This was considered a good year for the Sundance Film Festival, both artistically and commercially. Program aspects that received a positive response also found distribution, and hopefully will continue to make headlines when they hit theaters. If Sundance provides a window into the near future, this year will provide much to see.
The top-rated films in criticWIRE’s poll of 20 critics on the ground at the festival included the buzz titles: “Take Shelter,” “Project Nim,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” and “Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times.” Despite their diversity, collectively they express a complex portrait of the national character. Fresh from the recession, we’re scared of more dark days to come (“Take Shelter”). We evade our insecurities by projecting them into the wrong places (“Project Nim”). We’re confused, gullible and intimidated by intangible forces (“Martha”). To top it all off, reliable information no longer has a stable home (“Page One”). Each of these titles now has distribution and will soon cast their grim shadows in theaters near you. The business is doing well enough to show us our flaws.
But at least one jury chose to ignore that trend, awarding the Grand Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Feature to “Like Crazy,” Drake Doremus’s competent portrait of a souring long-distance relationship. While it’s by no means terrible, “Like Crazy” is also one of the more routine products at the festival, a genial movie about two young people destined to break up. It has nothing to say beyond the most fundamental realities about the fragile nature of romance. Sold for a price tag of $4 million to Paramount Pictures, the biggest distributor buying movies at Sundance, “Like Crazy” also landed some free marketing ahead of its release courtesy of the Sundance jury.
The decision was a shocker to many, myself included. “Like Crazy” has an admirable tenderness, but it’s not bold or particularly unique. The “Like Crazy” award demonstrated a collusion of industrial and artistic concerns: The most commercial movie won.
If anyone wants to get really conspiratorial, the pieces are there. Consider how “Like Crazy” buyer Paramount bonded with dramatic competition juror Jason Reitman when it released “Up in the Air” and that the director also works closely with production company Indian Paintbrush, which partnered with Paramount on the “Like Crazy” deal. But conspiracies are less certain than commercial domination. The more likely reason behind the jury’s selection involves its accessibility.
Sundance can provide an incredible showcase for new work, but the downside is that everything gets instantly shelved into reductive categories. U.S. competition opener “Pariah,” a pleasant if fairly tame crowdpleaser about an African-American lesbian teen struggling with problems at home, generated strong word-of-mouth throughout the festival. At a certain point, it became branded “this year’s ‘Precious,'” a misleading and potentially racist association. And yet: “Pariah” landed a substantial distribution deal with Focus Features, possibly because of that very same dubious connection. An Oscar campaign is imminent.
“Like Crazy” and “Pariah” were not the best movies at Sundance, but quality does not catalyze a buying frenzy. Widely reviled movies such as “I Melt With You,” “The Ledge” and “Margin Call” all landed sizable deals. This was a good year at Sundance, but sales don’t tell the whole story.
Among the unsold titles, a pair of midnight movies still need distribution. Calvin Lee Reeder’s head-spinner “The Oregonian” and Todd Rohal’s hilariously quotable and surreal buddy movie “The Catechism Cataclysm” scream for cult acclaim. Elsewhere, Paddy Considine’s assured directorial debut “Tyrannosaur” deserves a U.S. release, as do several documentaries: “The Redemption of General Butt Naked,” which delivers a fascinating look at the aftermath of the Liberian civil war; and a unique study of the civil rights movement, “The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 75,” which is mainly composed of Swedish television footage. There’s also the poignant AIDS flashback “We Were Here,” veteran documentarian Steve James’s Chicago street violence epic “The Interrupters” and the enjoyably cryptic “Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles.”
Bitching about the lack of distribution for certain titles may not serve much purpose for conversations about art. Then again, if the industry is doing well, it could always do better. Buyers left pleased with themselves this year, but for the movies, the battle has just begun.
“The Catechism Cataclysm”
“How to Die in Oregon”
“Martha Marcy May Marlene”
“My Idiot Brother”
“Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times”
“The Redemption of General Butt Naked”
“The Son of No One”
“Sound of My Voice”
“The Troll Hunter”