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Sundance Film Festival's NEXT FEST

A content preview with programmer Charlie Reff and highlights of the upcoming LA spin-off

by David Graver in Culture on 04 August 2014

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Those who were unable to make it to Park City, Utah for the 2014 edition of the Sundance Film Festival have another opportunity to see some of the best emerging cinema stateside—this time in LA from 7-10 August 2014. Part of the official festival last February, the NEXT division turns attention to the latest in micro-budget movies, or those helmed by first- or second-time filmmakers. Culled from this year's incredible crop, NEXT is hosting a spin-off festival in Downtown LA's Ace Hotel. There, six films will be screened—some in partnership with musical performances from the likes of Father John Misty and Warpaint. A delightful centerpiece to the festival will be the 10th anniversary screening of "Napoleon Dynamite"—a film that might have never been seen if it weren't for its groundbreaking debut at Sundance.

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Among the works showcased, the celebrated picture "Life After Beth"—a story about an unexpected death and an even more mysterious reappearance—will make its LA premiere, screening for the first time since its critical success at Sundance. There's also "Listen Up Philip" which features Jason Schwartzman as a bored novelist, the tale of redemption found within "Imperial Dreams" (this year's winner of the Audience Award: Best of NEXT), the tinged-with-horror feature dubbed "The Guest," and "A Girl Walked Home Alone at Night" which is truly a first as an Iranian vampire feature taking place in a ghost town. Rounding out the festival's cinematic offerings, "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" probes the idea of obsession within a lonely, treasure-obsessed Japanese woman, which also happens to be the winner of a US Dramatic Special Jury Award for Musical Score at Sundance.

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Festival programmer Charlie Reff provided some insight on the value of NEXT, and what's to come. "We went through our selection of films, and we wanted an awesome sampling of new exciting, visionary filmmaking," Reff shares with CH. "We have this festival within Sundance that this is all based on celebrating the best of new filmmakers who are going out there making ambitious work in what's generally thought of as an industry that's not built on the most stable financial model. They're doing it and making really unique films worth seeing." This is the core that Sundance itself was built on: drawing attention to that which is visionary and unconventional.

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Reff also explains why they brought in musicians, drawing correlations between the independent music scene and what's happening in cinema. "They've both had the floor pulled out from underneath them. Film is going through that now. They are different canvases, but its the same attitude, same influences and coming from the same culture. So we thought, 'Let's put them together and cross-pollinate audiences.'" The musicians were selected to correspond with the films, and Reff continues, "We think that someone who has really been waiting to see a certain film and now is also going to see this band, will fall in love."

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"Napoleon Dynamite" washed across audiences globally, leaving the imprint of something startlingly fresh—not to mention many mind-bending quotations. But it wasn't an obvious choice. "The original idea was to show a classic Sundance film. NEXT didn't begin until 2010, but 'Napoleon Dynamite' really epitomizes the spirit of it. It's unlike any other film in the world, and it's hard to compare it to other films and sensibilities," says Reff. However, he explains that it's "one of the most successful films to play Sundance and it's such a weird movie—for all ages. Your grandparents think it's funny, but so do seven-year-olds." Most importantly, it makes plain and clear that "being conventional isn't the only route to find success in the world." NEXT awards those who trust their own vision, focus on it and hope it pleases the masses.

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Reff touches upon Sundance's mission—that it's not just about filmmakers—and how this directly impacts NEXT. "Our lab program is nurturing filmmakers through their first and second features, but the other side of our work is nurturing audiences—an audience that is ready and willing and wanting this and that can sustain this industry," he says. Regarding NEXT, "This is not another film festival audience, this is a cultural event. It's a place to discover something new in an incredible location, with magic. You can witness the evolution of art."

These films and this festival, programmed with the skills of those behind Sundance, deserve an audience. Purchase tickets to Sundance's NEXT Fest online, where prices range between $15 and $25.

Images courtesy of the Sundance Institute

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