Failure and its many forms is a popular theme this year.
22 Jan 2014 - 11:04 AM  UPDATED 22 Jan 2014 - 12:21 PM

Celebrating its 30th anniversary, this year's Sundance Film Festival spotlights an interesting theme: failure. For the first time, the festival will host a daylong series of panels and events centered on a single theme: the value of a good faceplant in both creative and everyday life. Festivalgoers will have the chance to fail in spectacular fashion, in a workshop on chorus line kicking led by the Rockettes; and with a special screening of the 1996 film Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson's directorial debut, the festival will nod to one of its own failures: Sundance rejected Bottle Rocket, which went on to find cult success and launched Anderson's formidable career.

The opening day press conference offered an object lesson in not winning them all: some hours before the announcement of this year's Oscar nominees omitted one prominent favourite, Sundance impresario Robert Redford, whose performance in All Is Lost has brought him the mixed blessing of awards speculation. The first question of the press conference, where per tradition Redford was joined by programmer John Cooper and Sundance Institute director Keri Putnam, called on Redford to address his failure to be nominated. Generally short and skeptical fielding the giddy softballs thrown at these events, on this most awkward point Redford announced that he was prepared to be frank, and went on to speak at surprising length. He began by praising Sundance alum JC Chandor, his director on All Is Lost, and said the film “gave me, as an actor, the chance to go back to my roots.” Redford went on to describe Hollywood as a business—“a very, very good one”—and awards campaigning as political—“but that's okay”—before making less equivocal statements about the film's poor distribution. An independent production, All Is Lost suffered from a lack of gumption, according to a clearly disappointed Redford, at the level where decisions about the theatrical life of a film are made.

The complaint reminded me of critic Manohla Dargis' recent call for fewer, better titles at independent film marketplaces like this one. Dargis compares the grosses of Don Jon and Computer Chess, both Sundance 2013 favourites, and wonders if the latter (which earned a tiny fraction of the former at the box office) “might have done better if it hadn't been forced into the marketplace alongside 20 other independent releases that opened in New York the same week and were all vying for pretty much the same nonmainstream audience.” In this analysis it could be said that All Is Lost suffered in the over-saturated market Sundance helped create. If the terms of success and failure in the film industry are shifting more violently than usual, both Dargis and Redford might be forgiven for showing signs of vertigo.

All Is Lost was not a Sundance film, nor did many of last year's feature standouts appear in this morning's nominations. In fact, it was Sundance's 2013 documentaries, including 20 Feet from Stardom, Cutie and the Boxer, and The Square, that went on to greatest acclaim. (It's perhaps notable that those films, like much of documentary, involve different kinds of failure.) This year's documentary premieres include two portraits of film world figures: Mr leos caraX, about French director Leos Carax, and Steve James's Life Itself, about critic Roger Ebert, who died last year. In 20,000 Days on Earth, director Iain Forsyth presents a 'fictitious' day in the life of Australian musician Nick Cave. In To Be Takei (pictured), Star Trek star George Takei looks back on a career marked by racial stereotyping, and the portion of his childhood spent in American internment camps for ethnic Japanese during World War II.

One of the only Sundance features to receive an Oscar nomination is Before Midnight, nominated for best adapted screenplay. The nomination follows the late and extremely happy-making announcement that Boyhood, Richard Linklater's long-awaited, long-incubated film about 12 years in the life of a family, will have a special preview here in Park City this weekend. I suspect Boyhood will be the ticket that gets the media clawing for position, along with world premieres like Kristen Stewart Guantanamo Bay drama Camp X-Ray; the comedy Frank, in which Michael Fassbender plays a cult musician who goes about wearing a giant fake head; and the new Anton Corbijn film A Most Wanted Man, a John LeCarré adaptation thriller starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

But as always at Sundance, it's the less visible films that provide the festival with its biggest surprises and its purpose as the champion of interesting failures and successes alike. I'll be back soon with reviews of several of the above-mentioned titles and a handful more of this year's 119 feature selections. The opening day press conference closed with the usual, pleasingly basic advice: “hydration and hand sanitiser.” With both covered, you can't really lose.