Finding the treasures at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. Photo credit Sean Porter.

Another tour of duty (going on seven years) covering the 2014 Sundance Film Festival for Twin Cities Daily Planet starts Thursday, January 16 through Sunday, January 26. The biggest and flashiest United States film festival, located in the beautiful mountain scope of Park City, Utah, is celebrating its 30th anniversary and seems to be bursting at the seams this year. The festival has blindsided me more than other years with the announcements of films premiering four days before opening night, the latest surprise entry being a new feature from the iconic American independent director Richard Linklater (The Before trilogy, Waking Life, Dazed and Confused) Boyhood. Linklater filmed the growth of a boy from childhood to young adulthood every year from 2002 to 2013. Boyhood stars Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the boy’s divorced parents. Adding a film, especially one directed by Linklater, is a game changer and another reason why Sundance continues upping its game and securing top independent directors, producers, actors and distributors in making this year’s festival one giddy with anticipation.

It always remains to be seen how the festival will shake up and what will be championed and what will be thrown to the dogs. The slate of 121 features (not including short films) over the course of ten days will have every studio executive, publicist, journalist, actor and filmgoer testing their patience and endurance with each other and themselves. While I always enjoy the ride and the experience, it never feels like it really starts until I get the almighty press badge. I always wonder if I have completely lost my mind in trying to fit 25-30 films in a span of a week. 

While Sundance runs for the ten days, do not discount the Slamdance Film Festival. Within a baseball throw’s away from Sundance’s Egyptian theater, Slamdance is celebrating its 20th anniversary and running concurrently Friday, January 17 through Thursday, January 23 at the quaint Treasure Mountain Inn. Slamdance received over 5,000 submissions to make up its 2014 program and slate of films; I will also be covering for Twin Cities Daily Planet. Most of the films have no distribution and were made for under one million dollars. At this year’s festival, they will be honoring former Slamdance alum Christopher Nolan (yes, that Christopher Nolan) with the inaugural Founder’s Award. In the press release Nolan said, "I'm honored to be recognized by a Festival that gave me some of my first opportunities to connect with an audience. Slamdance continues to provide an important forum for emerging filmmakers and I'm proud to be part of their history.”

While running, walking, avoiding puddles, riding the shuttles, hitching rides with strangers or cabbing it from venue to venue, there is a certain amount of excitement and anxiety in every split-second decision within the expected 45,000 – 50,000 people attending with almost two-thirds of the attendance being the from outside the state of Utah.

Sundance kicks off the world film festival circuit of hundreds of thousands of people attending various festivals. But Sundance proves to be the one that can shape the world of movies like no other; these films could end up without distribution or could end up at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles at the Oscars. There is something about seeing films premiere their marketing material in posters and trailers with laurels that say SUNDANCE that really makes them stand out.

What also makes this year special at Sundance, at least from a resident Minnesotan’s standpoint, are the premieres of two Minnesota-made narrative features. While the filmmakers are not from Minnesota, they filmed both their features here and could very well be two of the biggest and most talked about titles of the festival. The first is Los Angeles based writer/director Justin Simien’s Dear White People premiering on Saturday, January 18 at the Library Center Theatre. The film became a viral Internet sensation on You Tube. It takes place at Winchester University where a biracial student becomes president of her all-black residential hall and the story becomes an interest to the all-white newspaper staff covering the story. The film is supposed to be a satirical look at post-racial issues and the effects on how people define the difference in black and white. 

David and Nathan Zellner, or the Zellner bros, are a pair of Austin-based filmmakers who have had films screen at Sundance before (Goliath and Kid-Thing) and return with Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter and what is one of most interesting premises in the festival. The film was shot in Minnesota last winter and will be unveiled on Monday, January 20 at the largest venue at Sundance—the 1,300-seat Eccles Theatre. Kumiko is inspired by a 2001 urban legend of a Japanese woman (played by Academy Award nominee Rinko Kikuchi) who watched the Coen brothers film Fargo over and over again who though the money that Steve Bushemi’s character buries in the snow is real and makes her way from Japan to Minnesota in search of the treasure. Kumiko is produced by local Jim Burke and recently added producers Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne (2011’s The Descendents). This nugget is one treasure I hope does not dash my expectations.

There is in fact another local Minnesota tie to Sundance, just not in the film aspect of the festival. Local singer/songwriter Jeremy Messersmith will be performing two shows on Monday, January 20 and Tuesday, January 21 as part of the Sundance ASCAP Music Café which are free to the public. So if there is some down time, or better yet my eyes need a break, I can try to catch Messersmith's perform tunes from his upcoming release Heart Murmurs due out, February 4.

From the moment one gets to Park City, the terrain of elements and traffic of people could make anyone go crazy or give up. I wanted to do both many times, but having this festival become somewhat of a yearly fixture, I manage to stand in line, take my seat, and have plenty of caffeine on hand to amass the riches of American and Foreign independent cinema. Whether it be documentaries on American’s obesity issue (Fed Up), high-profile premieres with A-list actors based on a John La Carre novel (A Most Wanted Man starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Willem Dafoe, Rachel McAdams and Robin Wright), dead Nazi zombies (Dead Snow Red vs. Dead) or a true account of Palestinian man arrested and released to spy on his home country of Israel (The Green Prince), there is plenty to take in for a week at both Sundance and Slamdance film festivals. In a city normally populated by roughly 8,000 people will be packed to the gills with treasure hunters looking for new discoveries. 

Along with Boyhood and Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, there are a few others I am looking forward to seeing.

White Bird in a Blizzard. Indie darling Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin, The Doom Generation) delivers his first feature in four years with his adaption of Laura Kasischke’s 1999 novel about a young girl (Shaliene Woodley) whose mother (Eva Green) abandons her and her father. This sounds to be another serious drama a la Mysterious Skin territory and I for one, cannot wait. 

The Trip to Italy. Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan team up again with director Michael Winterbottom with a semi-sequel to the largely 2010’s improvised film, The Trip is a collaboration I thought would never happen again. Coogan is one of the most underrated, funniest actors in the film business. This should be another slam-dunk.

The Guest. Written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard (the team behind You’re Next, which made my best of 2013 list) turn in another genre thriller about an unexpected guest (Dan Stevens, aka Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey) who shows up at a family’s door still mourning the loss of their son in the war in Afghanistan. He gave a promise to the dead soldier to visit his family upon his return, although, he is not who he claims to be. 

Wetlands. Based on the novel by Charlotte Roche and directed by David Wnendt, young Helen is a bodily-fluid obsessed teenager who experiments with her body and her sexuality. When she is brought to the hospital, she really begins to unleash her never-ending stories and happenings of sexual taboo misadventures. 

No No: A Dockumentary (directed by Jeffrey Radice) is about baseball pitcher Dock Ellis, best known as the pitcher who threw a no-hitter Pittsburgh Pirates vs. the San Diego Padres while on LSD in 1970. He was also a powerful figure in advocating for players’ rights and African Americans in the major leagues. Also of note, Adam Horowitz of the Beastie Boys did the musical score. “Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No” is a terrific 2009 animated short by James Blagden about the game.

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  • Would've loved to see Jeremy Messersmith! His new album is incredible, it's streaming on NPR right now: http://www.npr.org/2014/01/26/264996373/first-listen-jeremy-messersmith-heart-murmurs - by Melodie Davis on Fri, 01/31/2014 - 12:19pm

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Jim Brunzell III's picture
Jim Brunzell III

Jim Brunzell III (djguamwins [at] yahoo [dot] com) was born in the 70's, went to school in the 80's, played sports in the 90's, and has been writing on film for the Daily Planet since 2007.  He is also the Festival Director and programmer for the Sound Unseen Music/Film/Art festival in the Twin Cities, lead programmer for the Flyway Film Festival in Pepin and Stockholm WI, the creator of "The Defenders" series at the Trylon microcinema and has been working on a novel since finishing college.  You can follow Jim on Twitter at (@JimBrunzell_3).