Park City 2014: 10 Picks From Sundance and Slamdance

This is a very big year in Park City, Utah, with Sundance celebrating its 30th birthday and Slamdance its 20th as of next week.

Through Sundance’s three decades, it’s impossible to begin to quantify the impact the festival has had on the industry—launching careers, building legacies, defining what cutting-edge independent film means for American audiences.

Rather than rest on its tastemaking reputation, however, the festival continues to change with the times. One of its most important innovations is one of its latest, the potentially game-changing #ArtistsServices program, which allows moviemakers creative control through self-distribution, greatly amplifying the reach and revenue of so many films in the process.

Since launching in 2011 the program has overseen over 80 new and encore alumni projects into the digital marketplace, and guided more than 200 projects to successful Kickstarter campaigns totaling over $6 million. Films that have been cultivated through the program include Detropia, Primer, Upstream Color, and Connected.

While Sundance remains a jewel in the world festival circuit with its prestige and exposure, Slamdance has matured into a graceful adulthood, too—never losing track of its ‘by filmmakers, for filmmakers’ ethos. By now the story is legend: The festival started as a Salon des Refusés, countering the burgeoning wave of bigger-budget indies that began showing up at Sundance. Ever since, Slamdance has been working to advance the reach of independents with screenwriter competitions, Slamdance Studios VOD/DVD distribution deals, and their “On the Road” limited theatrical runs across the country.

“When Slamdance arrived,” said Peter Baxter, Slamdance’s Co-Founder & President, “there was a general sense of ‘there goes the neighborhood.’ The Park City Chief of Police even told me ‘Son, your days are numbered.’ But since then we’ve built a passionate and determined community that burns with the desire of supporting emerging talent. The key to running Slamdance is reminding yourself every day that what is good for Slamdance involves making something better for our filmmakers. That also involves working more closely with other festivals, and there’s surely a bigger picture for indie filmmakers here if Sundance and Slamdance do that.”

While it’s any festival-goer’s dream to see every movie playing at both fests, that’s a war of attrition you’re destined to lose. So we’ve picked 10 films that may wow you, make you weep, whack you over the head and possibly do weird things to your consciousness.

SUNDANCE

Drunktown’s Finest (dir. Sydney Freeland)

Having gone through the 2009 Sundance Native Lab, 2010 Screenwriter’s Lab, and 2010 Director’s Lab, raising a modest $31,000 on Kickstarter and then finding a small bit of additional funding this year, Sydney Freeland’s feature writing-and-directorial debut  has had to struggle a bit to survive. But we guess the first-ever film (that we know of, at least) to depict a transgender Navajo teen would have to undergo a good struggle to see the light of the silver screen.

Freeland is from Gallup, New Mexico—the place a 20/20 report called ‘Drunktown, U.S.A.’—and growing up on the Navajo reservation, she never saw anything on film that was like her experience. Although not a trans herself, Freeland told Out Magazine early last year that she found hope in the traditions of her Navajo culture, including its respect for transgender people (called the nadleeh, or the third gender).

Drunktown’s Finest will bring coming-of-age, teenage rebellion, and queer cinema together under one Native American roof. It’s festival selections like this one that usually blow the lid off of cinematic stereotypes (like Any Day Now and Mosquita y Mari to name a couple), but still have a hard time finding their footing in the world beyond, unfortunately. We hope that’s not the case here.

Fishing Without Nets (dir. Cutter Hodierne)

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Before Paul Greengrass’s Tom Hanks star-vehicle Captain Phillips—about the real-life 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates—came out this year, Cutter Hodierne had played his short film at Sundance 2012, also about Somali pirates. This short was called Fishing Without Nets.

“Back in 2009,” remembered writer-director Hodierne, “I was reading everything I could about the Somali pirates, and I was sure that in terms of visuals and subject matter—guys in the middle of the ocean in skiffs attacking huge tankers—there was a movie in it. But I was compelled to tell it from the pirates’ perspective.” Fishing Without Nets (the pirated-centered short) took home 2012’s Grand Jury Prize in the short film category.

Prior to 2009, Hodierne (who spent the first three years of his life on the 32-foot cutter-rigged sailboat for which he is named), had been touring the world with U2 as their ‘filmmaker on the road,’ shooting online content and directing and editing pieces for U2: 360°at the Rose Bowl. He then used his earnings from that to travel to East Africa.

“There wasn’t a script per se,” said Hodierne. “More of an outline. But I knew that a white dude from D.C. couldn’t accurately portray the Somali’s story.” The feature follows the short’s narrative fairly closely, casting real-life Somali refugees and men who actually work on giant tankers off the coast. Expect a gritty inside look at the desperate circumstances that lead Somalis to pirating for a career.

“When it first came out,” Hodierne said, “We were like ‘Oh man, Tom Hanks?’ But it has ended up being the biggest help we could’ve gotten and it’s made a huge market for this type of story. So thanks, Tom.”

Hellion (dir. Kat Candler)

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Kat Candler’s short film of the same name hit Park City in 2012, followed by her short Black Metal in 2013—the year she carried her feature script of Hellion along with her. After her producer, Kelly Williams, completed the 2012 Producers Lab at the Sundance Institute and Candler nabbed hot ticket Aaron Paul as the lead through a happenstance meet-up with James Ponsoldt (Smashed) last January, the feature went into production during the dead heat of August in southeast Texas.

A film about loss, grieving and the intricate parent-child relationship, Paul plays dad Hollis, with newcomer Josh Wiggins as his teenage son and Deke Garner his youngest son. Scenes are also graced by the versatile Juliette Lewis.

“The short version of Hellion was very loosely based on my grandfather,” said Candler. “As a kid, I had one idea of who he was—this very jovial guy—but I heard stories from my mother about how there were so many more facets to who he was. That made me reflect on my own parents growing up and the choices that they made. With the feature, I want to demonstrate that [parents] are all human and they make mistakes, too.”

Shot by Brett Pawlak (I Am Not a Hipster, Short Term 12) at breakneck pace and carrying that speed into the edit by Alan Canant (The Catechism Cataclysm) in time for the Sundance deadline last fall, this film is sure to bring the lines, not only because of the popularity that follows Paul from Breaking Bad, but because of the heart-wrenching subject matter.

Land Ho! (dir. Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz)

It’s the classic tale: Meet in Freshman year at the North Carolina School of the Arts, become best of buddies, stay friends and watch each other’s filmmaking career grow with admiration and respect, then come together a decade later to co-write and direct a comedy à la Grumpy Old Men in Iceland. That’s not a classic tale? Well, it should be.

Land Ho!, co-written and co-directed by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz, is the first film financed by Gamechanger Films (directed by Mynette Louie), a new company that finances women-made features. Although the directors and all producers, including Christina Jennings and Sara Murphy, have strong roots at SXSW, this collaboration represents a different direction in their creative trajectories.

Starring Paul Eenhoorn (This is Martin Bonner) and plastic surgeon/part-time actor (and Stephens’ cousin) Earl Lynn Nelson, Katz felt it was important to note that “we wrote the script with our two main actors in mind. We wanted to make a movie not to make a point about aging, but to spend time getting to know these particular characters and where they are in life.”

“It’s relatable to everyone,” added Stephens. “The passage of time is cruel and unavoidable. I’m the youngest child of a large family, and at an age where I’m watching my parents, aunts, and uncles really consider their mortality. It’s deeply troubling and sad. By exploring those feelings I wanted to garner a better understanding of my own fears on this subject as well as the feelings of those close to me. I think we managed to make a movie about aging, but it’s also about living in the present and making the most of your time.”

Life After Beth (dir. Jeff Baena)

Oh, the names, the names. Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Alia Shawkat, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser… our mouths are watering already. Add to that pile of talent the co-writer of I Heart Huckabees and we’ve got a recipe for a Midnight Sensation at Park City. Writer-director Jeff Baena has more attention in the press for being Plaza’s boyfriend than he has credits on IMDb, but that shouldn’t stop you from lining up for Life After Beth, which looks to be a dark and silly fright night romp.

This might be the first foray into comedy for uber-talented UNC School of the Arts graduate DeHaan, who plays Zach, a young man devastated by the unexpected death of his girlfriend, Beth (Plaza). When she miraculously comes back to life, Zach takes full advantage of the opportunity to share and experience all the things he regretted not doing with her before. However, the newly returned Beth isn’t quite how he remembered her and, before long, Zach’s whole world takes a turn for the worse. (Hint: zombies)

Little Accidents (dir. Sara Colangelo)

Another Sundance Institute Lab graduate, Sara Colangelo’s Little Accidents vaguely follows its short film version from Sundance 2010, taking only the theme of trauma into its new setting in a small West Virginia mining town.

“I was interested in the lifestyle of miners,” said Colangelo, who came up with the storyline of the feature when she was working on the short film and researching brain trauma, coming across instances of people trapped in mines. “I wanted to explore that further—going underground and burying secrets in a community. I thought it was an interesting metaphor as well. It required a lot of research on my part, not being from Appalachia, but I was so intrigued by it: the dramatic possibilities of creating a moral conflict in a community, and what that conflict could be, and how the characters could cross boundaries within that.”

Although this is Colangelo’s first time writing and directing a feature, it carries heavyweights Chlöe Sevigny, Elizabeth Banks and Josh Lucas. Boyd Holbrook, who plays the lead, has been seen at Sundance before in Very Good Girls (2013) and Higher Ground (2011) and Jacob Lofland, who broke out as the second-lead boy in last year’s fest preem Mud, also co-stars. Colangelo also had major support during production from in-demand DP Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station, Sound of My Voice).

War Story (dir. Mark Jackson)

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Mark Jackson’s first film, Without, premiered at Slamdance in 2011 and went on to play at 40 film festivals worldwide. It never received distribution in the U.S. (only a small ride in France in 2012), yet was nominated for the Gotham Award’s Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You. Jackson also made the Indie Spirits’ Someone to Watch. This year we’ll all be watching his sophomore effort War Story. And we can’t imagine that with a cast boasting Catherine Keener and Ben Kingsley, and a camera attached to Sundance-standard DP Reed Morano, the team will lack distribution this time around.

“I was on my way to Libya and stopped in Sicily to stay with friends of family,” said Jackson. “I got really sick and ended holing up in a hotel for a month. During that time some journalists were captured in Libya and the idea of reversing that story came to mind.”

“[Without] showed at MoMA,” he said, explaining how he got Keener on board. “The curator there asked me who my ideal actor was for my upcoming project and I said Catherine. He happened to know her and put us in touch. We became pen pals and she agreed to do it.”

Keener plays a war photographer who has spent the last years of her life in the world’s most dangerous conflict zones, documenting the trauma of others. When she experiences her own trauma after being taken hostage and brutalized in Libya, she secludes herself in a Sicilian hotel instead of returning to New York, not far from the home of her former lover and mentor (Kingsley).

 

SLAMDANCE

Goldberg and Eisenberg (dir. Oren Carmi)

Although Slamdance is not its first premiere (it won Best Director at Fantastic Fest, went on to play ScreamFest, Stockholm, and half a dozen more) Goldberg and Eisenberg is the first Israeli urban psychological thriller, and the first dark genre film ever to be approved for production by the Israel Film Fund. That alone should make you want to venture to the top of Main Street to catch the potentially history-making flick.

It tells the story of Goldberg, a mediocre computer programmer, and Eisenberg, an emotionally disturbed thug. The two cross paths in a dark, bleakly humoristic tale.

Based in Tel Aviv, writer-director Oren Carmi was inspired by the Coen brothers, Roman Polanski, Park Chan-Wook, Jacques Audiard, Bong Joon-ho, and early Christopher Nolan, to name a few. His obsessive passion looks to be paying off: Carmi is in preliminary talks to have this, his first feature ever, remade as a mini-series for a major American cable channel. But that’s all we can say on the subject at the moment.

The Republic of Rick (dir. Mario Kyprianou)

Copy of Republic of Rick

Rick Launer is the self-proclaimed President of the Republic of Texas, an organization that claims the annexation of Texas by the United States was illegal, and that Texas remains an independent nation under occupation to this day. The Republic of Rick is a mockumentary about Launer’s quixotic attempt to lead a paranoid militia for Texas’s independence in the late 1990s.

“I’m from Texas,” said writer-director Mario Kyprianou, a UCLA film school graduate in screenwriting. “This is a topic of conversation that always came up as I was growing up, that we’re the only state that’s allowed to secede. I started researching and finding all these Republic of Texas groups all over the state that were trying to secede, and some took it really far, as far as even trying to legally take on the United States. I thought it would make a great modern day Don Quixote-type story.”

Kyprianou is neither pro nor anti-secession. And although some may believe the film pokes fun at these groups and their members, he is adamant that that was not his intention.

“I love these characters,” said Kyprianou, who filmed with his crew of 15 in little Southern Californian towns during the last week of every month from April to July 2013, shooting on Beta to replicate a ’90s documentary look. “I just found their world fascinating, and I connected to the blind faith they had to keep going. I thought it was a great way to express my own struggles with independent filmmaking.”

Rover (dir. Tony Blahd)

Copy of Rover

Rover (or Beyond Human: the Venusian Future and the Return of the Next Level) tells the story of a hapless cult leader losing control of the last wave of his flock (the rest have offed themselves at a previous date). He fakes a prophecy instructing them to make a movie in hopes of bringing them together and reviving their strength for the great exit. They recruit a director who has absolutely no idea what he’s getting into, and they have absolutely no idea how to make a movie.

Likely to be sweet, sad, and funny, Rover came to be as a reverse-engineered situation: First-time feature writer-director Tony Blahd had access to a broken-down, abandoned church in Brooklyn, and had raised $50,000 via Kickstarter and art-based events held at the church—but he didn’t have a story.

“From the beginning I wanted to make a film about the church,” explained Blahd. “It is where I had been living and spending my time. Before I had even written a page, I found out we only had three months left before the developers turned the church into 100 condominiums. I had no idea what to make the movie about, but knew that the church had to be a major character in the film.”

Blahd had always been interested in cults, and the germ for this story was a particular Heaven’s Gate exit video. Before meeting their untimely deaths with the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet, cult members recorded testimonials for posterity. One contains a pitch for a sci-fi script they had written about the history of their beliefs and the universe.

A sci-fi epic based on the origin myth of a real-life cult? There’s a tragic brilliance in the cosmos.

The Sublime and Beautiful (dir. Blake Robbins)

If there’s one thing Slamdance is known for, it’s the unbridled love it has for never-say-die DIY moviemakers. Longtime TV and film character actor Blake Robbins wrote, directed, produced and starred in his feature The Sublime and Beautiful after six years of unsuccessful fundraising.

“I actually had to borrow $1,200 to even submit to a few film festivals,” said Robbins who’s had guest roles on Oz, Sons of Anarchy and Masters of Sex. “I had only three days before the close of Slamdance submissions, so the cost was much higher than other fests. I was close to skipping it and going after a few other less expensive festivals instead—better use of borrowed money—but something inside me wouldn’t let that happen. I knew that Slamdance mirrors who we are as a film.”

In 2005, Robbins’ good friend and seasoned TV actor Matt Del Negro (who plays his best friend in the film) encouraged him to sit down and write out his idea about a family torn apart by a tragic event in the days before Christmas.

“By late 2011 I decided I was going to make the movie the following winter by any means possible,” said Robbins. “With very limited funding from friends, family and Kickstarter, we shot the movie in 13 days in the freezing January, 2012, of Lawrence, Kansas.”

They shot without a grip or electric department. They never shut down a location they filmed in (even a strip club), having production assistants get clearances signed as people entered and exited. Many of the nearly 40 actors who appear in the film had never acted on film before, and Robbins found almost all of them at a two-day open call with nearly 200 locals from Lawrence and surrounding towns. They bought airline tickets on Priceline, and friends graciously gave them the use of their entire home to house the out-of-town cast and crew. On their craziest day, they shot 15 pages at four locations with three company moves. If that’s not enough to get you to see the film, its thought-provoking, morally ambiguous subject matter should do the trick. MM

The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 16 to January 26, 2014. The Slamdance Film Festival runs from January 17 to January 23, 2014.

All Sundance images courtesy of the Sundance Institute; all Slamdance images courtesy of the filmmakers.

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