Sundance Showcases a New Frontier of Cinema

Photo by Erin Batchelder '17 | Erin Batchelder '17 went to this year's Sundance Film Festival held in Park City, Utah

Photo by Erin Batchelder ’17 | Erin Batchelder ’17 went to this year’s Sundance Film Festival held in Park City, Utah

Erin Batchelder ’17
Staff Writer

I arrived at the Sundance Film Festival the day before its kick-off. Like many festivalgoers, I braved the free but infrequent public transportation of Park City, Utah to make it to Main Street (the festival’s main hub) just to see what it would be like. The sidewalks were deserted, but every building and streetlamp was adorned with the festival logo.

Founded in 1978, Sundance quickly became the film festival market for independent America cinema. Shortly before the festival came the Sundance Institute – a retreat-style intensive workshop that bred and trained new independent filmmakers to create exciting and fresh cinema. Since then, films like “Pulp Fiction,” “Juno,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and, more recently, “Spotlight” have all premiered in one of the dozens cinemas around Park City to be met with critical and audience acclaim.

Taking place from Jan. 19-31, the 2016 festival continued this tradition by premiering dozens of new films of all shapes and sizes. In the streets of Park City, you could find anyone from an unknown director from the Czech Republic to Joe and Nick Jonas. You could walk into a bar and find a plenty of locals drinking craft beer while Elijah Wood was the DJ. That’s just what Sundance is all about. There are no red carpets, no fancy gowns and no separation between audience and creator.

However, the biggest surprises of the festival happened to be the program’s larger films. “Swiss Army Man,” starring Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano, had the draw of being starkly original because Radcliffe plays a corpse for the entire film. But subversion can only go so far, and audiences were left with an uncomfortable hour and a half watching the former Harry Potter star give a flatulent performance (literally). “Manchester by the Sea” a slow and brooding drama about middle class life in Boston – starring Casey Affleck, of course – was adored by audiences and sold for the festival’s second highest distribution deal of 2016 – a whopping $10 million dollars to Amazon.

Beyond that, Sundance yet again provided a space where unheard voices could be heard. The top-selling film at the festival was “The Birth of a Nation,” which tells the story of a former slave, Nat Turner, and how he led a liberation movement in the 1930s. Premiering with some major buzz, “Nation” has the opportunity to take home some major awards at the festival and to help push back against some of the representation issues in Hollywood.

On another front, several LGBTQ films were released, representing a new trend in queer cinema. Reuniting in Clea Duvall’s directorial debut, “The Intervention,” Natasha Lyonne and Duvall play two lesbians going away for the weekend to have a group intervention to tell one of their couple friends to have a divorce. Other major films, like “Other People” and “First Girl I Loved,” were nominated for the coveted Audience Award (where the audience chooses the winning film) and the Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic competition.

In addition to the regular film screenings, Sundance highlighted new storytelling technology for the 10th year in a row with its New Frontier category. The public was welcomed into a massive three-story building right on the main street to walk around and check out the growing virtual reality technology. By putting on virtual reality goggles, the screens mimic the scope of human sight, but allow the scene to change according to where you turn you head or look in the virtual world. It sounds like something plucked out of a foreboding dystopia, but virtual reality could very well end up becoming the way in which we consume movies and media in the not-so-distant future.

While we live in the age of the blockbuster movie franchise, it’s hard to feel hopeful about American cinema. Movie studios are putting all of their money into massive projects without leaving much for the little filmmakers and indie productions. But Sundance made it clear that these movies are still being made. A new generation of indie filmmakers is rising with stories people want to see and hear.

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