by Walter Chaw I think there are so many film festivals now that it's never not festival season. As a consequence, no one festival is more important than any other festival. They're each a different tentacle of the distribution/exhibition octopus, an appendage of chthonic horror. If any distributor happens to show some apparent innovation, call it a novel mutation: temporary and vestigial on the body impolitic. Celebrate A24 and NEON, in other words--but I have an idea that everyone is connected to the same profit motive. Meanwhile, the festival clockwork churns on unimpeded.
Sundance is notorious both for being "early" in the "season"--for whatever "don't feed them after midnight" logic "early" makes in the Möbius strip of time--and for the temporary insanity that finds attendees proclaiming "masterpiece" over pieces far short of masterful. Critics being hyperbolic about piffles they're seeing in the same auditoriums as creators in resort locations, bunking like pilgrims to Everest on each others' floors in outrageously-priced hotel rooms and AirBNBs, isn't unique to Sundance, yet there's something uniquely bad about popular Sundance movies. To paraphrase the late, lamented Justice Potter Stewart: I can't tell you what it is that makes a Sundance favourite so often terrible, but I know it when I see it.
Which is not to say that I'm immune to it, just that I'm aware of it. I'm like Fry with Slurm. I know where it comes from but drink it anyway. I don't even realize I'm doing it--and that, in the end, is the nature of all bias. The Sundance Slurm is sweet and addictive, and it's only in recovery that you look back on it with regret. I wonder if its power isn't that by positioning itself here at the beginning of the annual awards cycle, Sundance brings with it a sense of general hopefulness for a new year. The race to be first to discover the Next Big Thing is alluring, of course, though Sundance probably benefits from a more general feeling of optimism before it curdles, as it does every year, into horrible experience.
That said, the things I've liked from Sundance, like last year's superlative High Tide, also tend to be things that are subsequently difficult to see elsewhere, whether on the festival treadmill or in any kind of legitimate release. All that means, ultimately, is that while the only news we get out of these things is the ridiculous amount of money distributors overpay for movies that aren't very good in the cold light of tomorrow, the useful function of festivals remains their ability to, however briefly, give the stage to something that needs a champion. Anyway, I've already seen a lot of stuff I don't know why it's in a fest that I'm also glad is in this fest because it means I'll never run into it again. I like that Sundance is virtual, too, because the dirty secret is that I've been asking for screeners and at-home options for years now since I despise, for the most part, the screening experience in theatres. Didn't we just have this conversation? I really can't tell anymore.