For the first time in a long time, it didn't snow in Park City, Utah, during the Sundance Film Festival, not even a flurry. The barren hills surrounding the town provided a physical echo of a festival that was not overflowing with greatness either. But, paradoxically, experiencing Sundance in an off year highlighted some of the things that make the festival so valuable.
If you just looked at the awards list, it might seem that 2014 was very good indeed. Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash" won both the Grand Jury Prize and the audience award for U.S. drama, and the festival's various entities liked the films on offer so much that a full 25 features went home with awards.
And, yes, it was satisfying to see prizes given to strong films like Zeresenay Berhane Mehari's Ethiopian drama "Difret" (world cinema audience award), Jeff Preiss' "Low Down" (U.S. drama cinematography to Christopher Blauvelt) and the heartening music- vanquishes-dementia doc "Alive Inside" (U.S. documentary audience award).
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But, due perhaps to the oddities of Sundance scheduling, which saw more and more films shipped off more often to Salt Lake City, Provo and other distant spots, no picture, not even "Whiplash's" tale of a martinet of a music instructor clashing with a marshmallow of a drum prodigy, captured the festival body and soul the way "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Fruitvale Station" did in years past.
And the festival juries so outdid themselves in coming up with special awards — the doc "The Overnighters" got perhaps the most puzzling, a U.S. documentary special jury award for intuitive filmmaking — it made Sundance seem like one of those progressive schools that mandate prizes all around to bolster student self-esteem.
But, if anything, this lack of films that blew everyone away highlighted both the festival's resilience and its impressive cruising speed, pointing out how much there was worth seeing in what was by the luck of the draw an average year.
As if to emphasize that point, two of the most memorable 2014 films went home with a couple of those curious special jury awards.
Deservedly taking the world cinema documentary special jury prize for cinematic bravery was French director Hubert Sauper's "We Come as Friends."
Sauper, Oscar-nominated for his superb "Darwin's Nightmare," returned to Africa for this thoughtful and provocative examination of globalization and imperialism, taking us inside such singular situations as a massive Chinese oil drilling operation and an American missionary outpost that distributes solar-powered talking Bibles. Really.
Considerably more fun, in fact possibly the most fun of the entire festival, was "God Help the Girl," winner of the world cinema dramatic special jury award for ensemble performance.
Written and directed by Stuart Murdoch, lead singer and principal songwriter of the Scottish band Belle & Sebastian, "God Help the Girl" is a classic movie musical where people burst into songs of crystal purity whenever something is on their minds.
Starring Emily Browning, Olly Alexander and Hannah Murray in the story of three young people who come together to make music during a magical Glasgow summer, this lively, playful, completely charming film has such a will-o'-the-wisp quality that you fear it will disappear if you attempt to fence it in. Murdoch called it "our little hymn to the possibility of healing in music," and that gets it exactly right.
Also worth noting are two films that emphasize what a wide net Sundance casts, how many different kinds of films it manages to include as it's grown from an independent showcase to a major festival by any standard.
"Mr leos caraX" is Tessa Louise-Salomé's" well-made and suitably enigmatic documentary about the gifted French director Leos Carax, who likes to push his cast and crew as well as his audiences to their limits and beyond.
"A Most Wanted Man," tautly directed by Anton Corbijn, is a claustrophobic thriller adapted from the John le Carré novel and featuring a brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman as a German spymaster trying to operate in a world where you can't even think of trusting anyone. A brooding, atmospheric thriller, it's the kind of film that could have premiered anywhere but chose to make its debut in Park City.
This year's Sundance also offered opportunities to get reacquainted with one of the festival's best aspects, albeit one that tends to get lost in the rush to see the putative hot films, and that would be New Frontier.
Newly relocated just off Park City's Main Street, where, as curator Shari Frilot happily notes, "people can stumble onto it," New Frontier concerns itself with the intersection of film, art and technological innovation. This may sound rather diffuse, but the exhibitions presented often grab you like nothing else does.
That was certainly the case this year with Oculus Rift, a combination of earphones and a virtual reality headset that offers a fully immersive experience so intense that you feel like you're walking in a dream. Director Chris Milk, whose "Sound and Vision" Oculus Rift collaboration with Beck was a knockout, says this "has the potential to be the next great medium for storytelling," and it's hard to argue the point.
This year's Sundance was also a chance to appreciate what is in effect, to borrow the football metaphor, the festival's 12th man, the hugely appreciative audiences that show up at all hours and all locations because they simply hunger for the kinds of films the festival offers.
When director Murdoch faced a full theater at 8:30 on a Sunday morning to introduce his "God Help the Girl," he looked around and said, "You should be in church." From two or three places in the auditorium, individuals spontaneously shouted back, "We are." And they meant it.