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At concluding ‘Film Church,’ Sundance organizers say 'amen' to this year’s festival

PARK CITY — While this year's Sundance Film Festival may not have seen the same level of success as it has in previous years, festival organizers said there is plenty to celebrate.

The premiere film festival wrapped up Sunday after 10 days with a final panel discussion cheekily titled "Film Church." Festival Director John Cooper and Trevor Groth, director of programming, reflected on this year's screenings, the impact of the #MeToo movement on the festival and what it was like hosting a Supreme Court justice.

“It’s one of those legacy moments that I think will go down in Sundance history,” Cooper said of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Jan. 21 visit. Ginsburg was in Park City to discuss "RGB," the Betsy West and Julie Cohen-directed documentary about her life and work.

Ginsburg's appearance was well-timed, as justice and equality were foundational topics at this year’s festival. Sundance’s opening press conference focused on the #MeToo movement and the various measures the Sundance Institute adopted in response, such as a new code of conduct for all festival attendees and a 24-hour hotline to report violations. The topic of sexual harassment also found its way into the festival's many panel discussions.

But sexual harassment was not the only topic that garnered attention over the course of the festival. At Saturday night's awards presentation, two films on criminal justice reform took top prizes, and their directors joined Cooper and Groth on stage at "Film Church" Sunday.

Filmmaker Rudy Valdez's film “The Sentence” won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award, while Reinaldo Marcus Green's “Monsters and Men” took home the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for outstanding first feature.

“The Sentence” is a personal tale following Valdez’s sister, a mother of three who was given a 15-year minimum-mandatory jail sentence for crimes committed by her deceased ex-boyfriend. Green’s “Monsters and Men” tells the story of a controversial police shooting in a Brooklyn neighborhood.

The two filmmakers said they tried to make inclusive films and not point the finger at any one single cause.

“I have a lot of respect for what police officers do, what law enforcement does, but a lot of disdain for some of the institutional practices,” Green said.

“My film is completely apolitical,” Valdez added. “I didn’t go and attack a certain side of the aisle because I feel like that’s not inviting them to the table to help fix this problem. Bottom line, I don’t care what side of the aisle you’re from, I need this problem fixed, and I want you to come and help.”

That plea for social awareness and action was evident in this year's other awards winners, particularly in the Grand Jury prizes. Director Derek Doneen's “Kailash” (U.S. Documentary) followed Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi and his team as they worked to rescue children imprisoned in Indian factories, while “Of Fathers and Sons" (World Cinema Documentary) showed audiences an insider's look at childhood in radical Islamist Syria. “The Miseducation of Cameron Post" (U.S. Dramatic) and “Butterflies” (World Cinema Dramatic) rounded out the 2018 top awards.

Visit for the full list of winners.

A number of prominent media outlets have reported that this year’s Sundance program was less financially viable than in recent years. A widely circulated article from Variety, titled “The Slowest Sundance Ever? How the Festival Left Buyers Cold,” claimed this year’s festival lacked Oscar-worthy films that usually drive Sundance bidding wars.

Some films did receive major deals, however, such as “Assassination Nation” to ABGO ($10 million) and “Puzzle” to Sony Pictures Classics ($5 million).

Last year’s festival left big shoes to fill, evident by the recent announcement of Academy Award nominations, which included a bevy of 2017 Sundance films. Cooper and Groth dedicated a moment of "Film Church" to these nominees: “Get Out,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Mudbound” and “The Big Sick,” as well as the documentaries “Last Men in Aleppo,” “Icarus” and “Strong Island," which all received prominent nominations.

Their tribute also mentioned members of this year’s Sundance jury who received Oscar nominations, which included “Mudbound” cinematographer Rachel Morrison and “The Shape of Water” actress Octavia Spencer.

"You came out of last year thinking there are four strong best picture contenders here," Vulture senior editor Kyle Buchanan told the Associated Press. "This year, I don't necessarily sense that there's a best picture nominee among these movies. That said there are all sorts of ways that the mood of the country or the plan of the distributor could help push one of these movies to the forefront. But I think that we'll mostly see the Sundance films contending in other categories besides (best) picture."

"Film Church" concluded with a heartfelt story from longtime Sundance volunteer Shaun Parker. Taking the stage, Parker told the audience about his high school crush, whom he tried to woo with a music video that was equal parts charming and embarrassing. Parker had performed the same monologue at "Mortified," a popular live stage show that's coming to Netflix in February under the name "The Mortified Guide," which premiered in Sundance's new Indie Episodic category this year. Though Parker's music video didn’t win his crush's heart, he said it made him realize his own love for filmmaking.

“Growing up, I loved movies,” he said. “I didn’t come from a very religious family, so films became my church. I would pay my tithing to the box office. I would go into a hushed, dimly lit hall, and the curtain would open up to reveal a magical world that through its stories showed me how life worked.”