Once again this year, I headed to Sundance in January to do some early scouting for the 2014 Houston Cinema Arts Festival. Like last year, I decided to take my chances of getting in to films without purchasing an expensive pass, and I did pretty well. All that was necessary was waking up early and arriving at the box office by 7am, to try to score some of that day’s stash of unclaimed tickets. Here you can see the morning line, including the people in sleeping bags who were clearly even more determined than I was.

I did very well the first day, and got in to the arts-related films I really wanted to check out, including HCAS Advisory Board member Alex Gibney’s new Finding Fela. I loved this film, and admired how well it captured Fela’s music and politics as well as Bill T. Jones’s determination to bring Fela to Broadway (a show I was lucky enough to see in New York with Bill T. in the house, high-fiving every cast member as they left the stage). Another find was Living Stars, featuring a succession of everyday Argentines dancing to pop songs in their home and work environments. The experience was infectious, and the audience was absolutely giddy.

Hanging around the main box office the first day after I scored my tickets, my lucky streak continued as Sundance publicity head Sarah Eaton, another member of our board, invited me to join the press tour of New Frontier, Sundance’s showcase for interactive media installations. I have gotten a lot of inspiration from these exhibitions in the past, and found the 4-screen North of South, West of East, one of 2013 HCAF’s biggest hits, there last year. My favorite piece this year was one I had already seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—James Nares’ super-slow-mo film freezing New Yorkers in motion, titled Street. Nares was there for the press tour, and I conveyed my enthusiasm for this piece as well as his early punk films, and now it looks very likely that Houstonians will get to see both Nares and Street at our festival in November.

The next day, feeling confident, I arrived at the main box at 7am, but this time found 150 people there ahead of me, and I had no chance of getting tickets for films in Park City. But Sundance films were also being shown just a half hour away in Salt Lake City; tickets were available for these, and so my luck continued, as three films were scheduled back-to-back back I really wanted to see. They included Laggies, a new Keira Knightley rom-com directed by Lynn Shelton, and Hellion, the dynamic and impressive first feature by Austin-based Kat Candler, whose work we’ve shown as part of the Texas Filmmakers Showcase. Best of all was Whiplash, which ended up winning both the Jury Prize and the Audience Award. Damien Chazelle, a director whose first feature, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, was one of the first films I programmed for HCAF back in 2009, directed it. It’s about the intense dynamic between a jazz drummer and the teacher driving him towards either greatness or self-destruction, and it is a visceral cinematic experience, perfect for our festival, if it’s not released sooner.

My next festival trip is in late February, a first-time visit to the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, and I will report back next month.