter of all that is most experimental and adventurous in film, who called it “obscene” and “a disaster.” There is no accounting for her taste, of course.)

I saw films that toyed with storytelling forms, that pushed the envelope of what can and can’t be done on film – and films that stayed neatly within the envelope. Most of all, I saw films that I would gladly and enthusiastically share with others: Lynn Shelton’s “Laggies,” Ira Sachs’ “Love Is Strange,” William Eubank’s “The Signal,” Jennifer Kroot’s “To Be Takei” and Anton Corbijn’s “A Most Wanted Man,” just to name a couple. I felt even more so about Craig Johnson’s “The Skeleton Twins.”

Did I see big trends? Breakout hits? Changing paradigms?

Sorry, I’m the wrong person to ask. I saw a lot of movies that I will enjoy writing about at further length in the not-too-distant future. That’s always my goal. This year’s Sundance was as efficient a place to achieve that goal as any Sundance I’ve attended.

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