by Randy Myers

PARK CITY, Utah – Small in scale but large in ambition, the upstart film festival Slamdance once again rolled into this snowy city to celebrate the work of talented, scrappy, first-time filmmakers.  A flurry of amped-up fans ensued, hoping to become part of an underdog sensation along the lines of Paranormal Activity, which bowed here in 2008.

SlamdanceWhile this alternative to Sundance doesn’t come with the same celeb wattage of its massive counterpart sprawled throughout the rest of the city, it does attract up-and-comers who display ingenuity within the parameters of modest budgets. The rules are simple enough: productions must come in under $1 million and be from first-time filmmakers to quality for competition.

There are a few other rules. To achieve success, though, the entries need to display the know-how for telling a story, be it in narrative, documentary or short form.

[Ed. note: The 22nd Slamdance Film Festival winners, announced on Jan. 28, are listed at the end of this story.]

You can sense there’s an electric anticipation within the lines queueing up for frequently sold-out screenings held at the Treasure Mountain Inn on Main Street. The seats might be none-too- comfy and the screens smallish, but the energy and support within this community can be inviting and comfortable, as the relaxed audience sprawls onto the floor to watch sold-out features and listen to the following question-and-answer sessions with actors and filmmakers.

The festival took root in 1995 when filmmakers who found their work rejected at Sundance came together to fashion a festival that serves as “a showcase to support and discover emerging talent over the years,” says Peter Baxter, president and co-founder. If there’s one word he’d use to describe the festival, it would be “life.”

That’s a fitting descriptor as the festival can help change and shape creative lives. It did so with Christopher Nolan, whose black-and-white feature Following debuted at Slamdance in 1999.

This year’s lineup might find a new heavy hitter emerging. What it will accomplish goes counter to claims that the motion picture is expiring, says Baxter.

“It’s not really dying at all,” he says.  “If you look at the programs at Slamdance, the motion picture is evolving. You see it in these programs; filmmakers who are experimenting in a carefree, risk-taking way that allows them this creativity that is really exciting to see.”

That risk-taking is most notable in the 2016 lineup of narrative features and special events, which includes a film with zero dialogue (Driftwood) and another (Let’s Be Evil) that often gives you the P.O.V. of someone wearing a high-tech-y camera on his head.

These pictures blend the passion and creativity of first-time filmmakers, and are anchored around tight budgets that require cutting the corners, not the quality. Hunky Dory filmmaker Michael Curtis Johnson kept expenses low by filming mostly around his neighborhood. For Portland, Ore., filmmaker Nathan Williams, what ate up much of his budget were the costs of the hotels and meals while shooting If There’s a Hell Below on location in Washington.

But if there’s a will, there’s an innovative way to get around money matters. In a Q&A after the world premiere of his comedy Honey Buddies, director Alex Simmons revealed that his stunning overhead shots of the vast Oregon wilderness were courtesy of a drone.

Getting into Slamdance can mean a lot for filmmakers. Just ask Johnston, who was rushing to put the finishing touches on Hunky Dory, his film about a drag queen and his son, a week before it was set to debut. He likes how the festival is “defiantly independent” and relishes the common bond these filmmakers share – as their works come together from the support of family, friends and others, not studios.

Who will be the breakout star this year? It’s still too early to tell.

But with three special screenings, five entries in the Beyond category – which celebrates the follow-up work of directors lingering on the sidelines – along with 12 narrative features, eight documentaries and a number of shorts, this year’s festival offers a lot of hopes, a lot of dreams and a lot of films.

Here are but a few I got chance to see.

Best movie I saw: Honey Buddies


Honey Buddies (2016)

A simple and reliable premise – groom-to-be takes a backpacking honeymoon trip with his forever-chipper best man after his fiancée ditches him just days before the wedding – is executed with frisky charm and a good-natured grasp of boy-man bantering. Alex Simmons’ winning feature-length directorial debut, Honey Buddies doesn’t explore new ground with the boldness that real-life adventurer Meriwether Lewis – whose journal entries smoothly enrich and preface key scenes – did. But there’s no reason to assume the carefree twinkle of this flat-out charming production  starring two college roommates and directed by another is a tossed-off lark. The bromantic comedy lifts the spirits with infectious good will and buoyant energy made possible by a lively, improvised script, a game cast and sure-handed direction. As a plus, it captures the gorgeous majesty of the Oregon region. David Giuntoli (of TV’s Grimm) is a delight as the sad-sack workaholic actor who gets jilted, but it is Flula Borg as his sunny, babbling, puppy dog-like counterpart who gives the picture its radiance and pep.

Best vision: Let’s Be Evil

Owen Martin’s trippy Village of the Damned-like horror yarn convincingly creates a tech-heavy, claustrophobic nightmare.  Screened as a special event, the movie follows what happens to Jenny (Elizabeth Morris), a young woman caring for her ill mother and fielding late bill-notices. When she takes a decent-paying gig that requires her to oversee kids wedded to Google Glass-like headgear – that turns them into gesticulating game players with a fever for education – things go bump in night.  Along with two other adult charges, Tiggs (Kara Tointon) and Darby (Elliott James Langridge), Jenny discovers that her subterranean job in the bowels of an L.A. high-rise is not all it’s cracked up to be when one child (played by Isabelle Allen) starts to distance herself from the pack mentality. Martin’s feature, L.A. Slasher, might have failed to wow the critics, but Let’s Be Evil shows ambitious ingenuity, especially from the way it uses Go Pro-like camera shots. The film clearly wants to achieve a video-game feel, and does just that, projecting on the sides of the screen information about the “players” to show whose perspective we’re seeing. The technique becomes a bit repetitive at points, but it shows a visionary filmmaker who’s getting into a groove.

Best view of modern L.A.: Chemical Cut

Marjorie Conrad is probably best known for her 2008 stint on reality TV’s America’s Top Model. But she’s also a budding actress and filmmaker. Her Chemical Cut might need its bangs trimmed here and there, but this reality check into the modeling world and L.A. culture is a cut above in many ways. Conrad, who also wrote and edited the film, plays 23-year-old Irene, a bored retail clerk saddled with a bitchy, self-absorbed gay pal, Arthur (Ian Coster), as well as doubting parents. Her ho-hum existence changes once she dyes her hair blond, gets herself a crazy agent (Michael Lucid) and, later, becomes chummy with a rich, chic new best friend, Spring (Leah Rudick). Conrad’s story is aware of how the glamorous overly covet themselves, and her dialogue has a stinging snap to it, showing the vapidness that can exist. Case in point: when a model says, without any awareness of how horrible she sounds, that all the gorgeous people wind up in Los Angeles and New York. Conrad’s debut is filled with little gems like that, made all the better when Rudick’s Irene shows up and talks endlessly about herself. It’s then when Conrad’s film is a fireball.

Best use of zero dialogue: Driftwood

You’ve gotta admire the moxie of writer-director Paul Taylor. Anyone seeking to make a feature-length drama that doesn’t have a lick of dialogue is asking for trouble. Taylor handles the challenge admirably, sustaining our interest in an unsettling narrative about a weird guy who picks up human driftwood, then molds his captors with a Frankenstein-like zeal and a perverse leer. The cast – the waif-like Joslyn Jensen as the woman reeled in, the striking Michael Fentin as the new inhabitant who unsettles the balance and eventually gets hooked, and the creepy Paul C. Kelly as the master puppeteer of these humans – should be commended for mustering emotions without words. The payoff, though, is really the ending, and it’s a killer. Taylor’s a talent to watch.

Best at conveying a sense of dread: If There’s a Hell Below

Moody and atmospheric, Oregon native Williams’ film shows an undeniable knack for creating tension and glance-in-the-rear-window paranoia. This on-the-lam thriller that takes a page from the Edward Snowden kind of saga makes full use of the stark landscape of Kennewick, Wash. It only stumbles during a couple of lengthy near-monologues that are unwieldy at times. The cast members, Carol Roscoe as the whistleblower with explosive secrets to share and Conner Marx as the journalist who wants to hear them, manoeuver around these quite well. But the film really guns it whenever Williams and cinematographer Christopher Messina work in sync to create an eerie, barren landscape that ominously suggests danger always lurks just around the corner or in the rear-view mirror. The film sometimes gives off a Blood Simple vibe.

Best at turning a worn-out premise on its head: Hunky Dory

Hunky-Dory (2016)

Hunky-Dory (2016)

This gritty dramedy announces the most welcome arrival of not just one but three impressive talents. In Michael Curtis Johnson’s fully realized first feature, a destined-for-the-big-time Tomas Pais mesmerizes as Sidney, a morally bankrupt and perpetually broke bisexual transvestite and father. When Sidney’s 11-year-old son George (Edourad Holdener, a scene- stealer) gets dumped off at his apartment by Sidney’s ex-girlfriend, you can’t help but worry this story will wilt into gooey sentiment like a big-budget Hollywood production. It doesn’t. The smart screenplay from Johnson and Pais avoids cheap sentimentality, focusing on a warts-and-all portrait of a not-too-likable guy who doesn’t want to grow up and be held accountable for himself, let alone for his son. Sidney is a bold and unforgettable character and Pais plays the hell out him with ease, honesty and charisma. Can’t wait to see what these two collaborate on next.

Best personalized look into a subculture: Fursonas

Dominic Rodriguez’s fascinating documentary puts him behind and in front of the camera as it peers into the curious culture of the Furry fandom community, where people dress up in furry costumes and do all sorts of things. As you’d suspect, the documentary is awash with colorful characters in and out of costume, including Boomer the Dog, Chew Fox, Diezel Raccoon and such. But it gets really interesting as the lens turns to the feud within the ranks. Rodriguez’s film takes a number of turns and you won’t stop watching even if there’s not a whole lot of context to it. Regardless, it’s easy to see why Gravitas Ventures snapped it up so quickly.

sundance-randy-mugRandy Myers is president of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and is a longtime movie writer for Bay Area News Group, for whom he still freelances. He is also a certified personal trainer and group exercise instructor. EDF FilmStripsparkySlamdance 2016 Award Winners

The feature and short film recipients of this year’s awards in the Audience, Jury and Sponsored categories are as follows:

Audience Award for Narrative Feature: Honey Buddies, directed by Alex Simmons. (See above story.)

Audience Award for Documentary Feature: The Million Dollar Duck, directed by Brian Golden Davis. “… dives into the wonderfully eccentric world of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, the only juried art competition run by the U.S. government.”

Jury Award for Narrative Feature: Driftwood, directed by Paul Taylor. “A thoroughly original outsider voice … .”

Jury Honorable Mention for Acting – Narrative Feature: Hunky Dory, directed by Michael Curtis Johnson, starring Tomas Pais and Edouard Holdener. “Two breakout performances … .”

 Jury Award for Documentary Feature: The Million Dollar Duck, directed by Brian Golden Davis.

Jury Honorable Mention for Documentary Feature: Art of the Prank, directed by Andrea Marini. “Shining a spotlight on an interesting person whose mission isn’t likely to get exposure from the media, since the media is his deserving victim. … .”

Jury Award for Documentary Short: If Mama Ain’t Happy, Nobody’s Happy, directed by Mea de Jong. “Multi-generational traditions examined from two very different perspectives within a family … . Qualifies for the Academy Awards.”

Jury Honorable Mention for Cinematography – Documentary Short: The Bullet, directed by Jordan Bahat, cinematography by Mike Gioulakis. “Beautiful cinematography offering a peek into a profession most of us would never consider. And who doesn’t love the circus?”

Jury Award for Narrative Short: Winter Hymns, directed by Dusty Mancinelli.“A story where innocence, mischief and brazen confidence abruptly meet at a tragic crossroads. …” Qualifies for the Academy Awards.”

Jury Honorable Mention for Narrative Short: The Beast, directed by Daina Oniunas Pusic. “… portrays the strained and codependent relationship of two aging women.”

Jury Award for Animation Short: My Dad, directed by Marcus Armitage. … the director’s powerful, heartbreaking message and the film’s bold, colorful palette are perfectly suited to his experimental animation format.” Qualifies for the Academy Awards.

Jury Honorable Mention for Animation Short: Flaws, directed by Josh Shaffner. “… brilliantly portrays the trajectory of life and death within a world of helplessness. …”

Jury Award for Experimental Short: Infrastructures, directed by Aurèle Ferrier. “A pensive and serene vision … .”

Jury Honorable Mention for Experimental Short: Cup of Stars, directed by Ryan Betschart, Tyler Betschart. “… finding the transcendent in the everyday.”

Jury Award for Anarchy Short: Disco Inferno, directed by Alice Waddington. “An emerging voice with a powerful aesthetic that pays homage to classic cinema while simultaneously affirming a future for visionary film.”

 Jury Honorable Mention for Anarchy Short: Gwilliam, directed by Brian Lonano. “… A fresh take on goblin fun.”

Jury Honorable Mention for Anarchy Short: Hi How Are You Daniel Johnston? Directed by Gabriel Sunday. “… A poignant journey into the psyche of the creative mind.”

Spirit of Slamdance Award: Cast and crew of Fursonas, directed by Dominic Rodriguez. Awarded by the filmmakers of Slamdance 2016. 

Digital Bolex Fearless Filmmaking Grand Prize: Small Talk, directed by Hilary Campbell.

Digital Bolex Fearless Filmmaking Honorable Mention: You Will Find a Way, directed by A.J. Molle.

Digital Bolex Fearless Filmmaking Honorable Mention: Eyes of the City, directed by Luke Randall.

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