I can’t believe I can say I just got back from the 30th Annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Forget Disney World. I can now confirm that the Sundance Film Festival is the happiest place on earth. Leaving Park City for Kentucky was difficult. I’m somehow supposed to go see films without a Q&A with Philip Seymour Hoffman afterwards. I have to start walking around campus for my last semester, and I won’t be passing Rachel McAdams on my way to class. Normal life is dull.
The hardest part of being at the festival is knowing that there are so many films to see and not enough time. Selecting which films we would screen was difficult every morning. However, I saw 16 films in 8 days so I can’t really complain. I can say that you all have some touching and incredible films to see over the next year, and I can’t wait to see the ones I missed but heard all about while in Park City. Here are the films I saw, in order from my favorite to least favorite. I included the credit information as well as what category it was in and when I saw it (but that’s mostly for my own benefit).
- Whiplash: This film was beautiful. There’s no other word to describe it. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons give scary good performances as a drummer at the best music conservatory in the county and his professor, respectively. It’s definitely the best of Teller’s short career and probably the best performance of Simmons’ longer career as well. This film has been purchased and is expected to be released sometime this year. I can only hope it’s released later in the year for the Oscar race. I know this modern, subtle, and unique tale could be a wonderful change from the usual Oscar films. Whenever it does come out, though, see it! It will have you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. Also, William H. Macy sat four seats away from me during this movie, and he loved it too. Directed and written by Damien Chazelle. Starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. 105 minutes. Category- U.S. Dramatic Competition. Attended the sixth-ever screening on January 23, 2014, at 11:30 pm at Prospector Square Theatre. Grade: A. Sundance Awards: Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Dramatic and Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic.
- Hellion: This was unexpected. Aaron Paul was the only reason I had a little bit of interest in this movie. We decided to go see it after seeing him on Main Street and realizing that he would probably be at the Q&A the next morning. Now, I’m so grateful that I saw this one, and I can’t believe it hasn’t been purchased for distribution yet. Newcomer Josh Wiggins stars as the titular hellion who rebels against his father (Aaron Paul) after the death of his mother. The performances by Wiggins, Paul, and Deke Garner, who plays Wiggins’ younger brother, were some of the best of the festival. I was really hoping for a special jury award for acting for them, and I’m shocked it didn’t happen. Entertainment Weekly compared Wiggins to a young Leonardo DiCaprio, something I found a tad insulting prior to seeing the movie since I am a huge DiCaprio fan. However, as I watched the film, I knew exactly what Entertainment Weekly was talking about. Wiggins fits that description perfectly, and I feel lucky that I got to see the very beginning of his career in person. Learn his name, as well as Deke Garner’s. They’ll be around for a long time. Directed and written by Kat Candler. Starring Aaron Paul, Juliette Lewis, Josh Wiggins, and Deke Garner. 98 minutes. Category- U.S. Dramatic Competition. Attended third-ever screening on January 20, 2014, at 9:00 am at Yarrow Hotel Theatre. Grade: A.
- God Help the Girl: This musical was definitely the most joyful movie I saw at Sundance. It was different from the traditional musical, and the relationship between the three young adults was gripping and emotional. Stuart Murdoch utilized interesting filmmaking techniques and created well-rounded characters. Olly Alexander, in particular, was endearing and hilarious as James. It was a happy and often lighthearted film, but it still had a lot of substance. I can only hope I have the opportunity to see this film again soon. Directed and written by Stuart Murdoch. Starring Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray, Pierre Boulanger, and Cara Bissett. 111 minutes. Category- World Cinema Dramatic Competition. Attended the second-ever screening on January 19, 2014, at 8:30 am at Prospector Square Theatre. Grade: A. Sundance Award: Special Jury Award for Ensemble Performance.
- The Guest: This film was by far the funniest one I saw at Sundance. It fell under Sundance’s “horror movie” genre, but instead of being scary, it parodied horror movies in a really fantastic way. Dan Stevens was charming and mysterious as “the guest” who returns from war and visits the family of one of his fallen brothers. Like Adam Wingard’s and Simon Barrett’s other films V/H/S and You’re Next, I could easily see The Guest becoming a cult favorite. It’s intelligent yet silly and not at all pretentious. Directed by Adam Wingard. Written by Simon Barrett. Starring Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Sheila Kelley, Leland Orser, and Lance Reddick. 99 minutes. Category- Park City at Midnight. Attended the world premiere on January 17, 2014, at 11:45 pm at Library Center Theater. Grade: A.
- The Skeleton Twins: Sibling stories kill me. I’m very close to my younger brother so I always feel very emotionally connected to any film, television show, or book that tells the story of a relationship between siblings. The Skeleton Twins was no exception. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play Milo and Maggie, estranged twins who are brought together again by the attempted suicide of Milo. The two haven’t spoken in ten years, but once they are reunited, they begin to realize how much they truly missed each other. Hader and Wiig give beautiful performances, and it should come as no surprise to anyone who has been alive at any point in the last ten or so years that the chemistry between the two was perfect. While they still get to be their funny selves at times, both knock it out of the park with their dramatic skills. I can’t wait to see what other incredible roles the two are offered after this movie. Directed by Craig Johnson. Written by Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman. Starring Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, and Joanna Gleason. 90 minutes. Category- U.S. Dramatic Competition. Attended the fourth-ever screening on January 22, 2014, at 12:15 pm at Eccles Theatre. Grade: A. Sundance Award: Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.
- La Bare: This documentary was the directorial debut of actor Joe Manganiello and was inspired by Manganiello’s role in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike. It follows the lives of male dancers at the popular strip club La Bare, but it’s so much more than meets than eye. It dives deep into their lives and explores how their unique careers impact their personal lives and families. At times, it had me in tears from laughing so much. At other times, tears were in my eyes because the men involved really opened up about their struggles. Manganiello has put together a wonderful documentary that had everyone in the room interested and wanting more. Plus, the male dancers were at the screening so I think it was the weirdest and most enjoyable screening I was able to attend. Directed and written by Joe Manganiello. 93 minutes. Slamdance Film Festival Category- Special Screenings. Attended the world premiere on January 19, 2014, at 7:45 pm at Treasure Mountain Inn. Grade: A.
- Happy Christmas: Joe Swanberg has made a compelling and completely improvised film with Happy Christmas. Swanberg wrote a 12-page outline for his cast and then let them create their characters and decide what they said. The result is a completely natural and delightful story about a woman (Anna Kendrick) who moves in with her older brother (Swanberg) and his wife (Melanie Lynskey) after a huge breakup. The movie was shot on actual film, which gives it a true home-movie look. This feeling is perfect for the story and the Christmas in Chicago setting. Also, be on the lookout for Jude Swanberg, the son of Joe who starred as his son in the film as well. He really is the breakout star of Sundance. It was a wonderful surprise. Directed and written by Joe Swanberg. Starring Anna Kendrick, Joe Swanberg, Melanie Lynskey, Lena Dunham, Mark Webber, and Jude Swanberg. 78 minutes. Category- U.S. Dramatic Competition. Attended the third-ever screening on January 21, 2014, at 8:30 am at Library Center Theatre. Grade: A.
- White Bird in a Blizzard: Shailene Woodley once again gives a stunning performance as Kat, a teenager whose mother suddenly disappears. The film tackles both comedy and drama in really wonderful ways, and it makes use of flashbacks in a way that most films aren’t able to do. Gregg Araki has written and directed a mystery film that is far from the traditional disappearance movies. I’m not sure that everyone will love it as much as I did, but it’s unique, visually beautiful, and includes the most surprising twist ending of any movie I saw at Sundance. Directed and written by Gregg Araki. Starring Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez, Gabourey Sidibe, and Thomas Jane. 91 minutes. Category- Premieres. Attended the world premiere on January 20, 2014, at 9:45 pm at Eccles Theatre. Grade: A-.
- The Double: Jesse Eisenberg stars as Simon James, a virtually invisible man to everyone around him. He is just merely existing. He’s awkward, shy, and uncomfortable. One day, his double named James Simon shows up as a new employee at Simon’s workplace. James is the polar opposite of Simon. He’s confident, popular, and a “ladies man.” As the movie continues, Simon must learn to interact and exist with this double. Jesse Eisenberg gives his best performance yet, in my opinion. He embodied both characters completely and helped separate the two for the audience in every way, including some incredible diversity in his physicality of the two men. The film was surprisingly funny, especially for how dark the production design was, and extremely intelligent. It trusted that viewers were smart enough to understand what was going on, which I personally really liked. Richard Ayoade did not waste time explaining parts of the movie. He kept the action constantly moving forward, which kept me engaged the entire time. Directed by Richard Ayoade. Written by Avi Korine. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, and Wallace Shawn. Category- Spotlight. Attended a screening on January 17, 2014, at 8:30 am at Library Center Theater. Grade: B+.
- The One I Love: It’s difficult to talk about what makes this movie so fun without giving away the secrets of it. In fact, in the Q&A, someone asked Mark Duplass how they planned on marketing the movie without giving away the details. So, I’ll keep it brief. Just know that if you liked Duplass in Safety Not Guaranteed or you are a fan of Elisabeth Moss, you’ll probably love this movie. They make a wonderful and unpredictable duo, and the movie really is a fun ride. I liked it even more than Safety Not Guaranteed, and I’m excited for the rest of the world to see this and discover just what makes it so special. Directed by Charlie McDowell. Written by Justin Lader. Starring Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss, and Ted Danson. 91 minutes. Category- Premieres. Attended the second-ever screening on January 22, 2014, at 8:30 am at Library Center Theatre. Grade: B+.
- Freedom Summer: This documentary about college students who went down to Mississippi to help African Americans register to vote in 1964 was incredibly inspiring. These people risked their lives to do what they believe was right, and I only wish I could be that brave. Stanley Nelson did a wonderful job of combining new interviews with heartbreaking archival footage from the time. The end of the documentary brought tears to my eyes. There were a few parts that didn’t seem that necessary, but overall, it was very effective. This will air on PBS in June so I really recommend you see it. Directed and written by Stanley Nelson. 113 minutes. Category- Documentary Premieres. Attended the fourth-ever screening on January 24, 2014, at 9:00 am at Holiday Village Cinema. Grade: B+.
- Life After Beth: I’m not a zombie aficionado at all. I don’t watch The Walking Dead or know really anything about zombies. However, I thought this film was quite funny and had a perfect cast. I’m not sure that zombie purists will love it, though. These zombies become that way over a longer period of time. It isn’t immediate, which Jeff Baena said he wanted to do so that the loved ones of the zombies would have a more emotional connection to them. I thought it was an interesting concept that led to some really fantastic moments from Dane DeHaan’s character. Directed and written by Jeff Baena. Starring Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Resier, and Matthew Gray Gubler. 91 minutes. Category- U.S. Dramatic Competition. Attended the fourth-ever screening on January 22, 2014, at 11:45 pm at Library Center Theatre. Grade: B.
- Laggies: I enjoyed this film, but it was not my favorite. It was often funny and heartwarming, and the performances were different than what the actors have done in the past. However, it was a tad cliché for me, especially with the ending. You could see it coming from about 15 minutes into the film. I would watch it again and maybe even purchase the DVD for a low cost on Black Friday, but it is not something I would watch constantly like I do with other films. I expect this one to be popular when it is released this summer, though. Directed by Lynn Shelton. Written by Andrea Seigel. Starring Keira Knightley, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell, Mark Webber, and Ellie Kemper. 100 minutes. Category- Premieres. Attended second-ever screening on January 18, 2014, at 8:30 am at The MARC. Grade: B.
- God’s Pocket: I have very mixed feelings about this film. This was certainly the most disappointed I’ve been in a Sundance film this year because this was one of my top priorities before arriving in Park City. I am a huge fan of John Slattery’s work, both as an actor and director, on Mad Men. However, his feature film directorial debut God’s Pocket was messy. It lacked the perfection of the episodes of Mad Men that Slattery has directed, probably because the writing fell flatter than the writing on his television show. I have not read the book, but I felt that the film focused on too much for its short running time of 88 minutes. The performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christina Hendricks, Richard Jenkins, and John Turturro were strong, but the actors are not the only part of the film. It could definitely use some polishing before it is released to the public. Directed by John Slattery. Written by John Slattery and Alex Metcalf. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christina Hendricks, Richard Jenkins, and John Turturro. 88 minutes. Category- U.S. Dramatic Competition. Attended the second-ever screening on January 18, 2014, at 10:00 pm at Redstone Cinema. Grace: B-.
- Song One: This one wasn’t on my list originally. However, my friends and I were standing outside the Eccles when a representative from Southwest Airlines came up to us. She asked if we flew Southwest and then handed us three tickets when we said yes. Let’s just say, I’m glad I didn’t pay for this one. It certainly wasn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen. However, it wasn’t one I really want to watch again. It was extremely Hollywood and too perfect (more so than Laggies). Mary Steenburgen was certainly the best part, and the music was pretty. The rest of it was just annoying. Like The Skeleton Twins, it featured estranged siblings as one of the main conflicts, but I never felt as emotionally invested in that story as I did with TST. Like I said above, I am usually heartbroken over films like that so that should tell you just how unenjoyable this film really was. Directed and written by Kate Barker-Froyland. Starring Anne Hathaway, Johnny Flynn, Mary Steenburgen, and Ben Rosenfield. 86 minutes. Category- U.S. Dramatic Competition. Attended the world premiere on January 20, 2014, at 3:30 pm at the Eccles Theatre. Grade: C+.
- Listen Up Philip: I wanted this movie to end about 20 minutes into it. I almost fell asleep multiple times, and I fought the sleep in the hope that the film would improve. It never did. I don’t think I’ve seen a film with more unlikable characters than this one. The only people I liked even a little bit were the women (Elisabeth Moss and Krysten Ritter), but I even got annoyed with them and then was angry that the director made them merely victims of the men instead of their own person. The only thing I slightly liked about this film was the director’s experimentation with some filmmaking techniques. He broke many rules that we learn in basic production classes at my university, and I think those worked in his favor. The movie as a whole though was unbearable, which is really unfortunate when you look at the strong cast. Usually, the Q&A after the films would give me insight to the movies and make me like the film even more. This Q&A made me hate the film even more. Alex Ross Perry was rude and claimed that he related to the men in the movie. After that, I was completely done. I’m glad we saw Whiplash later that night because it helped erase the bad memories of this one. Directed and written by Alex Ross Perry. Starring Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, and Josephine de La Baume. 108 minutes. Category- NEXT. Attended the fourth-ever screening on January 23, 2014, at 8:30 am at Prospector Square Theatre. Grace: C-.
The films I missed but want to see when they are released include Dear White People, Fishing Without Nets, Infinitely Polar Bear, Jamie Marks is Dead, Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, The Case Against 8, Dinosaur 13, Ivory Tower, My Prairie Home, Web Junkie, Calvary, Frank, Love is Strange, A Most Wanted Man, Nick Offerman: American Ham, Rudderless, They Came Together, The Voices, Wish I Was Here, Obvious Child, Life Itself, The Lunchbox, Ping Pong Summer, and Cooties. Like I said, there are a lot of wonderful movies (and a few of these didn’t premiere until after my class left), and while at Sundance, you just have to realize you won’t see everything you want to see. Hopefully these will be accessible to me very soon!
I also really love celebrities, and at Sundance, you can barely walk two feet without seeing someone. I saw 64 people at least once, and many of those, I saw multiple times after that. (John Slattery, Joe Manganiello, Shailene Woodley, and Aaron Paul are all tied with 4 sightings/interactions.) It was pretty cool! Here are the people I saw:
- Passed on street or saw from afar: Mark Ruffalo, Christina Hendricks, Chloe Grace Moretz, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, Kellan Lutz, Teresa Palmer, Luke Wilson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bob Odenkirk, Bill Hader, Mandy Patinkin, John Carroll Lynch, Mekhi Phifer, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Ben Schwartz, Karen Gillan, Jason Momoa, Lily Collins, Billy Crudup, Steve Coogan, Matt Walsh, Ted Danson, and Michael C. Hall.
- Saw in panel discussions and post-film Q&As: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mark Duplass, Emily Browning, Hannah Murray, Stuart Murdoch, Pierre Bonlanger, Anne Hathaway, Mary Steenburgen, Christopher Meloni, Gabourey Sidibe, Joe Swanberg, Shiloh Fernandez, Mark Indelicato, Mamrie Hart, and Rose McGowan.
- Interacted with in some way: Joe Manganiello, Aaron Paul, Lauren Paul, John Slattery, Richard Ayoade, Sam Rockwell, Dan Stevens, Jorge Garcia, Elijah Wood, Richard Schiff, Miles Teller, Donald Faison, Mark Webber, Cameron Monaghan, Jason Ritter, Melanie Lynskey, Olly Alexander, Jim O’Heir, Shailene Woodley, Josh Wiggins, Deke Garner, Elisabeth Moss, William H. Macy, and AMY POEHLER.
My favorite interaction was definitely the short moment we shared with Amy Poehler on January 24. She was the last person Brenna and I saw before leaving Park City, and even though we didn’t get a picture with her, it was still perfect. Leaving a restaurant at just the right time, we passed Amy on Main Street. We didn’t quite know what to say, but we quickly asked for a picture. She said she had to keep going, but she grabbed my hand and said “nice to meet you guys!” Those 20 seconds were kind of a blur, but I loved it. I hope I didn’t say anything embarrassing to her. I really can’t remember. I do know that I called my mom right after and started crying a bit. It was just too much for me to handle.
Aside from just talking to some of my favorite television and movie stars, the post-film Q&A sessions are definitely my favorite thing about Sundance. On January 18, I watched God’s Pocket, the feature film directorial debut of Emmy-nominated actor John Slattery that starred Academy Award-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman. After the film, Slattery and Hoffman walked into Redstone Cinema to discuss their experiences and decisions with the film. We learned about Slattery’s changes from the novel to the film and that Hoffman did most of his stunts in the film. On January 21, I saw Happy Christmas, starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Lena Dunham, and Joe Swanberg (who also wrote and directed the film). Swanberg informed us that the film was all improvised by the actors. He wrote a twelve-page outline for the actors so they would know the general plot. However, they were allowed to create their characters completely. Swanberg said he partially does this because he does not believe he has the right to put words in women’s mouths. He also wants the actors to feel that the film was collaborative, and allowing them to improvise does that. It was an eye-opening Q&A that helped me further enjoy a film that I had already loved. I saw a lot of people get up from the theater before the Q&As even started, but this was such a special part of the Sundance experience to me. These moments allowed us to interact with the filmmakers, cast members, editors, and producers. It gave me a deeper appreciation for the process of filmmaking and the work that goes into getting a film to Sundance. The next time I see a movie in Kentucky, I’ll probably be sitting in the theater expecting someone to walk in and answer a bunch of questions after the credits.
I spent most of my time with my friends Brenna and Lendee, and I truly don’t think anyone had a better time than the three of us. We spent time laughing together, crying over beautiful movies, and freaking out after speaking to people like John Slattery and Jason Ritter. I know this won’t be my last trip to the Sundance Film Festival. Until I can return though, I will relive this trip over and over again through memories, photographs, and viewings of the films I was fortunate enough to see.