Festival Watch: Sundance 2015 Opens

Calvin Knight

Film critic John Lopez gives us his notes from the festival frontlines.

It’s that time of year again. While Hollywood’s Elders steep in the champagne bath of parties that is High Oscar season, the next generation of glitterati have packed their warmest winter gear and decamped to the Holiest Mountain of Indie Film. Yes, Sundance 2015 is here. The Academy may still be looking backward to determine which films won 2014 but the cinephile faithful are flooding Park City in search of 2015’s next big hit. After all, two of this year’s Best Picture nominees—Whiplash and Boyhood—enjoyed their first hurrahs here in Utah exactly one year ago.

In fact, the deal-making already hit high gear before this year’s festival even began. Fox Searchlight pre-emptively acquired indie icon Noah Baumbauch’s Miss America, starring his muse (and girlfriend) Greta Gerwig; meanwhile Lion’s Gate picked up Don Verdean, the latest from Jared Hess, director of the endlessly quoted quirk-ball comedy Napoleon Dynamite. Another film high on my personal list should line up distribution soon: The End of the Tour, James Ponsoldt’s cinematic look at the late, great novelist David Foster Wallace, with Jason Segel as the post-modern bard. Suffice to say, all signs point to a heady festival as everyone scrambles through the cold in search of 2015’s indie gems—with plenty of parties, Stella Artois-sponsored open bars, and scenester hoopla to keep you warm in between showings.

The first salvo was fired Thursday Night after Robert Redford’s customary ceremonial press conference, in which the High Priest of Sundance dared to make the not-so-shocking claim that television “is advancing faster than film.” And why not? The choice between watching something on that 4k television set in your living room and the art house is quickly coming down to a matter of who has a better beer selection. As The New York Times points out, chances are most people will see the majority of this year’s line-up on Netflix, Amazon, or just on Demand. In fact, one of Thursday night’s premieres, the comprehensive, if apparently conventional Nina Simone documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? will be on Netflix this spring.

Still, there’s nothing like the communal theater experience—even when it means laughing uncomfortably at the raunchy Olympic-level sex in The Bronze, another Thursday premiere (although early reviews indicate it didn’t quite stick the landing). For all the hype and glitter of the festival, Sundance always does a good job of reminding attendees what it’s like to discover poetry in a dark theater when you least expect it (as Todd McCarthy’s review of The Summer of Sangaile illustrates). The slopes are great, the parties fizzy, but that is the true joy of Sundance. So, I’ve packed my bags and I’m on the next plane to Salt Lake City in search of that distinctly Sundance experience. Stay tuned and I’ll let you know what I find...

For more from Sundance 2015:

Read a review of James Ponsaldt’s The End of the Tour »
Read a review of Laura Gabbert’s City of Gold and other documentaries from the festival »
Read a review of Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl, plus standouts in the Next category »