The Sundance Film Festival is back and online | Radio WGN 720

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Lights may be dim at the Eccles Theater and Park City’s Main Street will have fewer moviegoers packing the snowy sidewalks when the Sundance Film Festival kicks off its 44th annual Thursday night. But if 2021 has proven anything, it’s that the world’s premier independent film festival is more than its ski town.

This year, Sundance is back online and armed with nine days of high-profile documentaries on everyone from Kanye West and Princess Diana to Lucille Balland Bill Cosby, buzzing debut films from knowns and unknowns, from virtual gatherings and Q&As from filmmakers. The festival had planned to return to the mountains this year, but two weeks before thousands of people gathered in Park City, Utah, organizers decided to pivot instead of canceling or postponing, like many did it in the middle of the omicron wave.

The 2021 experience taught programmers that not only could they run a successful online festival, but movies could still break through even when filmmakers, audiences, buyers, sellers and press weren’t all in. same physical location. Several movies that premiered last year are in the awards conversation (from “Summer of Soul” to “Passing”). The festival also boasted a record acquisition (Apple TV+ paid $25 million for the comforting “CODA”). The price was at least partially fueled by streamers who needed new entertainment – ​​a demand that only intensified during the pandemic.

And this year, the festival lineup is stronger than ever, with dozens of conversation-stirring films.

Thursday’s opening night selections include “Emergency,” a darkly comedic look at issues such as race and assault, and Eva Longoria’s documentary “La Guerra Civil,” about the fight against Oscar De La Hoya and Julio César Chávez in 1996 and the identity questions it raised. for many Mexican Americans.

“This fight really divided the Mexican community in the United States,” Longoria said. “It divided households.”

For some, it’s a chance to make the buzz before the release. Kanye West’s docuseries “jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy” debuts at the festival before Part 1 hits Netflix on February 16 (with the other two parts coming over the next two weeks). The festival will also host the premiere of W. Kamau Bell’s “We Need to Talk About Cosby,” which will air later on Showtime, and the first part of “Phoenix Rising,” about Evan Rachel Wood’s journey to name his alleged abuser, Marilyn. Manson, ahead of its launch on HBO.

Some have already caused a stir at other festivals, such as Audrey Diwan’s ‘Happening’, a French drama about a student seeking an abortion in the 1960s which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

But most others are looking for a projector and cast. Sundance has always prided itself on being a festival of discovery and has helped relaunch many film careers, from Steven Sodebergh to Ryan Coogler.

“892,” from rookie filmmaker Abi Damaris Corbin, is based on the story of a former Marine who robs a bank. It’s one of the most prominent acquisition titles with John Boyega leading the way, with backing from the late Michael K. Williams. Boyega said he was in tears while reading the script.

“I just thought this story needed to be told,” Boyega said.

In another hit single, “Watcher”, Maika Monroe plays an American who has just moved to Romania and begins to suspect that she is being stalked. Director Chloe Okuno’s atmospheric thriller captures a familiar experience for women and counts films like “Lost in Translation” and “Perfect Blue” as stylistic influences.

“Sundance for a lot of independent filmmakers is the dream,” Okuno said. “That’s what you’re working towards.”

Others are eagerly awaiting sequels, like Lena Dunham’s “Sharp Stick” about a young woman in her twenties (Kristine Froseth) living in Los Angeles and Cooper Raiff’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” in which he plays alongside Dakota Johnson.

There are also plenty of debuts from household names, like Tig Notaro who alongside his wife Stephanie Allynne directs “AM I OK? about two best friends played by Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno. Ramin Bahrani has the documentary ‘2nd Chance,’ a lively and incisive look at the man who invented the modern body armor. And the screenwriter of ‘Carol “, Phillys Nagy, directs Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver in “Call Jane”, one of two films at the festival about the Jane Collective, an underground Chicago group that performed abortions in the early 1970s.

As always, pressing social issues are explored in multiple ways and can appear across genres, such as Krystin Ver Linden’s “Alice,” starring Keke Palmer as a female slave who discovers it’s actually 1973, and simpler documentaries, like Paula Eiselt and Tonya. “Aftershock” by Lewis Lee, a moving look at the maternal health crisis and its disproportionate impact on black women.

Some deals are already underway: Searchlight Pictures has acquired “Fresh,” a dating thriller starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Sebastian Stan, to stream on Hulu starting March 4.

Still, it’s a bittersweet moment for many, especially filmmakers early in their careers who have been looking forward to the energy of an in-person gathering.

“I think I was numb at first. Over the last few days I’ve started to feel it a bit more,” Okuno said. “Obviously, that’s very disappointing for any filmmaker. time, I completely understand.

One film, “Final Cut,” by “The Artist” director Michel Hazanavicius, even pulled out of the festival when it moved to the online format.

But Jackson learned last year that the festival can be just as rewarding online.

“There’s nothing virtual about the feelings of the filmmakers, the excitement of the audience, and the impact of the work,” Jackson said.

Although many individual films are already sold out, there are still plenty of options available for moviegoers and curious Sundance audiences for whom Park City was never an option. Jackson recommends the Explorer Pass, which she describes as a microcosm of the festival.

“Festivals allow us to elevate voices and perspectives that may not be what the market is looking for, but once the work is seen, the market expands to accommodate them, and that’s what we’ve seen throughout history,” Jackson said. . “Being there first and helping to support those voices, perspectives, and people who speak truth to power is what a ticket does: it’s an investment in that incredible freedom of creative expression.”

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