There is a certain ritual to a film journalist's first day on the loose in Park City, where the Sundance Film Festival is beginning its 33rd year. The first stop is festival headquarters, where credentials are retrieved, hot ticket requests are made, and excited-but-not-too-excited glances are exchanged with strangers. From there we all move, in woollen herds, to the local grocery emporium, where exasperated locals look on as journalists, shills, starlets, and directors show off their new winter boots and struggle to maintain peak glamour while shopping for frozen chicken fingers.
And finally, provided that sub-zero weather and the hop'n'stop transit system haven't foiled the timing, there is the annual unveiling of Robert Redford, which takes place during the opening press conference at the Egyptian Theatre. The sun seemed to shine a little stronger for the Sundance figurehead: after several minus-fifteen in the shade days, temperatures hovered tantalisingly close to zero as journalists piled into the movie palace named in 1926, when King Tut was the rage.
When you're expecting instant frostbite, the freezing mark puts a spring in your step. This year's festival won't reap the benefit of similarly lowered expectations, alas: rumbles have already begun about whether Sundance can meet the high water mark set last year, when Oscar favorite Beasts of the Southern Wildand critical darling Simon Killer, among many other notables, premiered here.
Redford, who was joined on the Egyptian stage by festival programmer John Cooper and Sundance Institute director Keri Putnam, claimed “change” as this year's defining theme. It was a so-so line, too broad to mean much, and yet Sundance can offer more specifics than most festivals to back it up. As they did last year, this year 12 of the short films in competition are available for viewing online. If you need further incentive to take a look, Cooper noted that a record high of 8,000 shorts were submitted this year, which means someone watched them all and chose the best.
The explosion in submissions reflects the continuing trend of better and more accessible technologies getting better and more accessible. Rather than bulking up, the Sundance program seeks to showcase what's next in independent film at the highest level. Whatever you felt about Beasts, for instance, it was evidence of a debut filmmaker with a powerful sensibility and inventive skill. Redford remarked that the director of another Sundance debut, J.C. Chandor, whose Margin Call premiered here in 2011, broke what Redford joked was for him a puzzling 30-year drought. Though he's one of independent film's most visible supporters, Redford had not been cast in an indie until Chandor sought him out for his second film, a survival thriller called All Is Lost.
All Is Lost, in which Redford is the sole cast member, won't play at Sundance; maybe that would be weird. Instead the festival's “Day One” presentations make room for newcomers, including Sebastian Silva's Crystal Fairy, in which Michael Cera stars as an American taking a drug-fueled road trip to Chile; the back-up singer doc Twenty Feet From Stardom, one of several music documentaries showing this year; and May in the Summer, Cherien Dabis's story of a Jordanian woman's impending marriage is challenged when she reunites with her warring family.
Dabis and her film contribute to one of this year's most startling statistics: 50 percent of the selections were directed by women. If that is not a first it's something I've never seen before, and feels like cause for celebration mainly because no one's really talking about it. I'm pleased and a little disoriented to report that in the coming days I will be checking back with reviews and coverage derived from a program with happy but silent gender parity. Along with May in the Summer, I'm especially looking forward to Lynn Shelton's new one, Touchy Feely, Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess, and the possible close to what is now Richard Linklater's famous romantic time-lapse trilogy, Before Midnight.
Also making a rather ostentatious premiere is Jane Campion's Top of the Lake, which will stake out the Egyptian theatre for seven hours this Sunday. Conceived as a miniseries and set in New Zealand, the small town thriller is part of a trend toward launching and promoting television programming at the festival. Even small screens blow up, it seems, in this town. Everybody ready?