This is me, standing in front of the Egyptian Theater at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
You know how there are those milestone events that every person needs to experience in life? Like graduating from college, getting married, having kids, or even just reading a really great book? Well, the Sundance Film Festival was one of my milestones. I’m only 22-years-old, so I haven’t really had the chance to experience many of those other things (though I have lived a pretty amazingly privileged life), but Sundance was the kind of thing I never thought I’d have done by this age. However, I attended a presentation in February of 2013 on my college campus about the Oscars, and when the presenter (one of my former professors) mentioned after the presentation that he was working on organization a Study Away course to the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, I made the decision to do everything possible to make myself a part of that program.
Flash forward eleven months to January 14, 2014, when I boarded an airplane headed to Salt Lake City, en route to Park City, Utah, the location of the annual Sundance Film Festival. From that moment through the following ten days, my life was nothing short of extraordinary. If you know anything about me, you probably know that I like celebrities and all things pop culture (it is my major, after all), so Sundance was a mecca of sorts for me. My ten days in Park City resulted in me seeing 14 feature-length films, 2 short films, and nearly 60 celebrities. These statistics, in my mind, represent ten days very well spent. So here is my little way of trying to cram all the gloriousness that was Sundance into a few words in one small blog post. In the following paragraphs, you’ll find my reviews of the films I saw, lists of the celebrities I met, and any small tidbits I can try to fit in, though there’s no way I can do the reality justice. If you’d like to know more, trust me, you’d only be indulging me by asking, so feel free.
Celebrities I Saw at Sundance:
- Mark Ruffalo, Christina Hendricks, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, Luke Wilson, Elizabeth Olsen, Mark Duplass, Bob Odenkirk, Bill Hader, Mandy Patinkin, Donald Faison, Mekhi Phifer, Ben Schwartz, Karen Gillan, Emily Browning, Hannah Murray, Pierre Boulanger, Stuart Murdoch, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Jason Momoa, Christopher Meloni, Gabourey Sidibe, Anne Hathaway, Mary Steenburgen, Shiloh Fernandez, Billy Crudup, Lilly Collins, Mark Indelicato, Joe Swanberg, Steve Coogan, Matt Walsh, Ted Danson, Michael C. Hall, William H. Macy
Celebrities I Interacted With at Sundance:
- Joe Manganiello, Aaron and Lauren Paul. John Slattery (who spent a few minutes with my friends and me discussing our lives), Richard Ayoade, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell (with whom I discussed my fear of him since seeing him in The Green Mile), Dan Stevens, Jorge Garcia, Elijah Wood, Richard Schiff, Miles Teller, John Carroll Lynch, Mark Webber, Cameron Monaghan, Jason Ritter (who wished me a happy 13th birthday), Melanie Lynskey, Olly Alexander, Jim O’Heir, Shailene Woodley, Josh Wiggins, Deke Gardner, and Amy Poehler (the queen of my life)
Aaron Paul entering the world premiere of his film, Hellion.
My friend Kaitlynn and me with Jason Ritter.
My friend Kaitlynn and me with Jim O’Heir, star of Parks and Recreation.
Jorge Garcia, star of Lost, and me at the world premiere of The Guest.
Movies I Saw at Sundance:
- The Double — This was definitely a successful way to start of my Sundance viewings. The Double had its premiere last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, but it was still exciting to see it much earlier than the general public. The plot can be a bit confusing, and there’s no real sense of setting (a conscious choice on the director’s part), but the story is compelling and weird enough to keep you hooked. Jesse Eisenberg stars, playing two different characters who are essentially people with opposite personalities but identical appearances. If you’re into cerebral dramas (with a strong infusion of comedy), this is a movie for you.
- The Guest — Putting my feelings about this movie into words has been a serious struggle. The Guest stars Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame as “David,” a man who’s just returned from a military tour in the Middle East and heads straight to the family of a fallen comrade. From the opening scenes, The Guest is clearly a spoof of sorts, making fun of the conventions of horror and thriller films. The movie is never exactly scary, but it does follow the same formula of many horror films. It’s very fun to watch, especially if you pick up on the multitude of references to Stanley Kubrick, John Carpenter, and Quentin Tarantino that the film makes. My only warning to my fellow Downton fanatics: Dan Stevens is playing someone completely, 100% different from Matthew Crawley. Be warned. You’re bound to have some serious emotions about this.
Dan Stevens, star of The Guest and Downton Abbey, with me at the world premiere of The Guest.
- Laggies — Laggies is the kind of movie that is almost certain to find success with “indie” summer audiences. This is the story of Megan (Keira Knightley), a twenty-eight-year-old experiencing a quarter-life crisis, who befriends Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), a sixteen-year-old high school rebel. The movie is cute, funny, and sweet, but never really challenges the audience in any way. I would’ve preferred if it had been a bit edgier, but it was enjoyable as is, and I’m sure it will delight mass audiences upon its theatrical release.
- God’s Pocket — God’s Pocket, John Slattery’s feature film directorial debut, is the story of several seedy characters in the late 1970s in New York. Despite its star-studded cast (which includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christina Hendricks, and Richard Jenkins), I didn’t really feel like this one hit the mark. I wasn’t entirely interested in the story, and it felt like the film was trying to cover too many plot lines in 90 minutes. The story was adapted from a novel, so I would like to think the the stories might be more flushed out on the page than they were on screen. Unfortunately, this ranked among my least favorite films I saw.
My friends Kaitlynn and Lendee and me with John Slattery, director of the Sundance film God’s Pocket and star of Mad Men.
- God Help the Girl — We now move to one of my very favorite films I saw at Sundance, a musical written by Stuart Murdoch of the band Belle and Sebastian. God Help the Girl is 111 minutes of pure, unadulterated joy, enhanced by a talented young cast who exemplify the therapeutic abilities of music. I cannot wait for this film to be released in some capacity where I can see it again and listen to the soundtrack over and over and over. I’m obsessed, which you might be able to tell from the glee on my face in the following picture.
Olly Alexander, star of God Help the Girl and the cutest person ever, with me after the world premiere of his film.
- Somewhere in the Valley… — This was the first short film I saw, and one I’m more than happy to forget. The plot line and jokes felt very forced, and the story was entirely unbelievable (though, according to the director, the story was based on something that really happened in Europe. Go figure.). I was very unimpressed by this film, but, thankfully, it was no indication of the quality of the film it preceded: La Bare.
- La Bare — A documentary about male strippers directed by an actor from Magic Mike? What more can you want? (Okay, just kidding. Kind of.) La Bare is indeed a documentary about male strippers in Texas directed by Joe Manganiello of Magic Mike and True Blood fame, but it isn’t really the movie it sounds like. Just like Magic Mike, La Bare is about much more than male strippers, and I think Manganiello did a fantastic job in his directorial debut of capturing the nuances of the men he profiled, making them something much more than just caricatures of themselves. This shows that Manganiello might have a more promising future in entertainment that you’d expect, so watch out for him.
Joe Manganiello, director of La Bare and star of Magic Mike and True Blood, with me after the world premiere of his film.
- Hellion — Hellion is the kind of movie that sticks with you. This film tells the story of a young family in Texas, broken by the loss of the two young sons’ mother. Josh Wiggins and Deke Gardner play these boys and deliver standout performances as kids caught between wrong and right, and they are certainly young actors you should look out for. Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis also give great performances as the only, semi-present adults in these kids’ lives. The final scenes in the film are both heartbreaking and frightening, and will certainly leave audiences with much to ponder for a long time after it ends.
Aaron Paul, Josh Wiggins, and Deke Gardner during the Q&A after a screening of their film, Hellion.
- Song One — Song One is the kind of movie that I can’t stop thinking about, but not in a good way. One of the first things I said after seeing it (the same point that was made by a critic from Variety) was that if the setting of this movie was moved south a few states to North Carolina, it’d be the story straight from the pages of Nicholas Sparks. Anne Hathaway stars as Franny, a doctoral student who returns home upon hearing that her (somewhat estranged) brother is in a coma after being hit by a car. The brother, Henry, is an aspiring musician, which leads Franny to contact his favorite singer, with whom she starts a romantic relationship. See the Nicholas Sparks happening? Overall, the movie was fine, nothing more, nothing less. Mary Steenburgen was the film’s highlight as Franny and Henry’s scene-stealing mother. Kind of a forgettable movie, though, and one I’m not likely to recommend.
The cast (featuring Mary Steenburgen and Anne Hathaway) and director of Song One.
- White Bird in a Blizzard — I didn’t really know what to expect from this film, but I’m very glad I saw it. Shailene Woodley stars as Kat, a girl trying to move on after her mother disappears. Though the movie sounds like a drama, it’s much funnier than you’d expect, and the comedy paired with the stylized cinematography make for a very entertaining movie experience. Also, watch out for a twist ending. It’s totally worth it.
The director and cast (including Gabourey Sidibe, Shailene Woodley, and Christopher Meloni) of White Bird in a Blizzard.
- Funnel — This was the second short film I saw, presented before our screening of Happy Christmas. Based on our first short film experience, I was a little wary of this one, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Funnel was hilariously funny and entertaining, with a deceptively simple plot focused on a man walking back to his car from a gas station after his car has stopped working. If you have a chance to see this, you should.
- Happy Christmas — After recently watching Drinking Buddies, Joe Swanberg’s last film, I was very excited to see Happy Christmas, a movie starring Anna Kendrick as a somewhat lost twentysomething. The entire cast is great, and features a breakout performance by Swanberg’s two-year-old son, Jude (seriously, this baby is talented). The most surprising and impressive aspect of the film came in the Q&A following the screening, when Swanberg revealed to the audience that his cast improvised the entire movie from a twelve-page outline he’d written. This knowledge will give viewers a whole new perspective on this smart and entertaining film. I look forward to more work from Swanberg in the near future.
Joe Swanberg, director and star of Happy Christmas, during a Q&A after a screening of his film.
- The Skeleton Twins — This has been one of the most talked about films of Sundance this year, noted for Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig’s unexpectedly great performances in dramatic roles. In that regard, it’s satisfying to see that Hader and Wiig won’t be disappearing from fame after their respective departures from Saturday Night Live. This is a smart, well-acted, relatable family drama that’s sure to attract audiences, and one that will hopefully solidify Hader’s and Wiig’s roles as respected Hollywood actors.
- Listen Up Philip — Listen Up Philip was the only Sundance film that I actively disliked. Despite the cast that I was very excited about (Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter), I found this film exhausting, sexist, and annoying. Philip, played by Schwartzman, is completely unlikeable as a floundering writer; I never felt an ounce of sympathy toward him. The women in the film were the only slightly likelable characters, but their portrayal as victims of the men in their lives made them all seem dependent and pathetic, and I couldn’t really identify with them either. It should also be noted that I found the film’s director Alex Ross Perry to be kind of repulsive in the Q&A following the screening. He clearly put the worst of himself onscreen in the characters of Philip and Ike (Jonathan Price), and I didn’t find it at all enjoyable.
- Whiplash — Thankfully, in light of the experience of Listen Up Philip, my next film was the most (deservedly) buzzed about film of Sundance: the opening night film, Whiplash. Whiplash is a movie about an aspiring jazz drummer (played by the fantastic Miles Teller) and his formidable teacher Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). The plot line is simple, but the movie is executed brilliantly, including sharp editing that only serves to enhance the strong musical elements of the film. If the final sequence of the film doesn’t leave you feeling surprised, breathless, and inspired, you’ve done something wrong. I really hope this film’s longevity plays out to keep in on the awards circuit radar for 2015, because it’s definitely deserving.
My friend Kaitlynn and me with Miles Teller, star of Whiplash, on Main Street in Park City.
- Freedom Summer — My final film at Sundance was a documentary about the summer of 1964 in Mississippi and the movement known as Freedom Summer in which primarily white college students traveled south to attempt to shed light on the racial injustices in the state. Though the subject matter was great, I didn’t feel like the film was executed as perfectly as it could have been, but it was still an interesting experience. The film was made in collaboration with PBS, and I think that’s quite clear in the way it’s put together; it felt much more like a TV documentary than one made for theaters. Despite these small qualms, I think this is an important film for Americans to see, especially since this is a relatively unknown movement in our not-so-distant past that should be a source of inspiration for the continuing social injustices in America today.
So, in a nutshell, these were the highlights of my Sundance experience. I’ve now returned to the real world, where I’m two days into my final semester as an undergraduate student (whaaat?). Here’s hoping that the buzz of Sundance doesn’t wear off until graduation! Sundance, I’ll see you in 2015.