Every year I attend the Sundance Film Festival, I am reminded of why I love movies, even if I’ll always feel like a fish out of water in Park City. The experience is a joy, a hassle, a revelation and a recalibration.
This year’s festival offers 110 feature-length films on its schedule. Even for a full-time film critic, that’s a lot to cover in 11 days, and for a guy who typically isn’t going to take in more than a dozen films (the festival always arrives just after I’ve started a new semester of teaching), it makes the experience a bit of a crapshoot.
But there’s another factor. Like a lot of Deseret News readers, I skew more to the conservative side when it comes to movie selection, and Sundance has always had a reputation for pushing hard in the opposite direction — so much that it’s tempting to just skip it, especially since, as one of my old KJZZ colleagues used to argue, the best stuff at Sundance is going to come out at regular theaters later on, anyway.
It’s also easy to be put off by the festival's logistics. As a critic, you get used to special press screenings and easy access to the movies you have to cover, and the thought of Sundance with its long lines, celebrity spottings and travel issues — set smack in the middle of January, of all months — initially led me to a curt “no thanks.”
For the first couple of years I was writing for the paper, I let this attitude win out, and I passed on any chance my editors offered for Sundance coverage. Then, five years ago, I decided to roll the dice. I’m not even sure what changed my mind, but what I’ve found in the visits since has given me as many reasons to come back as reasons to stay away.
The logistics aren’t quite as crazy as I’d feared, but they are a challenge. Even with a general press credential and tickets in hand, you still have to wait in a lot of lines (most people start showing up for their screenings up to an hour before start time), and last year’s weather made me seriously consider a four-wheel drive transportation upgrade.
There’s also that period of uncomfortable suspense as you wait to see if the movie you picked is going to inspire you or try to scar you for life. Since most of the films don’t have ratings, you have to do your best to scan the festival program to make your best guess, and even then, you have to be prepared for the worst. It doesn’t help that the program makes every film sound like a sure Oscar contender, but it does help to know that walking out of a screening at Sundance won’t exactly start a riot.
So why do I keep coming back? Part of it is the treasure hunt. Since I’ve started working as a regular critic, each year, one or two of my favorite films have come out of Park City. Films such as “Sing Street,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “Mud,” “The Way Way Back” (all PG-13 films, incidentally) and plenty of others. The festival will always have gems; it’s just a matter of finding them.
Again, you could argue that all the good ones will have regular releases, but sadly, not all do. In 2016 (easily my best year so far), I saw an adorable film called “Little Gangster” out of Holland that still hasn’t seen a wide release.Comment on this story
There’s also something to be said about the experience of seeing these movies at the festival, in the middle of an enthusiastic audience. The crowd at “Little Gangster” was electric, and the audience for “Sing Street” at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center two years ago was even better. Even if you do fall on the more conservative side of the spectrum, it’s still fun to be surrounded with other people who genuinely love movies.
So, every year, when I get that email about renewing my festival credential, I jump through the hoops one more time, hoping to find my next gem. I know the odds may be stacked against me — I’m hoping to bounce back after a mediocre 2017 — but for now, it’s still worth the effort.