There Are No Big Movies at Sundance—And That’s a Good Thing
Kevin Smith. Darren Aronofsky. Soon-to-be Black Panther director Ryan Coogler. For decades now, the biggest deals to come out of the Sundance Film Festival weren’t necessarily the biggest deals going in.
Smith’s Clerks wasn’t exactly primed for the art-house indie crowd when it dropped at the fest in 1994 (but Harvey Weinstein bought it for Miramax anyway). Aronofsky’s Pi got some buzz in 1998, but the big movies that year were the poetry flick Slam, Ally Sheey’s lesbian drama High Art, and the Australian comedy The Castle. Coogler won the Grand Jury Prize for Fruitvale (later retitled Fruitvale Station) in 2013, but at the start of the fest, all people could talk about was Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s writing/directing debut Don Jon (then called Don Jon’s Addiction) and Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight.
Many of the movies on the perennial most-anticipated lists do end up being hits at the festival, but the true break-outs play the long game, gathering buzz throughout the week while the most-hyped films run on their fumes. Often, their directors and stars become prominent players years later. Take, for example, 2012’s fest: at the time, it was considered to be an underwhelming year, but it also produced Selma director Ava DuVernay’s breakthrough Middle of Nowhere and the future Oscar nominee Beasts of the Southern Wild. (Also, fun fact: Aronofsky’s next movie will star another one-time festival surprise named Jennifer Lawrence, who first came to prominence in 2010 Sundance pick Winter’s Bone.)
That’s why this year’s festival is so promising—there’s hardly a huge name director or wildly famous celebrity’s credibility project in the bunch. In previous years, splashy selections like Linklater’s Boyhood have made it harder for movies like Frank (from now Oscar-nominated director Lenny Abrahamson) to surface. And while the good films usually do get found, they’re always better when they’re surprises instead of foregone conclusions.
“Sundance is a discovery festival,” says Sundance’s director of programming Trevor Groth. “I always prefer people coming in with no expectations and just seeing where the festival takes them and discovering something they never expected.”
That’s not to say there aren’t important people and films coming to Sundance. Smith is back with Yoga Hosers. Spike Lee has a Michael Jackson documentary in the show. And perennial Sundance fave Elisabeth Moss stars in The Free World. Same with Kristen Stewart and Michelle Williams in Certain Women. But that leaves plenty of room for people to see weirder fare—genre movies, horror flicks, off-kilter documentaries.
For one, there’s The Blackout Experiments, about the underworld surrounding a psychosexual horror “experience.” There’s also Swiss Army Man, a twist on the desert-island trope that Groth is very excited for audiences to see. Two compelling details: it’s about a guy who befriends a corpse, and it’s directed by The Daniels, who made the bizarre viral video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What.” There’s also the sci-fi/conspiracy theory/WTF flick Antibirth, starring Orange Is the New Black’s Natasha Lyonne and Chloë Sevigny. The mermaids-who-work-at-a-nightclub drama The Lure? Seems legit. So does Sleight, which finds a young high schooler using his love of magic to get into the drug game. And that’s just off the top of my head. (There are a few more weird gems in the gallery above.)
“It is a very eclectic slate,” says Sundance’s director John Cooper. “It kind of parallels the fact that there are so many choices for audiences now out there. You look at television world and it’s not at all homogenous. It’s OK for movies to have niches in a way.”
This year, that not-homogenous line-up also includes a lot of documentaries, like All These Sleepless Nights, that blur the lines between reportage and narrative film. It also means audiences might be drawn to check out things that aren’t even films, like the huge influx of virtual reality experiences filling the New Frontier section of the festival in 2016.
But really, it’s impossible to know what anyone should see. The true break-outs won’t be known until the end of next week, if not the end of next year. The next Aronofsky or Coogler or DuVernay is likely on their way to Park City right now, but we don’t know who they are. The future of film is opaque and strange, my friends. And that’s just the way we like it.
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