For the next 10 days, all Hollywood eyes--and those of many a filmgoer--will turn toward the frigid wilds of Park City, Utah, reportedly experiencing its chilliest winter in a decade. Their collective hope: to discover at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival (January 17 through 26) the next Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Sessions, Chasing Ice, or Searching for Sugar Man, to name four of last year's Sundance premieres now in the running for this year's Academy Awards. Those breakouts, alongside such acclaimed 2012 alumni as Keep the Lights On, Middle of Nowhere, and The Queen of Versailles, offer ample proof that, as it enters its 29th year (and despite formidable competition from Austin's upstart South by Southwest), the festival remains reliable one-stop shopping for those films that will stand at the center of the indie-film conversation over the next 12 months.
It has been four years since this critic last set foot in Park City, and in that time, the festival has undergone a number of significant changes. After a two-decade reign, Sundance festival director Geoffrey Gilmore ceded the throne in 2009 to his longtime lieutenant, John Cooper--a shift that also saw longtime festival programmer Trevor Groth move up into Cooper's former role as director of programming. The following year brought the introduction of a new competitive section, NEXT, focused expressly on the sort of incipient, no-budget filmmaking that some observers saw the festival abandoning toward the end of the Gilmore era in favor of starrier fare tailor-made for the picture pages in Us Weekly.
Another new category, Documentary Premieres, was established in 2011 to siphon off higher-profile docs by established filmmakers from the festival's main U.S. documentary competition. And the heretofore U.S.-centric festival has increasingly challenged its seasonal rivals Rotterdam and Berlin for international premieres, launching the likes of An Education, Bronson, and the Irish musical Once, with new work by Australia's Jane Campion (Top of the Lake) and France's Anne Fontaine (Two Mothers) on tap for 2013.
In recent years, more Sundance films than ever before have entered the coveted world of U.S. distribution, even as that world has itself undergone a series of fairly dramatic, Darwinian adaptations. Long gone are the days when studio-owned "indie" divisions like Focus, Fox Searchlight, and Miramax routinely made Sundance headlines with profligate seven-figure acquisition deals for movies that almost inevitably failed to recoup.
Nowadays, the few such companies that remain are more interested in long-term talent development, as Searchlight signaled when it signed a first-look deal with the New York-based Borderline Films collective responsible for Afterschool and Martha Marcy May Marlene. (In a similar move, Searchlight picked up two films at Sundance 2012 from the prodigiously talented actress-writer Brit Marling--the low-fi sci-fi drama Another Earth and the cult-leader thriller Sound of My Voice--and returns to the festival this year with Marling's latest, The East.) Meanwhile, for more and more Sundance movies, "distribution" might mean playing on an Apple TV near you rather than in a brick-and-mortar cinema, as upstart micro-distributors navigate the swiftly changing currents of video-on-demand platforms.
As more than 100 new feature-length films unspool (or, rather, digitally splay) across Park City screens, I'll be reporting back with regular dispatches in print and online. In the meantime, here's an early look at some standouts sure to be generating buzz on Main Street:
5. Charlie Victor Romeo
If France's master post-structuralist filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet had directed Flight, it might look something like this utterly unclassifiable whatsit screening in Sundance's New Frontier section (devoted to works of the avant-garde). Originally produced on stage by New York's Collective:Unconscious theater group, Charlie Victor Romeo consists of six dramatizations of real-life airline emergencies, performed on a spartan set by a small rep company of actors, using transcripts of the actual "black box" cockpit voice-recorder transmissions as the script. Now, CVR is a movie, albeit one shot--in 3-D, no less--during several live performances in front of an audience, the theatrical lighting and set design adding an eerie, disembodied feel to the harrowing struggle between man and machine transpiring before us. (The pièce de résistance: a beat-by-agonizing-beat reenactment of the United Airlines DC-10 that crashed into a Sioux City, Iowa cornfield in 1989 after losing one of its engines.) For 80 minutes, the movie keeps you in something like suspended animation, waiting to exhale. All told, CVR might be more than some (most?) viewers can bear, but this much is for sure: You've never seen anything like it.
4. Mother of George
The gifted Nigerian-born photographer and filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu, whose debut feature, Restless City, was one of the most promising discoveries of last year's Sundance, returns with this even more accomplished relationship drama about Adenike (sensational newcomer Danai Gurira--remember that name), a young Nigerian woman who emigrates to America to wed her fiancé, Brooklyn restauranteur Ayodele (the great Claire Denis regular Isaach De Bankolé). The film opens with a traditional Yoruba wedding banquet worthy of Visconti, before settling into a richly detailed portrait of African immigrant life in this proprietary corner of New York, all wrapped in a lyrical glaze by cinematographer Bradford Young. When Adenike fails to become pregnant in a timely manner, her formidable mother-in-law proposes a solution worthy of Greek tragedy, but one that Dosunmu and screenwriter Darci Picoult deploy with a minimum of melodrama and a maximum of psychological realism. Together with such other recent Sundance finds as Dee Rees's Pariah and Ava Duvernay's Middle of Nowhere, Dosunmu's work suggests a new renaissance moment for American black cinema.
3. Narco Cultura
Possibly the least likely movie ever to be directed by someone named Shaul Schwarz, this mesmerizing Sundance doc competitor plunges us deep into the world of the Mexican drug wars, mapping a Traffic-like web of interconnected characters that stretches from the violent streets of Juárez to the shadow of the Hollywood sign. Of particular interest to Schwarz is the burgeoning industry of singer-songwriters who perform "narcocorridos"--a mariachi version of gangster rap that celebrates the drug-running "narcos" as modern folk heroes. (Sample lyric: "With an AK-47 and a bazooka over my shoulder/Cross my path, and I'll chop your head off.") Along the way, we meet forensic investigators who put their own lives at risk at each new crime scene, and business-savvy moguls for whom nothing is off limits as entertainment. All of it is captured by Schwarz--an award-winning magazine photographer and Israeli air force vet--with a sharp eye for composition and a fearlessness about where he places himself and his camera.
2. Valentine Road
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Also screening in the U.S. Documentary competition, first-time filmmaker Marta Cunningham's remarkable Valentine Road focuses on the headline-grabbing 2008 case of 15-year-old Lawrence "Larry" King, the openly gay Oxnard, California, junior high student shot and killed by 14-year-old classmate Brandon McInerney. But was it murder? Manslaughter? A hate crime? Or none of the above? Spending three years on the ground in the racially and economically diverse SoCal bedroom community, Cunningham gained extraordinary access to parties and partisans on all sides, including McInerney's family, attorneys for the defense and prosecution, the LGBT activists who quickly mobilized into action, and the surprisingly robust constituency (including more than a few teachers and other authority figures) who rally behind McInerney as the real victim here. The result is both a vastly superior work to last year's pro forma Bully, and an unforgettable, troubling close-up of small-town America at a moral and ethical crossroads.
1. The Institute
Never to be counted out, the concurrent Slamdance festival--once a nose-thumbing startup--is now, after 18 years, practically an éminence grise itself, and always good for one or two finds of its own. This year, one of those is Spencer McCall's The Institute, a documentary portrait of the Jejune Institute, an elaborate "alternate reality game" that unfolded on the streets of San Francisco from 2008 to 2011. The bait was an est-like self-help org concocted by producer/creator Jeff Hull and advertised through flyers and other guerilla marketing techniques; the game itself was an elaborate scavenger hunt combining urban exploration with the search for a missing woman and a general promise of heightened self-awareness. Think a somewhat goofier, new-agey version of the gauntlet run by Michael Douglas's self-absorbed businessman in The Game, and you begin to get the idea. Thousands of people for whom everyday life is evidently not exciting enough happily took the plunge. McCall recounts this all in playfully subversive fashion, attempting to replicate in cinematic terms the experience of participating in the game itself. Rarely have I felt so absorbed by a movie about people I found so incredibly annoying.