The Sundance Film Festival began in 1978 as the Utah/United States Film Festival. It was held in Salt Lake City. By 1991, it was moved to Park City and renamed the Sundance Film Festival, developing a reputation for championing indie titles to box office success.
It is now, thanks to the patronage of actor and Utah resident Robert Redford, the largest independent cinema festival in the country. Only a bit over four hours from the Wood River Valley to Park City (on a clear day), the festival is a tremendous opportunity to see new movies before they are purchased for distribution. In addition, one might happen to see some bright luminary faces up close and revel in the party scene on Park City's hilly Main Street.
Yet Sun Valley is never far away either in distance or on screen.
In early 2006, the Sun Valley Center for the Arts presented "Outside the Loop Film Series" with Sundance-bound directors Terry Zwigoff and John O'Brien. In 2007, "Everything's Cool," produced by Hailey resident Chris Pilaro, screened at Sundance.
Sun Valley filmmakers Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders premiered several of their award-winning documentary films including "Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner" in 2006 and "Return With Honor" in 1999. Their daughter Jessica Sanders won the Sundance Special Jury prize for her documentary "After Innocence" in 2005.
This year, Hailey resident Tim Farley screened the feature film "Chronic Town," of which he was the executive producer. Directed by actor Tom Hines, the movie is set in Alaska, (Hines is a native son) and stars J.R. Bourne as a lonely taxi driver going through a rough patch in his life.
Among the other Sun Valley-associated folks at Sundance this year were Tom Hanks and his son Colin, whose movie "The Great Buck Howard" premiered at the festival. Hanks Sr. produced the charming movie and appears—in a bold casting move—as Colin Hank's non-Hollywood father. The film also stars Emily Blunt, and John Malkovich as a "mentalist" whose claim to fame is his purported 61 appearances on the Johnny Carson show.
Part-time Hailey resident Bruce Willis appeared in the new Barry Levinson film, "What Just Happened?" and "Assassination of a High School President," in which he appears as the campy and over-the-top Gulf War vet principal.
The 2008 Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic film was awarded to "Frozen River," directed by Courtney Hunt and produced by Heather Rae, a Cherokee filmmaker, who lives in Boise. The film tells the story of a desperate trailer mom and a Mohawk woman who team up to smuggle illegal immigrants—across the other border—into the United States from Canada. An adjunct professor at Boise State University, Rae is a member of the board for Treasure Valley Television in Boise and one of the founders of the regional True West Cinema Festival. Her documentary, "Trudell," about native poet and political activist John Trudell, showed at Sundance in 2005.
Some other highlights: "A Good Day to Be Black & Sexy" by recent film school grad Dennis Dortch, who credited his influences to Melvin Peebles and Fellini. When asked after the screening what his inspiration was, he quipped, "I wanted to see a lot of sexy black people on screen." He did an excellent job completing this mission. Before the festival was over, Magnolia Pictures purchased the movie's North American rights.
Other movies that were picked up include "Hamlet 2," "Choke," "Frozen River," "Baghead," "The Wackness" and "Ballast."
One of our favorites was the vivid and imaginative "Sleep Dealer," a sci-fi feature film with roots firmly planted in the dusty, dry ground of northern Mexico. Made by first-time director Alex Rivera, it won both the Waldo Scott Screenwriting Award and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for outstanding film focusing on science or technology. Rather than cross the border for good-paying jobs in the United States, workers instead head to Tijuana where in glum factories their energy and memory is harvested by connecting to nodes implanted in their bodies. With aspects of romance, and film noir, the film is wildly original.
"CSNY Déjà Vu" closed the festival Friday, Jan. 25. Attended by all four members of the legendary band (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young), plus friends and family, back-up band members and producers, the show was one of the biggest of the sold-out events, (along with the premiere of the concert film "U2 3D").
Directed by Neil Young under the nom de plume of Bernard Shakey, it's partially a retrospective of the band's musical and political highlights along with a concert movie of their "Freedom of Speech Tour" in 2006, in support of Young's CD "Living with War." The documentary makes a case for renewed activism through the passion of—in particular—Young's continued relevance. Proceeds from the film will be donated to the USO and Vets4Vets.
After the screening, on stage with the band, was award-winning broadcast journalist Mike Cerre, who was "embedded" with the band while on tour, and three vets who appear in the film and were disillusioned by the Iraq war while still serving "in country."
In Atlanta the documentary riled up the natives, many of whom walked out of the movie and protested its anti-war theme.
"I mean no disrespect. I respect all the soldiers so much," Young said. "It's all about making people talk. It's not unpatriotic to talk."
"Vote and make sure you're counted," Nash said.
Sabina Dana Plasse contributed to this article.