Oscar season is here and cinephiles across the globe are placing their bets on which movies will win. This year my money was riding on La La Land (because Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood), or Manchester by the Sea, because most movies that win have to be about some really sad story of hardship and struggle. But still, even after all my careful analysis my bet was as well thought out as that of a drunk gambler placing all his money on number 31 at the roulette table. Next year though, my bets will be on point, because last week I had the opportunity to visit the Sundance Film Festival. The Sundance Film Festival is the greatest predictor of Oscar buzz, not to mention the largest independent film festival in the United States. Here's the catch: Movies that come out at Sundance this year will be considered at the 2018 Oscars (I know it’s a little confusing). While Manchester by the Sea, premiered at Sundance last year, La La Land director Damien Chazelle’s previous movie Whiplash, which won 3 Oscars, premiered at Sundance 2014. Over the past 39 years, the festival has given us countless phenomenal movies and has provided a platform to launch the careers of many favorite directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Christopher Nolan, and Quentin Tarantino — who was present at the festival this year for the 25th anniversary screening of the Reservoir Dogs.
I got the opportunity to attend this screening with a few friends and fellow students, including first-year art major Coco Allred, sophomore creative writing and drama major Brian Bizier, sophomore Dietrich student Danielle Geimer, senior statistics major Suvrath Penmetcha, and senior and President of the CMU Film Club, Max Harlynking. In Harlynking's words, “Getting to see Michael Madsen watch himself play Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs 25 years later, with Quentin in the room, was just incredible. You don't forget something like that.” The experience was all-in-all, surreal and indicative of the amazing things you get the opportunity to witness at the Sundance Film Festival. When I narrated this story to Carnegie Mellon English Professor, Jeff Hinkelman, and the one stop for discussing all things film on campus, he prodded, “Yes, yes I get it, you saw Tarantino. But did you watch anything good?” Well yes, I did.
I watched eleven feature films, the short program award winners, and had an incredible eye-opening Virtual Reality (VR) experience. The feature films screened were Axolotyl Overkill, Where is Kyra?, XX, Machines, Free and Easy, Nile Hilton Incident, Roxanne Roxanne, Golden Exits, The Incredible Jessica James, My Happy Family and Call Me By Your Name.
Axolotyl Overkill is a German film about a teenager who deals with her mother’s death, and she begins an unsupervised escapade, such as falling in love with a much older woman. The story is about her journey to discover who she is and how she goes about living the rest of her life, all the while drinking, smoking, taking drugs, and partying with her crazy movie star friend. It is shot beautifully through the urban landscape of Berlin, and the changes in acts are depicted through surreal dance sequences. The film won the special jury award for cinematography. I would remember to google "Axolotyl" before you go see the film, it will make it more interesting.
Machines was the only Indian film to premiere at the festival this year. It won the World Documentary Special Jury Award for Excellence in Cinematography. In it, director Rahul Jain takes us inside one of the textile mills in India. What starts as a depiction of the machinery and workings of the factory becomes a story of the plight of laborers and the apathy of the owners.
One of the best movies I watched at the festival this year was definitely the Nile Hilton Incident. It won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Dramatic category. It is about a corrupt cop in Cairo at the start of the Arab spring, who is investigating the murder of a singer who was in a secret relationship with one of the most powerful businessmen in Cairo. This movie had everything I ever want from any movie: a true depiction of corruption and greed, placed in a historical setting, with just enough intrigue, romance, drama, and thrill. In my mind, it is the only contemporary movie to come close to being as good as Casablanca.
Roxanne Roxanne was another amazing film, which follows the early life and struggles of hip-hop legend Roxanne Shante, who is played by none other than 2016 Carnegie Mellon University Drama graduate Chante Adams, who went on to win the Sundance Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance for her role in the film.
Call Me by Your Name was the last movie that I watched at the festival and was one that honestly surprised me the most. The story is about a teenager falling in love with an older man visiting his father at his Italian summer home. It's just that, the parents are okay with it. There is no homophobia. It is just a story of two men (well a boy and a man) falling in love, and it is sexy, refreshing, and wonderful.
The Short Program Award winners, on the other hand, were disappointing. The shorts were good, no doubt, but I didn’t quite enjoy them as much as some of the other things I saw at the festival. One short did, however, stand out. And so we put goldfish in the pool was the name of this film, which won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize. The film is a Japanese story about four ‘bored’ (you’ll hear that word a lot in the movie) girls in middle school who place 400 goldfish in their school’s swimming pool. If that doesn’t sound interesting enough, let me tell you that watching the film reminded me of the time I watched my first French New Wave film. It is the feeling that this is how movies should be shot. It feels amazing, it feels right, and at the same time it feels completely novel.
The VR installations were something that I was, at first, a little skeptical about, but they blew my mind. "Life of Us" was one installation that particularly stood out. The way it works is you ‘play’ it with a partner — in my case, I played it with Suvrath — and you and your partner enter different rooms. In these rooms you wear a headset, put on headphones and they hand you controllers. You are then taken through human evolution, from protozoa to tadpole, dinosaurs, apes, humans and on to the next stage, robots. The experience was amazing. At each stage of the evolution, you become the creature, which means that if you look down and about you can see your body, and if you look around, you can see the world as it was at that time. I screamed throughout this experience. The worst part is that once you're done with the experience, they screen the version that you played so that everyone can see what you did and hear how much you screamed. It was definitely a very unique experience and heralds the great new technology that is coming in the future.
Other than watching amazing things and freezing to near death (the festival is held in Park City, Utah in January), there are many other things that you can do at Sundance. For many in the industry it is one of the best networking events of the year. You will often see people exchanging business cards on the streets, in busses, during movies and at many of the networking events and parties. As a student, (or for anyone under 25), you can buy the Student Ignite Package and get access to 15 screenings, various installations, and special Ignite events. I went to two of these events. The first was How Films Can Change the World, which was a panel of documentary filmmakers followed by a workshop where you work with other people to come up with a release idea for a hypothetical film. The second was the Festival Filmmaker Speed Dating, where you meet with many of the festivals filmmakers. There was also the Celebrate Sundance Ignite event, which I wasn’t able to attend, where Major Lazer was also in attendance. These events are a great opportunity to not only meet other young filmmakers but also spend some time with, and garner wisdom from, many of the festival filmmakers.
All in all, Sundance was an unbelievably incredible experience and I’m really happy that I got to do it with a group of amazing people. A huge shootout to Carnegie Mellon University Film Club for making this trip possible. Hopefully, going into next year’s Oscar season, I will be better informed.
Now that I have made you jealous by telling you stories about all the amazing things I watched, I’m going to devote this last bit to telling you about how you can watch some of the amazing things we saw at the festival. Coming out on Amazon are The Big Sick, and Landline and coming out on Netflix are I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore and The Incredible Jessica James.
I hope that you too will feel inspired to skip school and run away to Sundance next year.