Hot Films, Hot Spots Pop-Up as 29th Sundance Film Festival Unspools at Park City, Utah

Every year just after Christmas, the worldwide film industry hits the pause button to go play in the snow, as the ski town of Park City, Utah, is transformed for 11-days into the annual Sundance Film Festival, this year running Jan. 17-21.

Of course, it’s much more than play. Millions of dollars are transacted, careers are made and broken, and movie trends are established that will resonate throughout the coming year and beyond. But more than just a film festival, Sundance has become a nexus where Hollywood celebrities, Silicon Valley moguls, international fashion models, rock stars, and, oh yes, indie filmmakers all rub shoulders.

Today, it’s hard to imagine that when movie star Robert Redford took over Utah/US Film Festival nearly three decades ago, and eventually re-branded it as “Sundance,” that once sleepy film event would become the cause celebre-ity of entertainment this time every year. Now, with Sundance’s evolution into a bona fide institution, it’s hard to imagine it not being around 30 years from now.


Cannes Film Festival has Old World gravitas, the Golden Globes and Oscars overflow with red carpet glamour, but the world now comes to Sundance to see the Next Big Thing in motion pictures.

For the next week, I’ll be your guide through as we sneak in front of the stage and behind the scenes to what’s kickin’ at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. We’ll cover the celebrities, the screenings, the parties, the gifting lounges and everything in between. Buckle your seat beat as we take a sleigh ride through the hottest event on the planet.


The film line-up at this year’s Sundance will be like none before if for no other reason than  half of the films are directed by women – at least those in the dramatic competition category. That’s a first and could be a bell-weather for the industry as a whole. (Imagine a time in the near future when Kathryn Bigelow will no longer be the odd woman out every year when the Oscar director nominations are announced.)


This 2013 festival has been distinguished in another way: Early buying. Some of the lowest-hanging fruits (films with commercial appeal) already has been picked. The festival’s closing night world premiere of “jOBS,” starring Ashton Kutcher, was snatched up last week by Open Road, which is owned by U.S. theater chains AMC and Regal. The film is about Apple founder Steve Jobs and could, at last, be the serious breakout dramatic role that Kutcher has been searching now for the better part of a decade.


Add to the pre-sold list HBO’s “The Crash Reel” by Lucy Walker and Fox Searchlight’s “Stoker,” starring Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman, by famed Korean director Chan-wook Park, making his English language debut. Still, there is plenty room for drama as distributors vie for what they hope will be the next “Beasts of the Southern Wild” or “Arbitrage” – two films from last year’s Sundance that went on to big profits and tons of accolades.

This year’s festival will feature 199 movies, 51 of them from first-time directors.

The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman

The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman


Among the most highly anticipated are Joseph Gordon Levitt’s directorial debut, “Don Jon’s Addiction,” starring Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore; first-time director John Krokidas’ “Kill Your Darlings,” starring Daniel Radcliffe as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (I can’t see that casting working, but that’s me) and costarring Ben Foster, Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Jason Leigh; “Austenland.” a romantic comedy with Keri Russell as a woman obsessed with Jane Austen (I swear we’ve seen this move before) and “The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman,” a genre-bending romantic adventure starring Shia LaBeouf and Evan Rachel Wood.


If Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg gives some of us pause, try this one on for size: Amanda Seyfried as notorious porn star Linda Lovelace in the eponymously titled “Lovelace,” (Gee, and Amanda was so sweet in Les Miz.)


Industry observers forecast rosy weather for two other dramas, both with a pronounced woman’s POV. “Two Mothers” is a story that takes “cougars” to new heights as best friends, played by Naomi Watts and Robin Wright, bed each other’s sons.  (A conservative Salt Lake City policy group already has condemned the film as too much Beasts of the Western Wild.) 


“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a psychological drama with shades of “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Sugarland Express” with Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck starring as an outlaw Texas couple.


Director Jeff Nichols follows-up with his breakthrough hit, “Take Shelter,” with the premiere of “Mud,” starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon. Actress-director Sarah Polley follows-up her much acclaimed “Away from Her” with “Stories We Tell.” Director Richard Linklater teams up again with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in “Before Midnight” to complete his romantic film trilogy begun in 1995 with “Before Sunrise.”


Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Maya Rudolph and Sam Rockwell lead the cast in “The Way, Way Back,” the directorial debut of actors Nat Faxon (“Ben and Kate”) and Jim Rash (“Community”), who are actually best known for writing the Oscar-winning screenplay for “The Descendants.” The film is about a teenager whose life changes when he spends his summer working with a bunch of lovable eccentrics at an amusement  park. (I’ll say it again: Haven’t we seen this story before, a la “Adventureland”?)

“Every great film starts with an idea, and it is a testament to artists that they continually find new ideas, new stories, new points of view and new ways of sharing them, year after year,” said Redford, upon the occasion of this year’s festival.

Ok, some of the ideas this year aren’t that new, but there are two films that truly promise to break new ground, and both have an element of the returning prodigal son to them. “Upstream Color” is described in the press notes as the story of a man and woman “entangled together in life cycle of an ageless organism.”


One might easily dismiss this as so much auteur poppycock except for the fact that the director-screenwriter is the enigmatic Shane Carruth, who splashed onto the cinematic scene with his directorial debut feature film “Primer,” a creepy, ingenious, micro-budget time-travel thriller that handily won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance nine years ago. Then, Carruth disappeared, until now. (I can’t wait to see what’s he’s been working on all these years.) 


Also keep your eyes peeled for “Rambler,” the debut feature from writer-director Calvin Lee Reed and produced by long-time Sundance habitué Roger C. Mayer. The film, a violent, surreal Western that insiders say is guaranteed to spin heads, is part of the Park City at  Midnight showcase, which specializes in outré, out-of-the-box and otherwise out-there films. Dermot Mulroney, who last visited the Sundance Film Festival 13 years ago, stars in the title role, although his character’s name is never identified in the picture. Proving when it rains, it pours (or when it snows, it blizzards?), Mulroney after his long absence from the festival will been seen in two other aforementioned Sundance films, “Stoker” and “jOBS.”

Among the films that promise to generate the most controversy are those in the documentary categories including “After Tiller” by directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson about the inside lives of four physicians – the only four remaining in the entire U.S. – that continue to perform late-term abortions; “Citizen Koch” by directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, a nod to Orson Wells’ “Citizen Kane” only their focus is on the very real, super-rich and rabidly conservative Koch billionaire brothers and how their use their wealth to influence American politics, and “Dirty Wars” by director Richard Rowley that promises to reveal the truth behind America’s covert wars.


You want controversy? You can’t handle controversy! But consider “Anita,” Freida Mock’s documentary about Anita Hill, the law professor who was at the core of the controversy over the confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas 20 years ago. It’s having its world premiere screening at Sundance– and guess who’s coming? All ears will be tuned to Ms. Hill when and if she participates in a post-screening audience Q&A.

Three other films deserve immediate mention, all with a wink and a nod to the animal kingdom. “The Moo Man,” a documentary by directors Andy Heathcote and Heike Bachelier, follows a year in the life of heroic farmer Steve and his relationship with Ida, the queen of the herd. Yes, that’s right. Ida is a cow, but a very special one. The supporting cast boasts 55 other bovines. Also, “Blackfish,” a documentary by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, profiles the notorious Tilikum, who is either the first-ever identified serial-killer killer whale or just one really pissed-off cetacean, and in either case is responsible for single-handedly (um, so to speak) dispatching with three Sea World trainers.

Finally, we give a shout out to a “Primate Cinema: Apes as Family,” a short  film by Rachel Mayeri, billed as “the world’s first narrative short film made for chimpanzees.” Indeed, it explores the relationship of primates, humans and entertainment, and prompts the existential question:  If cinema is a mirror for humanity, are we really so different from our primate ancestors?

I take it back, Mr. Redford. New ideas are alive and well at Sundance.


The running joke about Sundance is that there are so many great hosted parties, who has time to see the movies? But the truth is that not all events are created equal. A great party combines an element of celebrity and exclusivity (think velvet rope) combined with great food and drink.


Grey Goose Blue Door lounge in the heart of Park City’s charming Main Street does this very  well. The exclusive invite-only space occupies two floors with bars on each, serving bespoke cocktails like the Grey Goose Hot Apple Pie, served warm. (God bless America!).

During the festival, the lounge, which runs Friday to next Tuesday, revolves around a different Sundance film with private dinners and cocktails for the casts and special guests. (Watch for our live report via Twitter from Saturday’s dinner hosted by Matthew McConaughey in support of his Sundance film,“Mud.”)

At MorningStar Farms presents ChefDance, now in its 10th year, world-renowned celebrity chefs create gourmet cuisine for an eclectic mix of guests that include cast and crews of some of the festival’s top films. In the spotlight – and kitchen – this year are chefs Whitney Miller (Winner of Master Chef), Javier Plascendia (Tijuana restaurant), Shawn Armstrong (Montage restaurant), Marcel Vigneron (Next Rion Chef / Top Chef) and Shawn McClain, cooking all tasty Morningstar meatless varieties for Monday’s soiree in support of the Meatless Monday Movement.

The food is both exclusive and fun with the chefs tasked with creating at least some dishes with MorningStar Farms veggie meatless products. (I can’t wait to see what I can do with the Tomato & Basil Pizza Burgers getting frostbite in my freezer.)

Sundance is known for seamlessly mixing nonprofit causes with celebrity-studded parties. Who says you can’t have fun and learn something at the same time? In this category is Monday’s party presented by 10×10 and hosted by Intel at The Shop, celebrating “Girl Rising,” the film at the heart of a global action campaign for girls’ education and featuring the vocal performances of Cate Blanchett,
Priyanka Chopra, Selena Gomez, Anne Hathaway,
Salma Hayek, Alicia Keys, Meryl Streep,
and Kerry Washington. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Richard E. Robbins directed the documentary.


Where film celebrities gather, internationally famous DJs follow. Sundance has become a virtual Who’s Who of auteur spinners, who bring their respective houses down every night during the festival.

TAO Group will return to Sundance to recreate an underground club at Village at the Lift. Joining forces with Stella Artois and Marquee, TAO will warm up the dance floor of this exclusive and popular nightclub with live sets from Nas, Samantha Ronson, DJ Vice, DJ Politik, Jonny Lennon, DJ Jesse Marco, DJ Sinatra, DJ Theory and Julian Cavin.

The celebrated nightlife venues of Wynn Las Vegas will present a schedule of electronic dance music at Park City Live (formerly Harry O’s) during the festival. Fresh off the announcement of a monumental exclusive residency roster, Encore Beach Club, Surrender, Tryst and XS nightclubs will tap into their DJ talent pool and to present an electronica lineup extravaganza. or

Sundance has become a  premier venue to showcase the latest in consumer gadgets, sports apparel and other products. Its famed “gifting lounges” started a trend in experiential marketing where potential buyers get to “encounter” their favorite brands in a decidedly nontraditional retail environment.

Verge magazine  is hosting their launch party in The Samsung Galaxy Lounge at the Village at the Lift during festival in honor of the “unfamous” – or at least no yet. In attendance will be the actors named to “The Verge List: Sundance 2013,” who the magazine has recognized as the new generation of talent to keep an eye on in the upcoming year.

Select VIP guest attendees will be gifted Samsung Galaxy devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Note® II and Galaxy Note® 10.1 and the Galaxy Camera™ to document their experience at the party and create a photo diary. Sponsors include Samsung Galaxy, UGG Australia, MAC Cosmetics and Stella Artois.

Innovation Gallery, sponsored by Adidas Outdoor, celebrates the close connection between the outdoors and independent film with filmmakers, celebrities, media and industry. Sundance attendees will frolic in a mini-version of the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market trade show taking place in nearby Salt Lake City, all the while absorbing the spirit of the outdoors and noting its pivotal role in independent film. (Who knew?)

Zen Den is the brainchild of multi-hyphenate Skye Kelly, founder of both Heal One World and the Awareness FilmFestival, a filmmaker herself  and a certified practitioner of cranial-sacral, zero balancing, lymphatic drainage therapies. The lounge promises to provide nothing less than a refuge for participants to maintain their sense of balance and well-being. (My feet have already made an appointment.)

Bioxideausa’s anti-aging specialists were just at the Golden Globes beautifying the skin of Hollywood celebrities. They continue their “Mask Away the Years” tour at Sundance, setting up shop at the Feinstein Style Lounge. Give them 10 minutes and they can take away 10 years. (In that case, I’m booking a half hour – pronto!)