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Sundance & Sundon'ts

By Jeremy Mathews with contributions from Chris Bellamy, Jessica Mathews, Brent Sallay and Matt Thurber
Sundance Myths

Many festival attendees enjoy talking — usually complaining—more than watching movies. Here is the truth behind some phrases that you might hear:

“The festival totally sold out and is totally all about Hollywood totalitarianism.”
Yes, Sundance does love its stars. The management puts the films with stars in the biggest theaters and those films draw the biggest crowds. But festival attendees willing to venture into some of the smaller venues may discover some fascinating films with little to no commercial potential.

In addition to a few experimental films and fractured narratives thrown into the Frontier section, there are many films by no-name directors, some of which were made with a poor quality home video camera and aren’t even that good. So there’s equal opportunity for mediocrity.

“These aren’t independent films. They have well-known actresses in them!”
It’s true that some of the premiers are financed by “independent” studios, and that Sundance doesn’t reject the star-studded titles (see above). But here’s the deal: Actors want to do interesting work and often find themselves in the same crappy role over and over again in mainstream movies. If they think that a script is worth skipping out on a higher-paying job to get paid scale, eat Miracle Whip at catering and have no trailer, that shouldn’t ruin the director’s chance of being at Sundance.

“This is the worst year of Sundance ever!”
It was the worst festival ever the year “Maria Full of Grace,” “The Machinist,” “Super Size Me,” “DiG!” and “Primer” came out. It was the worst Sundance ever when “American Splendor,” “All the Real Girls,” “Capturing the Friedmans,” “Whale Rider” and “The Station Agent” came out. The Sundance programmers are far from perfect—David Gordon Green’s poetic masterpiece “George Washington” is among the most regrettable snubs—and you will see some crap, but the discoveries make it worthwhile.

“I’m friends with Bob.”
He or she said hi to Robert Redford once, and he didn’t call security for seven and a half minutes.

What's in a Category?
What Isn't in a Category?

Sundance films are divided into many different sections that offer many different chances of getting in and many different chances of seeing something good. These are the three centerpiece categories of the festival:


Premiers screen at the biggest theater, the Eccles, but usually only for one nighttime screening, then one more in a smaller theater the next morning and a third screening in Salt Lake City. However, they screen at Eccles because many of them are in high demand.

Stars are very likely to attend the Eccles screenings (unless they’re shooting another film), since this is the film’s big promotion push.

The quality of films is scattershot. Expect some great things from great directors, misfires from great directors, some surprising gems and a bunch of movies that are only there to fill out the lineup and get some names on the ski slopes.

U.S. Dramatic Competition

At the large-audience/tiny-screen setup of the Racquet Club, and one before-noon Eccles screening for each selection, these films come in high demand and are extremely difficult to attend if they have buzz.

Some of the festival’s best films have come from this section, but so have several completely forgettable and/or atrocious efforts. Stars usually attend the first few screenings, then run off to the Golden Globes or film shoots. The directors might show up in Salt Lake City.

U.S. Documentary Competition

At the smaller screens of the Holiday Village Cinema, these films can be difficult to enter because each theater has only around 150 seats. For a better shot at admittance, each film also has one screening at the larger Prospector Square screen and one in Salt Lake City.

This category is the most reliably worthwhile. Even the poorly made films often have interesting subject matter. Just beware of the historical talking-head docs that will most likely be on PBS in a couple weeks.

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  Now you can jump to any section of this collection of articles:  
  Annoyances of Sundance  
  The Main Film Categories  
  The Fringe Film Categories  
  Iraq vs. Immigration  
  How to Interpret Sundance Happenings  
  A Glossary of Film Descriptions  
  Some Tunes with Your Film?  
  The Few We Know About  

Forget about last month. For film lovers, the most wonderful time of the year starts the night of Jan. 19, when the 2006 Sundance Film Festival kicks off. In the following 10 days, there will be screenings of more than 100 independent films that will provide the bulk of the art-house releases for the entire year.

From Friday, Jan. 20 through Sunday, Jan. 29, the festival will flood Park City with movies, movie stars, big shots and wannabe big shots. The festival will also hold several screenings in Salt Lake City—where there’s a new “center” along 300 South with the three screens at the Broadway Centre and the new screen at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center—as well as a limited selection of films at the Sundance Resort in Provo Canyon and in Ogden.

It’s easy to enjoy the festival as long as you go in knowing what to expect and how to handle it. For example, while there will very likely be some brilliant films at the festival, you won’t necessarily walk into one of them first. With all the titles, they can’t all be winners. That’s why this guide will tell you…no, not which films are good—no one knows that yet. But it will tell you that all the films aren’t good (like it just did), and unlock some other Sundance mysteries.

  Annoyances that Demand Creative Punctuation

What!? They Already Sold All the Tickets?

Yes, seeing as the festival is beginning now, you pretty much blew your shot at getting tickets in advance. But don’t despair, you can still get yourself into some films without waiting too long. (Try films that are playing during the weekdays that aren’t super-hyped and whose wait-list lines aren’t overly long when you get there.) If it’s a big title, you may want to get there two or three hours early—or more. We can’t stress this whole get-there-early thing enough.

If you plan on seeing several films in one day, the best plan is to go to the ticket office in the morning and hope that the festival releases new tickets to some of the screenings you want. Box offices can be found in Salt Lake City at Trolley Square Mall, and in Park City at The Gateway, on the bottom of Main Street.

I Can’t See Anything! What the Hell?!

Yes, even if you have tickets to the movie, it’s still a good idea to get there as early as you can to make sure you get a good seat. This is especially true in the bigger venues such as Eccles, the Racquet Club or the Library.

If you get there too late, you’re likely to be stuck in the last available seats—the really shitty ones at the far right on the front row, three yards removed from the edge of the screen. Trust us, you don’t want to be there…unless you’re fine with only seeing half the screen.

Why the Shuttle Trouble?!

The Sundance shuttle is the bane of the festival-goer’s existence. It’s supposed to come every 15 minutes, but last year a combination of Park City traffic, bloated routes (due to the new screen at the Racquet Club) and poor infrastructure resulted in waits upwards of 30 minutes. To be safe, try to keep 90 minutes in between screenings at venues that aren’t near each other—but you probably won’t be able to resist a few tighter transitions. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

When making your schedule, you should keep in mind that screenings always start late, and that even if you paid for a ticket, you need to arrive 15 minutes early to be guaranteed a seat.

Where are the Light Sticks?!

This year, Utah residents got to forgo the traditional system of camping out for tickets in exchange for a “Wristband Party,” where they would obtain a random place in line while having a blast. This party, however, turned out to be about 1,000 people standing in line and registering their addresses with the festival. It was like the DMV’s daily parties.

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  On the Fringe

Jessica Mathews looks at the low-profile Sundance categories and the notable films that came out of them.

Frontier — This category was only rivaled by the now defunct Native Forum for ease in finding tickets, but has been able to give Sundance a little “street cred” with experimental film lovers by bringing in renowned directors like James Benning and Claire Dennis as well as fresh faces like Jonathan Caouette.

With “Tarnation,” Caouette transformed his practically life-long video journal into a personal confessional that people actually cared about. It broke audiences’ hearts with the story of his mother’s tragic life and eventual brain damage from electro-shock therapy. It went on to play at the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival and to modest theatrical release (quite a feat for an experimental film).

Midnight - Over the years, many films that first played in this category for horror and over-the-top comedy have found cult followings or the chance to play on Comedy Central.

“The Blair Witch Project” is of course the most famous film to emerge from this category. It managed to translate Sundance buzz (and it didn’t hurt that some people thought it was a documentary) and a huge web campaign into major box office. It proved that sometimes an original concept can be better than big stars or a big budget, but that doesn’t mean you need a sequel.

World Cinema - Last year, Sundance set up its first world cinema juries for Dramatic and Documentary films. But in the past, when there was only the possibility of an audience award and strict limits kept out films that played in previous festivals, Sundance still managed to play a few hits in this category, such as “The Full Monty,” “Open Hearts,” “The Celebration” and “Whale Rider.”

“Whale Rider” star Keisha Castle-Hughes was eventually nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as a young girl struggling to become a tribal leader, but at Sundance, Niki Caro’s emotionally resonant debut won the only award it was eligible for, the World Audience Award.

It was obvious that “Shine” was destined for at least one Academy award when Harvey Weinstein had his notorious public tantrum after losing it to New Line. Sure enough, Geoffrey Rush won for his portrayal of tortured pianist David Helfgott. The academy got it wrong of course—like my mom says, “Geoffrey Rush is exactly like that in real life.”

Spectrum (formerly American Spectrum) - I guess that now that World Cinema is a juried competition, films from other countries can enjoy the strange honor of being in this non-juried category that is, of course, not a consolation prize. But these directors can feel better knowing that they are in the same boat that P.T. Anderson (“Hard Eight”) and Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters”) were once in.

“Two-Family House,” based on the true story of a man’s dream to open his own bar and his relationship with an unmarried pregnant woman, was the Sundance crowd’s cup of tea, winning the Audience award even though it had to compete with the Dramatic Competition entries. But alas it was not so popular at the box office.
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  Iraq vs. Immigration:   Which Topic Will Win?

It’s not the year of the woman this time. So is it the year of Iraq or the year of immigration?

“The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends” (Documentary) - Patricia Foulkrod examines the psychological conflicts of the Iraq war.

“Iraq in Fragments” (Documentary) - In his poetic documentary, James Longley visits people of three divided Islamic sects in post-invasion Iraq.
“Beyond Iraq” (Short) In this short (available online), U.S. soldiers who lost limbs in Iraq learn how to ski and snowboard.

“Crossing Arizona” (Documentary) - Joseph Mathew thoroughly observes the angry and the compassionate people near the Arizona boarder, where immigrants often die trying to cross through the large desert.
“God Grew Tired of Us” (Documentary) - Christopher Quinn follows three of the 27,000 “lost boys” of Sudan, who marched barefoot through the desert (makes the Arizona one look easy) to leave their warring homeland.
“DeNADIE” (World Documentary) - Tin Dirdamal offers a too-opinionated-to-sway-opinions study of the atrocities committed upon Central American emigrants as they pass through Mexico on their way to the United States.

“Man Push Cart” (Spectrum) - A Pakistani rock star is nothing but a street cart vendor in this contrived dirge of a film.

“La Tragedia de Macario” (Spectrum) - Pablo Veliz portrays a horrifying incident in which Mexicans sneaking into the United States died locked in an abandoned truck—and does so by spending little time on the actual incidents and including narrative songs that tell you what is about to happen. There’s also a singing vision of the Virgin Mary.

Double the Fun
“The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez” (World Documentary) - The first solider on the U.S. side to die in Iraq was an immigrant. This film tells his story.

And the winner is…immigration!

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The Sundance Catalogue’s
Film Descriptions:

    “reveals a visual director at work”
There’s no story.
“stunning, given the film’s level of execution”
OK, we really don’t know what this means.
“a subtle, insightful portrait”
Nothing happens.
“a solitary, quiet loner”
Character says and does little.
“represents a new wave of maverick filmmaking”
Shot on a shitty digital video camera.
“taut, cerebral thriller”
At the end, it turns out that everything happened inside the main character’s head.
“a daring exploration of sexuality in the face of the neo-puritanism of 21st Century America”
PORN!.…Or, at the very least, the penis is prominently involved.
  How to Interpret Sundance Happenings

The festival’s fearless leader, Geoffrey Gilmore, introduces a film in his gravelly voice by calling it a masterpiece that perfectly captures the American experience and proclaiming its director the new voice of independent cinema.
Translation: The film has a 60 percent chance of just plain sucking, and might not ever be seen again after this screening.

In the first few days of the festival, there are already 200 people in the wait-list line two hours before a screening.
Translation: You’re not going to get in. The fifth person in line is a long shot. The good news is that no one has seen this super-hyped buzz film yet, and the one or two people at the front of the line who get “lucky” may very likely wish they had spent the three hours they spent in line watching a better film with less hype. Remember “American Pimp” or “Party Monster” or “Masked and Anonymous” or “The Jacket?” Exactly.

In the final few days of the festival, there are already 200 people in the wait-list line two hours before a screening.
Translation: See above for your chances of getting in. The bad news is that this film has actually generated positive word of mouth, rather than worthless pre-fest hype. This is probably the film’s last screening, but you might get to see it at one of the award-winner screenings on Sunday, or in four to 20 months, when it might hit theaters. Keep in mind, however, that if you give up that futile wait list, you might make a discovery like “You Can Count on Me,” which was a tad ignored at Sundance, even after it tied for the top prize with the impossible-to-get-into “Girlfight” at the 2000 festival. By the end of the year, “Girlfight” had been mostly ignored at the box office while “You Can Count on Me” was up for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress Oscars.

At the shuttle stop, the person dressed in black standing next to you abruptly barks, “Did you get the deal? Well, what the hell are you doing?!?”
Translation: Don’t worry. This crazy person isn’t yelling at you, but at someone on the other end of their phone, which is connected to a discreet hands-free device. Still, you may want to check the ears to make sure you don’t need to locate security personnel.

The middle-aged woman standing next to you in line tells you that you absolutely have to see film X.
Translation: It’s tacky, sentimental and manipulative. Or it’s “Whale Rider.” Tough odds—you play them.

The young, ill-kempt slacker standing next to you in line tells you that you absolutely have to see film Y.
Translation: He or she directed it.

While standing in a wait-list line for that “hot” movie with all the big stars, the person in front of you—typically a stout, twentysomething young man with spaghetti stains on his “Sundance 1999” T-shirt and three notebooks full of photographs of celebrity sightings (think Weston Esterhazy from “The Kids in the Hall”)—tells you how much of an asshole X celebrity is (let’s use, for example, John C. Reilly).
Translation: Your new line buddy hassled Mr. Reilly unmercifully—following him all the way up Main Street, into his hotel, to the restaurant where Mr. Reilly was trying to eat dinner with his family, and even to the urinal—and became upset when the celebrity wouldn’t sign all nine of the photos he was shoving impatiently in his face.

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Some Tunes with Your Film?
The Few We Know About
by Matt Thurber
by Jeremy Mathews

Over the past few years, Sundance has gone to great lengths to offer alternative forms of entertainment in addition to the films and parties in Park City. With a little help from ASCAP and artists willing to stop in for brief daytime sets, the festival’s Music Cafe shows have featured everyone from Suzanne Vega to Ben Kweller.

This year the Music Cafe shows, held through Jan. 28 at the Star Bar (268 Main Street, must be 21 or older) and open to festival credential holders and the general public in certain circumstances, feature a little something for everyone in need of a mid-day break from the cold.

Rather than running around looking for Sharon Stone, music lovers can catch performances by Bruce Hornsby or Rufus Wainwright. There’s no point in seeing an actor “act” like a rock star when you can see artists like Martin Sexton or Robert Post doing exclusively what they do best.
Perhaps the biggest and most exciting surprise on this year’s schedule is Michael Penn. Having received rave reviews for Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947, Penn’s acoustic pop tracks are as catchy as they come.  Fusing rock and folk with his one-of-a-kind songwriting, these shows are sure to be the highlights at the cafe.

And causing conflict of interest, our own David Fezter’s band Mushman will perform as part of a collection of music from “Wristcutters.”

Festival attendees who don’t have a credential can still enjoy some music on Friday, Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. when the Music on Main concert takes place.


Most Sundance films are premiers, but some of them have already played at other festivals. Here are a few that Jeremy Mathews caught at Cannes:

“Battle in Heaven”-—Carlos Reygadas followed up 2002’s Japón with a film that opens with fellatio and follows with a series of virtuosic shots that tell a convoluted story about a baby that was kidnapped and died.

Is it worth seeing? If you like idiosyncratic cinema, or want to be able to hold your own in a conversation with those who do.

“Don’t Come Knocking”—Wim Wenders re-teams with writer Sam Shepard, with whom he collaborated on Cannes Film Festival winner “Paris, Texas.” Actually, a new print of that 1984 film is playing in the Sundance Collection category, and you might want to watch it instead. “Don’t Come Knocking,” in which Shepard stars as well, tries to look at the American heartland and fatherhood when an iconic western star suffers a breakdown and travels from Utah to Las Vegas to Montana in search of his home and his lost son. Unfortunately, some bad, overly angry supporting acting kills much of the film’s power.

Is it worth seeing? Only for a gag set in Salt Lake City’s own Gateway Mall fountain. Or if you like awful, overwrought acting.

“Factotum”—Matt Dillon gives one of the best performances of his career as Hank Chinaski, humorous and bawdy writer Charles Bukowski’s alter-ego in this adaptation by Norwegian director Bent Hamer (“Kitchen Stories”).

Is it worth seeing? Absolutely, unless you don’t like smart, unflinching and funny character studies.


jeremy [at]
chris [at]
jessica [at]
brent [at]
matt [at]

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