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The shuttle made its usual slow climb from the airport in Salt Lake City to Park City, filled with excited visitors from around the world. One couple were filmmakers from Korea, whose short had made the cut for the first time, several were college students happy to volunteer, and me, a journalist anticipating the filmic surprises that the Sundance Film Festival would  surely offer me for the fifth year in a row.

The cover of 2010 program set the tone: “This is your Guide to Cinematic Rebellion”, followed by this urgent mantra on the first page – “Important Read This First!” Below this it read, “REBEL THIS IS THE RENEWED REBELLION. THIS IS THE RE-CHARGED FIGHT AGAINST THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE EXPECTED. THIS IS THE REBIRTH OF THE BATTLE FOR BRAVE NEW IDEAS. THIS IS SUNDANCE, REMINDED. AND THIS IS YOUR CALL TO JOIN US.” 

Well, all right then. I am ready!

New Frontier at Sundance
The day before the festival actually begins is a big one for journalists, because that’s the day that New Frontier debuts its latest finds, work that celebrates experimentation and the convergence of film and art. Also, Robert Redford faces the world’s press with his annual “State of the Sundance State” press conference, and the party officially begins with the opening night soiree at Legacy Lodge.
Robert Redford at Sundance

Ably helmed for many years by the charming Shari Frilot, Festival Senior Programmer, New Frontier is housed in a basement on Main Street. This year, Tracey Snelling’s expansive installation Bordertown was featured, a miniature Mexican town with videos embedded in the windows. Iceland’s Ragnar Kjartansson’s The End  installation surrounded the viewer with monitors to suggest a living sculpture of video and sound in which he and musician Davio Por Jonsson performed parts of a single musical composition from five different locations in the Canadian Rockies.

Several of the most intriguing installations came from internet culture, including German designers Jens Franke and Thomas Gläser’s adaptation of Google Earth into a toe-tapping experience, by connecting foot sensors to a computer that carpets the floor with a fully zoomable map. Eric Gradman blew me away with his Cloud Mirror installation, using wall-mounted monitors to confront viewers with reflected, pixilated images of themselves that are then transformed by internet information – personal photos, Facebook updates, and Tweets taken from the web. Sundance Film Festival mainstay and indie heartthrob Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Hesher
Cloud Mirror
introduced hitRECord.org, a collaborative production company that combines social media, crowd sourcing, and remix culture to encourage users to create all-new works of music and video. As Frilot remarked, “All the featured works speak the same language- the language of cinema.”

With my brain already in overdrive, and before the Festival even started, I crossed the street to the historic Main Street Egyptian Film House, the traditional site of Redford’s public musing and ramblings about the past and the future of the festival. What he thinks and feels is always made abundantly clear at this event, and you should not miss reading about it! Click Here

It’s not an understatement to say that anyone who attends Sundance is busy- very busy! But perhaps not as busy as this journalist, who not only tries to see as many films as possible, but also attempts to attend red carpet events, photo ops, one-on-one interviews with directors and stars, press conferences, visits with friends from previous years, at least a few parties, and other events of interest, including occasional sleeping. For example, this year I could not resist meeting Asimo, Honda’s famed intelligent robot--I could say “in the flesh” except its more like “in the plastic.” 
Honda's Asimo at Sundance
He can climb stairs, respond to voice commands, serve beverages, and so much more- I expect that soon we’ll find him starring in a big budget feature about intelligent robots taking over the earth.

Seriously though, the real reason I was there was to see films, and plenty of them. Following is a list of what I saw (in no particular order) (and often loved) this year. I might add that in the mad scramble for tickets, and the sheer number of films that are screened, I’m always only able to see relatively few of the many I had checked off on my list as “must-sees”. But the consolation is that for every film I couldn’t get to see, another brilliant, often surprising alternative pops up. You really can’t go wrong at Sundance!

If I’m lucky enough to nab a ticket to the festival’s premiere, as I was this year, I’m always impressed by an almost imperceptible holding-of-the-communal-breathe that takes place in the lobby of the Eccles Theatre, the largest of the Sundance venues, as each festival is about to begin. Anticipation. Remember to breathe… and so it begins.

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HOWL

This year’s starter was Howl, named after the notorious
Howl screenshots
book of poems written by Allen Ginsberg in San Francisco in 1955. Though now considered a masterpiece, Ginsberg was put on trial in 1957 for writing
obscenities. Howl  recounts this dark moment using three interwoven threads: the tumultuous life events that led a young Allen Ginsberg to find his true voice as an artist, society’s reaction (the trial), and the mind-expanding animation that echoes the startling originality of the poem itself. The film features a dynamic cast including James Franco, David Strathairn, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, and the surprising appearance of Mad Men’s John Hamm as Ginsberg’s trial lawyer. 

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HESHER

Joseph Gordon-Levitt had a big presence at Sundance this year, appearing at New Frontier, speaking at Twitter House and starring in a most unusual film called Hesher, which was co-written and directed by Spencer Susser. The story revolves around four characters who find themselves in an unexpected relationship: 13 year-old 
Hesher at Sundance
T.J. (Devin Broshu) and his Dad (Rainn Wilson) are living with Grandma (played by the delightful Piper Laurie) after the accidental death of Mom. The trio encounters a very odd loner named Hesher (Gordon-Levitt), who has long greasy hair, homemade tattoos and spends most of the time half-naked. He hates the world- and everyone in it, and shows it by setting fires to things and blowing others up. He lives in his van, until an unlikely relationship develops between them all. Natalie Portman also stars!

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THE COMPANY MEN

If you’re a fan of Ben Affleck, you will love his touching performance as Bobby Walker, a smug hot-shot sales executive who thinks he’s the cat’s meow, until he suddenly loses his job, and his seemingly idyllic life style along 
The Company Men at Sundance
with it. Unwilling to let the world know the truth about his situation, he heads off to “work” each day, looking for a job from a desk at an unemployment agency. Director John Wells explores the powerlessness of losing one's job while examining how anger, fear, and forced humility can replace the security of "normal." With a do-not-miss cast of actors including Affleck, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones and the always intriguing Maria Bello, this film offers an inside look at the unexpected effects of America’s recessionary times.

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WINTER’S BONE

If there was ever a film that sticks with you, this is it! Set deep in the Ozark Mountains, in a world completely alien to anything most of us know, clans live by a code of conduct that only a few understand and no one dares defy. When teenage 
Winter's Bone at Sundance
Ree Dolly's (in a very difficult role played by the magnificent and-sure-to-have-a-fabulous-future Jennifer Lawrence ) crystal-meth-making father skips bail and goes missing, the security of her young siblings and disabled mother is threatened. In a frightening quest, Ree endures hunger, loneliness and the rules and wrath of her kin, as she travels the county alone and on foot to find him. Director Debra Granik’s flawless exploration of this alien culture is awesome, provoking stunningly genuine performances and revealing exquisite visual details that capture the imagination and won’t let it go. Also featuring John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt, Sheryl Lee, Tate Taylor.

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JACK GOES BOATING

The well-deserved epithet of “great actor” has been earned many times over by the indie favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman. But in Jack he not only makes his directorial debut, but produces and stars in the 
Jack Goes Boating at Sundance
film, an intriguing tale of love, betrayal, and friendship set in New York City. Jack (Hoffman), who is a limo driver, and Connie (Amy Ryan) are two single people who have almost given up on the notion of love, until they meet on a blind date and hit it off. The couple who brought them together, Clyde (John Ortiz) and Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), are ironically confronting the unresolved issues in their own rocky marriage. The writing is authentic and the performances are believable, as each couple struggles to achieve those most difficult of goals- love and trust. Courtesy of the great NYC ambience, and touching moments both in and out of a gym pool, Jack Goes Boating will reaffirm your belief that love will conquer all, no matter what.

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BLUE VALENTINE

One of film’s most compelling directives is to introduce an audience to a kind of person they think they don’t know--an inside peek at a way of life or thinking or behaving that is strange, unfamiliar. This happens when we meet Cindy (Michelle 
Blue Valentine at Sundance
Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) who are unhappily married, with a young daughter. Hoping to save their relationship, they steal away to an erotic themed hotel, where we watch as they try to rekindle the passion that’s slipped away. We then travel back in time, only to encounter them years earlier, when they met and fell in love – full of life and hope.

Moving between these two time periods, Blue Valentine seeks to answer the quesion of where their love went? Teetering uncomfortably between the edge of passion and the reality of violence, how it will turn out for this couple is unclear throughout. Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance has contrasted sets of dualities--past vs. present, youth vs. adulthood, passion vs. disgust--for us to ponder. This character driven- piece is brought ferociously to life because Gosling and Williams bring amazing intensity to their roles while including us, the audience, in the process.

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THE KILLER INSIDE ME

Based on the novel by legendary pulp writer Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me offers  Casey Affleck a deliciously violent role as unbalanced small-town deputy sheriff Lou Ford. It seems a serial killer is loose in his West Texas jurisdiction and the dead bodies 
The Killer Inside Me at Sundance
are beginning to pile up. Though it seems unlikely, the handsome, charming and familiar sheriff emerges as a possible suspect. But how can that be? In this film, Director Michael Winterbottom shows his prowess as a director, squeezing every ounce of noir out of Thompson’s book and onto the screen. Noir fans- DO NOT miss the wild and crazy fight scene between Affleck and Jessica Alba- unforgettable. This violent, stylish psychosexual thriller is imbued with all the amoral energy of its genre and is sure to shock some and dazzle all. Also stars Kate Hudson.

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NOWHERE BOY

It seems that even 40 years after his death, the world’s interest in John Lennon has not diminished. If anything, it seems to be growing exponentially. Thus, British filmmaker Sam Taylor Wood’s fascinating biopic about Lennon’s early years beginning in Liverpool in 1955, shines a light on how the smart but directionless teen grew up to become JOHN LENNON, one of the world’s most famous and revered people.

Nowhere Boy at Sundance

As a youth, Lennon was a troublemaker, skipping school, stealing records and worst of all, playing rock ‘n roll music in a band. He’s told he’s going nowhere. As some may know, Lennon was raised by his Aunt Mimi, to whom he spoke by phone every single week of his life until his death. John widens the rift with Aunt Mimi when he seeks out his estranged mother, who, unbeknownst to him, has been living just 3 blocks away from Aunt Mimi’s house his entire life. He forms an immediate attachment to her, and she in turn encourages his interest in music, inflaming a rivalry with her sister, Mimi. Soon, a chance encounter brings the younger Paul McCartney into the band, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Director Taylor Wood sees this formative period of John Lennon’s life as a way to explore his maturing artistic sensibility. Nineteen-year-old Aaron Johnson plays Lennon, and could not have done a finer job with his breathtaking and haunting portrayal of the young man’s youthful artistic angst. (Here’s a bit of gossip going around the festival this year- rumor has it that Sam Taylor Wood (42) was pregnant at this year’s Sundance, with the father supposedly being her leading man, 19-year-old Aaron Johnson!) Also stars Kristin Scott Thomas as Aunt Mimi and Anne-Marie Duff as Lennon’s mother Julia.

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GET LOW

Although I actually live in Nashville, filmed portrayals of Tennesee’s rural past generally don’t appeal to me. Though generally the same was true for this film, I must say that pretty much everyone else I know who saw it loved it. This could be explained by the fact three not-often-seen beloved actors star in it, Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, and Sissy Spacek.
Get Low at Sundance

The story revolves around Felix (Duvall), a hermit who has lived in an isolated cabin for the past 38 years. Feeling that his end is near, he hatches a plan to throw himself a fancy "funeral party" on his land, promising to give it away to someone who attends. He even invites the townsfolk, most of whom either despise him or fear him, to attend the party and share all the crazy stories they may have heard about creepy old Felix. Is he a fugitive? A murderer? Or something worse? If this kind of film appeals to you this one is a must-see. If not, it’s worth seeing anyway, for the acting (Lucas Black, Gerald Mcraney, Bill Cobbs), engaging script, and convincing sets and costumes, that truly do bring that peculiar rustic period to life

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THE IMPERIALISTS ARE STILL ALIVE!

When I first arrived at the Eccles for the premiere showing of this film, someone brushed against my arm and whispered in my ear, “I’m a friend of Mr. Tang’s”. Odd I thought, wondering what that was supposed to mean. The film, shot in atmospheric 16mm, included a hint- it was the password to a fictional club in Manhattan, where successful 
The Imperialists Are Still Alive
and beautiful visual artist Asya (Élodie Bouchez), and her equally trendy friends, live the life of the hip and glamorous, replete with exclusive art parties, supermodels, and stretch limousines. Out partying one night, Asya learns that her childhood friend, Faisal, has disappeared—the victim of a rumored CIA abduction. That same night, she meets Javier, a sexy Mexican PhD student (Jose Maria de Tavira), and romance blossoms.

This film recreates the high life in New York as it was and probably always will be, portraying the art scene as intelligent, alluring and decidedly multi-cultural. With all the partying, sex, and the contrasting seriousness of the war on terror wrapped up in one great cinematic package, Zeina Durra’s atmospheric debut is a must-see. (btw- Being a friend of Mr. Tang’s got me in to this film’s after-party)

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SPLICE

Although I knew it was going to be scary from the poster, I was completely taken by surprise by Splice. Both enthralling and frightening, the film’s implications are so
Splice at Sundance
profound that the actual future of our planet could be impacted by the ideas suggested in it. I will say no more than to tell you that the classic monster film gets a deliciously sadistic twist in Canadian Director Vincenzo Natali's contemporary dissection of the genetic-engineering dilemma. Featuring a tremendous cast including Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley and Delphine Chanéac, this modern-day horror film will definitely make you squirm. Certain events might be deeply disturbing to some, so be prepared if you decide to see it.
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ONE TOO MANY MORNINGS

A chance encounter with the director (Michael Mohan) and cast on a Park City bus one morning, convinced me to go see One Too Many Mornings. Both smart, funny and likeable as people, I figured their film just might be the same. And happily, it was!

Fischer (newcomer Stephen Hale) has it pretty good living rent free in exchange for taking care of a church and teaching kids One Too Many Mornings at Sundanceto play soccer. But unfortunately for him, he has a drinking problem that causes him to wreck everything around him- both things and relationships. Not even a surprise encounter with old friend Pete (Anthony Deptula), a couple of (really amusing) hot “cougars” and bad advice can solve Fischer’s problem.

In One Too Many Mornings, Director Michael Mohan intelligently explores the nuances of friendship, the pain of alchoholism, but still keeps it charming. The acting is great, the characters are real, and the story’s challenge asks you to ponder- If this is your life, how do you want to live it? Also starring Tina Kapousis, Jonathan Shockley, VJ Foster, Abby Miller

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TWELVE

Based on the critically acclaimed novel by Nick McDonell, written when he was only 17 years old, Twelve is a chilling chronicle of privileged urban adolescence on the Upper East Side of 
Twelve at Sundance
Manhattan. Set over spring break, the story follows White Mike, a kid with unlimited potential, who has dropped out of his senior year of high school and sells marijuana to his rich, spoiled peers. When his cousin is brutally murdered in an east Harlem project, and his best friend is arrested for the crime, White Mike is hurled on a collision course with his own destiny.

Led by director Joel Schumacher, a talented ensemble cast perfectly captures the obvious pain of children teetering on the brink of adulthood. Schumacher counters their overindulged behavior with operatic staging and a literary voice-over. For every decade, there are moments when youth culture is frozen in "art," to be reveled in by the generation that lived it and observed by those that didn't.

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THE RUNAWAYS
The Runaways
Of all the bands to come out of the 1970s Los Angeles music scene, The Runaways are by far the most uniquely fascinating. This is partially due to their music but more so to the fact that they were teenage girls whose wild and reckless lifestyle was the stuff of legend. Focusing on the duo of guitarist/vocalist Joan Jett and lead vocalist Cherie Currie as they navigate a rocky road of touring and record-label woes, the film chronicles the band's formation as well as their meteoric rise under the malevolent eye of an abusive manager. 

Acclaimed video artist Floria Sigismondi directs from her own script, and her luscious camerawork captures every sweaty detail—from the filthy trailer where the women practice to the mosh pits of Tokyo. What really makes the film cook are the sizzling performances by Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart. Not to be missed, The Runaways is an ode to an era and a groundbreaking band.

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SMASH HIS CAMERA

When I was a young up-and-coming magazine photographer in New York, I had the misfortune of an occasional run-in with Ron Galella. Large, tall and loud, he would refuse to move even if the person standing behind behind him was 5’2”. Before long he began showing up at events with his large, tall and loud presumed wife, to whom he is rumored to have handed a camera and taught her his bad and discourteous 
Smash His Camera at Sundance
behaviour as well. Though I, my photographer compatriots, and every star in Hollywood hoped that Jackie Kennedy would succeed in putting him in jail, somehow he has prevailed to this day. Even Robert Redford was not immune to Galella's stalking, and at his Opening Day Press Conference this year, he told his own stories of trying to elude the persistent Mr. Galella.
 
Now, large and pushy paparazzi are common in our celebrity infested times, always there, snapping every movement of the rich and famous. Ron Galella is the original paparazzo though, I can attest to that. And as much as I hate to admit it, he did succeed in elevating the celebrity snapshot into art and at 78, remains a still annoying stalwart in the business. Now, famed director Leon Gast (When We Were Kings) profiles Galella and places him at the center of the debate about the First Amendment right to privacy. Though I hate to admit it, Galella’s work and tactics have their many, many, many critics, but his influence cannot be denied.
www.Dishmag.com / Issue 115 - September 2018
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