The thing no one tells you about the Sundance Film Festival is that it's all about the shuttles. Seriously. Park City is a town of roughly 7,500 people, and for one week each January, 50,000 film fans, industry insiders, press reps and Hollywood wannabes descend on the cozy mountain town and crowd every inch of condo, roadway, restaurant and bar space available. The buses that circle and loop the sometimes far-flung theaters, event venues and parties act as Sundance's slow-moving circulatory system, putting together people who might not otherwise meet.
For those trying to catch as many films as possible, riding the shuttles can be a kind of hell, thwarting even the best-planned itinerary. For germophobes, they are a coughing, sniffling petri dish that requires an onboard supply of hand sterilizer. And for anyone hoping to make a business connection, they are a terrific opportunity to strike up conversations with producers, filmmakers, composers or members of the press.
The first scan is for face recognition – is the guy with the beard and Ray-Bans someone I know? Next comes the badge check. Festival attendees wear lanyards with color-coded ID cards. Red typically denotes someone of importance. Green is for members of the press. Gray for industry. Passengers surreptitiously attempt to check the name, affiliation and occupation of those beside them. After all, movie producers are difficult to spot and indie filmmakers aren't exactly adorning the cover of Entertainment Weekly.
Most of the films at Sundance were seeking distribution or sale. Every day brought news of new acquisitions. This year's big winner was Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's (who penned The Descendents) The Way, Way Back, which was snatched up for $10 million. The summer vacation coming-of-age tale has a top-notch cast that includes Steve Carell (playing it straight), Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney. It's entertaining enough but pretty formulaic stuff. Racking up another $4 million was Joseph Gordon-Levitt's writing-directorial debut, Don Jon's Addiction. Levitt plays a Jersey Shore-style hunk addicted to online porn who can only be saved by Scarlett Johansson. It's more engaging than you might expect.
Sundance's midnight programming served up We Are What We Are, a horror-drama that attracted healthy crowds and a seven-figure sales price. This slow-burning creepfest about a reclusive and religious family of cannibals was well-acted and -directed, but gorehounds may be too impatient to wait for the final half-hour of batshit-crazy violence. On the flipside, S-VHS offered up a bloody quartet of found-footage vignettes. This sequel to cult fright fave VHS has a few interesting ideas and a significant number of jump scares but suffers from unforgivably atrocious writing.
As usual, the true Sundance gems were the documentaries and premieres. Korean filmmaker Chan-Wook Park (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) debuted Stoker, and despite its Hollywood pedigree (it boasts A-listers like Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska) Park's highly twisted sensibilities remained intact. Also willing to disturb was Daniel Radcliffe in Kill Your Darlings – not because his movie is too dark but because Potterphiles may not be ready to see the former teen wizard French-kiss another man. Radcliffe shines as the budding poet Allen Ginsberg, and he's joined by a sterling cast, including Ben Foster as William S. Burroughs and Dane DeHaan (Chronicle) as the boy who sets other boys' hearts aflutter. Most of the documentaries were of the "people suck" variety. One such doc, Blackfish, examined the exploitation and abuse of orcas by theme parks like SeaWorld. It's not as galvanizing as the Oscar-winning The Cove, but should still attract and appall sympathetic audiences.
For me, the best of the fest was Before Midnight, the third installment in Richard Linklater's cyclical study of life and love (starring co-writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy). Smart, funny and filled with small but profound insights, it delivered everything fans of 1995's Before Sunrise and 2004's Before Sunset hoped for, proving that after nearly 20 years, Jesse and Celine are still a fascinating and lovable couple.
If I have one regret, it's that I wasn't able to catch Escape From Tomorrow. Probably the most buzzed-about movie at the fest, Randall Moore's black-and-white indie was audaciously shot inside Disney World and Disneyland without the park's knowledge. Suicide, ghoulish princesses and vomit all play a role in the film's nightmarish narrative and audience reactions were mostly positive. Nevertheless, don't count on catching the movie at your local cineplex. Rumors of an impending lawsuit from Disney loom large.
BIGGEST REVELATION AT SUNDANCE:
In my quest to find the quintessential Utah dish, I asked several Utahns what their signature cuisine was. The answer, each and every time, was green Jell-O with shaved carrots.