In 1978 the very first Sundance Film Festival took place, with the goal of showcasing the potential of American independent cinema. On offer were films from the likes of Martin Scorsese and Elia Kazan. It is fair to say that since then Sundance has been an integral part of the independent film revolution. If John Cassavetes was the father that conceived American independent cinema, then Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute was the loving mother that tenderly nurtured it.
A decade later a 26 year old Steven Soderbergh took his directorial debut to Park City, claiming the Audience Award at the festival, and going on to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as earning an Academy Award nomination for Original Screenplay. Sex, Lies, and Videotape would go on to be a huge financial success, signalling the acceptance of young run-and-gun indie filmmakers into both the hearts of the mainstream public and the minds of the upper echelons of world cinema. In the quarter of a century since then the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, Kelly Reichardt, Wes Anderson, Ava DuVernay, Damian Chazelle and David O. Russell have all gotten their big break at Sundance, either through the Institute’s many film programs, workshops, and labs, or through premiering their early projects at the festival, underlining Sundance’s prominence in shaping the modern cinematic landscape.
Yet the last couple of editions of the Sundance Film Festival have seen a further evolution, with prestigious films premiering there in the hope of scoring major awards more than a year later. Cases in point include 2014’s Whiplash, which went on to score five Oscar nominations, and 2016’s Manchester by the Sea, which went on to earn six.
“Sundance has been an integral part of the independent film revolution”
Last year’s stellar line-up continued this trend, with Get Out, The Big Sick, Mudbound, and, in particular, Call Me by Your Name all hoping for nods when the Academy Award nominations are announced next week. The festival has always served as something of a shop window – for those with films playing this is not a traditionally enjoyable time, as their agents and producers desperately seek distribution deals. 2017 saw an all-time high for films being picked up, with the likes of A24, Amazon, and Netflix being serial offenders. As ever, the festival continued to put a diverse range of voices on display: LGBTQ+ films had a strong showing with Call Me by Your Name, God’s Own Country, and Beach Rats; Asian-American life was given the spotlight in Columbus and Gook; and female directors Eliza Hittman, Dee Rees, Maggie Betts, and Gillian Robespierre earned some of the best reviews of the fortnight.
Perhaps most notable were the astonishingly small-scale films that meditatively dealt with colossal themes of time and memory in A Ghost Story and Marjorie Prime. Twelve months ago we were delivered one of the finest Sundances in history, and a very good year followed, with an extremely diverse Oscar race still yet to play out. Let us now turn our attention to what the 2018 festival has in store. As usual with Sundance, a host of the films on show are debuts from new faces, and a great part of the fun is discovering budding Andersons, Tarantinos, Soderberghs, and Aronofskys at their earliest stages. It’s difficult to say much about them, but we can certainly speculate on the biggest name at this year’s festival: Gus Van Sant. Van Sant is a gifted auteur, able to deliver awards friendly crowd-pleasers such as Good Will Hunting and Milk, but far better known for his quirky indies such as My Own Private Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy. Appreciated worldwide, as evidenced by his Palme d’Or win for the haunting Elephant, Van Sant has recently been on a poor run of form epitomised by the much-maligned Sea of Trees. He enters Sundance with Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, a dark comedy biopic based on controversial quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan. The intriguing subject of the film will be portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, reuniting with the man who directed him in his breakthrough performance more than twenty years ago in To Die For. Phoenix is joined by a strong cast including Rooney Mara, Jonah Hill, and Jack Black, and the project already has a May release date with Amazon Studios. Here’s to hoping for a return to form for Van Sant.
“Gus Van Sant enters a dark comedy biopic based on controversial quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan”
It is increasingly common for actors, and those in other fields, to make their directorial debut at Sundance. Last year saw Taylor Sheridan complete the border trilogy he wrote, following up Sicario and Hell or High Water by stepping into the director’s chair with Wind River. This year it is the turn of Paul Dano (period drama Wildlife), Rupert Everett (Oscar Wilde adaptation The Happy Prince), Idris Elba (crime film Yardie), comedian Bo Burnham (comedy Eighth Grade) and rapper Boots Riley (comedic fantasy sci-fi Sorry to Bother You). Though not making their debuts, the relatively inexperienced Ethan Hawke (country music biopic Blaze) and cinematographer Reed Morano (sci-fi I Think We’re Alone Now), fresh from dominating TV with The Handmaid’s Tale, are in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.
“It’s becoming common for actors to make their directorial debuts at Sundance”
Returning to Park City are festival veterans Tamara Jenkins, the Zellner brothers, Debra Granik, Brett Haley, and Desiree Akhavan. It has been 11 years since Jenkins premiered superb comedy The Savages to huge critical acclaim at Sundance. Her latest, The Private Life, sounds in a similar vein, with Kathryn Hahn as an author undergoing fertility treatment, placing strain on her relationship with her husband, Paul Giamatti. The Zellners impressed with their last two films, Kid-Thing and Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, at Sundance, and they return with Damsel, a comedy-Western sporting an impressive cast including Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, and Robert Forster. Granik has taken all her films to Sundance. Her last one, Winter’s Bone, was nominated for four Academy Awards and gave Jennifer Lawrence a breakthrough role. Little is known about her new feature, Leave No Trace, but expect another gritty, hard-hitting drama. Haley is a Sundance regular, and is back again with Hearts Beat Louder, a piece about an unlikely father-daughter song-writing duo, featuring Sasha Lane. Lane, who broke out with a starring role in Andrea Arnold’s 2016 Cannes prize-winning road film American Honey, is also in Akhavan’s follow-up to the notable debut Appropriate Behaviour. Based on the novel by Emily M. Danforth, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a coming-of-age tale about a girl discovering her own sexuality.