At Home at Sundance

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore.

It may be a feeling you currently relate to.

It’s also the title of a movie winning top honors (U.S. Grand Jury Prize) at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

The movie had absolutely nothing to do with politics. But politics inevitably was the story behind all the stories at this year’s Sundance festival.

Sundance celebrates free speech, diverse voices, and the arts. So what position should it take when its annual January festival overlaps with the inauguration of a U.S. President whose views seemingly conflict?

According to Sundance founder Robert Redford:

“So we try to stay away from politics per se, and we stay focused on what are the stories being told by artists. And if politics comes up in the stories that the filmmakers are telling, so be it.”

I am fascinated with great storytelling. I believe in the power of stories– shared over social media, print media, books and film– to educate and create change.

That’s why I went to Park City, Utah for the annual Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance allows attendees to immerse in some of the world’s most original stories told by its best storytellers. Over 10 days, 188 selected documentaries, dramas, and short films are shown across 15 theaters in Park City and the surrounding area.

Most films end with a casual Q&A with actors, writers, directors, or producers. When you personally hear why they chose to give up a period of their life for a project, each film takes on a whole different meaning.

I attended the second and final weekend of Sundance. It’s known that the “business deals” are struck on the first weekend. By the time I arrived, we knew which film sold to whom, and which movies were generating buzz.

While you can spend thousands on a festival pass, buying individual Sundance movie tickets is the way to go. Don’t despair when you spend 1-2 hours “in line” at the online box office when tickets first go on sale and you exit empty-handed.

My tips? Use the online box office to buy advance tickets for to-be-determined final day award winners. When you arrive at the festival, purchase day-of tickets in-person at a Sundance box office. And utilize the Sundance eWaitlist, which opens two hours prior to the showing of each film. While entry is not guaranteed, the eWaitlist worked for me on every attempt.

I immersed in the Sundance experience. In three days, I saw 10 films. I over-weighted documentaries, and threw in a few dramas and comedies. When not watching films, I found myself talking about them with friends and strangers while standing in line, riding the free shuttle bus between theaters, or dining at a restaurant.

My brain hurt at the end of each day. But it was a good hurt.

The business of Sundance is fascinating. Traditionally, larger distributors like Sony Pictures or Fox Searchlight would buy a handful of films at the festival. But with Netflix, Amazon, and several other new upstarts now on the scene, there’s been an uptick in both the number of movies sold and their selling price.

This is great news for all of us. With multiple means of viewing movies on-demand, we get to enjoy great independent films throughout the year.

Listed below (in order of viewing) are the movies I screened at this year’s Sundance (** indicates those I highly recommend). You can also check out Sundance “Top 15” lists from The Atlantic and The Hollywood Reporter. If a film interests you, keep a lookout for its release date and viewing options.

My hope is that you will be mesmerized by a great storyteller, learn something new, and even gain a new perspective.

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The Wound (World Dramatic)
By taking us into the male initiation traditions of his country’s Xhosa tribe, South African filmmaker John Trengove is leading a bigger movement– challenging the narrow depictions of African masculinity. When certain scenes in the film made me feel uncomfortable, I reminded myself that was the whole point.

** The Discovery (Premieres, Netflix) 
What did director and writer Charlie McDowell do when Sundance founder Robert Redford committed to starring in the film, likely one of his last before retirement? “The first thing I did was call my mom.” This thriller has you constantly thinking and leaves each of us asking, “What would I do if there was scientific proof of an afterlife?” Jason Segal and Rooney Mara also star.

Golden Exits (U.S. Dramatic)
I love relationship dramas with interconnected stories, especially when they are set in New York. There isn’t major drama. There isn’t one main theme. But sometimes the stories of ordinary people are the ones we most connect to.

** Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and Trials of the Free Press (U.S. Documentary, Netflix) 
While it looked to be a wrestling match pitting privacy rights versus freedom of the press, it evolved to the broader issue of how money and power can silence a free press. Imagine the challenge of making this film during 2016. Director and writer Brian Knappenberger admitted that it became a whole different film after November 8.

** The Incredible Jessica James (U.S. Dramatic, Netflix)
Another relationship film set in New York, this romantic-comedy breaks the mold. In playing Jessica James, former Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams isn’t your traditional slightly insecure rom-com female lead. In fact, she’s slightly over-confident and hilariously funny– which is why she’s been described as “the next Amy Schumer.” Jessica’s deadpan humor paired with male lead Chris O’Dowd’s was the perfect match.

** Step (U.S. Documentary, Fox Searchlight)
Girls with determination, passion, grit, and goals are among my favorite things. Director Amanda Lipitz introduces us to Cori, Blessin, and Tayla– three members of the step dance team from the first graduating class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. While college is the end-goal for every student in this all-girls, college-prep public charter school, the movie reminds us that education is indeed a team sport.

** An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power (U.S. Documentary, Paramount) 
It’s hard to believe that a decade has passed since the release of An Inconvenient Truth. While there’s been progress, that climate change is still laughed off by many (mostly U.S. politicians) is simply heartbreaking. More than climate change, I found this sequel to be more about the emotional journey of Al Gore. This man knows how to take punch; I am grateful we have his leadership.

** Chasing Coral (U.S. Documentary, Netflix)
Following a decade in advertising, Richard Vevers can simplify and draw an audience to a message. When he decided that our oceans needed a new ad campaign, he enlisted help from Oscar-nominated Chasing Ice director Jeff Orlowski and a team of technicians. Before seeing Chasing Coral, I couldn’t define coral bleaching. I can now. I can also tell you why the death of the world’s coral reefs is urgent, and that the solution is cutting carbon emissions.

** I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (U.S. Dramatic, Netflix)
Ruth (played by Two and a Half Men‘s Melanie Lynskey) had a really bad day. The next thing you know, she’s chasing down degenerate criminals with a crazy neighbor, falling deeper and deeper into a senseless rabbit hole. While we can’t relate to Ruth’s exact experiences, the need to pause and ask “why am I even doing this?” is something we can all relate to.

Beach Rats (U.S. Dramatic, Neon)
Set in working-class streets around Coney Island in southern Brooklyn, this drama shot on 16mm film takes you on a male teen’s struggles with family, friends and homosexuality. The film earned writer and director Eliza Hittman a Sundance directing award.

Connecting ideas and people across the U.S. and the world is what I love to do. So does Sundance. I felt right at home in the Sundance world.

Photo: Elijah Wood appears in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore by Macon Blair, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Allyson Riggs.

6 Comments

  1. Diana McDonough said:

    thank you for keeping us posted on these great movies!

    February 2, 2017
    Reply
    • jodimorris.sf@gmail.com said:

      My pleasure, Diana! Hope you get to see a few of them.

      February 4, 2017
      Reply
  2. Stellar said:

    Loved the article! With a President considering the defunding of the arts, these types of festivals support artists and allow discussion and controversial topics to reach audiences who may not otherwise hear these viewpoints.

    February 2, 2017
    Reply
    • jodimorris.sf@gmail.com said:

      Thanks, Stellar, for being the person who introduced me to Sundance! It’s such a special gathering.

      February 4, 2017
      Reply
  3. Virginia said:

    I’ve always wondered what it’s like at Sundance. Thanks so much for this snapshot of what it’s like there for a non-movie-industry person. And great reviews!

    February 3, 2017
    Reply
    • jodimorris.sf@gmail.com said:

      So glad you enjoyed, Virginia! That’s exactly what I was hoping to do.

      February 4, 2017
      Reply

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