The Sundance Film Festival organizes its films into an array of different categories ranging from Premieres — generally considered "big ticket" items — to its Frontier section, with works that go well off the beaten path, and about ten other categories.
A cursory glance at the Sundance catalog shows an index of over 100+ feature films, and another 100+ shorts and sidebars. Only being able to attend the last four days of the ten day event, I squeezed in viewings of 19 features and have taken the liberty of filing those in five broad categories of my own. They are:
1. The Crowd Pleasers
These are the films that fill up auditoriums to capacity and then, when done, receive hearty or even standing ovations. Their distribution deals are usually guaranteed well in advance or nailed quickly while the festival is in play, and are thus guaranteed to come soon to a theater near you. Of the films I saw, two fell into this category:
Directed and scripted by Niki Caro, this is a coming-of-age story of a young girl in a Maori community in New Zealand. The story pivots around Pai, a young girl who is anxious to participate in the tribal traditions of her grandfather. Alas, the grandfather’s staunch adherence to patriarchy make Pai’s journey a rough one. Although very predictable, the beautiful scenery, courtesy of New Zealand’s coastal splendors, the strong performances by all involved, and some impressive scenes involving whales all help to make this a winning ride.
The Station Agent
Directed and scripted by Tom McCarthy, this charming comedy of misfits sets itself apart from predictable tropes immediately by quickly establishing the main character, Finbar McBride, a dwarf with a penchant for trains, as the coolest guy around. When McBride inherits an out-of-service train depot in rural New Jersey he strikes an unlikely alliance with a gregariously extroverted young man and a temperamental artist who is still coping with the loss of her young son. McBride is played by Peter Dinklage, who uses some of his own real-life experiences as comic fodder for the film.
2. The Documentaries
It is well known that one of Sundance’s consistent strengths is within its documentary section. This time out the festival has even added a World Cinema Documentary section to abridge its regular Documentary Competition. Unlike a good chunk of the feature films shown at Sundance, most of the documentaries have their launch pads set with various television slots on PBS, HBO, and various other cable outlets, so audiences can expect to see many of these entries, if not theatrically, at least on the small screen. The documentaries I saw were:
A harrowing look by director José Padiha focused on the hijacking of a passenger bus that occurred in Rio de Janeiro on June 12, 2000. Rather than being an organized hit, the event was more of a criminal act by a sole gunman gone awry in the fashion of Dog Day Afternoon, with a mob assembling around the bus as television crews broadcast the news live and police and sharpshooters swarmed around the scene. What makes this film fascinating is the way the crime is analyzed at its roots, thus devoting a good portion of screen time to a look at some of the history behind Brazil’s urban decay and the problems faced by homeless children living on the streets.
The fascination with the collaborative of Danish directors who forged the Dogme 95 movement continues. In 1997 a documentary called Tranceformer A Portrait of Lars Von Trier covered similar ground, but here the view expands to cover Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), Kristian Levring (The King is Alive), and Soren Kragh-Jacobsen (Mifune). The film provides a good overview to the uninitiated but the navel-gazing soars to a meta-post-modern level that will either delight or infuriate one, depending on your propensity for such matters, with equal measure.
The Weather Underground
A documentary about the young radicals so outraged by the Vietnam war and other government actions of the time that they announced their intention to overthrow the U.S. government by any means possible. The whirlwind of materials include archive materials, interviews with living members, and wide raging footage showing key players in the unfolding drama of a turbulent time, such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Black Panthers, Timothy Leary, Abby Hoffman, and many others. Also of interest, and timely again given the new incursions on civil liberties taking place today, are the insights into the modus operandi of COINTELPRO and the FBI.
This HBO/Cinemax production looks at the stories behind seven Cuban rafters. The starting point is the summer of 1994 when public protests in Cuba pressured Fidel Castro to sanction an opening of Cuba’s coastal borders and allowed a mass exodus of nearly 50,000 Cubans who risked their lives to sail 90 miles in makeshift rafts toward Miami. What unfolds is a look at political asylum process, the camps of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, and the bittersweet results behind the acclimation of the seven rafters profiled as they acclimate to their new lives in the U.S.
Capturing the Friedmans
The Documentary Grand Prize Winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was this Rashomon-like inquiry into the unraveling life of an American family suddenly torn apart by acquisitions of pedophilia. The Friedmans are a well-to-do, upper-middle-class Jewish family who suddenly must answer to charges of horrible crimes that may, or may not, have been perpetrated by both the father and son. Also dealing with the fallout is a mother and two brothers. Director Andrew Jarecki carefully reveals information that sets up expectations in one direction but just as quickly confounds it with twists and turns put forth by any of many revolving characters who get involved in the drama. What really pushes everything over is the actual footage shot by the Friedmans themselves, thus affording the audience a truly unique and intimate look at a family crises.
It’s tempting to compare The Same River Twice to The Big Chill, insofar as both look at the aging process of a generation as it switches gears from counter-cultural roots to more established and familiar patterns. Read about The Same River Twice in-depth.
3. World Cinema
While most of the films below will actually find US distribution, my experience is that this is an anomaly when compared to past World Cinema offerings. I thus heartily recommend this section in the future to serious cineastes because there’s a good chance you’ll watch quite a few films here that are not likely to find themselves getting picked up by distributors and put on a fast track to either your neighborhood theater or television cable channel.
This is the second feature by the Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormakur, his first being 101 Reykjavik. On the surface, The Sea looks at how a small Icelandic community interacts with the members of a family that all assemble to discuss the future of their patriarch’s fishery. In some ways, and in plot alone, the structure echoes Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration. But here the production values are all top notch and there’s also an undercurrent that looks at the impact of a global economy on a small fishing village to anchor the family histrionics.
The Thirteen Steps
This Japanese mystery is billed as a complicated thriller gravitating around a wrongly convicted killer and a former prison guard who takes him under his wing. Production values are top notch, and there is some nice attention to detail, allowing the viewer to take in nuance in mannerisms and scenic details with ease. Unfortunately, the pace languishes until the final half-hour, at which point the action and musical scoring come across as badly as in any crass and commercial Hollywood project. There are some humanistic touches that are laudably endearing, but they are eclipsed by an ending so saccharine that it was downright embarrassing to sit through.
28 Days Later
Some people might be surprised that Sundance would present a zombie film directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) in its World Cinema section rather than its Midnight forum. But 28 Days Later has already made a big splash in the U.K. and will probably do the same here. Boyle pays smart homage to George Romero’s zombie trilogy and adds a few tricks of his own (ie: the "zombies," or virally infected humans, move fast on their feet rather than lumber about slowly). The digital camerawork has been applauded by many as perfectly suited for evoking a postapocalyptic dread. Well, pardon my French, but I think it’s bullshit that a director of Boyle’s caliber should lead the vanguard of this cheap aesthetic when his impressive shots of an empty London, had they been captured on 35mm, could have really taken ones breath away. Instead, I felt like I was watching a good zombie film being badly projected, out-of-focus, through dirty glass that simply muddied the image. And, while there are times when a digital video aesthetic can add to the authenticity of certain movies, I did not feel this was one of them. But these are the rants of an old guard celluloid freak. To predict the reception of 28 Days Later in the US, I’d say the kids will eat it up.
At the First Breath of Wind
Thanks to Boulder’s very own Bruno Bossio, many people are already familiar with the work of Italian director Franco Piavoli, the director of The Blue Planet and Voices Through Time. Piavoli’s latest film offers transcendent visual poetry that weaves together a tapestry of rich and sustained observations on a great range of emotions, with protagonists representing the spectrum of age. Piavoli notes that the title of the film "is a verse derived from the third book of the Argonautica, in which Apollonius Rhodius describes Jason and Medea falling in love with each other."
4. The Domestic Titles
Whether they were actually part of the Premieres section, or the Independent Feature Film Competition, or the American Showcase, let’s just cut to the chase and file all of these under a simpler moniker for now. I realize the word "domestic" lacks pizzazz, and is even a bit misleading as some of these films derive their power from exotic locales but what’s a given is that the directors are American.
Winner of the Dramatic Directing Award, this film by Catherine Hardwicke cuts close to home. Both Evan Rachael Wood, who plays an insecure teenager whose life spirals out-of control when she falls in with a bad seed, and Holly Hunter, as her overworked but concerned mother, put on stellar performances and evoke a drama that is very contemporary and certainly being played out for real in neighborhoods around the U.S. The script, by director Hardwicke and 13-year-old costar Nikki Reed, who plays the aforementioned bad seed, recalls the pairing behind Kids, of director Larry Clark and another teenager at the time, Harmony Korine. Both films are well served by getting their information from the source, and both films represent a distress call for parents of troubled youth.
City of Ghosts
Matt Dillon’s directorial feature film debut has him on both sides of the camera, but the real star is the Cambodian landscape that provides the setting for most of the film. Billed as a thriller, the story takes a stab at the requisite plot points to propel our players into motion with Dillon’s character being caught in the middle of an insurance-scam operation that has him traveling thousands of miles to find his mentor and father figure only to get caught up in dangerous games with higher stakes. James Caan, Gerard Depardieu, and Stellan Skarsgard all put in fleeting bids to distract us from the crumbling beauty that surrounds them and, if you let them succeed, you’ll only be disappointed.
Director James Foley has some good work under his belt. In After Dark, My Sweet he gets the grifter lifestyle down and got to work with material from Jim Thompson. In Glengarry Glen Ross he took on an entirely different seedy and cutthroat world and made good use of David Mamet’s flair for dialogue. In a way, both of those worlds come together in Confidence and it seems like an attractive package at first. Edward Burns stars as a young and confident con man trying to pull one over on an older con man, played by Dustin Hoffman. The pacing is quick and playful and sure to entertain, but the whole enterprise ultimately feels like an attempt at repackaging The Sting with a little bit of Pulp Fiction tossed in for good measure, and suffers from diminishing returns.
Forget about The Fast and the Furious, director Joey Curtis’ Quattro Noza is the real deal. It’s a blast of fresh air along the L.A. asphalt that drops you in the middle of modern drag racing with restless Angelenos hitting the pavement as hard as they hit each other. Read about Quattro Noza in-depth.
5. The Bizarro Film Section
I think it’s about time that every film festival out there just buckle down and admit that they have various titles that are either made in an alternate universe or made with an audience in mind that is bombed out of its mind. This observation is not meant to be dismissive, as one of my favorite films of the whole festival belongs in their ranks, but it is meant as a warning.
It’s All About Love
Those familiar with his film The Celebration might be incredulous to Thomas Vinterberg’s latest film, which is certainly the antithesis of any Dogme film and screened as part of the Sundance Premieres section. But, despite the big budget and recognizable cast members, such as Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes, and Sean Penn, this strange film deserves placement in the Bizarro section. It’s set in the near-future where lonely people die of heart disease and environmental oddities disrupt life around the world. So far, so good, but we haven’t even touched on cloning or the Kafkaesque conspiracies that propel the story forward. In some ways it recalls Wim Wenders’ work with Until the End of the World, but the tonal shifts here are hard to process. At one screening the director entreated befuddled viewers to reserve thought or comment on the film for at least three days, and he suggested the film’s enigmatic moments would make more sense after time has had chance to percolate the film on the backburner of the mind. I’m still of mind to concede that the whole endeavor is just a pretentious mess that will sink its founding studio, Zentropa, but I sincerely hope I’m wrong and I’m still percolating.
Girls Will Be Girls
If you like the films of John Waters and Todd Solondz, enjoy raunchy humor, and have been waiting to see film about three actresses (as played by men) fighting their way along the Hollywood food chain, well, your wait is through. Writer/director Richard Day brings his decidedly Off-Broadway sensibilities to this project that was shot on Sony HD Cam. Whether this misanthropic comedy featuring hyper-bright colors hits you like an extension of some nightmarish sitcom (Rodney Dangerfield’s cameo in Natural Born Killers comes to mind), and whether that is something that will make most people laugh or gag, well, it’s just too hard to say. There’s simply no accounting for taste.
Most frequently asked questions about the Cremaster series: Who is the director? What is the "cremaster"? What are the Cremaster films about and what is their order of release? Answers: Matthew Barney is a highly regarded and well-funded artistic force who has been written up in The New Yorker and many other publications. The cremaster is a muscle that raises and lowers the testes according to temperature, external stimulation, or fear. His Cremaster series of films are slowly gaining clout as cinematic projects in the "must be seen to be believed" vein and are described in the Sundance film catalog as "an intoxicating mixture of architectural theory, Celtic mythology, and the history of Freemasonry." The order of their release is Cremaster IV (‘94), Cremaster I (‘95), Cremaster V (‘97), Cremaster II (‘99) and, finally, the last one, Cremaster III (‘02). As to my own experience, all I can really say for sure is that sometime well past midnight when I saw Cremaster III, which is just over three hours long, there were a few moments where I almost drifted into sleep. It was during those moments where the film made sense to me, with my subconscious creating an entire narrative structure around the images I had just witnessed onscreen. Then I’d snap out of my fatigue and get tossed back into Barney’s world where I realized that dreams always make sense to the dreamer. It reminded me of my early years watching Jodorowsky films or the first time I saw Eraserhead. It was, in a word, awesome but I don’t know if I’d want to see it again.