Sundance 2014: Diary of a Critic

Sundance 2014 Fred Topel

On any day of my life I try to see as many movies as possible. I could probably always find a couple of press screenings in L.A. or get some Blu-rays to review, but when I go to a film festival they’re all scheduled so I can make a plan to see as many as possible in a day. I can easily fit in four movies a day if I’m not doing any interviews. My record for Sundance was six in a day, but I only accomplished that by watching five press screenings in a row at the same location, and then one midnight movie.

My maximum for Sundance 2014 was four per day, and some days I only saw two when one of the two was the nearly three hour Boyhood and the two-and-a-half-hour The Raid 2. I also managed to avoid any 8:30 or 9:00 AM screening which is a miracle, since all the big movies of Sundance play an encore the following morning, which tend to be easier to get tickets for. At least, Sundance in particular reserves a number of tickets for press to the morning screenings. I guess I lucked out with premiere tickets to the afternoon or evening screenings I wanted.

I did go to a midnight movie just about every night. Even when I didn’t, the 9:45 shows of Boyhood and The Raid 2 ran well past 12:00AM. Thursday was actually the only night I was in my room by 11:30. Usually I’ve got the midnight screening and the 8:30AM show the next day, which I consider it my civic duty to toughen up stay awake for, but this year I got to sleep just enough to pace myself until the end.


I love Sundance. Sundance is a magical winter wonderland where you can fulfill the promise of a highly anticipated film, or more importantly discover that next new voice and probably meet that filmmaker and they’ll always remember you being at their first screening where the magic happened. Even the bad films are legendary, and considering how competitive Sundance is, if you see a bad film there, imagine what films didn’t get in. I Melt With You remains an epic endurance test, in which 63 people (I counted) walked out and failed. There was no I Melt With You this year, though Killers dragged on past two hours and Little Accidents moped its way out of my heart.

Sundance 2014 was a weird year in terms of patterns at the festival. There was a lot less buying than usual. The first weekend is usually filled with deals or at least buzz about negotiations. There wasn’t a Beasts of the Southern Wild that came completely out of the blue this year, and there wasn’t even a The Sessions or Martha Marcy May Marlene that everybody was talking about. We heard the expected news that I Origins became the fourth Brit Marling film to have a home at Fox Searchlight. Sony Pictures Classics bought my favorite Sundance film and the winner of both audience and jury prizes Whiplash. By the end we heard Magnolia picked up Frank and SPC added Love is Strange to their slate, but it was hardly a frenzy. Many quality films are still looking for distribution.

Whiplash Miles Teller

It may have been a weak year for Sundance films overall, although having only seen less than 1/3 of them I can’t speak for the other 2/3. The great films were extraordinary: Whiplash, Rudderless, Boyhood, They Came Together, The Guest, Young Ones and as expected The Raid 2. There wasn’t even really another I Melt With You although there were a handful of films I reviewed with a rating in the 1-2 out of 10 range, and a few mediocre 4s and 5s. 

Mostly a lot of the premieres and competition films were good but not great. Infinitely Polar Bear, Hits, Under the Electric Sky, What We Do In Shadows, Fishing Without Nets, Difret, Imperial Dreams and others were all solid to good. Certainly Shadows has enough clever humor to be memorable, and Fishing and Difret each achieve some good drama in situations that make you think.

There were a number of clusters of similar movies. Two of my favorites, Whiplash and Rudderless, as well as Obvious Child which I did not see, are about musicians. Several zombie films included Life After Beth, Dead Snow: Red Vs. Dead and Cooties because the tainted chicken nuggets basically zombified those kids. There were two documentaries about the internet. I saw Web Junkie but not The Internet’s Own Boy.

Sundance 2014 Fred Topel William Bibbiani

My favorite part of racing to four plus movies per day though isn’t even the films themselves. It’s the friends I make waiting in line for each screening, or sometimes on the shuttles to and from screenings. I added another 5-6 line friends to my circle this year, all of whom I hope to see next year, if not sooner for the ones from Los Angeles or possibly traveling in the same festival circuit as me.

Each theater at Sundance has its own personality too. The Eccles is the largest house with 1200 seats. That means you have the best chance of getting a ticket to a movie playing at Eccles, and no matter how long the line is, you’re going to get in. It’s pretty exhilarating to discover a film along with 1199 other people who cheer when it’s over. The Library is known for the most cramped seats at Sundance, but it is the premiere location for midnight movies and an infectiously rowdy crowd. Midnight shows also happen at the Egyptian theater, an old school stage/movie house at the top of the Main Street hill. Prospector Square Hotel also has a theater that shows midnights, and all three of course show movies during the day too.

The Marc theater is actually in a racquet club and sometime you can hear tennis matches going on behind the curtains (when you’re waiting in line, not once you’re in the theater). A bit of a longer shuttle ride will take you to the Temple theater, which is in a synagogue. I have actually never been to the Redstone theaters in all four years I’ve gone to Sundance. It is a traditional multiplex and it is the furthest out of Park City you can go besides the Salt Lake City, Ogden or Sundance Resort screenings, an entire section of satellite theaters completely outside of my experience.

Camp X-Ray Cast

At almost every public screening, certainly the opening weekend, the stars and filmmakers give a Q&A following the screening. By midweek, maybe only the directors stay for Q&As because the actors had to go back to work, and by the end some film teams have left Park City entirely. The Q&As get a bad reputation, and they can be quite awkward, but I’ve had good luck. The Boyhood Q&A was full of useful questions about the process of shooting over 12 years. For films like Camp X-ray, I was frustrated that no one asked any really incisive questions about the subject, and in fact were kind of kissing ass. I don’t think it’s a starstruck thing. Most of the Sundance audience are artists themselves, so they’re complimenting what they see in art and trying to share and learn. I’ve been known to raise my hand sometimes, although I’m often fortunate to get my own interviews later.

Press have access to a set of screenings reserved specifically for press and industry. The advantage of this is you don’t need tickets. Just line up and it’s first come, first served. There’s no introduction so it starts when it starts. You do miss the Q&A but most of the press have interviews set up already, and industry aren’t looking for talent opportunities. P&Is, as the lingo goes, are at the Holiday Village Theaters, a regular old multiplex with stadium seating and a concession stand.


So now comes the aftermath of Sundance, i.e. the rest of my year. I will continue championing my favorite movies of Sundance, and I will look out for all the Sundance movies I missed. Frank and Love is Strange got distribution deals so I will catch up with them. I’m hoping The Signal, Obvious Child, Ping Pong Summer, God’s Pocket and more make it to South by Southwest, Los Angeles Film Festival or AFI Fest, although at all of those festivals I will be discovering a new crop of films while I play catch-up too.

I will also start doing some homework. I didn’t discover as many unknown filmmakers who make me want to look up their previous work, or perhaps there were more first time filmmakers who don’t have an previous work. Or, I’ve been doing Sundance long enough that the returning filmmakers all had films I already saw when it was their first Sundance. I’ve got to get my hands on the original short for Whiplash, and I never saw the TV movies William H. Macy co-wrote. If they’re half as profound as Rudderless, I’m in. See, I never really leave Sundance. I live this spirit year round, although I am so exhausted it will take me until next January to recharge for another go at the Sundance Film Festival. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.