While Sundance will soon consume the lives of many moviegoers in Park City, it's been years since it was the only game in town. Starting in 1995, the Slamdance Film Festival has retained its underdog status at the top of Main Street, where about 30 features and shorts will screen January 20 - 26.
More than just a scruffy alternative to the larger festival, Slamdance regularly serves as a starting ground for emerging filmmakers and movies made off the beaten track. Last year's premiere "Without" went on to play festivals around the world and announced the promising talent of director Mark Jackson, while previous Slamdance breakouts have included "Paranormal Activity" and "King of Kong."
But since the festival relies on a team of programmers with broad tastes and often nabs movies that simply don't fit Sundance's various sections, it can also provide a safety net for experimental and otherwise non-commercial films (such as the recent "General Orders No. 9") that may otherwise never find an audience. Here's a list of some of the potential highlights from the festival, which starts tomorrow.
"Welcome to Pine Hill"
Based on the short film "Prince/William," writer-director Keith Miller's documentary-fiction hybrid chronicles the strange relationship he cultivated with a man whose dog he discovered and adopted. When the duo first met on the street, tensions ran high: Shannon Harper, who raised the dog as a puppy, simply wanted his pet back, while Miller felt he had a say in the decision. The resolution for that situation is merely a jumping-off point for an exploration of class and other social constructs, as Shannon (an African American from a low-income community) and Miller (a white, comparatively sheltered filmmaker) hail from vastly different backgrounds and examine the assumptions they brought to the table in their rather unusual circumstances. If nothing else, "Welcome to Pine Hill" is not your average dog movie.
Known in the porn world as "Porno Dan," Dan Lear has made a name for himself over the past decade for creating amateur-production porn films that are wildly successful precisely because he eschews flashiness for rough, unimaginative sex. While Alexandra Berger's documentary portrait of Lear starts out like an episode of HBO's "Real Sex," it builds into a fascinating look at Lear's psychology and the forces behind his decision to leave his white-collar lifestyle in favor of a far more unorthodox profession. Love him or hate him, Porno Dan makes a terrific camera presence, even (or, to some viewers, especially) when he keeps his clothes on.
"Neil Young Journeys"
Few American filmmakers have nailed the appeal of the music documentary as well as Jonathan Demme and in recent years his muse in the genre has been Neil Young. Demme first worked with the musician for the energetic 2006 "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," followed by the equally acclaimed "Neil Young Trunk Show" in 2010. Rounding out the trilogy, "Neil Young Journeys" tracks Young as he revisits his Canadian roots and plays a show in Toronto. At Slamdance, where "Journey" will have its U.S. premiere, the filmmaker-subject duo will also participate in a "master class" to discuss their working relationship. Sony Pictures Classics has picked up the film for a theatrical release.
"We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists"
In the wake of Occupy Wall Street and other grassroots activism, the protest group Anonymous continues to hold sway over mainstream society with its complex ability to mobilize and maintain a capacity for widespread influence unseen since the era of Vietnam rallies. Brian Knappenberger's documentary promises a close investigation of the mysterious group's history and how it has managed to keep skepticism alive with a combination of polemics and strategic theatricality.
"The Sound of Small Things"
Quirky romances have been done to death many times over, but "The Sound of Small Things" promises a unique riff on the usual two-hander: The story of a rocky marriage between neurotic copywriter and a deaf woman, it promises a distinctive use of sound design to replicate the couple's disconnect. First-time producer-director Peter McLarnan also served as editor and production design, and that degree of control certainly makes sense for this potentially enveloping cinematic experience.
Described by one programmer "Chantal Akerman meets Andrei Tarkovsky," this low-budget film follows a woman in Singapore struggling with memory loss and the isolated world that reflects her subjectivity. Impatient viewers may throw up their hands, but the movie nevertheless sounds like a promising attempt to push film form in new directions, with the potential for a cult following along the festival circuit. In other words, ideal Slamdance material.