Sundance can be a daunting prospect. The breadth of projects can arguably range from impenetrably forced, to artful gems that unfortunately many will not see, and then, of course, the real winners that go on to achieve the audiences they deserve. For two weeks every year, Park City, Utah takes on the character of showbusiness for Robert Redford's 34-year-old independent film festival.
The festival has certainly grown in scope since then, and now it's as easy to see stars there as it is to see penguins at the zoo. So Park City becomes LA working-holiday resort, where movies are buzzed about, bought, sometimes forgotten, sometimes immortalized. Studios fall to Sundance like moms do to sales at Wal-Mart. They end up buying a lot of things that they might not ever use, might not need, but at least, in this case, they're usually pretty good movies. This is the place where films like Resevoir Dogs, Clerks, Donny Darko, and Sex, Lies and Videotape got their start and turned their creators into household names. But it's also where so many others have been lost or estranged, in time. The following five, debuting at the fest, truly deserve attention and have a great chance of breaking through the Utah snow.
I Am Not A Hipster is an untraditional musical about a musician who, like his blokes, is most assuredly a hipster. The film concerns this man (Dominic Bogart) as he struggles with depression, a visit from his family to try and shake him, the ups and downs of the SoCal tight jeans, bicycles, and PBR scene, and most importantly, the process of creating music. Hipster is only a musical because its main character is a musician, and in following his story and his craft, the film naturally conveys story arc through beats literal and not just story. The film is classically Sundance low-budget and is drawing comparisons to another Sundance breakout with a similar set up, Once. By the end of 2012, Hipster will be the cool thing you should have seen. Official Movie Homepage.
V/H/S is being touted as not just the scariest film of the festival, but one of the scariest darn things ever, reclaiming Sundance's right to horror, throwing back to its Blair Witch Project days after Paranormal Activity broke out of the competing, truly indie festival held every year at the same time, Slamdance. V/H/S is a smart horror compilation film that, in the bohemian spirit of the festival, gives five up-and-coming horror writers and directors a segment of film, all couched in the plot of a group of goof-off kids who are paid to go into an old man's home and extract a collection of VHS tapes. When they find the man dead and begin watching the tapes...well, scary happens. The movie is of the found footage genre, but from a different angle, and utilizes its premise to not just showcase five different kinds of fear, but new media like Skype. Magnolia has already picked up V/H/S for distribution, appropriately with a home video on-demand expansion first, so like the film itself, the horror can be found from the couch.
Red Hook Summer is Spike Lee's spiritual sequel to his classic, Do The Right Thing. He even re-casts himself as Mookie, the wise pizza delivery guy, 20 years down the line. The film itself is set in Brooklyn, naturally, and concerns the culture clash between a 13-year-old kid, Flik, and his grandfather, who he's sent to live with for the summer. They butt heads over religion (grandpa is a pastor), background, Flik being a southern boy, and all else. Flik has a coming-of-age thing going in the city, from meeting girls to catching the Knicks. The film is taking heat for being a bit long and meandering, but it'll be tightened, and being a Spike Lee joint, it will be seen.
The First Time is being described as 'what would have happened if John Hughes went to Sundance.' It's a coming-of-age high school story with all the quirk of an indie and all the heart of The Breakfast Club, couched in a party plot usually reserved for broader studio flicks. Anchored by writer and director Jonathan Kasdan -- himself a vet of cult fave Freaks and Geeks -- and son of legendary screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark), Time sounds as ready to go as anything at the festival. The story concerns, almost by default, a hopeless romantic dude named Dave who's been waiting for years to date his best friend, Jane (played by up-and-coming Victoria Justice). This is, of course, impossible, and Dave's horizons are broadened by a girl from another town, Aubrey, and the guess is hijinks and enlightenment ensue. But word is heart/warmth is guaranteed.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is perhaps the most buzzed-about project at the festival and the first to ignite a studio bidding war, which Fox Searchlight has since won. The film is set in a world called Bathtub, imaginary or not, inhabited by a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy who has to survive alone when her father falls ill. The movie sounds Tree of Life-ish in its asides and imagery, and Gilliam-esque in its full, unabashed, and unexplained embrace of a world completely to its own logic, law, and imagination. Behn Zeitlin has burst onto the scene writing, directing, and even composing the score for this dreamscape that may or may not only be Hushpuppy's imagination. To eschew the high art, Bathtub sounds like a place where Waterworld meets Jurassic Park and Al Gore might give a lecture, but with distribution sold, there's be no doubt Southern Wild will be seen.
Having just described a film called Beasts of the Southern Wild that concerns a girl named Hushpuppy and a setting called Bathtub, it's easy to see how trippy Sundance can get, even as character pieces like The First Time keep it real, or big names like Spike Lee keep it mainstream. The thing is most people end up seeing more movies at Sundance than the average American might in a year, so there's a smattering of flicks that have gone unmentioned, from Tim & Eric's non-sequitur epic Billion Dollar Movie to Josh Radnor's (How I Met Your Mother) emerging effort, Liberal Arts, to flicks about awkward romantic time travel (Safety Not Guaranteed) and modern day ghost-busting (Red Lights), to already Oscar bait (The Surrogate). But these are five that will almost certainly find their way out of the mountains.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19th through January 29, 2012.