It was a cold night in Park City, Utah – about 4°C below freezing – and I was a little lost amidst the piles of snow lining the streets.
I had just watched five films back-to-back as part of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and was trying to figure out which shuttle would take me back to my hotel.
A kindly older gentleman heard me asking the shuttle bus driver for directions, and said he was going the same way. We could walk together, he said. He was enormously entertaining, brimming with anecdotes, and as it turned out, we were staying at the same hotel.
As we were about to say goodnight, I asked what brought him to the festival. He casually replied that he was the subject of a documentary that was premiering, Film Hawk.
As it turned out, my companion was Bob Hawk, somewhat of a quiet legend in the American independent film circles for the last three decades, credited with discovering the works of directors like Kevin Smith and Edward Burns.
Over the next few days at the festival, I had the opportunity to speak to several big Hollywood names – Matt Damon, Casey Affleck and Viggo Mortensen among others – but my chance encounter with Hawk remains one of my best memories of Sundance, and an example of the festival’s surprises and spontaneities.
Sundance is, of course, a cinephile’s dream: for 10 days every January, the largest independent film festival in America descends upon the state of Utah. Nearly every available venue in Park City, Salt Lake City and Ogden is transformed into screening spaces, within which journalists, film critics, industry insiders and movie-lovers congregate to catch the first glimpse of films that could well be the next indie gem – and if lucky, awards-season darling.
And movies are not only onscreen but on everyone’s mind.
With so many film-lovers walking around, one is likely to get into deep conversations on cinema practically anywhere: I had a conversation on the #OscarsSoWhite movement with newly-met lunch partners, argued the merits of any number of movies with fellow film writers, discussed challenges facing female content producers while standing in line for a screening, and gained insight into the intricacies of film festival programming while waiting for a movie to begin.
And then there are the films themselves, a curated selection of independents from the United States and around the world.
Over the years, Sundance has come to be seen as the launching pad for many a smash hit, from Reservoir Dogs and Napoleon Dynamite to Little Miss Sunshine and Boyhood.
This year, the two most talked-about films seemed to be Manchester By The Sea, starring Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, and The Birth Of A Nation, directed by and starring Nate Parker – both so eagerly anticipated that it was next to impossible to get into a screening.
A big part of the fun, though, is simply taking a chance on a film. This resulted in some immensely enjoyable finds, such as The Lure from Poland, a gloriously bizarre movie about bloodthirsty mermaids and seedy 1980s strip bars.
Another surprise was Joshy, which uses the bromance comedy to shed unexpected insight on men’s relationships and the way they communicate.
And of course, there were the typically Sundance-y films, the quirky indies starring big-name actors playing offbeat roles.
The ones I caught – Other People with Molly Shannon and Jesse Plemons, The Fundamentals Of Caring starring Paul Rudd, and Maggie’s Plan featuring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore – were perfectly enjoyable, just not particularly memorable.
Not all Sundance films are winners though; with most of them being shown publicly for the first time, there are just as likely to be duds as there are the unexpected gems.
Two disappointments for me were the two Asian films I had been looking forward to watching: Brahman Naman from India, and Pleasure. Love from China. Both came highly lauded by the festival programmers, and yet fell short of the hype.
I also regretted attending a midnight screening of Trash Fire, a horror/rom-com mashup starring Adrian Grenier.
An hour into the movie, I was already longing for escape from the confused mess onscreen. I felt rewarded for staying, however, when director Richard Bates Jr proposed to his girlfriend at the end of the premiere.
Such unexpected pleasures were what made this first Sundance experience so memorable.
On the red carpet for Captain Fantastic, which stars Viggo Mortensen, 10-year-old actress Shree Cooks enthused – eyes shining with joy – how filming the movie was “the best summer of my life”.
Attending a panel with John Krasinski and Thomas Middleditch, the audience was treated not only to hilarious repartee between the two, but also frank confessions of the actors’ own insecurities and fears of failure when they were first starting out.
Meanwhile, at another discussion, filmmaker Werner Herzog expounded with a half-smile on his face why he finds society’s quest for happiness “quite silly”.
For all its prestige, there is still something remarkably down-to-earth and accessible about the Sundance Film Festival: audiences and industry folks mingle at events, while stars and directors take questions after screenings. Here, it often feels like a coming together of people who genuinely love and celebrate film with all its possibilities.
Here are the top five personal picks for, if not the best, then the most memorable films of Sundance 2016 (in no particular order).
This is a horror musical from Poland about a pair of beautiful, bloodthirsty mermaids who end up working with a 1980s rock band in a strip club. Take a moment to re-read that sentence, and then tell me a movie that manages to balance all of those crazy elements together near-perfectly isn’t worth watching.
2. Little Men
This little movie by director Ira Sachs may fly under most radars, but given a chance, it is a subtle yet affecting story about boys, friendship and the realities of adulthood. Highlights of the movie include the brilliantly natural performances of its two young leads, Theo Thaplitz and Michael Barbieri.
3. Notes On Blindness
After losing his eyesight, writer and theologian John Hull kept a series of audio diaries that documented his thoughts and experiences. This film uses those recordings to not just examine what sight and the loss of it means, but to create a deeply meditative examination of memory, relationships and a sense of self.
4. Halal Love (And Sex)
This Lebanese movie cleverly uses humour to explore gender issues, relationships, and yes, even sex, within a Muslim context. That the movie manages to grapple with the complexities and contradictions within these issues while managing to also be entertaining is reason enough to catch it.
5. Swiss Army Man
While the premise – Daniel Radcliffe playing a flatulent corpse opposite a shipwrecked Paul Dano – may put viewers off, this movie uses its bizarre premise to explore some pretty interesting territories. While the last third falters somewhat, this odd story of modern relationships and loneliness is worth watching.
Two talked-about films I wish I had caught:
1.The Birth Of A Nation
This biopic on Nat Turner, an African-American slave who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831, generated very positive reviews at the festival, particularly for its realisation of that period in history and its unflinching handling of the subject matter.
2. Manchester By The Sea
Starring Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, this film of a man returning to his hometown to care for his orphaned nephew has been uniformly praised for its excellent writing (by director Kenneth Lonergan) and performances.