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Launching Diversity: Sundance ’09 Wrap Up (Eric Kohn)

Launching Diversity: Sundance '09 Wrap Up (Eric Kohn)

There are too many good films here that have to be seen by audiences everywhere, and we have to make sure that happens. –Sundance Film Festival programmer Geoff Gilmore at the 2009 awards program

Sundance has always done a good job of introducing fresh and important work to movie lovers around the world. However, not all movie lovers think alike — and neither do filmmakers. As the amount of creative output becomes increasingly dense, the product grows more complex, which has resulted in an indisputable trend among the entries in this year’s festival program: Diversity.

Audiences have divided into an increasingly stratified crowd of varying tastes, which ultimately permits greater opportunities for movies to succeed in niche markets. While the trades constantly bemoaned an industry in the throes of an uncertain future, distribution deals were constantly taking place, and nobody really seemed to doubt that the best of the festival would find a way to reach the public. But the last word of that sentence belongs in plural form, because the acknowledgment of multiple publics is what will allow all of these wildly divergent cinematic accomplishments to reach the places where they belong.

Sundance might not offer something for everyone, but it does provide a massive launch pad for many of the finest contributors to the art form. Here’s a breakdown of a few noteworthy focuses from the recently wrapped Park City event.

Dark Minds for Dark Times

Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson” and Robert Siegel’s “Big Fan” deal less with plot than portraiture. In both cases, the frame looks dark. Refn, taking a huge directorial step up in visual expressionism with this wickedly clever true story of a deranged British prisoner, revels in its protagonist’s maniacal glee. With “Big Fan,” Siegel tackles the marriage of alienation and obsession through the eyes of a highly credible loner. Patton Oswalt, as a well-intentioned, under-motivated New York Giants fan, reflects a modern pathological phenomenon. As Oswalt pointed out at one of the festival screenings, the modern Big Fans usually trove the internet. In another era, these movies might be perceived as too malicious for general audiences, but now they seem utterly current. You might not know these characters, but you’ve surely met someone like them.

While Refn and Siegel enjoy the company of their black comic stars, other Sundance movies deal with grim subjects as a way for the filmmakers to get them out of their systems. “Boy Interrupted,” Dana Heinz Perry’s devastating account of the events that culminated with her fifteen year old son’s suicide in 2005, allows the filmmaker to understand the tragedy and prove that she has the capacity to move on. Documentarian Ondi Timoner doesn’t have quite the same bond with her subject, Internet television pioneer Josh Harris, but she does bring a similar passion to exploring the motives of the oddball character.

Both movies contain strong thematic momentum. Harris’s dysfunctional reality reflects the general confusion surrounding the democratizing of the web at the end of the twenty-first century, with all its flaws intact. Perry’s son reflects the universal danger of not knowing when to ask for help.

Close Ups on Current Events

Every year brings another wave of documentaries and narratives tackling contemporary issues, although the last eight years relied almost too consistently on the redundant concern of American leadership. At Sundance this year, when the new leadership took its rightful place, movies responded. Armando Iannucci’s “In the Loop” hilariously navigates the red tape universe of Capital Hill politics — but it does so by universalizing the office dysfunction, rather than aiming for political satire. Complaining about George W. Bush is so mid-2008. Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience,” previewed for a small audience in the middle of the festival, takes place at the end of last year, where the concerns of its grandiloquent urban characters revolve around the upcoming recession and the presidential contenders. New faces, new times.

Other filmmakers reacted to events far beyond American borders. “The Cove,” Louie Psihoyos’s gorgeous, haunting and fantastically constructed study of the Japanese fishing industry’s troublesome tendency to indulge in copious dolphin slaughter cautiously embeds its message in a thrilling adventure story. In Eric Daniel Metzgar’s “Reporter,” New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof’s altruistic work in troubled foreign countries gets placed under a discerning intellectual microscope, as does the future of activist journalism in the new millennium. Taking Kristof’s motives into the realm of broad comedy, “The Yes Men Fix the World” expands the playful performance art of this lovable activist duo, whose ability to scam a wide variety of gullible people with their impersonations of corrupt corporations takes on a warm vibe in their latest feature, thanks to a boost in confidence from the outcome of the election.

Broken Boundaries

Lee Daniels’s “Push” is one of those love-it-or-hate-it affairs that performs stylistic maneuvers with a real purpose. Some viewers found deep flaws in the movie’s narrative strategy, I never related to it as anything but purely moving filmmaking. (Sundance juries agreed, giving three awards to the film on Saturday night.) It’s a violent, moody picture, much like the characters within its borders. Pregnant teen Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) learns that she can overcome her limited world by surpassing the cruel urges of her mean-spirited mother (Mo’Nique, in the kick-ass performance of the year) by making decisions that allow her to succeed on her own terms.

Filled with dramatic exchanges and vibrant eruptions of anger, “Push” doesn’t deal with race in America so much as personal boundaries and the courage it takes to overcome them. It’s not an apolitical or colorless film, but a movie that cares about anyone suffering from the burdens of a disadvantaged life. As Tracy Morgan famously declared at the recent Golden Globes ceremony, this is the face of post-racial America.

And that makes “Humpday” the face of post-homophobic America, a place where love and physical attraction don’t conform to the judgmental regions of traditionalism. Lynn Shelton’s smart, infectious comedy of two straight dudes presumably willing to bone each other as a means of escaping their droll lives also has a real purpose: With a shrewd, observational technique, it demonstrates the subtleties of sexual tension by refusing to release it.

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