For personal reasons, the 2011 Sundance Film Festival is certain to go down as one of the more exhilarating installments I’ve ever attended. That’s because this year, I was fortunate enough to be walking around town with a double-sided lanyard hanging around my neck. Depending on the event—P&I screening, public world premiere, happy hour mixer, late night party—I could simply flip it over and reveal myself to be either the director of a Sundance feature or a member of the general press. Throughout the week, people asked me if this was an awkward position to be in, at which point I had to confess that, no, it wasn’t awkward at all. To be honest, it was totally f**king awesome.
I guess people were concerned that I might be carrying personal baggage into the films I was watching by obsessively comparing and contrasting them to my own. All I can say in response to that worry is that I refuse to let my brain spin in that direction. From many years of experience being an active participant in the independent film community, I have come to believe that although the world might not technically be big enough for all of our projects, every film nonetheless stands alone as a distinct creation unto itself. In this way, I can assure you—with 100% honesty—that every time I sat down to watch a film in Park City this year, I did it with an untainted enthusiasm, with eagerness and hope that I was about to watch something that would rock my fugging world—or, at the very least, knock my two pairs of socks off.
And what a year it was. Of course, my directorial duties prevented me from seeing as many films as I have in years past—i.e., closer to 20 than 30—but I did make it a point not to get vacuumed into a k-hole of self-absorption with regards to my own film. The awareness that my “real” job is running this very website also helped to keep me balanced and on track. While it wasn’t an overly conscious choice, I ended up seeing almost exclusively American narrative features, and the fact that I saw good to great elements in just about everything I watched added to my excitement about this year’s fest (read Mike Ryan’s excellent “Indie Is Back!??” essay for his take on what made this year special).
Speaking of this site, one of the more reassuring signs that the Hammer to Nail machine continues to grow was evidenced by the packed house at our HTN happy hour at the Stella Café on Sunday the 23rd (a massive thanks to Henry Eshelman, Managing Director of Platform Media Group, who made it all happen). It felt like anyone who was anyone—including, by golly, Sundance Director of Programming Trevor Groth!—showed up to drink free Stella, watch the AFC Championship, and powwow. To expedite things, my purty fiancee and I decided to man the front door and hand out wristbands ourselves, which was a nice way to at least say hello to each and every attendee, even if it prevented me from doing any serious bonding and seemed like an uncool assignment for a “hotshot director” who was about to be introducing his world premiere at the Egyptian just a few hours later. In all seriousness, it was felt really, really great to look around and see so many talented, cool people smiling and laughing. To those of you who came, thanks! We’re determined to do it again next year.
One more thing about being a filmmaker before I get to the real purpose of this post: it would be silly not to mention my first ever experience attending the Director’s Brunch. Initially, I was planning to skip this scheduled event in order to cross some more movies off my to-do list, but pretty much everyone I talked to demanded that I attend. I’m glad I did. This wasn’t just my first Director’s Brunch; it was my first visit to the Sundance Institute, and it really did feel like all of that winding through the mountains transported us into some hidden winter wonderland. On this day, it was an even more surreal scene, as I stood in line at the breakfast buffet table next to Michael Rapaport, who shed light on the nightmare that is music rights clearance when it comes to hip-hop in film (specifically related to his stupid fresh doc Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, but more on that later). With my plate full, I approached one of the few remaining tables that had seats, recognized the friendly face of Nathan Zellner (he being one-half of the stupid fresh short film Sasquatch Birth Journal 2, but more on that later too), and recognized the vaguely familiar faces of the couple next to me. They introduced themselves as “Vendela” and “Dave,” and that’s when it hit me (for those of you unhip unliterates out there, that would be Vendela Vida and Dave Eggers). Moments later, Vera Farmiga and Josh Leonard joined me and my newfound buds Thomas De Napoli (he being director of Das Racist’s stupid fresh music video “Who’s That? Brooown!”), Vendela, Dave, and Nathan at the table, and we proceeded to chow down.
Throughout the meal and afterward, employees of the Sundance Institute and programmers of the festival made the rounds, congratulating and thanking us for all of our hard work. My inner skeptic initially knee-jerked to Todd Haynes’s Safe and the culty air of Wrenwood, but the energy was so genuine and sweet that I couldn’t help but feel grateful and inspired. After the meal, Robert Redford delivered a speech to remind us that he hadn’t always been a big star. He assured us that personal projects like the ones we had just made were always going to be an uphill battle, but that it was a battle worth fighting for. Looking around the room and hearing these words, I realized that, in my case, at least, Bob was right. By sticking to our guns and making the movie we wanted to make with Septien, by pushing forward when just about every voice called attention to the danger and risk of our mission, by expressing ourselves as personally and honestly as possible, by doing all of those things and only by doing them, was I fortunate enough to be sitting in that room, surrounded by motivated, like-minded, similarly lucky souls. It was a genuine thrill and a memory that won’t soon fade. It was the type of nourishing Kool-Aid that every filmmaker should have the pleasure of drinking at least one time.
*** WATCHING OTHER PEOPLE’S MOVIES***
As for the program itself, let’s begin with the NEXT section, where, in only its second year, it hit a thoroughly major stride. In my festival wrap-up last year, I gave the programmers a bit of a hard time about their approach to this section—per the program description, “NEXT films stretch a low budget to create big art”—but what a difference a year makes. The crazy part is that I only got to see five of the eight NEXT titles (if you were in NEXT and you’re reading this, please send me a screener so that I can be a completist!), but based on those five titles alone, I was deeply impressed and inspired not just by the ambitious production values on display, but by the visceral impact of the films themselves.
Bellflower (Evan Glodell, 103m) — One of the most divisive films at this year’s festival, Evan Glodell’s micro-budget marvel somehow still managed to win me over, even as it pretty thoroughly fulfilled my checklist of Everything I Don’t Want To See/Hear In A Movie: overly stylized imagery, a thunderous musical assault, misogyny, gratuitous sex and violence, young California wastoids behaving nihilistically, etc. In having discussions with many individuals who didn’t just dislike the film but were disgusted by it, I came to the conclusion that Bellflower worked for me because I chose to view it as a full-throttle parable for juvenile male heartbreak, like Romeo and Juliet on a raucous crank bender. Another saving grace: the film’s ending leaves it up to the viewer to decide if this personal Armageddon actually happened or if it was simply a damaged internal fantasy in this jilted lover’s mind. Glodell’s production ingenuity—starting with building the camera with which the film was shot and leading into the tricked out production design with hot rods and flame throwers—is undeniably impressive (minus some shamefully terrible sound), and though I can’t say I ever want to watch this movie again, I nonetheless admire the achievement (as did Oscilloscope Laboratories, who picked it up for American distribution).
Lord Byron (Zack Godshall, 91m) — I wrote about Zach Godshall’s follow-up to his disappointingly underseen documentary God’s Architects in my “HTN Sundance 2011 Wish List” post, but I made a point to watch it again on the big screen in Park City. I really think Godshall has made something very special out of nothing—read his Lord Byron Manifesto here—in this strange brew of Slacker, zany Southern fiction, and micro-budget 21st century digital video production. Lord Byron follows the comically poetic journey of a ladies’ man (played by everyman Paul Batiste) who bounces around Louisiana in his quest to find spiritual fulfillment. Add a cast of kooky characters into the mix—a conspiracy theorist, a Dungeons and Dragons obsessed couple, a bickering family—and you have the recipe for a unique pot of gumbo that will appeal to those more adventurous viewers who are able to forgive the nonexistent production value and embrace the creative storytelling on display.
The Off Hours (Megan Griffiths, 93m) — Megan Griffiths’s years-in-the-making feature definitely teeters on the brink of becoming overly precious, but it never tumbles into that danger zone because Griffiths exhibits an assured directorial control over every element. Director of photography Ben Kasulke refreshingly abandons the off-the-cuff tendencies of so many of his recent micro-budget collaborations, and it is this controlled, classic, rich approach to framing that further elevates the production. There’s been a lot written about Elizabeth Olsen and Brit Marling as being the breakout actresses of this year’s fest, but Amy Seimetz deserves to join the conversation based on her achingly honest performance here. In lesser hands, this role would have felt thin and unlived in, but Seimetz brings a depth to her character that gives The Off Hours an injection of actual heart.
to.get.her (Erica Dunton, 86m) — The less said about the twist in Erica Dunton’s dramatic thriller the better, but that is undoubtedly what makes it pack such a powerful punch. Lensed with a gauzy beauty by Derrick Tindall (in the Q&A Dunton confessed to making it pretty and pink in order to attract teen girls), to.get.her follows a group of friends who have convened at a beach house for a night of “no consequences” behavior. While the adult performances had me wanting to rename the movie I Know Who Killed Us, the young actresses kept me from checking all the way out. But it wasn’t until midway through the film when the arrival of a seemingly insignificant young male character jolted me fully awake. Taylor Kowalski has one of those disarmingly natural auras that just leaps off the screen. Acting can be taught, but that type of presence cannot. to.get.her took home the NEXT Section prize, which is voted upon by the NEXT filmmakers themselves. By the time Dunton reveals her true purpose in the film’s resolution, one finally understands that this is more than a work of entertainment; it’s a much-needed conversation starter for parents and daughters everywhere.
Prairie Love (Dusty Bias, 80m) — To be totally honest, Dusty Bias’s strange anti-romance—or is it an ultra-romance?—left me scratching my head, so I find it impossible to write about with any solid opinion. As with all the other NEXT entries, however, I appreciated the effort. Having expressed that confusion, I will say that I am intrigued to see what the Prairie Love team comes up with next.
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 120m) — In Park City back in 2008, Azazel Jacobs’ Momma’s Man left me in a puddle of literal tears like a cowering beeyotch. This year, Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter delivered a similar gut punch that shook me to my core (too mesmerized to check up on her during the film, I turned to my sister as the credits rolled and whimpered, “I’m about to have a Momma’s Man,” to which she weakly replied, her face also full of tears, “I’m about to have a Dancer in the Dark”). With Take Shelter, Nichols and his team have not just delivered a marvel of a production achievement. Most importantly, Nichols has used this opportunity—as well as his Oscar-worthy collaborator Michael Shannon—to address several of the most menacing forces that have made life in the early 21st century so disconcerting: mental illness, unemployment, stress, global warming, parental paranoia. Adam Stone’s photography has the air of classic cinema, to the point where it feels almost like a surreal excursion into Technicolor. It didn’t hit me until the next morning that a good way for me to pitch Take Shelter is to call it this year’s Shutter Island, only it has actual scares and a genuinely crushing emotional thrust. No sophomore slump here, folks; Take Shelter is a bona fide modern masterpiece. Mark my words: in decades—provided we’re still around to discuss it, that is—we’ll still be remembering this one.
Terri (Azazel Jacobs, 101m) —Azazel Jacobs has given viewers a very special treat with Terri, a universal charmer that retains an offbeat sense of humor and honest edge even when one expects it to chicken out. This is a perfect example of a movie that, if made in the Hollywood system, would have lost the magical spark that ultimately makes everything about it so worthwhile. Based on a story by Jacobs and Patrick Dewitt but officially written by Dewitt, Terri tells the story of an overweight adolescent—played by Jacob Wysocki—who finds himself in an unexpected friendship with his kooky vice principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly, schooling everyone once again in how to be both cartoonishly funny and touchingly humane at the same time). One dreams of a world in which Jacobs can keep expanding his production budgets while retaining his personal voice in the process. Go, Aza, go!
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 101m) — The Sundance Film Festival technically kicked off on the night of Thursday January the 20th with its opening night screenings, but for all intents and purposes, it officially began the following morning at the Eccles when Sean Durkin’s excellent Martha Marcy May Marlene bowled over audiences. Durkin and his Borderline Pictures team (producer Josh Mond, writer/director/producer Antonio Campos) have clearly been enamored with Michael Haneke for some time now—see: Campos’s Afterschool—but Martha Marcy May Marlene finds the young crew hitting a new stride. So many factors come together to make this movie sing: the sizzling breakout performance of Elizabeth Olsen, the commanding cinematography of Jody Lee Lipes, the smart editing by Zac Stuart-Pontier, Durkin’s assured writing. As for that screenplay, while I’m typically hypersensitive to films that float back-and-forth between the present and past, just because it’s so hard to pull off this technique without calling attention to itself, Durkin has used this risky narrative device to great affect, allowing us a more direct portal into the mind of his tormented main character. Martha Marcy May Marlene was one of the many films picked up by Fox Searchlight at this year’s fest, and it will be interesting to see if they can find a breakout audience for this profound, but challenging, drama.
HERE (Braden King, 120m) — Ten years in the making, Braden King’s HERE project was doing double duty at the festival, as an installation at the new New Frontier building on Park, and as a feature film contender for the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. HERE is all over the map—pun intended—opening as an experimental tone poem, and gradually revealing itself to be an insightful character study of an American traveling in a foreign land. Some of the scenes of mapmaker Ben Foster mingling with locals are as honest a depiction of language-constricted bonding as I have seen; these were easily my favorite moments in the film. Foster and Lubna Azabal’s commitment to their roles helps to keep King’s at times overly ambitious vision grounded.
***PARK CITY AT MIDNIGHT***
The Oregonian (Calvin Lee Reeder, 81m) — If you’re familiar with Calvin Lee Reeder’s short work (The Rambler, Little Farm, The Snake Mountain Colada), you would have been at least somewhat prepared for The Oregonian. Hilariously, most of those with whom I was watching Reeder’s debut feature were not. The best way I can describe The Oregonian is by comparing it to tripping on acid. One minute, you might start think, “Okay, this has been going on for a while now, I think I’m ready to call it a night,” before something incomprehensibly mind-blowing occurs and you’re left reeling and wanting to shout, “OH MY GOD, THAT IS UNF***INGBELIEVABLE.” One thing’s for sure. With The Oregonian, “Reeder” has earned its place in the cinematic lexicon as a word that describes Calvin Reeder’s dementedly unique vision. The Oregonian is like stumbling upon a musician in a shattered back alley who relentlessly punches his bloody fingers against the barbwire strings of a broken down guitar while shrieking carnal gibberish.
The Catechism Cataclysm (Todd Rohal, 81m) — If you didn’t get it from his debut feature The Guatemalan Handshake, Todd Rohal’s directorial brain simply does not work like anybody else’s. Thank God for that. In The Catechism Cataclysm, Steve Little plays a YouTube obsessed priest who embarks on a canoeing trip with an old high school acquaintance (Robert Longstreet). Along the way, they encounter two Japanese girls named “Tom Sawyer” and “Huck Finn,” who are traveling with a silent, but menacing, black man, in order to recreate a questionably racist Twainian journey down the river. Aside from being very funny, this added Japanese element is actually quite telling when it comes to Rohal’s vision, which actually has a more spiritual kinship with zany Japanese cinema/television than anything else. One thing’s for sure: Rohal’s curvy approach to narrative is light years away from what is typically found in American independent cinema, and that is what makes The Catechism Cataclysm feel so electrifyingly alive.
Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (Madeleine Olnek, 76m) — As I make a brief cameo in this film and also confess to struggling to stay awake throughout its Monday night world premiere, I don’t feel comfortable writing about Madeleine Olnek’s micro-budget sci-fi romp. Though I must add that it has, without a doubt, my favorite line of dialogue that I encountered at this year’s festival. Jane, the innocent American who doesn’t know that she’s falling in love with an alien, encounters Zoinx at a Laundromat and asks what she’s doing. Zoinks replies, in perfect Coneheads delivery, “Giving my scarf a ride.”
Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (Michael Rapaport, 95m) — Question: What was the only film in this year’s program that could have possibly distracted me from the nerve-wracking reality that the P&I screening for my own film was happening at that very moment? Answer: Michael Rapaport’s documentary about of one of my very favorite musical acts of all time. A Tribe Called Quest’s first three albums quite literally changed my life, and from the excellent testimonials presented herein by some of hip-hop’s most influential modern voices—?uestlove, Pharrell, Common—it’s clear that I wasn’t the only one. As the film wears on, however, Beats, Rhymes & Life becomes a more sobering affair as it chronicles the disintegrating relationship, both personal and creative, between Q-Tip and Phife. It’s that broken record cliché all over again, but Rapaport—and the majesty of those snare hits and those melodies—turns this into a rousing crowdpleaser nonetheless.
***SUNDANCE SELECTS STRAIGHT-TO-VOD***
As a journalist, I received screeners of the films included in this year’s Sundance Selects’ Video On Demand stunt, but since my film is one of them, I have decided to absolve myself from writing about them. For the record, the other four are:
These Amazing Shadows (Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton, 88m)
Kaboom (Greg Araki, 86m)
Mad Bastards (Brendan Fletcher, 96m)
Uncle Kent (Joe Swanberg, 72m)
Unfortunately, I was only able to catch up with one Slamdance Film Festival title this year, but it was a very good one. CJ Gardella’s documentary Shunka, which won the Spirit of Slamdance Sparky Award as well as the Kodak Vision Award For Best Cinematography, is a spiritual kin to one of my favorite docs of this young century, the Ross Brothers’ 45365, as it paints a poetic portrait of a small American town (this time, it’s the Badlands). Gardella’s gorgeous photography treats the insects, landscapes, and humans with an equal, tender reverence that makes for a hypnotic and touching experience. Be sure to keep this one on your radar.
Pioneer (David Lowery, 15m) — Whether making shorts, features, or music videos, David Lowery has that rare and special gift of consistently producing work that feels fresh every time out but also feels completely and utterly him. In Pioneer, he teams up with fellow Mustachio Will Oldham to share an epic bedtime fable that is strange, haunting, odd, and heartfelt. It’s yet another gem in Lowery’s increasingly impressive oeuvre.
We’re Leaving (Zachary Treitz, 13m) — I really, really dig this film, which has the loose, scrappy, lived-in feel of a Harry Crews short story. Shot in Louisville on 16mm, We’re Leaving could have been made in 1986, or it could have been made yesterday. Based on this film alone, Zachary Treitz has catapulted to the top of my Wanna See What This Young American Director Does Next! list.
Sasquatch Birth Journal 2 (Zellner Brothers, 4:30m)
Allow me to conclude this overly hyperbolic post with perhaps my boldest declaration yet: Sasquatch Birth Journal 2 might very well be my very favorite film of the decade. I know this movie watching stuff is subjective, but in my warped yes, this thing is a work of t-r-u-l-y s-t-a-g-g-e-r-i-n-g g-e-n-i-u-s:
See you next year in Park City, where chances are I’ll be playing the single lanyard game once again. Boo hoo.
— Michael Tully