So many films, so little time at Sundance

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 29, 2014

As the sun sets on Sunday, the final day of the Sundance Film Festival here at its heart in Park City, Utah, it makes more sense to tally the events one has missed, rather than the ones attended.

It is just a case of so many films, so little time. Even if one were to be here from Day One, on Jan 16, it would be hard to catch even a fraction of the 118 feature-length works on the schedule.

The variety on offer will overwhelm visitors, in spite of an awe-inspiring array of audience services provided by the organisers. There are free shuttle buses plying routes between the city's nine festival cinemas; high-spirited and friendly volunteers in bright blue down vests are in abundance, ushering visitors into halls and waiting at bus stops. Multi-purpose halls converted into temporary screening rooms use sound and video systems which beat many of Singapore's commercial cinemas.

And it is not just the premiering features making up the festival which impress, even if they take the spotlight. There is also a short film section, a retrospective of independent works which broke out over the festival's 30-year history, art exhibits, music performances and panel discussions.

Festival director John Cooper, 57, gave Life! a telephone interview a few weeks before the start of the event, and he argued that festivals cannot just be about "coming to see films".

"After every film, there is a question-and-answer session. We have lots of panels and music and parties," he said. It has also become the place for Americans in the film industry to have "family reunions", as he calls it.

Of the films I did manage to see, none was a dud. The numbers help to explain the high quality: Sundance programmers this year selected from more than 4,000 submitted features and 8,000 shorts.

A film I viewed which stands a good chance of being screened in Singapore is Whiplash, a drama about a teen jazz drummer (played by Miles Teller) swimming the dangerous shoals of his top music school while being mentored by a foul-mouthed and possibly deranged tutor (J.K. Simmons in a hotly discussed performance). It won two of the major awards, the grand jury prize and audience award in the US dramatic competition.

Another film I saw which is likely to come to Singapore screens is the spoof of romantic comedies They Came Together. Starring Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler, the uproariously funny satire comes from the minds of David Wain and Michael Showalter, the men behind the cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer (2001).

The post-show Q&A session, with Wain, Showalter, Rudd and Poehler present, was just as funny as the film. A question from a female audience member was deliberately misheard and turned into an unprintable sexual come-on, which Rudd readily agreed to perform.

If neither Whiplash nor They Came Together makes it to cinemas here, there is still a chance that they will be screened on Sundance Channel HD on mio TVChannels 401 and 402 (On Demand).

Another memorable moment came during a panel discussion last Friday, when film-maker Kevin Smith talked about how, in 1994, his ultra low-budget comedy Clerks, which had been rejected by other festivals, came to be screened at 1994's Sundance, an event which changed his life.

Smith's attendance at this year's festival, as well as a retrospective screening of Clerks, points to how, this year, there was no independent film featuring completely undiscovered talent which was the talk of the town.

The film du jour, Whiplash, for example uses Teller, who had starred in The Spectacular Now (2013) and Simmons, who played shouty editor J. Jonah Jameson in three Spiderman films (2002-2007). There was no movie with the same Cinderella quality as basketball documentary Hoop Dreams (1994) or Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992), two films which first got noticed at Sundance.

But, as the festival tents come down and the film-makers and audience go home, film-makers from all over the world are probably already planning their 2015 submissions. The overwhelming majority of them will get rejection letters. This selectiveness is why when film-makers say in their prize acceptance speeches that it is honour enough to be selected for Sundance, they probably mean it.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 29, 2014

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to