Narrative Films at Sundance '04 Dominated by First-Timers and Serious Themes
by Eugene Hernandez
Organizers of the Sundance Film Festival, the most important film festival in the United States, have announced lineups for a number of key sections, namely the Dramatic and Documentary competition and the American Spectrum (those lineups are available now in our special section on Park City). The event, set for January 15-25, 2004 in Utah, will open for this first time in Park City this year. The festival's opening night film, as well as a roster of high-profile premieres and the World Cinema sections will be unveiled Tuesday at 5 p.m. EST.
By the numbers, Sundance Film Festival director Geoff Gilmore and director of programming John Cooper saw an overall jump in feature submissions (the short film lineup will be unveiled next week). A total of 2,426 features were submitted, which is up from last year's 1,774 submissions. A total of 685 narrative films were submitted, which is a slight drop from 696 last year, while docs were up to 541 this year, after 513 submissions last year. On the international side, features soared to 798, from 372 last year, while 402 international docs were considered for the second year world cinema docs section, that's up from 193 last year.
A total of 16 films will be showcased in each of the festival's dramatic and documentary competition sections, while 13 movies are set for the American Spectrum section. The two-year old American Showcase section has been phased out this year, according to Gilmore, to create a larger selection of premieres. Gilmore discussed the lineup with indieWIRE on Monday.
Sundance 2004 is marked by a number of notable trends, from a plethora of first-time filmmakers and an increase in African-American work to a handful of thematic elements including a post 9/11 mindset, a crop of provocative work and narrative movies that blend fiction with reality. Today's look at the lineup focuses on the new crop of narrative work, primarily the new U.S. films from the dramatic competition, while tomorrow's article will explore a wider prevalence of documentaries is all sections of the festival and the world cinema selections.
Gilmore noted that the festival has seen a larger group of films from the African-American community across the board. "There are 12 features directed or produced by African Americans," Gilmore told indieWIRE. "That is more African-American features in this festival than ever before." He continued, "That really says something about the range of work that is out there being produced by African American independents. Since the last two years was slim, [this is a] big jump."
"Why?" Gilmore wondered aloud during the conversation with indieWIRE on Monday, "I have no idea. It's just a cycle." He added that the jump can be found throughout the festival. "It happens, I am happy to see it," he concluded.
The large group of films by debuting directors, with a dozen of the films in the narrative competition from first-timers, is notable for an event that certainly has a large crop of festival alumni to pull from. Indeed there can be a fuzzy line between the premieres section and dramatic competition, according to Gilmore and Cooper.
While the premieres section typically held the higher profile films with stars attached, over the last few years as independent production has changed, a larger number of celebrities can be found in the dramatic competition, even with the large crop of first-time directors. And a number of celebs are present in the Premieres section lineup that will be unveiled on Tuesday at 5 p.m. EST.
In the dramatic competition for starters, "Scrubs" star Zach Braff has recruited quite a high-profile cast for his debut writing and directing effort, "Garden State." Jersey-born Braff appears in the film as a man who returns to his hometown after 10 years away; his co-stars include Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Jean Smart, Aunjanue Ellis, and rapper-turned-actor Method Man. Danny DeVito is one of the executive producers. Another one of the higher profile films in dramatic competition is Greg Harrison's "November," which stars Courteney Cox Arquette as a photographer who tries to cope after her boyfriend is shot to death. Co-stars in the InDigEnt production include James Le Gros, Nora Dunn, and Anne Archer. Harrison was previously at Sundance with the film "Groove."
Star power is also evident in John Curran's "We Don't Live Here Anymore," starring Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern, Peter Krause, and Naomi Watts. The film, scripted by Larry Gross ("Prozac Nation") from stories by Andre Dubus and helmed by John Curran, is about a married man's affair with his best friend's wife.
"Its probably more confusing than its ever been before," noted Gilmore, alluding to the big names in dramatic competition. "That world of production has expanded, [there are] a number of major actors who also take their hat off to work on an independent film."
A-listers Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Benjamin Bratt, Mos Def, Eve, and others star in Nicole Kassell's "The Woodsman," about a sex offender (Bacon) who tries to return to his hometown after years in prison. Lee Daniels ("Monster's Ball") is a producer. The script, co-written with Stephen Fechter, won a Slamdance Screenplay Competition and also was part of the 2002 IFP Market in the emerging narrative scripts section.
In a similarly themed work, Billy Bob Thornton and Lisa Blount star as an ex-con and his wife coming to terms with their troubled history in Ray McKinnon's Arkansas-set "Chrystal." McKinnon's earlier short "The Accountant," which was a big hit on the festival circuit, won him an Oscar.
"This feels like the first full generation of films that we have had that are post 9/11 movies," Gilmore explained, delving deeper into some of the festivals themes. "[There are] films dealing with issues that kind of express, you might say, a lack of assuredness of people's place in the world," Gilmore said. "These are not as insular as the type of films [we saw] in the '90s." Continuing he added, "[There is also a] search for knowledge and loss of memory films." He added that these films echo the "search for knowledge films on the 1950s." Among that list is Shane Carruth's "Primer," about two struggling entrepreneurs whose invention takes off unexpectedly. On that film's website, first-timer Carruth notes that the flick "was shot on Super 16mm for about the price of a used car." Others in the same group, according to Gilmore, include Harrison's "November" and Jeff Renfroe and Marteinn Thorsson's "One Point 0."
Additionally, Gilmore cited a crop of what he calls "moral quandary" films, including "The Woodsman," "Harry and Max," "Mean Creek," and others. Christopher Munch's "Harry and Max," his follow-up to "The Sleepy Time Gal," is about two brothers with similar career paths -- one is an aging boy-band singer and the other is a rising teen idol -- and a "deep affection for each other. Stars include Bryce Johnson, Cole Williams, Rain Phoenix, Tom Gilroy, Michelle Phillips, and Justin Zachary.
Such films, Gilmore says, offer "moral dilemmas without a point of view," that is, "something to think about rather than something to be learned. It is more that the quandary is what's being explored," he explained.
Tales of adolescence -- a perennial theme -- are popular in the dramatic competition for 2004. "The Best Thief in the World," a film developed at the Sundance labs, is directed by Sundance vet Jacob Kornbluth (who was a co-writer and co-director of "Haiku Tunnel," which played at the fest in 2001 and was later released by Sony Classics). "Thief" was one of the recipients of the 2002 Producers Club of Maryland Fellowship, partly sponsored by the Sundance Institute. The film is about a young boy who escapes his troubled home life by breaking into other people's apartments.
Joshua Marston's "Maria Full of Grace," an HBO Films project that still has theatrical rights up for grabs, is about a rural Colombian girl who naively smuggles drugs to the U.S. Marston previously directed the 1999 short "Bus to Queens." The film was workshopped at the Sundance Writers Lab in 2002. Paul Mezey ("Our Song") is the sole producer.
Jared and Jerusha Hess co-wrote "Napoleon Dynamite," about the adolescent boy of the unusual name who uses his "dance and ninja skills" in rural Idaho. The film is Jared Hess' directorial debut.
Yet another adolescent project is Enid Zentelis' "Evergreen," about a young girl growing up in poverty. The project is from Salty Features, run by producing vets Eva Kolodner and Yael Melamede. "Evergreen" was workshopped at the 2000 Sundance labs by Zentelis, whose earlier short "Dog Race" captured several awards. Carrie Seymour ("Adaptation") Mary Kay Place, Bruce Davison ("The Practice," "Crazy/Beautiful"), Noah Fleiss ("Storytelling") and newcomer Addie Land star.
Rodney Evans' "Brother to Brother," which won the IFP's Gordon Parks Award for Screenwriting in 2000, is about an elderly man who inspires a young gay, African-American art student. Jim McKay -- also at Sundance with his helmed "Everyday People" -- is one of the film's producers. Stars include Anthony Mackie, Roger Robinson, Aunjanue Ellis, Larry Gilliard, Jr., Duane Boutte, Daniel Sunjata, Alex Burns and Ray Ford.
In other competition offerings, Debra Granik's "Down to the Bone" (co-written with Richard Lieske) is about a wife and mother (Vera Farmiga) struggling with family problems and a secret cocaine habit. Producers are Susan Leber ("Margarita Happy Hour," "The Technical Writer") and Anne Rosellini.
Zooey Deschanel's younger sis Emily appears in Jane Weinstock's "Easy," along with Marguerite Moreau, who plays a young woman who had been a jerk magnet but finds herself with two impressive suitors. The film -- which already bowed at the Toronto International Film Festival -- features original tunes by Grant Lee Phillips, of Grant Lee Buffalo fame.
Highlights in the American Spectrum program, which includes 13 docs and narratives, include the aforementioned "Everyday People" from Jim McMay, about restaurant workers facing layoffs. McKay says the film is "inspired by true stories sent via email to Nelson George. The stories then became a part of an improvisation workshop with actors and then I wrote the script after that." Producers are Effie Brown and Paul Mezey with executive producers Nelson George, Sean Nelson, Cotty Chubb, McKay, and Michael Stipe.
Other notable offerings include "CSA: Confederate States of America" by Kevin Willmott, described as a "Ken Burns-esque pseudo-documentary that look sat an American history in which the South won the Civil War." That movie is a among a group that Gilmore cited as blurring the line between fact and fiction.
More films set to screen in American Spectrum include Mark Milgard's "Dandelion" about two teenagers in a small town (stars include Taryn Manning and Mare Winningham); and Rory Culkin in Jacob Aaron Estes' "Mean Creek," about a prank on the school bully that backfires. Also on tap is "Second Best" from second-time director Eric Weber, which is about five friends approaching 50; stars include Joe Pantoliano, Jennifer Tilly, Bronson Pinchot of "Perfect Strangers" infamy, Polly Draper, Paulina Porizkova, and Patricia Hearst. Also, Jessica Sharzer's "Speak" (co-written with Annie Young and based on Laurie Halse Anderson's book) is about a young girl who becomes mute after a traumatic event. Kristen Stewart, Hallee Hirsch, and Sundance vet Steve Zahn star. Fred Berner ("Pollock") and Matt Myers produced. "Grind" writer/director Chris Kentis offers "Open Water," based on the true story of an American couple who disappear while on a diving trip; and 2003 festival circuit fave "Robot Stories" director Greg Pak is the writer of "MVP," a film by Harry Davis about a gangland trial.
[Wendy Mitchell contributed to this article.]