Sundance 2017 has come to an end, but with a bang, not a whimper. At the Saturday night awards, films that took on politics and feminism came out on top. And before that, a gathering of women to discuss the path forward turned into a heated discussion about intersectional feminism and race.
Thanks for joining the Los Angeles Times team of intrepid critics and reporters as they navigated art, politics and parties. We Hang out with filmmakers, marched with Chelsea Handler and watched next year’s big films (and festival flops) emerge. See you next year!
- Mike White and Miguel Arteta serve up Trump-era allegory in 'Beatriz at Dinner'
- 'Crown Heights' tells the true story of long fight to free a man jailed for a crime he didn't commit
- VIDEO: Oscar noms | Diplo | O'Shea Jackson | Chelsea Handler | Women's march | 'Step' performers
- PHOTOS: Portraits @ L.A. Times photo studio | Instant prints | Scene in Park City
Many people watched the George Zimmerman trial in 2013 and felt outrage. Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood experienced that too — and saw an opportunity.
The couple and creative collaborators — known for their work independently as well as on shared efforts like the romantic drama "Beyond The Lights" — decided to take out their laptops and do something about it.
"We watched the Zimmerman verdict [in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin] with our son, and when he was found not guilty our form of consoling our son was showing him an Emmett Till documentary," said Rock Bythewood. "Then we said: 'As artists it's also our responsibility to hold up a mirror to our society.'"
The result of that impulse is the new series "Shots Fired," a 10-episode Fox event about racially charged shootings by police officers, which the couple premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. (It will debut on the network in March.)
Starring Sanaa Lathan and Stephan James, the North Carolina-set series differs in some key ways from the spate of features about the subject, documentary and narrative, that have popped up at this festival and elsewhere..
For one thing, the longer format allows for more characters (and character development).
For another, "Shots Fired" looks at shootings in new ways: There are two killings, of both a young white and black person. Indeed, the series kicks off with the killing of a white man by an inexperienced black police officer.
"It was very important we had both," said Prince-Bythewood. "Right away we want to start asking an audience to look at things in different ways."
She added, referencing the decision to include a white person being shot. "If you're not connecting with the victim, it's easy to turn the channel off."
She and Rock Bythewood conducted an extensive amount of research for the series, talking to people across the spectrum — from the mother of Oakland transit-police shooting victim Oscar Grant to former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. The idea, they said, was to make sure every character was backed by human motives, even if the audience wouldn't automatically sympathize with them.
If network television and this festival can seem incompatible, that's rapidly changing, with a number of TV series premiering in Park City this year. Besides, Sundance movies played a role in the creation of this show: The couple watched "3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets," the powerful movie about the Jordan Davis shooting that premiered here two years ago, as they were working on episodes of "Shots Fired."
"That movie was big for us," said Prince-Bythewood. "What happened was totally devastating."
Broadcast television, meanwhile, has become more interested in tackling race-related subjects in serious ways; "Black-ish" and "American Crime" have both undertaken these efforts, the former with its much-praised episode "Hope," about police brutality, a year ago.
As the investigations unfold and the racial politics becomes more complex, "Shots Fired" takes on a strong layer of social consciousness. But the creators want to be careful to balance substance and suspense — or at least to somewhat disguise the former.
"Our creed was to get the audience on the edge of their seats and when they're leaning forward hit them with the truth," said Rock Bythewood. "Hopefully meaningful change will land without the audience seeing it coming."
"Is your coat wool?” Alfre Woodard asked as she sat at a long, flower-filled table draped with purple paisley Italian linen. “I’m allergic to wool. I can never wear anything nice.”
Under the cavernous, vaulted ceiling of a mountain mansion, where the driveway was heated, an indoor stream trickled and a string of faux llamas stood guard on the stone staircase, Woodard sipped a spoonful of vegan cream of vegetable soup served by celebrity chef Cat Cora. Nearby, Marti Noxon, one of the creators of the Lifetime series "Unreal," talked about her feature film debut, “To the Bone,” which would sell the next day to Netflix for a reported $8 million.
Here at the home of ChefDance CEO and founder Mimi Kim, Woodard, Shirley MacLaine, Elle Fanning and Jill Soloway were just part of a formidable group gathered during the Sundance Festival for a lunch to celebrate women in film.
Cindi Leive, editor in chief of Glamour, explained how the magazine had partnered with photographer and talk-show host Amanda de Cadenet’s Girlgaze, a digital initiative for women behind the camera. They wanted to explore how they could support women filmmakers through their respective platforms.
But while these types of occasions present plenty of moments for business-card trading and jealousy-inducing Instagram photos, the open discussions usually stick to polite words of encouragement and empowerment stories.
In that spirit, the idea of mentorships for up-and-coming women in the industry was floated by De Cadenet. Director Kimberly Peirce spoke about how it was important not to stray from female pleasure on-screen and told a story about how the MPAA took issue with a female orgasm that lasted too long in her film “Boys Don’t Cry.”
Then the conversation shifted to our new president.
“My feeling,” said Salma Hayek, “is that we are about to go to war.”
By the time the Sundance Film Festival came to a close Saturday night, it was clear that there had been no 2017 equivalent of “The Birth of a Nation” at the festival this year — no cinematic sensation that swooped in from nowhere to dominate the prizes, score the biggest acquisition deal and promise the industry a badly needed diversity makeover. (Happily, this year’s Academy Award nominations have spared us a three-quel to #OscarsSoWhite.)
If anything, a certain amount of caution could be detected on the part of distributors, journalists and even filmmakers, as though everyone in attendance were trying to avoid the trap of self-importance in a year when real-world matters — from President Trump’s inauguration and the women’s march to reports of a cyber attack on the festival — provided more than their fair share of off-screen drama.
Which is not to suggest that the films unveiled over 10 days in Park City, Utah, were somehow disappointing, or not up to the challenge of speaking to our politically fraught moment. Far from it. There were, as usual, movies about fractious racial divisions, including “Mudbound,” Dee Rees’ symphonic, superbly acted drama about two Mississippi families — one white, one black — struggling to survive in the shadow of World War II.
Less widely seen, although it won the audience award in the festival’s Next sidebar (devoted to innovative, low-budget work), was Justin Chon’s “Gook,” a raucous, bittersweet comedy set during the Los Angeles riots in April 1992. Shot in black-and-white, the movie both explores and sneakily subverts the fractious relations between Korean and African Americans during that tumultuous chapter.
Last year’s Sundance Film Festival saw two of the priciest deals in the history of this gathering: Fox Searchlight’s record-breaking $17.5 million for “The Birth of a Nation” and Amazon/Roadside’s not quite as Brinks-busting $10 million for “Manchester by the Sea.”
Those films wound up with two, well, very different commercial fates. As much as dollars can be an indicator of a film’s value, they’re hardly an ironclad guarantee of success. Too many other factors can enter the picture between the January frenzy in the mountains and the fall derby into which many of these films will enter.
Judging by the totals in Park City this year, buyers are feeling optimistic. Very optimistic. Whether it’s traditional players like Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics, newer movers-and-shakers such as Amazon and Netflix or even upstarts like Neon and FilmRise, wallets have been opening up over the last week at Sundance. As of Friday, a whopping eight movies have gone for at least $5 million as the quantity of buyers (and, depending on whom you ask, the quality of movies) has sent dollar amounts skyward.
Which movies went for the biggest totals? And which have the best chance of repeating “Manchester’s” box office and awards feats? We break down those eight big deals and handicap how they’ll pan out — or at least what studios will need to do to give them the best shot of succeeding.
A Sundance Film Festival that was colored, gripped and sometimes overshadowed by the early days of the Donald Trump administration saw a slew of feminist films win big at the gathering's awards. Multiple female filmmakers nabbed top prizes, while a tale of a woman reasserting control over her life scored the festival's highest honor.
Macon Blair's "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore," in which Melanie Lynskey plays an ordinary woman who becomes empowered as a detective-avenger after she is robbed, won the U.S. grand jury prize in the dramatic category. To its fans, the genre-tinged film, which Netflix will release next month, serves as a tonic to the perceived anti-female policies of the Trump administration.
And Eliza Hittman's gay coming-of-age story "Beach Rats" won the directing award for the U.S. dramatic section -- ensuring that a gathering that began with a march down this city's Main Street championing feminist values closed out with the same motif.
"There's nothing more taboo in this country than a woman with ambition," Hittman said in her acceptance speech. "I'm going to work my way through a system that's completely discriminatory toward women. Hollywood, I'm coming for you," she finished to loud cheers.
The scariest film to come out of Sundance arrived the Monday after Donald Trump took office, when comedian Jordan Peele (“Key and Peele,” Keanu”) unveiled a secret screening of his upcoming horror film “Get Out.”
Peele, known for satirizing America’s social landscape as one half of the sketch-comedy duo Key & Peele, makes his directorial debut with the tale of an African American man (“Black Mirror”’s Daniel Kaluuya) heading upstate to meet his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time.
It's not their interracial romance that's the problem, but how the seemingly open-minded people in her hometown react: The rich old white folks eager to compliment Chris's physicality, ponder his sexual prowess, make sure to tell him how much they admire Tiger Woods.
Chris is relieved, then, to meet other black people around town – but can't put his finger on why they act so oddly happy to live in subservience, disquieting grins stretched across their faces.
It’s “The Stepford Wives” for a micro-aggressive 2017 America in which racism still lurks beneath a progressive smile, ignorant to its own existence.
The film, which Universal releases nationwide on Feb. 24, premiered at Sundance on the heels of Trump's first few days in the White House as the anxieties of the nation's minorities were exacerbated by fears of what's to come. It couldn't feel more timely.
“It was important to me for this movie not to be about this black guy going to the South, to a red state, where the presumption for a lot of people is that everybody’s racist there,” Peele told the audience. “This was really meant to take a stab at the liberal elite that tends to believe that they’re – we’re – above these things.”
The cast (including Lakeith Stanfield, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford and Lil Rel Howery) is sharp, and so is the unblinking racial satire seeded in darkly humorous moments that ring acutely, awkwardly true – like when Chris tempers his initial trepidation as Rose (Allison Williams) insists that her affluent liberal parents are far from racist because, after all, her dad “would vote for Obama for a third term if he could!”
Among the sold-out midnight crowd was an enthusiastic Patton Oswalt, who stood up during the post-screening Q&A to tell Peele that the film, produced by "The Purge" and "Split" horror maven Jason Blum, was brilliant.
Also reportedly spotted in the late-night audience: Former first daughter Malia Obama, who made the most of her trip to Sundance (and readied for her upcoming internship with film mogul Harvey Weinstein) not by partying her way through Park City but by actually watching films.
Her reported presence at “Get Out” made those President Obama references ring louder, but also underscored the prescient timing of its release.
Premiering at Sundance two days after the world witnessed a historic show of solidarity by women and minorities united against Trump’s proposed policies, “Get Out” is a mildly gory, crowd-pleasing ride with a pointed provocation for its mass audience: If you think racism no longer exists, look more closely.
Peele got the idea over eight years ago while watching division erupt in liberal circles as Hillary Clinton and Obama faced off in the primaries for the Democratic nomination.
“All of a sudden the country was focused for a second on the black civil rights and women’s civil rights movements and where they intersect, and there was this question of, ‘Who deserves to be president more? Who’s waited long enough?’ Of course, it’s an absurd thing that civil rights are even divided. It should be one civil right," Peele said.
“For while when we had a black president, we were living in this post-racial lie,” he added. “The idea of, ‘We’re past it – we’re past it all!’ For me, and for many people out there – as all black people know – there’s racism. I experience it on an everyday basis. This movie was meant to reveal that there’s this monster of racism lurking underneath some of these seemingly innocent conversations and situations.”
Rose Troche says she came out three times in her life: first as a Puerto Rican, next as an artist and finally as a gay person.
“By the time I came out as gay, it was like, ‘Oh, this old thing?’” jokes Troche, the child of immigrant parents who grew up hiding her minority identity on multiple levels in a tough Chicago neighborhood during the 1960s and ’70s.
Relaxing on a couch in a Hollywood Hills chalet, she explains how she’s in the midst of a fourth coming-out of sorts. As a writer and director on the vanguard of virtual reality, she’s trying to articulate that her latest form of art isn’t filmmaking.
It’s a tricky but important sticking point for the celebrated indie filmmaker, whose virtual reality project “If Not Love” premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival’s experimental New Frontier arts and media exhibition.
Since 2012, New Frontier has showcased the film world’s bold and exciting steps into the VR space. Troche, who has exhibited three pieces at New Frontier since 2014, is searching for fresh language to describe that entrance.
“I’m advocating for a whole new set of words so that we stop calling it ‘cinema,’” she says. “This needs to exist as what it is and not be put into a funnel of what is a beautiful and amazing medium, but it’s not the same thing.”
Troche would know. She carved out a career for herself in film after her 1994 feature debut, the lesbian romantic comedy “Go Fish,” became a cult hit. Made for $15,000, the film grossed more than $2.4 million at the box office thanks to a string of awards and a nomination for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
I do pieces that take you to places that you don’t want to go, and I don’t want to take you to those places on a whim or in a cavalier way.
Film gave way to a decade spent building commercial success in television, most notably as the co-executive producer of the lesbian drama “The L Word.” But a history of social activism and a desire for a new artistic challenge drove Troche to create VR work.
Three out of four of her pieces have dealt with difficult subjects. “Perspective Chapter 1: The Party” was a first-person exploration of date rape from the point of view of both the survivor and the assailant. “Perspective Chapter 2: The Misdemeanor” told the story of a police shooting from the perspective of a policeman and a young black man being shot.
The new work, “If Not Love,” is a short piece that takes the viewer on a painful, 360-degree journey through a mass shooting at a gay nightclub. “If Not Love” isn’t intended to re-create last year’s Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Fla., but the project was inspired by that incident as well as by the tragedy in Nice, France, when a truck plowed through a crowd at a Bastille Day celebration.
In both cases, Troche wondered if anything could have been done to stop the violence.
“If Not Love” explores that thought by following the story of a closeted gay man who, after an anonymous hookup, decides to carry out a shooting at a nightclub. The piece presents an alternate scenario where, instead of letting him leave after sex, the man’s partner asks him to stay. The two men kiss and hold each other, while back at the nightclub the bodies on the ground suddenly rise up in reverse of the falls they took in the shooting.
The idea, which Troche admits is perhaps naively simplistic, is that a single act of love just might save someone from himself. She felt VR would be the most effective medium to get her idea across because of its immediacy.
“This form allows you a shortness of story, but in a more immersive way,” Troche says. “I do pieces that take you to places that you don’t want to go, and I don’t want to take you to those places on a whim or in a cavalier way. I wouldn’t want you to be immersed in this for more than seven minutes.”
If this isn’t film, what is it? You watch it like film, only through a special headset. And the watching is active, instead of inactive. VR encourages you to move around — to look up, down, right and left. If you turn completely around during the scene in “If Not Love,” when the shooter is leaving after his secret tryst, for example, you will see a child’s car seat.
With VR, Troche says, “we are relearning how to watch. It’s teaching us how to view things differently, and to be more intuitive viewers.”
New Frontier curator Shari Frilot says she has invited Troche to exhibit year after year because of her “ability to emotionally penetrate the limits of the intellect … in ways that are powerful, familiar and accessible.”
“She continues to stand out as a storyteller in this field who is doing something unique around combining classic aspects of filmmaking — character, performance, story structure — with the embodied power of this immersive medium in ways that continue to push this field forward,” says Frilot, who has seen New Frontier grow exponentially since its inception in 2007 as a fledgling space at the intersection of art, filmmaking and technology.
Troche believes that VR will claim its rightful place in the pantheon of future media arts when its makers learn to create strong narratives with powerhouse performances. Three years ago, she says, it was popular to say narrative couldn’t be done in VR. This has been proven false, but to date she doesn’t feel the accomplishment has been properly achieved.
“It’s really important to me to test the parameters of how to create sustainable narratives in VR,” Troche says, adding that the sooner a cohesive language to describe it emerges, including critics who understand and employ that language, the sooner that feat will be accomplished.
Actors, too, will need to relearn their craft if VR is to flourish. Actors are never off camera in a 360-degree film, unless they physically leave the room. It’s almost like being in a play, only, unlike with theater, actors in VR need to understate everything. The more they project in VR, the more false they look.
Troche’s next step into the narrative realm is a 30-minute VR comedy series called “LGBTQIA,” which she describes as “The Bad News Bears” of gay comedy.
“I’m trying to find the strengths of VR and what it has to offer,” she says.
“I watched the film ‘Blue’ alone in a movie theater, and I remember being in the space and bubble and world of it. I think VR has the potential to put viewers back in that space in a whole new way.”
It’s a common feeling, being the odd one out. Writer Mike White seems to have made a career of it, assaying oddballs and misfits and the indignation, righteous and otherwise, that can follow with them. His ongoing on-and-off collaboration with director Miguel Arteta includes the films “Chuck & Buck” and “The Good Girl,” both of which premiered at Sundance, the television show “Enlightened” and now the new movie “Beatriz at Dinner.”
In “Beatriz at Dinner,” which is playing as part of the Premieres section at the festival, White and Arteta again update their exploration of feeling out of place. Salma Hayek plays a masseuse and spiritual healer in Los Angeles who, after her car breaks down, is invited to stay at her client’s mansion for a dinner party. When one of the guests turns out to be a mega-wealthy, celebrity real estate developer (sound familiar?), two very different worldviews come into contact and conflict.
Hayek’s Beatriz is quiet and watchful while John Lithgow’s performance as the developer is powerful and brash, as both bring an undercurrent of earnestness that avoids tipping into caricature. Connie Britton, David Warshofsky, Chloë Sevigny, Amy Landecker, John Early and Jay Duplass fill out the cast.
The film is by turns wounded and confused, virtuous and angry. Even though it was begun well before the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, the film still has a reeling, decentered emotional core that makes it feel extremely current.
He started playing at age 2½ and had his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra when he was 10. So when film director Stefan Avalos says “I’ve never not known the violin,” he is not being hyperbolic.
But even Avalos had never met anyone like Danny Houck, the violin-obsessed subject of his irresistible, way-stranger-than-fiction documentary “Strad Style,” which screened this week at Sundance’s crosstown rival, Slamdance.
An eccentric loner living on next to no money in a rundown farmhouse in Laurelville, Ohio, Houck lives and breathes the violin. “His knowledge is encyclopedic, he will tell you things you never knew,” says Avalos. “He is absolutely obsessed and immersed in the thing.”
More than that, Houck somehow contrives to build violins as well. And when he agreed to make an exact copy of Guarneri’s Il Cannone (the great Paganini’s instrument and one of the most famous violins ever made) for a rising European star, a personal and professional journey that almost defies belief began.
Avalos, who eventually transferred allegiance from music to movies, was contemplating something else entirely when Houck crossed his path. “I had been working for two years on a wide-ranging documentary about the obsession people had with the great violins, about the makers, the players, the collectors and the thieves,” he says.
“I heard through the grapevine, from a player at the Columbus Symphony,” Avalos continues, “about a guy who lived in the middle of nowhere and was really obsessed with making violins. I thought he would make an amusing five-minute bit in my film.”
It’s become something of a film festival truism that certain movies play better at high altitudes. Exhibit A would probably be “The Blair Witch Project,” which took Sundance by storm in 1999 and generated tremendous word-of-mouth buzz, but was widely considered a disappointment by those who flocked to see it in theaters. As the conventional wisdom goes, the movie’s lost-in-the-woods premise played like gangbusters in chilly, secluded Park City, Utah, in a way that it simply couldn’t replicate closer to sea level.
Which is not to suggest that films featuring frigid forest settings have some sort of Sundance advantage. The reverse, in fact, can also be true. For viewers experiencing the frost fatigue that always sets in mid-festival, a movie set over the course of, say, a long, hot summer in Italy — where young people lie about in the sun, imbibing fresh-squeezed fruit juice and the sight of each other’s beautiful bodies — might be just the thing to take the edge off that Park City chill.
And so it was excellent meteorological counterprogramming that the festival chose one of its coldest, snowiest days so far to unveil Luca Guadagnino’s intoxicatingly al fresco new movie, “Call Me by Your Name.” Adapted from André Aciman’s novel about a teenager’s summer of love in the 1980s, the film has all the wild beauty and simmering erotic languor we’ve come to expect from the director of “I Am Love” and “A Bigger Splash,” both of which followed characters looking for love in all the wrong (but fabulously beautiful and luxurious) places.