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The BEAVER TRILOGY PART IV cast and crew at the Tower Theater.

For my money, one of the biggest perks of being part of Utah’s creative community is easy access to the Sundance Film Festival. Creativity and energy fill the air every year with a fresh batch of film premieres across all genres. Some of these films will be part of the Oscar conversation this time next year, and others will hardly be heard from again. For me, that’s the thrill of Sundance. You go into screenings fresh, never really knowing what you’re in for until the house lights go down. (And what cinephile doesn’t relish that moment?)

I saw seven films at Sundance this year. Here are some thoughts on three that stuck with me.

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BEAVER TRILOGY PART IV

Truth is stranger than fiction, but great fiction can help uncover truth.   After a chance encounter in the early ‘80s with a starry-eyed young performer from Beaver, Utah, TV producer Trent Harris profiles ‘the Beaver Kid’ for his local news show. The segment never airs, but Harris becomes obsessed with telling the Kid’s story with a series of underground films that become known as THE BEAVER TRILOGY. With a colorful cast of characters including Sean Penn, (a pre-“Biff, take your damn hands off her!”) Crispin Glover and the enigmatic “Groovin’ Gary,” this story of artistic drive and scrappy indie filmmaking had me riveted. A fascinating, funny and touching film about humanity and the artistic tug-of-war between truth-seeking and exploitation.

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THE WITCH

Holy cow, unholy goat. This movie was dark as night and utterly terrifying.   In 1630s New England, a family is banished from their Puritan community to forge a new home on the edge of an imposing forest, and [spoiler] bad, bad things happen. THE WITCH evokes an overwhelming feeling of cosmic dread (a la THE SHINING, a personal favorite) and boasts some of the most haunting images I’ve ever seen. Director Robert Eggers, in fact, was awarded Best Director by the Sundance jury for this fully-formed vision of primal fear. Fair warning: This isnot a film for everyone, and most definitely not for the squeamish, but I found it incredibly effective. This one’s been haunting my dreams.

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THE END OF THE TOUR

You don’t need to know much about author David Foster Wallace to be charmed by THE END OF THE TOUR. In the mid-‘90s, Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) spent several days interviewing Wallace (Jason Segel) at the tail end of a book tour for the highly acclaimed Infinite Jest. The film plays as a chess game of freewheeling chats between two characters with overlapping passions and conflicting agendas. Over junk food and cigarettes, they ruminate on artistry, fame, depression and Alanis Morissette. Eisenberg’s always a reliable actor, but Jason Segel really surprises with a magnetic and sympathetic performance that’s far and away his best work to date. (And don’t be surprised when you hear his name in the mix for Best Actor at next year’s Oscars. Seriously.) Writer/director James Ponsoldt keeps the dialogue naturalistic and performances grounded to tell a warm and engaging story about how the purest art can forge human connection but leave an artist feeling lonelier than ever.

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