Five Ways to Do Sundance from Home

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The Sundance Film Festival kicks off today in Park City, Utah, welcoming a crush of filmmakers, industry types, cinephiles, critics, paparazzi, and gift-bag hoarders for eleven days of film fun in the freezing cold. This year, Sundance will present 118 feature-length films, representing 29 countries by 40 first-time filmmakers. You’ll hear all about them in the days to come — the big premieres, the star Q&As, the breakouts, the flame-outs, the high dollar distribution deals. You might even hear about some good films! (Maybe.)

But most of us can only look over the slate longingly and leave it at that. This year and forevermore, we will never have the actual Sundance experience, for a variety of reasons: day jobs that get suspicious if you call in sick for eleven days in a row, pricey airline tickets, pricey festival passes, pricier accommodations (hotel rooms will run you at least a grand a night). Without a pretty healthy expense account, most of us are probably stuck having the Sundance experience in our living room.

Then again, what’s so bad about that? As of this Thursday morning writing, the temperature in Park City is literally one degree. 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit, to be precise. Who the hell needs that? Trudging around in a foot of snow and one-degree temperatures to watch some three-hour black-and-white peon to Iranian goat herders before getting turned away at a bar that’s been taken over by Paris Hilton’s entourage? Blech.

And in that spirit, here are five ways to do Sundance from home.

1. Watch this year’s entries for like six bucks.

Five of this year’s entries are premiering on-demand on the same damn day that they debut at the festival. The program is called “Sundance Selects,” and if you’re one of the 40 million homes that can get at them (Comcast, Cablevision, Cox, and Time Warner Cable are all on-board), you’ll find them on your movies-on-demand channel. We’ve seen two, and they’re both terrific. Uncle Kent is the latest from Joe Swanberg, director of low-fi (okay, fine, “mumblecore”) favorites like Hannah Takes the Stairs, Kissing on the Mouth, and LOL; it’s a slight but penetrating character sketch, odd and uniquely funny, and the casualness of its attitudes towards sexuality in the Internet age are near-revelatory. Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton’s extraordinary These Amazing Shadows sounds, by description, frightfully dull: it is a documentary profile of the history and preservation efforts of the National Film Registry. But it’s less about film preservation than appreciation; it’s about the act of watching a film, the experience, the feeling, the pleasure — and what better place than a film festival for that? Also available on-demand is the World Cinema Dramatic Competition entry Mad Bastards, the Park City at Midnight selection Septien, and Kaboom, the latest from bad boy Gregg Araki.

2. Hit Netflix for the festival’s greatest hits.

Hey, do you have Playstation or a Blu-ray or one of those fancy Ruckus boxes or whatever it is that the kids are watching these days? Or maybe you’ve got your computer jerry-rigged to your television? Or maybe you just one of those weirdos who likes watching movies on a tiny laptop screen or an even tinier telephone-like device? Point is, you may very well have Netflix Instant somewhere in your life, and they’ve got many of the movies that broke out of Sundance and made it the “if my movie doesn’t get accepted there, I’m never getting out of this Burger King in Walla Walla, Washington” destination for every wannabe filmmaker in America. So take your pick from these Sundance alums: Slacker, Roger & Me, Me and You and Everyone We Know,The Cove, Precious, Restrepo, Hoop Dreams, Super Size Me, Man on Wire, Gas Food Lodging, No End in Sight, Metropolitan, and Capturing the Friedmans.

3. Give a second chance to some of Sundance’s flops.

As we realized last week, big buzz in Park City doesn’t always guarantee a big splash outside of it; for every Reservoir Dogs, there’s a Grace Is Gone. But let’s not presume that eventual box office says anything about quality; several of Sundance’s less-successful alumni are quite good, thank you very much. As many commenters noted, Son of Rambow is just plain charming; another drew our attention to 2004 Grand Jury Award winner Primer, a brilliantly inventive (and ingeniously low-budget) slab of low-fi sci-fi. Hamlet 2 may have tanked with audiences, but it is laugh-out-loud hysterical, and good luck getting the immortal “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” out of your head. Choke, though uneven, has some huge laughs and brilliant performances by Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, and Community‘s Gillian Jacobs. Even Happy, Texas has its defenders (as any film with both Steve Zahn and William H. Macy should).

4. Check out Sundance’s ill-advised rejections.

Earlier this week, we took a look at some films that Sundance gave the thumbs-down, but which somehow (SOMEHOW!) garnered success and accolades anyway. What better time than now to second-guess the Sundance selection committee? First of all, we’ll never pass up an excuse to watch Swingers again, particularly now that Vince Vaughn’s filmography has become so, um, spotty. Kurt and Courtney holds up nicely, particularly now that Courtney Love has gone so far off the deep end; The Daytrippers is more than worthy of a second look, considering how much great stuff director Greg Mottola has done since its Slamdance playdate. Speaking of which: with all the Dark Knight Rises casting news floating around, check out Christopher Nolan’s moody debut feature Following, which played at Slamdance ’99.

5. Read a book, whiz kid.

The always entertaining Peter Biskind followed up his ’70s cinema tome Easy Riders, Raging Bulls with 2004’s Down and Dirty Pictures, an exposé of the simultaneous rise of Sundance and Miramax; it’s gossipy, unreliable, mean-spirited, and you absolutely cannot put it down. Sharon Waxman’s Rebels on the Backlot is no less juicy; she profiles six of the hottest filmmakers of the 1990s (including Sundance alums Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, and David O. Russel), with plenty of behind-the-scenes dirt. James Mottram’s The Sundance Kids covers much of the same territory, but with a bit more interest in what the filmmakers put on screen than what they did off of it. And LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan’s Sundance to Sarajevo: Film Festival and the World They Made examines several festivals — including Sundance — from both a historical and logistical point of view.

So those are our suggestions — but we’re open to more. How will you spend your Sundance week?