Once again the streets of Park City will throng with L.A.’s exported glitterati. Once again, the indie faithful will wait in stand-by lines for even the most obscure film from the farthest reaches of the globe; once again, it’s Sundance. Sure, it’s the same snow, same legendary slopes, but, as the film world converges on Robert Redford’s Holy Mountain, one can’t help but wonder: is it the same festival?
Last year Sundance understandably became an extension of the protests around President Trump’s inauguration. But this year, the #MeToo movement has dominated the cultural conversation and the pronounced absence of Harvey Weinstein—some of whose crimes were perpetrated at festivals past even as he brought beloved indie films to the masses—will surely loom large in the background buzz.
That said, the festival has put in place a new code of conduct to exorcise the Weinstein ghost, and there’s no place better suited for the conversations that #MeToo is sparking. And where Sundance speaks loudest is with its films, which puts Jennifer Fox’s The Tale atop the list of must-sees: Laura Dern plays a woman coming to terms with being sexually assaulted as a child. Given Dern’s recent renaissance, and the fact the story is based on the director’s personal experiences, The Tale could easily be a barrel of pure celluloid dynamite, that elusive film that defines the festival.
Yet, the beauty of Sundance is that it never lets itself be defined by just one conversation; its slate inevitably provides an intriguing celluloid index for the global zeitgeist. Thursday night’s premiers are a case in point: you have everything from Our New President, a documentary about the election of Donald Trump from the Russian point of view to Blindspotting, a buddy comedy about Oakland’s gentrification to Tamara Jenkin’s Private Life with the comparatively simple story of a couple battling infertility.
But, of course, the first question on everyone’s minds when they land is: what’s the hot ticket?
Despite its indie ethos, Sundance has no shortage of glossy films with sparkly names to soak up all that press. Some even look to be as good as they are glamorous, like the dueling literary biopics The Happy Prince, directed by Rupert Everett (who cast himself perfectly as Oscar Wilde); and Colette, with Keira Knightley playing the famous Belle Epoque Parisian literary star, directed by Wash Westmoreland who helped Julianne Moore win an Oscar with Still Alice. Among the other breathlessly glitzy premieres are yet another adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel Juliet, Naked; new films by Debrak Granki and Gus Van Sant, Leave No Trace and Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot, respectively; a feminist re-examination of Hamlet, Ophelia, with Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley as the eponymous lovelorn heroine; and Tony Gilroy’s new political thriller Beirut with Jon Hamm.
Of course, you also can’t ignore Sundance’s impeccable doc selections, and the non-fiction line-up is equally star-studded: it’s hard to choose between bios of Joan Jett, Robin Williams, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Mr. Rogers. And certainly you can’t miss a critical look at Hollywood’s shortage of female directors in Half the Picture or the in-depth take on the protests at Standing Rock of Akacita.
But as all Sundance veterans know, the joy isn’t necessarily in making it to the high profile affairs: besides, those will inevitably make it to a theater near you soon enough. Sundance is as much, if not more, about finding tomorrow’s great auteurs. So, personally, my energy will be spent painfully choosing which of the competition selections to try my luck at. As a loyal fan of Evan Peters (who stole the show as Quicksilver in the latest X-Men films), I can’t wait for his rare-books heist film American Animals. By the same measure, Maggie Gyllenhaal never disappoints so her star turn in The Kindergarten Teacher is equally high on my list. Of course, Lizzie, the Lizzie Borden biopic with Chloe Sevigny as the infamous ax murderess, feels like another can’t miss; and pre-festival industry has put Eighth Grade on my radar as well. Again, you can’t skimp on the docs at Sundance and the Gloria Allred biopic Seeing Allred couldn’t be timelier; nor can I miss another chance to look behind the curtain of art world auctions with The Price of Everything.
And I haven’t even had a chance to delve into the World Cinema or Midnight Movie offerings! (Although purely by virtue of a blood-covered Nicolas Cage in its press stills, Mandy has earned a spot on my must-see list.) But then again, that’s the point of Sundance: a moveable feast that so totally overwhelms you, a true fest-goer abandons all attempts to plan or snag a ticket and just gives in to the flow. For all the flux in the world at large, all the sturm-und-drang of today’s headlines, Sundance’s peculiar charm is the pure happenstance of the films you see, the out-of-left-field cinematic surprises, and the quiet gems that you connect with in a dark theater—despite whatever storms may rage outside. Who knows what Sundance 2018 will bring, but we’ll be sure to report back from the frosty frontlines.