Over the last five years, the Sundance Film Festival has had an extraordinary run. Think about it: In 2014 alone, the festival saw the premieres of “Boyhood” and “Whiplash.” In 2013, it had “Fruitvale Station,” in 2015, it had “Manchester by the Sea,” and then, just last year, “Get Out” and “Call Me by Your Name.” Talk about raising the bar!
The track record is even more dazzling when you consider how much the awards season has shifted in recent years: It is becoming radically more indie-friendly. As the 2015 Oscar ceremony approached, it looked, for a while, as if “Boyhood” — “Boyhood!” — had a solid shot at winning best picture. This year, a number of serious observers have said the same thing about “Get Out” (which would have been a far-fetched thought a decade ago). “Manchester by the Sea” was a major awards contender, and so is “Call Me by Your Name.” And though the Oscar-winning “Moonlight” wasn’t a Sundance film, it easily could have been. All of which adds to the excitement about what independent film is, what it means to audiences, the impact it enjoys in the real world, and — inevitably — what people think and feel about the films they’re seeing at Sundance.
It also adds to the expectations.
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Those attending Sundance this year — fans, industry players, critics, journalists — wouldn’t be human if we didn’t come into the festival longing to see a movie on the level of the ones mentioned above: a home run, a knockout, a movie of such quality that it’s stunning — or maybe paradigm-shifting. That’s where the bar stands.
Even if you forget the politics of awards season, my own feelings about any given year at Sundance, going back to the first time I attended (in 1995), tend to hinge on whether I find at least one special movie to fall in love with, a film that’s not just good but great. For me, those movies would include “Crumb,” “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Thirteen,” “Chuck & Buck,” “Memento,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “Precious” and “Blue Valentine.” Others will have their own cherished titles. The point is that when you see a movie at Sundance that enters your bloodstream the way that those movies do, it defines the festival. For that year, Sundance becomes: The place where I saw THAT.
This year, five days into the festival, it’s been a place where I haven’t seen anything like that. What’s more, I’ve heard that sentiment echoed, over and over, from just about everyone I’ve spoken to. There doesn’t seem to be a movie people are getting high on.
Not that I’m grousing. The festival, in any given year, can only be as good as the films that the programmers have to choose from, and this year there have been a number of movies that succeed on their own modest terms. I liked “Juliet, Naked” and “Private Life” and “BLAZE” and several of the documentaries, notably “Studio 54.” Other films, like “The Tale” and “Colette,” have generated a reasonable degree of enthusiasm, just barely edging into the zone of what one could call “buzz.” Yet the home run hasn’t been hit. The Christmas tree lacks a star. I promise, that’s my last metaphor. But you get the point.
That’s why there hasn’t been a headline deal yet, even though a handful of films have been sold. “Juliet, Naked,” a perfectly nice and charming trifle, probably suffered from an early rumor that it would be “this year’s ‘The Big Sick.’” “Monsters and Men,” which was just acquired by Neon, was talked about as if it might be “this year’s ‘Fruitvale Station.’” In general, anytime you a hear a rumor at Sundance that says a movie is going to be “this year’s [fill in the blank],” you know that it’s not going to be the movie you want it to be. “The Big Sick” and “Fruitvale Station” weren’t that year’s anything. They were their own boldly entrancing statements.
Of course, this year’s Sundance isn’t over yet. There are still four days to go. So saying what I’m saying may be premature — and frankly, I hope that it is. I pray that a week from now, I look hopelessly short-sighted for having written this column. Because that’s the whole reason I come to Sundance: in search of movies to die for. But the festival tends to be front-loaded (because of all the celebrity/media heat over that first weekend), and so even though I hold out hope, I’m not holding my breath.
And let’s be clear: If this year’s Sundance festival doesn’t offer up a movie of the caliber everyone yearns to see, that’s okay. It’s no one’s fault. It doesn’t have to “mean” anything. It just means that this, for no good reason, was not a bumper year. The indie gods dozed a bit. They will be back. And so will great movies at Sundance. I can hardly wait.