PARK CITY, Utah — With temperatures at 35 degrees under a sunny, cloudless sky, it was a balmy day in this mountain town as thousands converged for the 31st annual Sundance Film Festival. Running through Feb. 1, the festival showcases 123 feature films chosen from over 12,000 submissions, panels featuring Lena Dunham, Kristin Wiig, George Lucas and Mindy Kaling, concerts (Iggy Azalea, Diplo, Skrillex and Scott Weiland among the performers), multi-media installations and even a specially-constructed rock climbing wall at the Eddie Bauer Adventure House.
"There are films that will upset people. That is OK. It is freedom of expression," Redford said.
Festival founder Robert Redford, dressed in jeans and denim shirt and looking weathered but still movie-star handsome at age 78, opened the annual opening day press conference by stating, "Change is in the air. Diversity moves the ball and comes out of change. It is something I think we represent. Our films show how change is affecting the life we live in and our society."
Redford also spoke passionately about the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks and their impact on the creative community. "Our country was established on independence. We need to keep the word alive," he said. "We are an independent film festival. Let's not forget who we are and what we are representing. Freedom of expression is important to us. There are films that will upset people. That is OK. It is freedom of expression."
Lightening up with comedies
This year’s festival contains more comedies than in years past One of opening night films was The Bronze, co-written by and starring Melissa Rauch (The Big Bang Theory) which tells the story of a washed up Olympic gymnast (think Tanya Harding, remember her?) whose status is threatened when a younger gymnast comes to town.
Another anticipated comedy is The D Train, starring Jack White as the head of a high school reunion committee and James Marsden as the big guy on campus who won’t come to the reunion. And Lily Tomlin stars as a misanthropic senior called upon to help her 18-year-old granddaughter in Grandma.
Dark documentaries rule
Sundance wouldn’t be Sundance without dark, intense films, many of which are documentaries. One of the most anticipated is Racing Extinction by The Cove Academy award winning director Louie Psihoyos, which explores endangered species and mass extinction.
Two documentaries on my must-see list spotlight extreme religious practices. Prophet’s Prey exposes Mormon sect leader Warren Jeffries, who married underaged girls—dozens of them actually—and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief by Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney, shines a light on the lengths to which some Scientology members go in the name of their religion.
At the end of the film, singer John Legend surprised the sold-out audience with a three-song set of Simone's songs.
Fans of music documentaries were in luck with the opening night film What Happened, Miss Simone? from Academy Award nominee Liz Garbus, which reveals never seen footage of classically trained pianist, civil rights icon and legendary recording artist Nina Simone.
At the end of the film, singer John Legend surprised the sold-out audience with a three-song set of Simone songs, ending with a stirring and soulful rendition of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." Garbus introduced the singer saying, "John Legend, like Nina Simone, carries the torch of commitment to social justice, human rights and education. John is here to honor Nina Simone and carry her music to another generation."
Lots of stars
Of course there are stars at Sundance —lots of them. Comedienne Sarah Silverman is making her dramatic film debut as a depressed housewife in I Smile Back, Nicole Kidman stars as a mother whose teenage children disappear in Strangerland, Jennifer Lopez and Academy Award nominee Viola Davis play grief stricken mothers in Lila & Eve.
Fans of James Franco can see him in two films, I Am Michael the story of a gay rights leader who becomes a Christian and renounces his homosexuality, and True Story where he stars awith Jonah Hill as a fugitive who tries to steal the identity of a disgraced journalist.
A bonus for baby boomers is the late entry of A Walk in the Woods, the story of a travel writer, played by Redford, who decides to hike the 2,100 mile Appalachian Trail with his estranged friend (Nick Nolte). The stellar cast also includes Emma Thompson, Nick Offerman, and Mary Steenburgen.
Not many stars of Texas
Texas films were the talk of last year’s festival, including Richard Linklater's Boyhood and six made-in-Austin films that played to packed theaters. This year seems tame in comparison. But Austin writer-director Andrew Bujalski, a Sundance vet (Computer Chess), will debut his new film Results in the U.S. Competition field. Shot partly in Austin last summer, Results is a comedy set in the fitness industry, following two mismatched personal trainers, played by Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders, who land a wealthy client and the fun begins.
Digging a little deeper, I explored the offerings at Slamdance, an adjoining festival that emphasizes quirky, independent films. Celebrating its 21st year, Slamdance will premiere 18 films, one of which is Clinger. Shot in Houston by three St John’s alums (Bubba Fish, Michael Steves and Gabi Duncombe), this coming-of-age comedy-turned-horror-flick details the gruesome death of a high school boy who returns as a love-sick ghost to kill his girlfriend so they can be together.
Starring Vincent Martella, best known as Greg Wuliger on the UPN/CW sitcom Everybody Hates Chris, and Jennifer LaPorte, the film was financed through a Kickstarter campaign and donations from 15 private investors. The large number of Houstonians expected for the premiere will recognize the locations. Clinger was filmed at St. John's and at the homes of the directors' and producers' parents.