What's in a Festival: Sundance Crash Course

Erin Batchelder '17 Assistant Arts Editor 

January is an exciting time for movie buffs. Between the Golden Globes and the Oscars, awards season is in full swing. At the same time, January also kicks off the festival season. On Jan. 22, the Sundance Institute kicked off its 30th festival, celebrating the most groundbreaking works of American cinema. For the independent sector of the movie industry, premiering at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival is a golden opportunity that takes movies to the next level.

So, what is Sundance? Founded by Robert Redford in 1985, Sundance is an institute geared towards showcasing the work of filmmakers typically surrounded by the buzzwords “groundbreaking” and “fresh.” For the filmmakers, getting picked up by Sundance means having the chance to display new films produced independently from major motion picture studios and to gain wider distribution.

In the past, Sundance has launched several internationally successful films in all genres. In 1992, it launched the career of Quentin Tarantino, when he showed his first feature, “Resevoir Dogs.” Likewise, the “Saw” franchise, the documentary “Super Size Me,” and quirky comedies like “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Juno” all premiered at Sundance. While these films could have been just as successful if they began elsewhere, the industry and critical acclaim of Sundance have made it into a powerful springboard for all American independent films.

When looking at this year in a broad sense, the festival showcased the very best of the indie-industry. For example, Sean Baker’s “Tangerine,” which details the lives of two trans women of color, was shot entirely on an iPhone 5S. On the other hand, Eli Roth’s “Knock Knock” starred one of Hollywood’s biggest A-list actors, Keanu Reeves, in a stripped down thriller about a forty-something and two 20-somethings on a dark and stormy night.

In the realm of Sundance documentaries, subjects varied anywhere from Scientology to Kurt Cobain. One documentary to keep an eye on is “Wolfpack.” Focusing on a family of homeschooled children in the Lower East Side of New York, “Wolfpack” details the lives of young people who have been unexposed to the outside world.

For some Sundance films, there is a significant amount of award show buzz for next year. People are already talking about “The End of the Tour,” which is due to be released in December 2015. In this film, Jesse Eisenberg plays a journalist following David Foster Wallace (played by Jason Segel) around the country to promote one of David’s books.

In a lot of ways, Sundance is more than just a place to get distribution and funding. It’s a place for the movies nobody would see otherwise to be seen. In a time when films like “Selma” were completely snubbed by the Academy and mainstream critics, it’s refreshing to see something like “Tangerine” get people talking not only about what it takes to be a film but also about queer issues at the forefront of the LGBTQ community. Or films like “Dope,” which details the lives of young people in marginalized communities as they come of age. In the past, films like “Dope” found themselves becoming cult classic; this year, “Dope” cut one of the biggest distribution deals of the festival with Sony Pictures.

For fans of independent cinema, Sundance is the mecca of American Film Festivals. It’s a forum where new voices can be heard, and the next great filmmaker will be found. In its 30 years of existence, the festival has remained uncompromising in that it reserves a space for new filmmakers to get their foot in the door and get their movies out there for the rest of the country to see.