At Sundance, an annual rebirth for American movies

NEW YORK (AP) — The Sundance Film Festival, coming at the start of a new movie calendar, is an annual rite of renewal. New movies. New filmmakers. New voices. And that feels especially welcoming this year.

Sundance always rolls around just as the worst movies are being dumped in theatres and Hollywood’s long-running awards season is petering out. This year, the run-up to the Oscars has been dispiritingly homogeneous, coalescing around a field of nominees lacking in diversity both behind and in front of the camera. With some notable exceptions, it feels like the same old.

Sundance, though, is a different story.

This year’s festival, in Park City, Utah, is not only its most inclusive edition yet — 44 per cent of its 118 feature-length films were directed or co-directed by women, 34 per cent were directed or co-directed by a person of colour — but features a dynamic slate of proudly unconventional narrative and documentary films.

Zola from director Janicza Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O Harris is based on a viral 148-tweet thread from 2015. Nine Days, the feature directing debut of Edson Oda is set in a surreal pre-life realm where an interviewer (Winston Duke) is selecting souls to be born. The documentary Boys State by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine is a story of American democracy in microcosm, told through an unusual experiment in which a thousand teenage boys build a government from the ground up.

Radha Blank in ‘The 40-Year-Old Version’, an official selection of the United States (US) dramatic competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. PHOTOS: AP
Anne Hathaway in a scene from ‘The Last Thing He Wanted’, an official selection of the Premieres programme at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival; and a scene from ‘Taylor Swift: Miss Americana’, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres programme at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival

“We do think of it as the new year of culture where people have to sit up and take notice,” said director of Sundance John Cooper. “Audiences have changed, too. They’re more hungry for different. That’s not just from the Oscars. That’s from, let’s face it, the world we’re living in right now. It’s the urgency of thinking outside of old normalities.”

Sundance, which kicks off today and runs through February 2, will bring plenty of established names. Taylor Swift will be there for the opening day premiere of Lana Wilson’s documentary on her, Miss Americana. The Hulu documentary series Hillary will bring Hillary Clinton to Park City. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell will be attendance for the premiere of the Force Majeure remake Downhill. And Lin Manuel-Miranda will be there with several films, including Siempre, Luis, about his father Luis Miranda, and We Are Freestyle Love Supreme about his pre-Hamilton improvising hip-hop group.

But many go to Sundance looking for discoveries of filmmakers like Radha Blank, a New York playwright who stars in her black-and-white directorial debut, The 40-Year-Old Version. She plays a slightly fictionalised version of herself as a middle-aged woman who, after the death of her mother, rededicates herself to rapping.

“My protagonist, her passion is speaking truth through hip hop. For me, my passion is filmmaking. It just took me a little bit longer to articulate that for myself,” said Blank. “I know that people have labelled me a late bloomer but I’ve been writing for years. I don’t think I’m the person who’s late.”

Like many others premiering films this week in Park City, Blank has been through the lab programmes of the Sundance Institute, the nonprofit founded by Robert Redford that also puts on the festival. “I’m a Sundance baby,” said Blank. “I started in the lab.” Those workshops have been a breeding ground for American filmmakers (Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino are among their many former participants), but the distribution landscape awaiting those filmmakers has often been fraught.

Some in the industry are predicting less ravenous buying at Sundance this year after several of the high-priced acquisitions fizzled at the box office, including the Amazon titles Late Night and The Report. But streaming services have undoubtedly helped sales at Sundance, adding an influx of buyers looking to beef up their digital libraries.

Disney Plus has a movie in this year’s children’s slate (Tom McCarthy’s Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made). Apple had one of the festival’s most anticipated movies in On the Record, about women who have accused music mogul Russell Simmons of sexual abuse, but backed out of the film after executive producer Oprah Winfrey departed it. WarnerMedia, which is preparing the launch of HBO Max, will for the first time have a presence at the festival.

Director of programming at Sundance Kim Yutani believed streaming services have been an unquestionable positive to the post-festival lives of Sundance films.

“I remember reading the press coverage of Sundance back in the day, and I would think: How will I ever see these films?” said Yutani. “You would see a handful of them in theatrical distribution. The rest of them were almost impossible to see. So, it’s such an exciting time to release our programme and know the majority of these films will get seen.”