Today is the opening of the 30th edition of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. And if Sundance does anything well, it’s both discovering and fostering incredible talent. They have consistently premiered some of the best American independent films over the last three decades and will hopefully continue to do so. I’ve compiled a shortlist of some American filmmakers who are returning this year with new features and shorts.
There is going to be some talent at the fest this year with Richard Linklater debuting his long gestating 12-year film project Boyhood. People haven’t been this excited about him since he premiered Slacker and Before Sunrise so many years ago. There’s also the new documentary called Life Itself about Roger Ebert, by acclaimed Sundance alum and filmmaker Steve James who also premiered the game changing Hoop Dreams back in 1994. Greg Araki’s back with White Bird in a Blizzard after screening a number of his films in Park City. Ira Sachs has also returned two years after his powerful Keep the Lights On with Love Is Strange. Jim Jarmusch is showing his darker side with his new vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive. He’s premiered many films here, but they helped break him on the scene with his debut Stranger Than Paradise back in 1985. They're also showing Zach Braff's latest film Wish I Was Here. Not many of these are online, but below is a selection of returning filmmakers' short films that made waves at Sundance.
Aisle Six by David Wain
David Wain is one of the founder’s of the incredible MTV sketch comedy show The State, who later went on to direct the classic Wet Hot American Summer, along with a handful of mediocre comedies like Wanderlust, Role Models, and The Ten. He’s done more TV work including Stella and Adult Swim’s Children’s Hospital, but neither are as good as his early stuff. I’ve got hope for his new Sundance feature titled They Came Together, which sounds like a You’ve Got Mail rip off starring Paul Rudd, Michael Shannon, Amy Poehler, and the prettyish woman from How I Met Your Mother. Regardless, back in 1991 while he was still a student, he made a film about a bunch of high schoolers obsessed with plumbing. If you were into football you were an outcast, but nothing was as bad as what laid in aisle six at the hardware store. It’s a beautifully bizarre take on high school cliques, peer pressure, and the frivolity of life.
By Modern Measure by Matthew Lessner
Back for the third time with the new short Chapel Perilous, Matthew is definitely a filmmaker to watch out for. He was here in 2011 with his feature The Woods and again with 2006’s By Modern Measure. He doesn’t make movies like anyone else and even though he’s American, he hates on it with this playful, yet biting commentary about American youth through the lens of a French sociologist. It’s black and white, French new-wavey, and the whole feel of it is so genuinely pretentious that it just kind of works because you’d feel pretentious for not liking it.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes on by Dean Fleischer-Camp
I don’t know if I even need to bother with highlighting this film again since it’s already a Youtube classic, but I can’t steer away from posting about comedian/actress Jenny Slate, who voices the shell. Their new web-series Catherine is totally disturbing because you HAVE to keep watching it. It literally goes nowhere and it’s all the better for it. I think that’s the joke. That they’re laughing at you. You can share it with others and then you’re in on the joke. You can watch it online here or waste a ton of money flying out to Sundance.
Song of the Spindle by Drew Christie
Drew does animations for the New York Times op-ed columns sometimes. He did one this past year called Allergy to Originality that’s now playing at Sundance, even though it has technically been online for seven months. Drew’s short films are all talky and so is Song of the Spindle. They’re contemporary essay animations on shit that’s wrong with us. They’re worth watching and I like his animation most of the time, but mostly I just can't bring myself to care about his films. They’re like NPR short films. If that gets you through, then get at it.
These next two are kind of cheats, but they’re good Sundance flicks anyway.
Bottle Rocket by Wes Anderson
Sundance is doing something this year called Free Fail Film, which is supposedly celebrating failure. I think it’s stupid, because the films they’re talking about are still ultimately successes. One of them is Bottle Rocket, the first feature film by a little known director named Wes Anderson. Sundance does whatever they want, but they screened Wes’s original short film version of Bottle Rocket way back in 1994. You have to give them some credit for that.
Dock Ellis & the LSD No-No by James Blagden
So Dock Ellis is dead and James Blagden doesn’t have another film in the festival, but there’s a new feature-length documentary premiering called No No: A Dockumentary about Dock Ellis’s life, so Dock is the repeat. It counts! Jeffrey Radice made this posthumous doc about Ellis with a bunch of his friends, teammates, family members, and a hefty amount of archive footage. Even if the film sucks, it still has Dock being one unique dude and that’s worth it. Or just get your fix on the fabulous tale of him pitching a no-hitter in 1970 on LSD. It’s magic.
PS - Jordan Vogt-Roberts also made a new film that’s at Sundance this year. It’s a feature length documentary about Nick Offerman ingeniously titled Nick Offerman: American Ham. Maybe it’s good, but I’m sticking with Successful Alcoholics, a short film of his I wrote about a while back. Check it out here.
PPS - The Zellner Brothers are premiering their new feature Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter in competition at the festival. It's their first feature in the fest after numerous short films. One of which I covered in this column.
Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as an art and film curator. He is a programmer at the Hamptons International Film Festival and screens for the Tribeca Film Festival. He also self-publishes a super fancy mixed-media art serial called PRISM index.
Previously - I'm Short, Not Stupid Presents: 'I Am John Wayne'