My 2010 Sundance Film Festival Diary


Day 1 (Thursday, Jan. 21)

Let us hie to Utah’s icy climes and the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, held each January in the frozen, picturesque wasteland of Park City and founded by a friend of Paul Newman’s named Robert Redford. This is one of the world’s premier festivals, and I’ve been lucky enough to cover it every year since 2000, when I was a young lad of 25. Now I am an old lad of 35, and while the festival has evolved in that time, one thing has remained constant: It is still very cold here in January. My efforts to increase global warming through massive overuse of styrofoam have been futile.

For the members of the press, a couple of changes at this year’s festival were evident immediately. There were no opening-night press screenings, for one thing, leaving those of us who couldn’t get into the public screening (i.e., most of us) with nothing to do, alone and unsupervised in Park City. The other change is that our beloved Yarrow Hotel, once home to two of the press screening rooms, is now home to zero of them. They’re using the space for public screenings now, and all the press screenings are across the parking lot at the Holiday Village, which is an actual movie theater, with actual movie theater seats and hilariously overpriced popcorn.

This year I’m staying at a rented condo with five other movie-website people, all of them strangers to me. It’s just like MTV’s “The Real World,” only fatter. From the aptly named site We Are Movie Geeks there’s Scott, A.J., and Jeremy. From Criterion Cast we have Travis and Rudie. Then there’s me, from all the places I’m from. Oh, and we have a seventh cast member, a female lady girl woman, who isn’t a critic or blogger but just wanted to come to Sundance to go to parties and movies and stuff. Since she’s of the opposite gender from the rest of us, she gets her own room. Scott and Jeremy are on the living room couches, and the other four of us are in bunk beds in the second bedroom. Long-time readers may recall that I’m something of a snore monger. Will sharing a room with three other people lead to controversy or murder? Find out!

Alt textThe condo has only one bathroom; luckily, the thing about movie bloggers is that they’re not really into showering anyway. Also, the bathroom door’s handle is jacked up, and the door will just pop open, so there’s a can of paint in there that you shove up against the door to keep it closed. The paint can actually has “Bath” written on it — it is the designated paint can for this bathroom, assigned by the owner in place of, you know, fixing the door.

Since there were no press screenings tonight, we made our own press screening. When Sundance hands you screening lemons, make screening lemonade! (That axiom needs work.) My old Salt Lake City buddy Scott Renshaw had a DVD of “Frozen,” one of the films playing in the Midnight section — which usually means it’s scary, gory, or best appreciated while stoned — and a few of my roommates and I joined him at his hotel room to watch it. Turns out it was shot here in Park City, and I recognized a local actor acquaintance of mine in a small role, which is always fun. The movie is about three college students who are accidentally left on a ski lift after the resort closes for the night, with no way to get down from the chair or call for rescue. Terrible things ensue. “Frozen” will do for skiing what “Open Water” did for scuba diving, i.e., make people say, “What’s it called again? No, never heard of it.”

Meanwhile, there was drama and adventure in the lives of several other critics and bloggers who are traveling to Utah. It seems Phoenix and Las Vegas were both smitten with weather, which rarely happens in those places, and the airports were shut down. My buddy Scott Weinberg, making a connection in Phoenix on his way from Philadelphia, was stranded. All flights were canceled; the next available flight for him wasn’t until Saturday. It was the same story in Las Vegas, affecting people traveling from L.A. Weather-related problems are typical this time of year, but it’s usually in places like Chicago and New York, not Phoenix and Vegas. The end-times are so kooky! Anyway, Weinberg has reportedly hooked up with three other Sundance-bound travelers and rented a car to drive here tonight. I cannot imagine this. Even among the people I love, there are very few with whom I would like to spend a 13-hour car ride. To do so with strangers — well, that must be like MTV’s “The Real World,” only Weinbergier.

Day 2 (Friday, Jan. 22)

Another thing that is different about Sundance this year is that it won’t stop snowing. We’re used to having a lot of snow on the ground, but there’s usually no new snowfall during the festival, apart from maybe one or two brief incidents where Mother Nature accidentally lets some out. But not this year! This year Mother Nature, that rancid trollop, has seen fit to plague us with unceasing snowfall, vexing walkers and drivers alike. And bear in mind that no one around here is very good at driving to begin with.

I left the condominiums — or, as the word is spelled on the sign outside, “condominiuims” — early enough to catch a 9:30 a.m. screening of “Get Low,” starring Robert Duvall as a crazy old hermit in the 1930s. He’s the kind of bearded lunatic that the local kids tell stories about. He wants to plan a funeral for himself, and the town’s mortician — played by Bill Murray — is only too happy to let him. (“Oooh, hermit money. That’s good.”) Not a great film, perhaps, but solid, with lots of good humor and gentle drama.

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Weinberg had arrived safely at around 5:30 this morning, exhausted from his travails but alive and basically conscious. There was no word on whether any of his fellow passengers survived.

At 1:30 was a film that many people were looking forward to, in the same way that when you have food poisoning you look forward to throwing up: it will be unpleasant while it’s happening, but you’ll be glad you did it. It was “Enter the Void,” written and directed by Gaspar No?©, whose graphically sexual and horrifically violent “Irreversible” traumatized Sundance audiences — not an easily traumatized group — in 2003. The printed film guide for the festival actually warns about the content of “Enter the Void,” which is nice; usually they just let it surprise you.

Perhaps because I had steeled myself for the worst, I didn’t find “Enter the Void” particularly unpleasant. The violence, which is what’s more likely to disturb me, is barely beyond PG-13 levels. It’s a trippy movie, though, and often a patience-trying one. A lot of people hated it.

This includes the man sitting next to me. And in his view, the fact that he hated the movie meant it was OK for him to loudly whisper disparaging things about it to the man on the other side of him, and also to continually get out his thousand-watt iPhone to send text messages. In his view, when you go out into a public place, you exist in an invisible bubble that prevents any of your actions from affecting those around you.

I would normally say something to someone who incessantly did this. Something like, “Put your phone away, jackass.” But he was doing it so flagrantly that he clearly believed there was nothing inappropriate about his behavior, and I was afraid his reaction would be indignant, even if I asked him politely, which was unlikely. And he was sitting RIGHT NEXT to me. And the movie was going to be 2 1/2 hours long. I didn’t want that awkwardness between us the whole time.

So instead I did nothing. Well, nothing except surreptitiously try to read whatever was on his iPhone screen. I figured it must be pretty interesting. But we had no direct interaction. When the movie was over and we filed out of the theater, I was able to see his press badge and his name, which of course I googled, which led me to his Twitter page. The most recent entry was from 10 minutes earlier — I had read it as he typed it on his theater-illuminating iPhone. It was about how much he hated the movie he was watching. In the most weaselly, passive-aggressive fashion, I now replied to the tweet, saying, “Still, constantly lighting up the theater with your iPhone is rude.” Then Weinberg made a similar tweet, and it was retweeted, and there you go. We’re cyberbullies!

Still, put your stupid iPhone away.

Scheduled for later was another much-buzzed-about film, “happythankyoumoreplease,” owner of this year’s mostannoyingtitle. It was written and directed by Josh Radnor, who’s on “How I Met Your Mother,” so I guess he’s funny. The public screening had gone over like gangbusters earlier this afternoon, so there was increased interest in the press screening. And here’s where we discovered the downside to having all our screenings at Holiday Village and not the Yarrow: the Yarrow seats 300 people; each Holiday Village theater only seats 160. That number is much less. And fewer seats means fewer people can watch the movie. And that means not everyone can get in. Am I over-explaining this?

The point is, where in olden times you could frequently stroll in 10 minutes early and be assured of a seat, now it appeared that anyone who wasn’t lined up 30 minutes ahead of time wasn’t getting in. The lobby of the theater is minuscule, so they have us wait outside in a giant heated tent. To avoid chaos, they were letting in only a few people at a time, waiting until they found seats, then sending for a few more people, etc. It was like getting a spot on the last helicopter out of Saigon. Critics who believed they needed to see the movie more than the rest of us did tried to wheedle favors from publicists (who are powerless in a situation like this) (which is nice). I was one of the last four to be allowed in, and I found that Erik Davis, my editor at Cinematical, had saved me a seat so I wasn’t stuck in the front row.

But as it happens, I DIDN’T particularly need to see the movie, and another Cinematical writer did, as he was scheduled to interview the cast, and it’s nice to be able to not sound like an idiot when you talk to famous people. (Note: Not everyone subscribes to this philosophy.) I’d seen him outside, pressing his face against the glass in a most forlorn manner, so I left and gave him my seat. This is what friends are for: to allow others the opportunity to see movies with twee titles.

As an alternative, I saw “His & Hers,” an adorably sweet Scottish documentary about men and women. Groundbreaking, right? No, shut up! Let me explain! They interviewed a few dozen females from age 2 to 90, and basically let them talk about the men in their lives: the little girls talk about their daddies; the young women talk about their fianc?©s, then their husbands; the middle-aged women describe their sons; and so forth. What emerges is a profound sense of respect for women, and for the influence they have on men’s lives from cradle to grave. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to go hug your girlfriend, wife, or mother, whoever is closest and won’t mind being hugged.

Next up was “Hesher,” a dark, weird comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a stringy-haired teenage dirtbag who befriends a 13-year-old boy grieving the death of his mother. Actually, maybe “befriends” isn’t the word. Hesher, as he’s called, moves into the boy’s house — his dad and grandmother don’t seem to mind — and essentially takes over, like a coarse, obscene, frequently shirtless Mary Poppins. Hesher seems like the kind of character David Cross would have played on “Mr. Show”; what’s impressive is that, for as funny and odd as the film is, it winds up being kind of moving, too.

“Hesher,” like “Enter the Void,” was polarizing. A lot of people disliked it immensely. Not me, though, and it is my opinions that matter here (“here” meaning America).

Day 3 (Saturday, Jan. 23)

The weather continued to be terrible today, but at least I got to see a movie about a monster baby. That balances the scales considerably.

But first we have to talk about “Douchebag.” This derogatory term has come into more common usage in the last few years, so it was probably inevitable that someday it would be a movie title. I can think of about a dozen Sundance movies I’ve seen that could have been called “Douchebag”; I guess it’s only surprising that no one used it sooner.

Unfortunately, the movie peaks at its title. It’s about a guy who’s about to get married who is forced to reconcile with his estranged brother. The man referenced in the title is a jerk, but he’s not really a douchebag, per se. Not frat-ish enough. Anyway, whatever he is, the movie is lazy and half-baked. In fact, at 70 minutes long, it’s barely a movie. It’s more like the outline for a movie, waiting for someone to fill in the blanks. Such a waste of a good title. (In Italy, the film will be called “Baggaduccio.”)

While I was waiting in line for the next press screening, Mother Nature sent another plague to afflict me: a bloody nose. I actually used to get bloody noses frequently during the second winter I lived in Utah, presumably due to the cold, dry air. But that was years ago. Is Park City colder and drier than usual? Did its altitude increase? This is unacceptable. Not wanting to lose my place in line, I just sort of tilted my head back and let the blood flow down my throat, which is gross and not very nourishing. About a minute later, we were admitted to the theater anyway, and I was able to get to the bathroom and stop the hemorrhaging.

The movie I was in line to see, which I now watched with slightly less than the normal amount of blood in my system, was “Please Give,” and I liked it. Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt are a New York couple who own an antique store, which they stock by purchasing furniture from newly deceased people’s next of kin. Keener’s character feels guilty about this, and about most things; she’s the type who gives too much money to panhandlers and is constantly searching for volunteer opportunities, all of which only make her sadder. It was written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, whose “Lovely & Amazing” and “Friends with Money” were also pretty good. She’s almost certainly the most talented Holofcener currently making movies.

A lot of my movie pals were excited for the 10:00 film, a horror flick called “Splice.” Covering Sundance is generally pretty fun anyway, but of course it’s always a little more enjoyable when you have your buddies with you. It also helps when the movie is crazy and awesome, like “Splice” is. It’s about Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley being scientists and making a monster baby. Then terrible things happen!! Which you wouldn’t have thought. In Japan, this movie will be called “Monster Baby.”

Afterward, several of us headed to someone’s hotel room at the Yarrow, the traditional location for post-movie revelry. You should see the way we function, we online writers. Most of us carry our laptops around, so while chatting with friends we sometimes suddenly sit down and do some writing for a few minutes. This is not considered impolite. Plenty of iPhones to go around, too, so no one’s ever very far from the Internet. At one point while we were hanging out tonight I checked Twitter and noted that of the nine people in the room, two had already tweeted about the gathering.

Speaking of Twitter, it was the source of pain and sorrow tonight, as usual. It seems John Lichman from hated “Splice” and figured that meant he should spoil the ending for his Twitter followers. When it was pointed out that this is a jerky thing to do, he came back with a variety of comically bad justifications for it, including:

“We didn’t spoil anything about Splice that the production photos … didn’t imply.” [Which isn’t true, by the way.]

And, from his own Twitter feed:

“Spoiling a film that has been making the festival circuit since September isn’t much of a spoiler.” [It’s been seen by maybe a thousand people so far.]

So that was neat.

Also neat: We discovered that our rented condo has no supply of toilet paper. Plenty of bath towels and blankets and pillows, but no toilet paper. As my good deed for the day, I liberated a roll from the Yarrow hotel and brought it home with me. Sundance’s theme this year is “REBEL,” so I took that to heart.

Day 4 (Sunday, Jan. 24)

I got another nosebleed today. Whenever I get a nosebleed I think I have cancer or a brain tumor, because in movies it’s always a surprise nosebleed that first alerts a character to such a condition. I’ve made a note to worry more about this when I get home.

You’ve probably been concerned about what I’m eating. Burger King is still the only fast food place within walking distance of the Yarrow and Holiday Village, unless you count the Quiznos, which I don’t, because Quiznos, eh. I had a dream a couple weeks ago that a Subway had opened next to Burger King. I literally dreamed of having more nearby food options.

A couple years ago, a place that used to be a burrito place turned into a place with pizza and sandwiches, and there was much rejoicing. We loved Used To Be A Burrito Place, as it was known. But then last year it was gone, its storefront empty, and there was sadness. This year it has reemerged as a Mexican place, and it’s fairly bueno. My editor, Laremy, and I had dinner there last night, and then he and I had lunch there today with Neil from Film School Rejects. So thumbs up for Used To Be A Pizza Place That Used To Be A Burrito Place.

Laremy, Neil, and I had just come from a screening of “Howl,” about Allen Ginsberg’s beatnik poem and the obscenity trial it prompted. In our modern age of sex tapes and “Hostel” movies and Larry King’s neck it’s hard to believe that anyone ever thought it was against the law to be obscene, but there you go. Previously, my familiarity with “Howl” was limited to not remembering whether it was by Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac, and also not remembering whether those are possibly the same person. I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, though. It’s not a straightforward biopic, nor is it a courtroom drama, but a mixture of those. Very jazzy and moody, much like the work of Ginsberg or possibly Kerouac himself/themselves.

Up next was a British film about Muslim terrorists, called “Four Lions.” Oh, and it’s a comedy. A pretty funny one, too. You have to really know what you’re doing if you’re going to make a comedy about terrorism. It’s not for amateurs. The men referred to in the title include three Arabic Muslim extremists and one white wannabe named Barry, all Britons who are planning an attack of some kind. They are all idiots to one degree or another — except, daringly, for their ringleader, who’s portrayed as a smart, sincere family man. The point, of course, is to take the terror out of terrorists by reducing them to buffoons, the same way humorists did with Hitler and Jay Leno. “Four Lions” does a great job of it, though I don’t know how they’ll ever sell “terrorism comedy” to audiences.

With the press screenings as full as they’ve been, we’ve found it necessary to get in line as much as an hour early. That’s fine for people who haven’t covered Sundance before, as they don’t know any better. But for us veterans, it’s unacceptable. We are old and cranky. We remember the days of sauntering in five minutes before show time. So for the next film, the much-buzzed-about “Buried,” Weinberg, Drew McWeeny, and I told some of the newbies to stand in line for us. We saw this as having two positive effects: we get a place in line, and we haze the new guys. And they get the experience of being bossed around by critics who have been around longer than they have. It’s win-win.

“Buried” was a hot ticket because its public premiere the night before had been well received, and because news had just come that Lionsgate had bought the film for $3.2 million. Also, it’s about Ryan Reynolds being buried alive in a coffin, which is something many people want to see. (I’m apparently not the first person to call the film “D*** in a Box,” but I am pleased with myself for thinking of it.) The reaction from our group was generally positive, though a few didn’t think the film lived up to its potential. Their negative comments led some Twitterers to call it a “backlash” response to the film’s success (which was at this point less than 24 hours old), since why ELSE could someone possibly not love a movie they loved except pure knee-jerk contrarianism?? And so it goes.

Day 5 (Monday, Jan. 25)

The snow stopped falling yesterday, and my nose stopped bleeding, so I guess Mother Nature and I have reached d?©tente, at least until I offend her again, which is probably imminent, what with her being an odious slattern.

I was looking forward to today’s first film, “Cyrus,” written and directed by the Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay. Their other films, “The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead,” were smart, funny little gems, and this was what you might call their Hollywood debut: a real budget, with recognizable actors! John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Jonah Hill, Catherine Keener!

I was not disappointed. What do you know, it’s another very smart and very funny comedy, and it has heart, too. The opening scenes establishing Reilly’s character as a pathetic but lovable loser reach wonderful heights of awkwardness.

Next was a film called “Lovers of Hate,” which, like “Douchebag,” is a terrific title for a bad movie. They have other things in common, too. Both are about two brothers and a woman, and both would be good titles for a Rush Limbaugh biopic. “Lovers of Hate” has some farcical situations that are played not for laughs but for … something else. I’m not sure what. Having spoken to a few people who loved the movie, I can see another interpretation of it that might make it more palatable. But even then, I wouldn’t be able to get past the banal dialogue and unlikable characters.

It is also, with “Frozen,” the second Sundance film this year to have been shot at least partially in Park City. Future Sundance hopefuls might want to take note of this strategy.

Many of us were planning to see a film called “Blue Valentine” next, as word from its public debut was glowing and effusive, and we movie critics love glowing and effusive things. “Lovers of Hate” ended at 6:30, giving us a half hour before “Blue Valentine” would start, and so far that had been enough of a window to get into the screenings. But not this time. My pal Erik Childress and I, having endured “Lovers of Hate” together, returned to the press tent to find way too many people already in line. The theater seats 164; Childress and I wound up being numbers 167 and 168. We used this as an excuse to dislike “Lovers of Hate” even more.

By the time they had filled the theater and determined unequivocally that there were no seats left, it was 7:20 — 20 minutes past the start time and 50 minutes since we’d gotten in line. There were about 30 more people in line behind me and Childress, but those people ought to have known they weren’t going to get in. The seating capacity is public knowledge, and it’s easy enough to count (or at least estimate) the number of people in line ahead of you. Why, it’s our old friend math, lending a hand!

Alt textI mention this because when the venue coordinator — a very patient and long-suffering fellow named James — announced that the theater was full and no one else was getting in, a crazy fiftysomething Italian woman flipped out. The rest of us were disappointed, of course, and there was a general groan of remorse when the proclamation was made. But this Italian lady LOST IT. She immediately begins yelling, “Thees ees the most unorganiz-ed thing! We have been waiting a long time in this-a line!” She was gesticulating wildly and speaking in heavily accented English, a living stereotype of batty Italian broads. While the rest of us were reacting maturely and rationally, she was frantic, like a peasant demanding food rations from Mussolini.

She then made a beeline for James so she could scream at him more directly. “I need-a to see this movie,” she screamed, presumably in the hopes that once he realized she NEEDED to see it, he would march into the theater, find a person who only WANTED to see it, and give her that person’s seat. She was yelling and being irrational, and I actually had a legitimate question I needed to ask James, and so I said to Crazy Italian Woman, “Yelling about it isn’t going to help.” I maintain that this is true. Few things are improved by yelling.

She paused a moment and began hollering again, repeating her assertion that she NEEDS to see this movie, and that the system is unorganized, and so forth. I interrupted her again to say, “Being loud doesn’t make you right.” Then Childress pointed out that we’d waited in line, too, and in fact had been ahead of her, which means we’d waited EVEN LONGER. Her reply to Childress was, “I don’t know-a what you are doing here, but I came here to work!” Apparently, the fact that we weren’t wailing and rending our clothes and demanding the blood sacrifice of our enemies in response to this minor setback was an indication to her that we don’t take our jobs seriously. If we were REAL film journalists, we’d be pock-marking James’ face with flecks of our spittle.

This hilarious tirade made up for missing “Blue Valentine.” Childress and I were delighted, and we screamed at each other in thick Italian accents for the rest of the night.

Missing “Blue Valentine” meant we’d have plenty of time to get in line for the next film, though. (Crazy Italian Woman was first in line. She was NOT going to miss this one.) It was another hot ticket, “The Runaways,” starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning as Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, the mid ’70s jailbait rockers. Most of the people who saw “Blue Valentine” wouldn’t get in to “The Runaways” unless they left early to get in line, which several people actually did. One such person, a fellow movie blogger, joined me in line and said he was starving and needed a snack, so I asked him if he wanted the little package of cheese and crackers I had in my backpack, and he said that would be great, so I gave it to him, and then I realized that I had turned into my mother. It always sneaks up on you, doesn’t it?

I didn’t care much for “The Runaways.” Once you get past the creepy sexualization of 15-year-old Dakota Fanning’s 15-year-old character, nobody’s very interesting. The story is the typical rise-and-fall-of-a-rock-band template, only it’s a band that wasn’t very good. Meh.

I did learn something from the film, though. I learned that in fact I can name more than one Joan Jett song. I thought “I Love Rock and Roll” was the only one, but then over the closing credits there’s “Crimson and Clover” and “Bad Reputation,” which I also recognized. Three songs! Good for Joan Jett! Still don’t care about The Runaways, though.

Day 6 (Tuesday, Jan. 26)

My experience sharing a one-bathroom condo with five other guys has so far been surprisingly hassle-free. What’s more, my snoring, which was once legendary, has reportedly failed to bother anyone. And believe me, I’ve asked. I’m very self-conscious about it. I even brought spare earplugs for anyone who needs them, and have authorized all interested parties to do whatever it takes to silence me if I disrupt their sleep. One time I shared a room with someone who made me stop snoring by plugging my nose. It also made me stop breathing, but that was none of his concern.

Alt textAnyway, the condo has been fine, except for one thing, which is probably an obvious thing, which is that when six men share a small living space for six days it becomes — in terms of debris, leftovers, and general untidiness — a scene of unspeakable horror. I am not a clean freak, but I am generally neat and uncluttered. My cinematic brethren do not share this tendency, or at least they don’t when they are renting a condo. Perhaps their own homes are immaculate. (I am pretending to give them the benefit of the doubt.) We have a lady girl female woman person staying with us, too, but so far the fabled “woman’s touch” has had no impact on the situation. Indeed, since she has her own bedroom, we’ve barely seen her. When we have, it has been so that she could share stories with us that all involve referring to celebrities by their first names and pretending to be very good friends with them. This is amusing, but it doesn’t make things cleaner. (That’s a real photo that someone took of the tabletop, by the way. And that photo was taken three days ago.)

I began the day by heading to festival headquarters at the Marriott, where I needed to pick up a few press kits. HQ used to have a sizable lounge area for journalists, with plenty of tables and chairs and complimentary soft drinks, but not any more. Last year the complimentary soft drinks were reduced from Coke and Pepsi to Shasta; now the recession has taken its toll by removing the lounge altogether. I assume money is also the reason there were no press screenings on opening night, and why the press screenings end Thursday this year instead of Friday. And I know money is the reason they moved all the press screenings to Holiday Village instead of the Yarrow: Now the public screenings that used to be at Holiday Village can be held at the Yarrow, which is twice the size and thus represents twice the possible income in ticket sales. Since Sundance is a not-for-profit organization, things like that matter.

While at HQ, I ran into Dave Chen, of Slashfilm, whom I’d spoken to many, many times — I’ve been a guest on his podcast — but only met in person for the first time here at Sundance. Dave is perpetually busy and industrious. To the best of my knowledge, he does not sleep. He asked if I wanted to go to lunch at the Marriott’s restaurant; I countered that I had been planning to go to Burger King, which is much cheaper than most hotel restaurants. He countered that Burger King is terrible and will kill me; I countered that I don’t care. Still, he convinced me to eat at the Marriott, and I had a fine club sandwich and a lively conversation, and we somehow recorded two mini-podcasts in the process. That’s what happens when you hang out with Dave Chen — you wind up producing work without even meaning to. He’s like a productivity talisman.

(This mini-podcast is about public screenings vs. press screenings; this one is about the Sundance movie I didn’t like. This one was recorded the first day, when Dave and I ran into each other at the press office.)

My first movie of the day was at 2:00, and it was “The Freebie.” This film is in a new category at Sundance, called Next, which is for super-low-budget movies. I’ve been wary of this category, since plenty of films in the competition, Premieres, and Spotlight categories have low budgets, too, and you gotta wonder why THESE ones were put in a separate group, like maybe they’re not good enough. Plus, the category is called Next, which makes me think of an impatient director watching auditioners: “Thank you, NEXT. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. NEXT!”

But several people who had seen “The Freebie” — several very different people, with very different tastes — had told me it was fantastic, so I bumped the movie that had been on my schedule and watched this instead. In football parlance, I called an audible, I think, if that is really what those people call it.

And I was glad I did, as “The Freebie” is indeed a fine, low-key drama about a married couple who wonder if a “freebie” — that is, one night where they each get to have sex with someone else — might help their stagnant relationship. (Hey, it worked wonders for John Edwards.) The most surprising thing is that the guy is Dax Shepard, who I would not have predicted would be a solid dramatic actor. He started on that MTV show “Punk’d,” which in my mind is the same as that MTV show “Jackass,” which in my mind is highly amusing but not what you’d call deep. Anyway, nice job, Dax.

Remember how last night was a crazy clustercuss in terms of long lines and packed theaters and middle-aged Italian lunatics? Well, welcome to Tuesday, the day when half the press corps has left town, leaving only us grizzled, hardcore festival-goers. Even a much-buzzed-about film like “The Freebie” attracted only half a theater’s worth of journalists. Many of us had missed the old days, when you could saunter into a screening five minutes before it starts. Now the days of sauntering were again upon us. It was a new era of sauntering!

Up next was “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil,” a horror comedy from the midnight section. The Midnight films tend to be either fantastically entertaining or complete train wrecks. There is very little middle ground. “T&DVE,” happily, falls into the former category. The scenario is this: Think of all those slasher movies where teenagers are murdered by depraved, backwoods hillbillies. Now imagine the story from the point of view of the hillbillies, who it turns out are harmless and innocent, and the whole thing is just a big misunderstanding. The hillbillies are played by Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine, and the film is very, very funny, a cheerful and affectionate parody of the genre.

There was only a 30-minute gap between “T&DVE” and the next film. In the old days of last night, you’ll recall, this would not have been enough time. But in the Era of Sauntering, it was fine. Alas, the movie in question was terrible. I left after an hour, and I only stayed that long because I’m friends with one of the producers, and I’d been excited that his movie got into the festival, and I wanted to support him. But then I decided the my enduring the whole thing wasn’t going to help him, and would probably only make me hate the movie even more, so I left. If I didn’t have a friend involved in the production, I would tell you the title and make fun of all the things I disliked about the film. That is my usual “modus operandi” (Latin for “method of being a jerk”). But in this case, I will let tact take over and let it go. I’m not cruel. I’m not the violent kind.

Weinberg and Childress disliked it, too — that seemed to be the consensus among most viewers, unfortunately — and Weinberg and I couldn’t muster the fortitude to see another film after it. Instead, we ordered pizza to his hotel room and ate and wrote for many hours. This is the way many Sundance evenings end, by the way: parked at the Yarrow, eating junk food, writing reviews, general merriment. Drew McWeeny often joins us, writing his reviews in longhand (!) in a little notebook, I guess because he doesn’t like to carry his laptop around with him, or maybe because he’s a fancy lad, I don’t know. At any rate, these gatherings are fun, a good way to unwind and remain sane despite the madness and Chen-induced productivity of the day.

Day 7 (Wednesday, Jan. 27)

Travis and Rudie, the two fellows from Criterion Cast, left Monday, having loved their first Sundance experience. They were replaced at the condo by three guys from Paste Magazine. You will notice that three is more than two (thanks again, math!), and that we were already at capacity. As a consequence, two of the We Are Movie Geeks guys have had to share a bed. This is none of my concern. I have my own bed. I just wanted to mention it. The Paste guys seem cool. At least I’m not the oldest person in the house anymore.

Tomorrow is the last day of press screenings, and there are only two slots, 9 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., so today is the last full day. The festival doesn’t conclude until Sunday, though, and members of the press are allowed to request tickets to public screenings, one a day during the first few days of the fest, then two a day after that, and apparently four a day during the final weekend. I have requested zero. My policy this year was that if a movie didn’t have a press screening that I could attend, then your mom. Too much hassle: request the ticket, hope they can fill the request, return to HQ to pick up the ticket, go to the venue at the appropriate time, stand in line, find a seat, leave bag at seat while you go to the bathroom, wait in line at bathroom, use bathroom, look at snack bar options, marvel at extreme prices, wish you’d remembered to bring snacks to smuggle into theater, wait for movie to start (public screenings: always late), watch movie, shuffle out with massive audience afterward, wait for shuttle bus, go to next venue. BLEH. Press screenings are so much easier. No press screening? Your mom.

I allowed for the possibility of hitting some public screenings if there was something I was DYING to see and a press screening wasn’t an option. But as it turns out, nothing fell into that category for me this year. I saw just about everything I wanted to; the ones I missed were more of the, “Eh, I’ll catch it when it comes to theaters” variety.

Alt textThere was a bit of a panic at the Yarrow Hotel today — or, rather, apparently there was a panic last night. On the door of the hotel’s bar was a sign that read: “THERE WILL BE NO ALCOHOL SOLD UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE SORRY FOR THE INCONVIENCE,” which as you know is the standard misspelling of “inconvenience.” One assumes the Yarrow’s proprietors ran afoul of Utah’s liquor laws, which are notoriously easy to run afoul of.

I got to see “Blue Valentine” today, the film whose chaotic press screening on Monday led to an Italian uprising. They scheduled another one in today’s TBA slot, too late for the people who already left (including Crazy Italian Woman), but oh well. It is indeed a well-acted drama, with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a fractured married couple, and the performances are its best assets. The story and script didn’t do much for me. I also don’t care for the title. “Blue” means sad, and “Valentine” suggests love. So their love is sad right now. Well, duh. Just like “Douchebag,” I can name 10 other Sundance films that could appropriately have used this title. But this is petty of me, and I will stop complaining about it.

A film with a much better title than the terrible-titled “Blue Valentine” is “The Perfect Host,” which I saw next. It’s about a bad guy who takes a man hostage in his own home, only to find that his hostage is even crazier than he is. That is the danger with selecting hostages at random, without pre-screening them. Helen Reddy has a supporting role in the film, in honor of the fact that she is apparently still alive. Unfortunately, despite the good title, “The Perfect Host” isn’t a very good movie, going off the rails in its second half. I note that it’s based on a short film; it probably should have stayed one.

Immediately after this was a film many of us had been looking forward to, “Louis C.K.: Hilarious,” a concert film by the comedian. (If you’re not familiar, he was recently seen as Leslie’s policeman boyfriend in a few episodes of “Parks and Recreation.”) Louis C.K. is hilarious; the film’s title refers to a bit he does about how we use hyperbole so much — everything is “amazing” or “hilarious” — that the words don’t mean anything anymore. There was a good bit of laughter evident among the various members of the audience at the press screening. By which I mean we about peed ourselves.

Oh, and I saw Louis C.K. himself at Sundance headquarters yesterday, and had to say hi and tell him I think he’s funny. He’s also fairly tall, which I had not realized.

I have a friend who wrote and directed a movie that was submitted to Sundance and rejected. When I told him that Louis C.K. had a concert film in the festival, my friend said, “Oh, really? How nice. Did he turn the camera on all by himself?” You can kind of see his point. Then again, cinematic treasure or not, Louis C.K.’s film is much funnier than my friend’s. Then again, my friend’s isn’t a comedy. I don’t know what my point is.

Day 8 (Thursday, Jan. 28)

My final screening was at 11:30 a.m., “The Killer Inside Me,” which is another title that would work for a Rush Limbaugh biopic. It stars Casey Affleck as a small-town sheriff’s deputy with a dark side, that dark side being only slightly diminished by Affleck’s high-pitched, breathy whine of a speaking voice. Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson are among the actresses receiving physical abuse in the film, which Chris Brown calls the “feel-good hit of the year.”

And that was it. For me, Sundance had drawn to a close. Was it a little less hectic and bizarre than usual? Yes. That’s because I am not as young as I used to be. (But neither are you, so shut up.) Sundance has always been a marathon, not a sprint, and so it’s unwise to push yourself too much. I saw only 20 movies at the festival this year, compared to the 27-33 that I usually see. But I also enjoyed myself much more than I have in a while. I didn’t get the mid-festival burnout, nor did I wind up getting a cold, nor was I forced to contemplate whether I had really chosen the right career path, all of which are typical. I took it easy (comparatively speaking) and had a lot more fun.

There’s something else, too. While I’ve always been friendly with my fellow critics and bloggers, it really struck me this year how important that camaraderie is. It’s not that I’m close friends with all of them (although that’s true in a few cases). Mostly it just means that when we’re standing near each other in line, or sitting in a theater, or getting on the same shuttle bus, we can chat pleasantly for a few minutes. It has nothing to do with what I think of their websites, writing styles, or taste in movies. I just like THEM, as people. They’re fun to hang out with, and I always enjoy talking to them. Here’s a roll call of who I spent at least a few minutes with this year:

Old pals:
Scott Weinberg, Cinematical
Erik Childress, Cinematical
Scott Renshaw, City Weekly
James Rocchi, MSN Movies
Jeremy Mathews, The Same Dame
Shawn Levy, The Oregonian

Newer pals:
Drew McWeeny, HitFix
Neil Miller, Film School Rejects
Peter Sciretta, Slashfilm
David Chen, Slashfilm
Devin Faraci, CHUD
Laremy Legel,
Alex Billington, First Showing
Kevin Kelly, Cinematical
Kristoffer Aaron Morgan, Ain’t It Cool News
Eric Vespe, Ain’t It Cool News
Erik Davis, Cinematical
Mark Bell, Film Threat
Chris Bellamy, The Same Dame

Brand-new pals:
Brandon Lee Tenney, First Showing
Travis George, Criterion Cast
Rudie Obias, Criterion Cast
A.J. Meadows, We Are Movie Geeks
Jeremy Kirk, We Are Movie Geeks
Scott Hutcheson, We Are Movie Geeks

My apologies if I missed anyone. The point is, it’s these friends and colleagues and buddies who make the Sundance experience so enjoyable for me. Sure, the movies are usually pretty good. But I can watch good movies at home, by myself. I frequently do, in fact. But it’s not the same as seeing them in Park City, surrounded by friendly, familiar faces. Movie nerds need love too.