Indie darlings: 2018 Sundance and Slamdance film festivals preview

New voices, new media dominate this year’s Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals in Park City, Utah.

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In a year where the entrenched Hollywood power structure has been shaken to its core, the film industry is primed and ready for the new voices and narratives that often get their first airing at the 2018 Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals in Park City, Utah.

This year is no exception. Sundance, running January 18-28, and Slamdance, January 19-25, both offer strong slates this year with 122 features premiering at Sundance and 16 at Slamdance. Here's a preview of what's in store beginning this week.

At Sundance, there will be some showings by better known quantities, including the world premiere of director Gus Van Sant’s latest feature, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, based on cartoonist John Callahan’s memoir, and BLAZE, Sundance usual suspect Ethan Hawke’s most recent directorial entry about the life of 1970s country music artist Blaze Foley. Actors Paul Dano and Idris Elba will see the premieres of their debut features, Wildlife and Yardie, and two new documentaries, Hal and Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, will offer insight into the careers of Hollywood iconoclasts: maverick director Hal Ashby and iconic comedian Robin Williams. There is even a virtual reality experience devoted to simulated behind-the-scenes footage from Wes Anderson’s upcoming animated feature Isle of Dogs.

The biggest story going into Sundance this year though is the focus on female voices, both in front of and behind the camera. Of the 122 premieres at Sundance, nearly 40 percent are from female directors and several others focus on women’s stories. In an indication of the ethos of this year’s festival, Half the Picture, a documentary by first-time director Amy Adrion, brings to light the obstacles to gender parity in the film industry through interviews with working female directors, many of whom got their start at Sundance. Skate Kitchen, the first narrative feature from Crystal Moselle, who won the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2015 for The Wolfpack, chronicles the efforts of a female skateboarder to find a space of her own in a male-dominated world. These are just two examples of the raft of films about notable women who strive to make themselves heard at this year’s festival, including rock star Joan Jett in Bad Reputation, women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred in Seeing Allred, actor and activist Jane Fonda in Jane Fonda in Five Acts, Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in RBG, fierce Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama in Kusama — Infinity, and Yazidi activist Nadia Murad in On Her Shoulders.

click to enlarge Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts feature in Ophelia by Claire McCarthy, part of the Premieres Program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. - photo by Covert Media. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
photo by Covert Media. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts feature in Ophelia by Claire McCarthy, part of the Premieres Program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

In addition, narrative features such as Ophelia, Colette, and Lizzie retell the tales of well-known female characters from their point of view. Ophelia, starring Daisy Ridley (late of the Star Wars universe), spins out the events of Hamlet from the perspective of the Danish prince’s long-suffering love while Colette, which features Keira Knightley, traces the rise of the groundbreaking French female writer. Lizzie, in competition in the U.S. Dramatic category and starring Chloë Sevigny, provides a glimpse into the confined life of Lizzie Borden, who became famous after being acquitted of the ax murders of her father and stepmother at the turn of the last century.

While these films immediately garner recognition for their female protagonists and stars, some of the potential standouts for the films in competition are from female filmmakers who are due for acknowledgement, including Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher, and I Think We’re Alone Now directed by Reed Morano, fresh off an Emmy-winning stint on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

click to enlarge A film still from The Cleaners, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. - photo by gebrueder beetz filmproduktion. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
photo by gebrueder beetz filmproduktion. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A film still from The Cleaners, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

The rest of the Sundance slate also stays true to the indie spirit of capturing the world of our moment. The social aspects of online media loom large in Eighth Grade (the first feature from comedian and YouTube superstar Bo Burnham), Rust, Search, Assassination Nation, and The Cleaners, the last a documentary about those whose job it is to eradicate inappropriate content from the internet. Monsters and Men, Crime + Punishment, and Kailash focus on the role of video recordings in relation to issues of social justice, including cell phone footage of a police encounter and hidden cameras capturing evidence of child labor. Environmental concerns dominate in documentaries like Dead Pigs, The Devil We Know, and Inventing Tomorrow, which follows a group of teenagers who propose solutions for the world’s environmental challenges. And Hale County This Morning, This Evening and Tyrel tackle issues of racial representation.

This year at Sundance, the theme of promoting new media as well as new voices continues with the debut of a new screening category: Indie Episodic. Chicago documentary filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself) headlines with a run of the first half of his new 10-part documentary series America To Me which examines the experience of African American students over the course of a year at a high-achieving high school outside of Chicago.

Slamdance, which premieres films made by first-time directors for under a million dollars (and where Paranormal Activity first terrified audiences), includes several films to keep an eye on, including Human Affairs, the first feature by actor/writer/director Charlie Birns. 

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