Tag Archives: Sundance 2020

Sundance 2020: Day 13

Post-Movie Views Sundance 2020

Festival Director James McNally is attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival from January 21st to February 2nd.

Festival Day 11

With all my work completed, this last day of Sundance always turns out to be the day I actually get to see movies, and this year was no different. I was up early and out of my festival lodgings by about 9:15am. I was able to store my suitcase at the Park Avenue Hotel (formerly the Yarrow) and grab a coffee at Starbucks before heading back to HQ one last time to drop off my key and say some goodbyes. The poor AR staff had to be in the office at 8am today (no mercy at all, considering there was a party last night). I gave Terry a hug goodbye and waved to the rest of the sleepy Sundancers before heading to the Park Avenue Cinema for my first film of the day. Sunday is when they show all the award winners so it’s a good way to catch up on stuff that might have been sold out or difficult to get to earlier in the festival.

My 11:00am screening was of Josephine Decker’s Shirley, an eerie and impressionistic story based on the life of author Shirley Jackson (who wrote some haunting short stories, including “The Lottery”). As played by Elisabeth Moss, Jackson was eccentric at best and was often deeply depressed and unable to write. Her husband Stanley Hyman (an excellent Michael Stuhlbarg) was often bullying and manipulating her, and their relationship seems to have been both codependent and sexless. When a young couple move in (the young man to assist the professor at school, and his pregnant wife to help keep up the house), the dynamics grow even stranger. I loved the performances, the script, and the visual style, but the ending confused me a bit. Still, an interesting film that I’d like to revisit sometime.

From there it was a short walk to the Holiday Village Cinemas to catch Maïmouna Doucouré’s Cuties. I’d loved her short film Maman(s), which we showed at Sundance back in 2015. Her feature debut borrows quite a lot from the short, and both are based on events in her own life. 11 year-old Amy joins a group of girls in a dance competition while dealing with the news that her father has taken a second wife and will be bringing her back from Senegal soon. Amy’s navigation of two cultures, one religious and traditional, and the other modern and secular, forms the core of the story. Watching this group of tweens dance in an exaggeratedly sexy style is often disturbing, even as we recognize the talent. Amy’s desire to fit in leads her to some extreme behaviour that puts her at odds with her mother, but in the end, she finds a middle ground and the final shot, of Amy dressed simply as an 11 year old girl and jumping rope until she rises into the sky, is profoundly moving. In fact, several magic realist touches in the film add splashes of humour, menace, and joy. Doucouré has more than delivered on her early promise, and in addition, the central performance of Fathia Youssouf is simply astounding. I believe this will be making its way to Netflix soon, so hopefully it will be seen by a lot of people all over the world.

After a quick lunch at Burger King, it was over to The Ray at 3:30pm for I Carry You With Me, the dramatic feature debut of Heidi Ewing (half of the duo, with Rachel Grady, who made such outstanding documentary features as Jesus Camp, The Boys of Baraka, and 12th and Delaware). The film tells the true story of the romance between Ivan and Gerardo, two Mexican men who meet in the 1990s. Ivan dreams of becoming a chef, and decides to cross the border into the US to achieve his dream, leaving not only Gerardo but his young son, too. The early part of the film uses actors to recreate the couple’s meeting and Ivan’s journey to America. When it comes into the present, the film becomes a documentary, using the real Ivan and Gerardo to tell us the rest of the story. It’s a lovely and often heartbreaking tale, and the actors are excellent, but the mixture of styles didn’t completely work for me. Still worthy of your time, and I look forward to seeing where Heidi Ewing’s filmmaking goes next.

After that it was time to be picked up once again by Susan’s shuttle. I’m staying at the Comfort Suites near the airport and was able to catch the last few minutes of the Super Bowl, which was very entertaining. The weather this festival has been exceedingly mild, but they’re calling for a storm overnight, which might delay my flight. Crossing my fingers that it won’t. I’m looking forward to getting home. Our festival submissions open tomorrow and Sundance has me excited to see what’s in store.

P.S. This morning at HQ I ran into James, another volunteer I’ve seen over the past few years. It seems that we always end up seeing films together on the last day and getting the shuttle to SLC together, and that was the case again this year, except that he chose to see Minari at the Eccles at 3:30pm. Everyone is raving about that one, so I hope to catch up with it soon.

Sundance 2020: Day 12

AR Volunteers, Sundance 2020

Festival Director James McNally is attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival from January 21st to February 2nd.

Festival Day 10

Saturday meant I was back to work again, on the Awards Ceremony and Party. This year I was able to avoid being in the early group which meant that I could meet up with Terry and Bryan for lunch at Anaya’s Market. We met at HQ at 1:30pm and then walked over. I ordered a burrito but realized I wouldn’t be able to eat it all. I’d bought a one pound container of mac and cheese from the Deer Valley Grocery Cafe the day before and, not wanting to waste it, ate it as a late breakfast. Nevertheless, the burrito was tasty and great value, and Anaya’s Market has quickly become one of my favourite places to eat in Park City. Hopefully the Sundance masses don’t discover it.

After lunch, we went back to HQ to await our 3:15pm pickup to go to the Basin Auditorium in Kimball Junction. We already gave out all of our awards on Tuesday night and most of our teams had gone home, so there wasn’t really much for us to do. We sort of watched the entrance for any of our teams (three or four were attending) and then were able to go inside when the ceremony began. There was no host this year, but the juries and some Sundance staff were onstage. It was John Cooper’s last year as Executive Director, and he performed an inspired lip sync and dance to “Last Dance” accompanied by some dancers. Then they announced longtime Documentary Program director Tabitha Jackson as his replacement, and the whole audience erupted in cheers and rose to their feet. I don’t know her, but I am certain the festival has been passed into very capable hands.

After the ceremony concluded, the Artist Relations volunteers carried out our traditional chair clearing and stacking duties so that the seated area could be transformed into the dance floor. After that, we took off our walkies for the last time and got to enjoy the party.

I took some photos with people, shared drinks and conversations, and walked around until about 12:30pm and then just took a shuttle home. There was talk of an afterparty somewhere but I really wasn’t all that interested. That’s not to say that I didn’t have a fine time. When people asked me how my festival was this year, I responded that somehow it felt easier. Of course my eyesight is better, but I just think doing it five times makes it easier to budget my time and energy.

The above photo was taken by Maya Ochoa, one of our new Artist Relations Volunteers this year. From left to right, front row first, there’s James McNally (me!), Gabe Figueroa, Maya Ochoa, Victoria Sardaby, Veronica Medina-Matzner, Sreb Noeva, (back row) Jess Kincaid, Fabiola Bonnot, and Marci Manklow.

Sundance 2020: Day 11

Max Richter Plays Sleep Sundance 2020

Festival Director James McNally is attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival from January 21st to February 2nd.

Festival Day 9

Slept until 9am again but had a good plan to see stuff today. First up was the new Ross Brothers film, Bloody Nose Empty Pockets, about the last day of a Las Vegas dive bar. The film starts with a very 70s style opening title sequence set to Buck Owens’ “Big in Vegas” so it sets you up for an almost Altmanesque tableau of multi-faceted characters. The bar is a home for many of the hard-drinking, hard-living patrons. There is no hiding the damage that alcohol can do to people, but there is also a lot of genuine love between these people that a lot of society would call losers. Knowing their previous work, I knew the film wasn’t strictly a documentary, and the directors admitted afterwards that the bar is a bit of a construct. It was not closing, and the patrons were brought together for the film shoot, though most were nonprofessionals. It’s still unscripted and from all accounts the drinking was real, so it does capture a set of themes the filmmakers were trying to communicate while still feeling truthful, at least to me. Turner Ross said he saw Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh when he was 9 years old and that that was a huge influence on the film. In any case, another strong entry from the Ross Brothers, and this one should appear in Toronto at Hot Docs in a few months.

I had to surreptitiously turn my phone on during the film to get onto the eWaitlist for Max Richter’s Sleep, which was screening at the Egyptian at 2:30pm, and then race over after my first film. I got from the Library Theatre to the Egyptian with about 15 minutes to spare and was able to get a volunteer ticket, so that was a relief. I’ve been looking forward to Max Richter’s appearance at the festival for weeks now.

So, Max Richter. I discovered his work when I watched the HBO series The Leftovers a few years ago but he’s also done film score work for films like Arrival and Shutter Island. Natalie Johns’ film documents one of the public performances of his 8 hour long opus “Sleep,” which is performed only two or three times a year due to the incredible stress it places on the musicians, including Richter who plays piano. This particular performance was the first outdoor one, in Los Angeles’ Grand Park. Spanning the hours from midnight to 8am, the performance features cots for its audience to recline, sleep, cuddle, meditate, or whatever. The film speaks to a few of the audience members about their experience, and I think that was a great choice by the filmmaker. Richter’s music hits me very hard emotionally and it’s difficult to say why, but “Sleep” in particular means a lot to me. I’ve always had trouble sleeping, and therefore I’m sort of obsessed by the whole idea, and also by the weird state of mind between waking and sleeping. Music often helps me fall asleep and Richter’s piece was expressly designed for this, but it also evokes certain stories and dreams and I find all of it fascinating. The music itself is stunningly simple, kind of mournful but resigned. I’ve described it as not only good music to sleep to, but music that would make dying to it seem just fine. The film also does a great job of tracing Richter’s life, along with that of his creative and romantic partner Yulia Mahr. At the heart of the film is their own love story, which moved me very much. I’m very much looking forward to seeing this again and sharing it with others.

I met up with the other shorts volunteer Bryan afterwards (he’d also been in the screening) and we went back toward HQ. We were going to meet up with Terry and Drew for dinner at Anaya’s Market, but when we got there they were no longer serving food, so we went to Windy Ridge Cafe instead and used another of our “grub stubs” for a burger and fries. Terry and Drew didn’t end up joining us, but we were meeting Terry afterwards in the lineup at The Shop (near the Library) for the Max Richter performance. We were there very early and stood in line for over an hour just to make sure we could get in.

After having seen the documentary just a few hours earlier, I wasn’t sure I’d want to hear the music again, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to see the 90 minute version of “Sleep” performed live. And it was completely worthwhile. We all joked that we’d probably fall asleep and in fact many of us did, for a few seconds or minutes at least. But the music ends with what Richter calls a kind of “sunrise” and magically, I felt refreshed when it ended. Nevertheless, even at 10pm I wanted nothing more than to come home and get into bed, and so that’s what I did.

Sundance 2020: Day 10

Boys State Wins Grand Jury Prize US Documentary

Festival Director James McNally is attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival from January 21st to February 2nd.

Festival Day 8

Up at 9am today but nothing on the schedule until noon, when I attended the volunteer screening of Boys State at the Holiday Village Cinemas. Directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (The Overnighters), it explores the long running Boys State program, founded by the American Legion to teach high schoolers about the inner workings of American democracy. Many politicians have been alumni of the program and each state runs its own annual weeklong camp, which culminates in elections. The film focusses its attention on Texas, a perennial “purple” state that nevertheless is home to a lot of conservative boys.

The first part of the film is actually kind of horrifying, with displays of machismo and tribalism that remind the audience of the worst sort of jingoism and ignorance. But gradually, characters emerge and they are all intelligent and complex. By the end, we realize that, forced into the shape of the current electoral system, people will sacrifice their ethics and their friendships, just to win. But there are also incredible displays of connection, loyalty, and admiration. Leaders emerge and are thrown into competition. Lives are definitely changed, and we realize that there is still hope. The filmmakers revealed that there are also Girls State competitions and I found myself wanting to see that film next. And as one of the boys in the film wonders, “why isn’t it just People State?” Perhaps the program needs to change, but I’m certainly glad that it exists.

The picture above is from a few days later, when the film won the Grand Jury Prize for US Documentary. The award is well deserved, and I discovered during their acceptance speech that the filmmakers are a married couple.

I came back to HQ to spend an hour or so, but there was really nothing for me to do, so I headed home for a short nap. There had been invites sent out to a Sundance “Dance” party at The Shop, but it was unclear if my volunteer badge would get me in. I headed over early and even though there were barely 20 people in line at the opening hour, the event staff wouldn’t let me in. I spotted Jamie, another Artist Relations volunteer, and we headed to Main Street to get a drink. For the first time since 2015, I had a pizza slice and some beers at Davanza’s, a local spot just off Main, and we ran into someone that Jamie knew from working together at another film festival. Sylvia is a publicist from New York who was working on a couple of films but who seemed to have wrapped up her duties. We spent an hour at Davanza’s then tried to get into High West Saloon, which appeared to be closed, although there were lots of people still inside. Instead, we ended up at the No-Name Saloon on Main, which was packed with locals. It was nice in a way to be part of a regular “Townie Thursday” (as we dubbed it), and we spent a pleasant few hours talking about the film and festival industries. Both Jamie and Sylvia are very knowledgeable and experienced veterans. I got home just around 1am, but in my rush to get a shuttle out to Deer Valley, I lost my favourite pair of reading glasses. Luckily, I brought a spare set.

Sundance 2020: Day 9

Slamdance 2020

Festival Director James McNally is attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival from January 21st to February 2nd.

Festival Day 7

After a very good party last night, I thought my venue duties were over, but I got a text this morning at 9am from Terry asking me to go out to Redstone once more to help one of our filmmakers at the second screening of the New Frontier shorts program. One of the filmmakers uses a wheelchair and Terry wanted to make sure she was introduced to the venue manager since for the Q&A she’d have to be brought out of the cinema in order to access the front of the theatre so she could participate. Our driver Paul was on duty but his contract with the festival ended precisely at noon. I was picked up from the Park Avenue theatre (after grabbing my customary coffee at Starbucks) at 11:00am and got out to Redstone by about 11:20am. To my chagrin, none of the filmmakers showed up until about 11:50am (ten minutes before the scheduled start time) and that was not the one I was waiting for. Instead, she was waiting for her producer to arrive and had her ticket, but the producer was going to be late. The venue manager wouldn’t hold onto the ticket and I told her I needed to leave right at noon. I was about ready to leave when the filmmaker I was waiting for arrived, along with a bunch of other people who had been on the festival shuttle. For some unknown reason, a group of about 50 middle school kids also arrived, making the lobby crowded and hard to navigate. I tried to notify the venue’s STOPs (special theatre operations) person but it was taking her a long time to respond. Finally the theatre manager arrived and accompanied our filmmaker to her screening. Paul drove me back to HQ where I gratefully returned my walkie to the charging station and went for lunch at Este Pizza.

I wanted to attend a panel at the Slamdance Film Festival at 2pm and left HQ around 1:15pm but my shuttle took a longer route and I found myself walking up Main Street with only about ten minutes to spare. Luckily I made it to the Treasure Mountain Inn (site of all the Slamdance screenings and events) just in time. The panel was a discussion of last year’s award-winning dramatic film The Vast of Night with its writer/director/editor Andrew Patterson. I saw the film at TIFF back in September and really loved its originality, inventiveness, and performances. Patterson talked about how the film was made, and how it arrived at Slamdance with no connections at all. Since he’s based in Oklahoma City, he didn’t really have any connections to the larger film scene in LA, and festival programmer Paul Rachman stressed that it was a blind submission that just rose to the top. After its awards at Slamdance, the film was acquired by Amazon and will be streamed on Amazon Prime (beginning this May). It also played a few other festivals (including TIFF). It was wonderful to know that truly independent stories can still get to audiences, and when Patterson showed us the trailer a week before its official release, I found myself tearing up. Good storytelling and craft still move me, and that’s why I’m a festival programmer and director.

Before the panel, I’d met one of Slamdance’s feature documentary programmers (Karin Hayes), and when I told her I programmed a shorts festival in Toronto, she suggested I go into the office and ask if they could share links to the short films. And so I did. They were willing to share filmmaker contact information so I will have to email the filmmakers individually, but it would be great to see what Slamdance has programmed this year.

After the panel, I had arranged to meet up with Indy Film Fest executive director Dan Moore at the Wasatch Brewpub, but before that I ducked into the SundanceTV venue for a free Americano. Dan and I chatted for about an hour before I headed home.

I had several choices tonight. The multi-director hydra beast that is Omniboat was playing at 8:30pm at the MARC but after I found out there would be no Q&A, I decided on another choice. I also could have accompanied Terry and Drew and Bryan to a screening of the award winning short films at the Prospector (also at 8:30pm) but in the end I decided to attend the Volunteer Appreciation party at the ASCAP Music Cafe venue on Main Street. It was close to home for me, and since I’ve run out of some groceries, I was counting on the food to be good and filling. It was (hot pasta and meatballs, etc.). I had the chance to talk to some volunteers I haven’t seen for several days (Artist Relations colleagues, as well as my friend from home Grant). I even ran into Ilias Tahri, whom I met here in 2018 and who hosted me in his hometown of Clermont-Ferrand after Sundance that year.

That wrapped up at 10:30pm and I came right home and did a load of laundry, which should see me through the rest of the festival. It’s a bit late now (1:30am) but I’m caught up on blog entries, laundry, and I even have a somewhat solid plan for tomorrow. Goodnight!