Frankly, it’s our guess the gatekeepers of the Sundance Film Festival are just happy they made it through this year’s installment alive. Somewhat unexpectedly, the weather and politics played a huge part in the 2017 edition of America’s most prestigious film festival and the usual sense of euphoric excitement was often missing. That’s not to insinuate there weren’t incredible films shown. There were quite a few (which you can find here), but when everyone is focusing on their phones for the latest news updates it put a bit of a grey cloud over the proceedings. Keeping that in mind, take a look at the Best and Worst of this year’s Park City monster.
Best: Women’s March
The snow was so bad that traffic was at a standstill throughout most of Park City, but that didn’t stop 8,000 people from trekking to Main Street and participating in a four-block march and rally. Talent skipped interviews (John Legend marched behind me), publicists and filmmakers skipped screenings in the cold to stand with their sisters.. The rally featured moving and empowering speeches from 86-year-old civil rights icon Dolores Huerta, Chelsea Handler, Jesssica Williams and, most surprising, Maria Bello, among others. Neither the festival nor the city had ever seen anything like it
Worst: A quiet year for documentaries
Sundance actually first made a name for itself during awards season as a launching spot for many acclaimed U.S. documentaries. In fact, there are two Best Documentary nominees this year that debuted at the 2016 festival including expected winner “O.J.: Made In America” and “Life, Animated.” Some previous Oscar winners that first screen at Sundance over the past decade include “Searching for Sugarman,” “20 Feet From Stardom,” “The Cove” and “Man on a Wire.” This year’s selections earned polite response, at best. “Last Man in Aleppo,” “Icarus,” “Chasing Coral” and “Casting Jonbenet” all got some attention, but only “The Force” and “Step” were blowing people away (that’s rare for Sundance). In fact, the Grand Jury prizewinner “Dina” was a shocker that came in completely under the radar (even the filmmakers were floored). Moreover, many hyped up docs including “Trumped,” “Winnie,” “The Workers Cup,” “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” and “Dolores” were basically dismissed. Was it truly an off year? Perspective says to give it six months, but possibly.
Worst: So many narrative films with distribution
It’s hard to remember a time when so many films in the festival already had distribution before they arrived at the festival. In the Premieres category Fox Searchlight had “Wilson,” Open Road Films had “Before I Fall,” Bleecker Street had “The Last Word,” The Weinstein Company had “Wind River” (although the backstory on that acquisition is a whole other feature) and Netflix had “The Discovery.” Sony Classics also picked up “Call Me By Your Name” a few weeks before the festival, but that was after it was selected. Netflix also had “I Don’t Feel At Home In The World Anymore” and “Burning Sands” as well as “Deidra & Laney Rob A Train” in the U.S. Dramatic and NEXT sections, respectively. Granted, drop Netflix and you take out four titles (still, enough to raise eyebrows), but isn’t the idea behind the festival to provide a spotlight for independent films looking for distribution? And are broad-ish indies with homes like “Before I Fall” and “The Last Word” really appropriate? Or is this how the programmers cover up a slightly weak year in overall submissions? If that means avoiding more god-awful selections we probably shouldn’t complain, but considering how many slots are already reserved for Sundance Institute developed projects it considerably diminished the field for truly new voices and that is troubling.
Worst: What the hell happened to the Park City at Midnight section?
Ah, remember when all the buzz came from the Midnight flicks? Films such as “The Blair Witch Project,” “Saw,” “The Babadook”? Yeah, those breakouts are few and far between these days. While this isn’t a problem that is Sundance’s alone (TIFF’s Midnight slate has also suffered) it’s worth pondering if the section is worth it anymore. The most acclaimed selection was the doc “78/52” and that could have easily been slotted in Documentary Premieres. “The Little Hours” was Midnight in name only as it debuted at 8:30 PM on the opening night of the festival. So, is it the festival’s standards or the fact almost all the commercial films end up in regular Premieres that has decimated the Midnight slate?
Best: Gay films make a comeback
Gay (male) cinema has seen something of a resurgence over the past 18 months and it may have peaked at Sundance. Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name” was one of the most critically acclaimed films that debuted at the festival and both Francis Lee’s “God’s Only Country” and Eliza Hittman’s “Beach Rats” won directing prizes. We have some issues with the former (review coming later this week), but add John Tengove’s “The Wound,” which will likely get more press when it screens at Berlin next month, and it was sort of a comeback for the genre. Obviously, outside of “The Wound” these were all films about Caucasian gay men, but after years of only cursory supporting characters or no inclusion at all beyond a random documentary it’s hard not to celebrate the turnaround.
Worst: The Snow (really)
Yes, bitching about it snowing at one of the premier film festivals in the world sounds like a very privileged complaint. The problem was it didn’t just snow the first two days of the festival or the first four. It snowed — and often in blizzard conditions — for seven days straight. Park City makes its coin on the ski slopes and even the locales were complaining and having issues with plowing and snow removal. That being said, we’ll take the snow over other years where the brutal cold found most attendees coughing and hacking after the first weekend. Nothing is worse than catching a Sundance viral bug, trust.
Worst: A middling U.S. Dramatic Competition slate
There was a reason very few members of the media correctly picked the winner of the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic category. It wasn’t because the jury was comprised of just five people. It’s because there weren’t any true standouts. “I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore” is a fine movie (read my review), but it didn’t blow over the festival. And, on the opposite spectrum, a film that was received poorly by critics, “Crown Heights” with a 52 so far on Metacritic, actually won the Audience Award. There weren’t any god awful films this year (ah, we’ll never forget you “The Ledge,” “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” and “God’s Pocket”), but it’s hard to imagine many of these selections making an impact over the next 12 months.
Best: Universal scores with ‘Get Out’ Surprise Screening
Beyond their respective mini-majors, Hollywood studios have historically avoided Sundance when it comes to sneaking or premiering their films, even when it comes to genre films. There has always been the fear that what may work at SXSW, Cannes, Toronto or a targeted exercise such as Fantastic Fest could go terribly wrong in Park City. It also is seen as a logistical nightmare for publicity teams that are more used to setting up at fancy hotels than trekking talent up and down snowy Main Street (they leave that to the agency publicists who mostly dread the festival). But, Universal took a chance with a secret, er, surprise, er, everyone knew it was happening screening of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” on Tuesday night and it was a smash. Of course, it helped that the movie was good, but it provided a boatload of rave reviews for Universal marketing to work with and a ton of social media chatter. Moreover, Sundance has — in theory — less crowd noise to deal with than SXSW as the Austin festival has become overwhelmed by the celebrities and parties for the Interactive portion of its festival. Movies and even musical performances by big names can get completely lost during that event. “Get Out” proved that even during a busy 10 days Hollywood can get something valuable out of Park City and Sundance can get another great movie in return. Who’s next?
Worst: Ticketholders who couldn’t stop taking photos of Malia Obama
In case you hadn’t heard, Malia Obama took a position with the Weinstein Company as an intern during her gap year before she enrolls in Harvard this fall. With little initial fanfare she spent a good amount of the festival checking out movies with the rest of the Sundance faithful. The problem was there were some fans (we’re gonna guess SLC locales and corporate patrons) who could not control themselves from standing up in the middle of packed theaters to take a photo of Malia in her seat. This has happened with other huge celebrities over the years, but the daughter of the former President? Come on, we’re better than that.
Worst: Cyber attacks and Wi-Fi hell
This is a fact: the Sundance Film Festival’s ticketing server experienced a cyber attack. WiFi and cellular service was at 2005 levels no matter what your provider. The WiFi also went down for 45 minutes or so at the awards ceremony. There was a power outage at one of the venues that cancelled three screenings. It’s worth noting that outside of bad cellular service (which was improved about five years ago) none of this had happened in the history of the festival before (any previous cyber attacks were never revealed to the public or caused something publicly to happen). We’re not saying it was related to “Icarus,” the documentary decimating the Russian government’s practice of doping its athletes for the 2008, 2012 and 2014 Olympic Games but it’s an interesting coincidence, no?
Best: No truly overboard reactions
The best thing that happened at Sundance this year was there were no over-the-top reactions to any of the films. We can’t guarantee there won’t be another “Birth of a Nation” moment in the years to come (there likely will be), but at least 2017 was a respite in that respect. Sure, there were standing ovations for films such as “Mudbound,” “Call Me By Your Name” and “Patti Cake$,” but in general the reaction was more tempered than previous years.