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At 40, Sundance Film Festival celebrates past

Forward-thinking festival honors films with ‘all-time top 10’

By LINDSEY BAHR, Associated Press
Published: January 20, 2024, 5:30am

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck remember the feeling of being the new kids at the Sundance Film Festival. In 2004, they’d come to Park City, Utah, armed with a short film “Gowanus, Brooklyn,” some homemade promotional postcards and dreams of breaking through. Their short not only won a prize that year but also enough support to make the feature version, “Half Nelson,” which would later earn Ryan Gosling his first Oscar nomination.

“I remember being like, oh my God, this festival has been around 20 years, it’s such an old festival,” Boden said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “Now it’s 20 years later and we’re the old people.”

Of course, “old” is relative when it comes to a discovery festival like Sundance, where directors fresh out of film school can get a shot at a breakthrough. Remember, Kevin Smith was just 23 when he brought “Clerks” to Park City. Like many of their contemporaries that started at Sundance — including Steven Soderbergh, who is also coming with a new film, “Presence” — Boden and Fleck have gone on to bigger projects, including “Captain Marvel.”

But the Sundance romance hasn’t dulled.

Their new film debuted Thursday, opening night of the 40th edition of the festival, at the storied Eccles Theater. “Freaky Tales” is a love letter to Fleck’s hometown, Oakland, in the 1980s — its sports, music, history and the movies of the time — featuring Pedro Pascal, Jay Ellis, Dominique Thorne and Ben Mendelsohn.

“It’s a movie lover’s movie,” Boden teased. “It has one foot in reality and then one foot just launches off into fantasy.”

The first day also boasts the world premieres of several high-profile documentaries, including Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s “Girls State,” Yance Ford’s “Power” and “Frida,” directed by Emmy-nominated editor Carla Gutiérrez, and playing in the U.S. documentary competition.

As an immigrant and a former art student, Gutiérrez has long admired Frida Kahlo. In “Frida,” she uses Kahlo’s words from her diary, letters and essays to let the artist tell her own story.

“Uncovering her own words and her own voice, I think what we’re presenting is a new way of getting into her world and in her mind and her heart and really understanding the art in a more intimate, raw way,” Gutiérrez said.

Other anticipated documentaries playing across various sections include “Daughters,” about four young girls reuniting with their incarcerated fathers at a dance, “Gaucho Gaucho,” from “The Truffle Hunters” filmmakers, “Sue Bird: In the Clutch,” “DEVO,” “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story,” “Seeking Mavis Beacon,” and “The Greatest Night in Pop,” featuring never-before-seen footage about the making of “We Are The World.” The programmers are also predicting that “Will & Harper,” about a road trip Will Ferrell takes with his friend of 30 years who has come out as a trans woman, will be a big crowd pleaser.

As always, an army of celebrities are expected to descend on Park City, including Kristen Stewart, with two buzzy films (“Love Me” and “Love Lies Bleeding”), Saoirse Ronan, Kieran Culkin, Sebastian Stan, Glen Powell, Woody Harrelson, Steven Yeun, Lucy Liu, Danielle Deadwyler, Aubrey Plaza, Melissa Barrera and Laura Linney.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is also bringing his sophomore feature, “Rob Peace,” a biographical drama about the tragically short life of a brilliant kid from East Orange, N.J., which he wrote, directed and co-stars in alongside Jay Will, Mary J. Blige and Camila Cabello.

“I’ve been fortunate to be there many times as an actor and a director as well,” Ejiofor said. “It’s a dream to take this film there as well. It’s an American story, it’s an independent film and it wants to sit in that world.”

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Sundance programmers culled through 17,435 submissions to arrive at the 83 feature films playing across the 10 days, featuring a diverse mix of behind-the-camera talent. There are new episodic projects from Debra Granik and Richard Linklater, as well as 31 feature debuts.

Gutiérrez is one of those first-time directors, as is Titus Kaphar, an acclaimed contemporary artist and MacArthur Fellow who is making his narrative debut with the competition title “Exhibiting Forgiveness.” Featuring André Holland and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Kaphar uses his own paintings to tell this very personal story of an artist who is visited by his estranged father (John Earl Jelks). He wanted to find a way to talk to his children about his life experience and examine generational trauma in a new medium, and he’s honored to have the festival’s support.

“My favorite films are Sundance films,” Kaphar said. “To be allowed into this new community of artists, a community of directors and filmmakers … it’s pretty extraordinary.”

The excitement isn’t lost on Sundance mainstays like Jesse Eisenberg, who has been going to the festival since “The Squid and the Whale.” This year, he’s bringing a film that he’s been wanting to make for almost as long. In “A Real Pain,” which he wrote and directed, he plays an American who travels to Poland with his cousin (Culkin) to see where their late grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, was from.

“It’s about how we kind of view modern pain versus historical pain, but not in a didactic way. I didn’t want the movie to feel like homework,” Eisenberg said. “I wanted it to feel funny and light and only contemplative like that in retrospect.”

And everyone has different ways of experiencing their films at Sundance. Boden and Fleck are especially looking forward to a “raucous” crowd at the Eccles. Eisenberg will probably step out when the lights go down — he knows from experience that it makes him too anxious.

“My nerves are a little redirected towards hoping people like it in a kind of holistic way, rather than just my acting,” Eisenberg said. He also appears in another highly anticipated film: “Sasquatch Sunset,” from David and Nathan Zellner, in which he and Riley Keough are unrecognizable as a family of, yes, sasquatches.

The Robert Redford-founded festival is, mostly, forward thinking — but they are taking some time to appreciate the art that has come out of Sundance over four decades. Just take a look at the “all-time top 10” released Tuesday, voted on by more than 500 filmmakers, critics, and industry members. The list of classics includes: Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Blood Simple” (10th), Soderbergh’s “sex, lies and videotape” (sixth), Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (third) and Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” (first).

The question now is what will pop from the 2024 festival. Will audiences see the next “Before Sunrise,” “Memento,” “Y tu mamá también,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” or “Reservoir Dogs,” and other films that have transcended their humble indie roots to become all-time classics? Will there be another Oscar nominee, or winner?

Festival director Eugene Hernandez noted a vibrancy in the lineup that reminded him of his earliest days going to the festival, in the 1990s.

“It’s such a rich, rich combination of films that I that I think exhibit some really wild and adventurous creativity,” Hernandez said. “That is really nourishing in a year when we’re acknowledging and marking this 40th edition of Sundance.”

The Sundance Film Festival is running now through Jan. 28.

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