My Year of Film Festivals: Looking Back at Sundance, SXSW, TIFF, and Fantastic Fest

by     Posted 2 years, 25 days ago

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I went to more film festivals this year than I ever had before.  I went to Sundance in January, SXSW in March, and TIFF and Fantastic Fest this month.  It’s exhausting, but it’s fun.  I see it as a nice break from the grind of delivering news stories.  It’s not that news is bad, or that it doesn’t have value, but it’s nice seeing the final product of the smaller films we’ve reported on since we probably only heard of them from a casting story as opposed to an onslaught of trailers and posters.  Obviously, there are film festivals where there are marquee titles making their last big push before opening in wide release (Sundance is the only festival where the biggest films—those filled with recognizable actors—might not even have distributors let alone a release date).  But it’s always a nice variety, and each festival has its own flavor.

After the jump hit the jump for my impressions of each festival.

Sundance

Best Film I Saw: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Worst Film I Saw: Lay the Favorite

beasts-of-the-southern-wild-posterThis was my second year at Sundance, and I’ve enjoyed it both years.   While there wasn’t a movie that blew me away on a first viewing like Martha Marcy May Marlene and Project Nim, there were still plenty of terrific flicks (and I should note that while I didn’t fall in love with Beasts of the Southern Wild on the first viewing, I adored it when I saw it again in theatrical release).  There were only two films I genuinely found unbearable, and oddly enough, they were the two movies I was the most excited for: Spike Lee‘s Red Hook Summer and Stephen FrearsLay the Favorite.  But having seen about 32 films at Sundance, 1 out of 16 isn’t a bad ratio.

I also love the atmosphere of Sundance.  Yes, it’s cold.  I can’t stand it when people complain how cold it is at Sundance.  We’re not in Siberia, and we’re not the ones shoveling the snow.  We’re the people in nice, cozy theaters discovering movies.  Bring a warm hat, coat, and gloves, and you’ll be alright.  Even waiting at the shuttle stops isn’t so bad because they have heat lamps and the shuttles run on a regular schedule.  I will note that I’m not interviewing the talent in Park City, so I can somewhat sympathize with the writers who have to trek up and down the streets to be on time for junkets.

But it’s great seeing how the whole city transforms and how many places become venues for Sundance movies.  A library gives up its auditorium, hotels use ballrooms, and it seems like just about every theater in town is working for the festival (the only one I haven’t been to is the Egyptian, and I really need to make an effort next year to check that one off my list).  I can only imagine what it’s like to be a resident of Park City when this madness happens.  I met some residents who volunteer, and I imagine that’s one of the few ways to get through it.

Let me say right now before I continue any further: all the volunteers at every festival I went to are incredible.  They are polite, knowledgeable, courteous, and essential.  The training they get must be top-notch, but even then, it comes down to an individual to still be friendly and smart, and they deserve every ounce of credit they receive and then some.

SXSW

Best Film I Saw: The Cabin in the Woods

Worst Film I Saw: The Sheik and I

cabin-in-the-woods-movie-posterThis was my first year going to SXSW, and my first time visiting Austin.  SXSW is kind of a madhouse because it’s three festivals in one.  There’s not only the film festival, but festivals for music and interactive entertainment as well.  However, the festivals overlap each other a bit, and the only time it really affected me was the one time I was waiting for a shuttle, and I saw shuttles for music and interactive constantly pass by.  I would later learn that one of the film shuttles had broken down.

Obviously, Austin is more spread out than Park City, so the shuttles aren’t quite as reliable, which in part is due to the amount of traffic.  In terms of congestion, I felt pretty much at home since I would put Austin at the same level as Atlanta*.  I rented a car, and parking was at a premium.  But it’s one of those things where you have to shrug, and then see if you can plan out the films you want to see and make sure they’re in close proximity to each other.  If you get a good parking spot, you don’t want to give it up.

As far as the films went, it was a nice mix with a slight edge towards genre fare.  There were marquee titles like The Cabin in the Woods, but there were also movies that had played at Sundance, so I got a second chance to see flicks like Sleepwalk with Me.  It’s interesting seeing how a Sundance film, which has a feel in terms of resting largely on performances without ever being too aggressive, mixes with the more unusual fare of SXSW.  To put it another way: a large amount of Sundance movies feel indie-distributor ready.  Even the midnight madness movies seem like they’ll quickly find a home.  When it comes to SXSW, I’m not sure some of these movies will ever find a distributor if they don’t have a bankable name in the cast.  While I would always wish for a filmmaker to find the widest audience possible, I can’t deny that it’s a little neat seeing a movie that may never find its way out of the festival circuit, because then the flick becomes precious.  Then again, it could be The Sheik and I, which I hope languishes in obscurity forever.

Toronto International Film Festival

Best Film I Saw: Cloud Atlas

Worst Film I Saw: No One Lives

cloud-atlas-final-posterTIFF is the king of the awards season festivals.  In terms of likely awards contenders, there was nothing at the Venice Film Festival or the Telluride Film Festival that you couldn’t get at TIFF.  The only bonus of Venice or Telluride was you’d get to see the movies a bit early and free up your schedule at TIFF, but that’s it.  Obviously, just because awards-season fare gets into TIFF, that doesn’t mean it will be good.  It just means a film is more likely to strike a chord with critics’ organizations and Hollywood guilds.

However, I did see plenty of good films of TIFF…in the first half.  Let me be clear that with TIFF, I’m speaking mainly as someone who attends press screenings.  Sundance has a pretty good balance of public-to-press screenings, and there are no press screenings at SXSW (my press badge just allows me to get in line with everyone else, which was another reason to rely on my own transportation rather than wait on shuttles).  Life as a critic at TIFF is so easy because all the press screenings are at the marvelous Scotiabank Theater.  It’s massive, the seats are comfortable, and all the movies are under one roof.  The public screenings are spread around the city, but they’re all nice venues.  Even the Ryerson auditorium, which is part of Ryerson University, has its charm even though the building doesn’t have the opulence of the Elgin Theatre or the Princess of Wales.  Additionally, transportation is easy because the subway system is terrific, although I have no idea why the tokens are so damn small.

No matter the venue, all of the really good films were in the first few days of TIFF.  In the first few days I saw Looper, Argo, Stories We Tell, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Place Beyond the Pines, Seven Psychopaths, The Master, Cloud Atlas, and Silver Linings Playbook.  Right off the bat, you’re probably going to be seeing Argo, The Master, and Silver Linings Playbook in the awards race (Place Beyond the Pines might be in the mix if it were being released this year instead of held to 2013).  But by the end of the festival, I was praying for a single good movie after having endured To the Wonder, Disconnect, The Paperboy, Passion, and No One Lives (At Any Price and Ghost Graduation were my reprieve).

It’s certainly nice getting a jump on the fall’s biggest films, but (and I don’t mean to complain about my job) I wish there was more room for discovery.  I want to make sure you know about the big movies coming out, but it’s always nice to be a champion of the smaller flicks.  It’s more of a gamble to what you’re getting, but it’s the excitement of the unknown.  Thankfully, I was almost always going in cold when it came to the line-up at Fantastic Fest.

Fantastic Fest

Best Film I Saw: Holy Motors

Worst Film I Saw: The Conspiracy

holy-motors-posterFor the movies at Fantastic Fest, I went in as blindly as possible.  Other than the movies I saw on opening night, I was armed with only a one-line description or a recommendation I read off of Twitter.  It was almost anti-Sundance and anti-TIFF in terms of the selection, although Wrong, Looper, and Dredd were still in the mix.  Yes, the marquee opener was Frankenweenie, but immediately after I went into Antiviral, and that’s a delightfully strange double-feature.  “Delightfully strange” would apply well to most of the selections.

I was still a bit exhausted after TIFF, so I was only pulling three movies a day as opposed to four.  Thankfully, all of the screenings are at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, so there wasn’t the challenge presented by SXSW (I’m also amazed that I was able to find a parking space every time).  If there was a downside, I basically undid months of exercise in the span of a few weeks between TIFF and Fantastic Fest.  Oh, sure.  You can preach to me about “personal responsibility”, but what am I supposed to do?  Not have a Z-Teca burrito?  Not have the Royale with Cheese?  Preposterous.

While I certainly took advantage of the Drafthouse’s menu, I didn’t really take advantage of what Fantastic Fest truly has to offer.  I approached it like I did the other three festivals: see movies, review movies.  Being at Fantastic Fest, I learned that to truly enjoy the festival, you have to go beyond the movies.  I missed out on karaoke, putt-putt, the debates/boxing matches, and other cool activities.  When I go back next year, I absolutely won’t make that mistake.

Closing Thoughts

If there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned in my brief summaries of the festivals I attended, it’s this: there’s a great sense of camaraderie.  I could walk up to any of my peers and strike up a conversation by asking, “So what have you seen?  What are you planning to see?”  It’s how recommendations spread virally and quickly.  A schedule can change in a moment as a trusted recommendation sends you scrambling to figure out how to squeeze in a film you hadn’t heard about or didn’t think would be good.

And of course, you can’t see it all.  There’s too much overlap, too few screenings, and not enough hours in a day.  Sometimes, you can even hurt yourself by going in too tired (I caused myself physical pain in order to stay awake during The Master and it had absolutely nothing to do with me being bored; it had everything to do with me getting four hours of crappy sleep the night before).  Festivals are a marathon, and we run them because we love movies.

In some ways, I have it easy since I don’t have to wait in huge lines unless I’m going to a public screening.  I also don’t pay for my badge or my travel or my lodgings (the site takes care of that), so I greatly admire non-press attendees.  Their badges and tickets aren’t cheap, and if they’re coming from out of town, airfare and lodging also takes a toll on the bank account.  But these attendees do it all because they love movies.  They’re taking the same chances I am, but standing in even longer lines.  I’ve had a blast attending film festivals this year, and I wrote a lot of reviews, but my commitment is nothing to the general public whose love of movies leaves me in awe.  Film festivals are for true fans of the medium.

*For those wondering why I didn’t attend the Atlanta Film Festival, I couldn’t go this year because due to personal reasons.  I plan to go next year.




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