PARK CITY 2001: Sundance 2001; The Future Looks Bright
by Anthony Kaufman/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/01.29.01) -- When an audience is as easily wooed by a transvestite musical or a narrative that runs backwards or an animated philosophical inquiry. . .
When a Salt Lake City local tells a stranger on a bus that rigorous, downbeat films like "Sleepy Time Gal" and "Macarthur Park" are worth seeing . . .
When one can catch films from first-time directors (Todd Field, Patrick Stettner) that look like they come from the assured hands of veteran auteurs. . .
When Indiewood bigwigs circle around a small film about a lost young boy and his relationship with a pedophile. . .
When you add up all of these instances, you have to come to the conclusion that this year's festival was a success for both makers and fans of narrative indie cinema. Sundance 2001 may have been quieter this year (though cries and catcalls could be heard on Main Street at all hours of the night) -- with acquisition execs more hesitant with their pocketbooks and the media careful not to get too excited about any one particular movie -- but this level-headed take may be because this year's slate was one of the strongest and most unique in years, showing promise for the future of American independent film.
Sure, there were a few smarmy movies -- those entries premiering because of distributor pressures, notable talent or other agendas. (Just look at our reviews of Premiere selections "My First Mister," "Caveman's Valentine" and "Invisible Circus" for what was wrong with some of the films on display.) But if you look at the Dramatic Competition and a handful of American Spectrum entries, there was more to cheer than jeer at Sundance 2001.
Distributors, Hollywood trades, even The New York Times, complained that no hot commercial properties came out of this year's fest. Business was slow and prices were low, they're bemoaning. As Sony Classics co-topper Michael Barker told indieWIRE at Cannes, "It's a very weak year commercially. A very strong year aesthetically." The same could be said for Sundance 2001. There were only two multi-million dollar buys, and few feverish battles for The Next Big Thing. But let's thank God for that -- or the filmmakers: We've had a Sundance festival whose films are -- don't tell the marketing department -- distinctive, original, even challenging.
Going into the festival, for example, "Donnie Darko" was the big buzz item, an effects-laden coming-of-age story produced by Drew Barrymore and directed by first-timer Richard Kelly. Even Miramax's Harvey Weinstein was spotted at the screening. And then the confounding thing screens and distributors don't know what to make of it. Some say it's messy, others find it inspiring. "It won't be easy to market," Andy Bailey writes in his review of the film, "but this furiously inventive debut eases into the new Sundance with remarkable aplomb, decimating nearly everything in its path." Well, too bad for Miramax: their highest priority turns out to be unpredictable -- and unmarketable, so they move on.
But I don't think anyone could have predicted what Miramax would have moved on to in their first American film festival acquisition since "Happy Texas" two years ago: Todd Field's "In the Bedroom." For a reported $1 million, Miramax purchased this powerful somber work about the ravaging pain of loss, starring Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, and managed to make a strong statement: Since they can't make a quality Oscar-caliber movie themselves ("Chocolat"), they have to go outside their company to find one.
Some worry that Field's potent debut, running precisely and profoundly at 130 minutes, will get cut by Harvey "Scissorhands" -- remember previous Sundance trimmings like "Hav Plenty" and "Next Stop, Wonderland' -- and that the New York studio has outgrown its ability to handle such delicate fare. Still, isn't it a good sign that Miramax -- and the other distributors that were vying for "Bedroom" -- were circling a slow, pensive drama rather than the silly mainstream appeal of a "Saving Grace" or "Happy Texas"?
Granted, the Broken Lizard comedy group's Midnight selection "Super Troopers" generated enough heat to incite Fox Seachlight to pay around $3 million for domestic rights, and "The Deep End," Scott McGehee and David Siegel's follow-up to "Suture" -- the most conventional film in the Competition -- garnered the festival's record-breaking deal at $4 million, also purchased by Fox. Mainstream appeal still does have power, of course, but McGehee and Siegel's Lake Tahoe noir is still quite surprising, combining sexual phobias and maternal anxieties with a lot of water imagery (which garnered D.P. Giles Nuttgens a deserved best cinematography award.)
Speaking of surprises, this year's Dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner "The Believer," directed by screenwriter Henry Bean, may be the most flat-out difficult and problematic film to win such an award. Past trophies have gone to such safe bets as "You Can Count on Me," "Girlfight," "Three Seasons," and "Slam," but this year's Dramatic Competition jury -- made up of filmmakers Darren Aronofsky, Joan Chen, Kasi Lemmons, former exec Bingham Ray, and Film Comment Editor Gavin Smith -- have given their top prize to a politically challenging story of a disaffected Jewish young man who becomes a neo-Nazi. Awkward at times, uneven in its motivations, even confusing in its message, the film sparked passionate Q & A sessions after its screenings, with audiences critical of the film's moments of anti-Semitism. I'd like to see an Indiewood distributor try to handle this one.
In addition to the obvious and innovative, clever hits "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and "Memento," other worthwhile Sundance dramatic competitors like "Lift," DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter's engaging urban melodrama about moms and materialism, "The Business of Strangers," Patrick Stettner's stylish psychological feminine endgame, and "L.I.E.," Michael Cuesta's fresh psycho-sexual contemporary ode to "400 Blows," all deserve kudos for their creative direction and desire to push the boundaries of the types of stories with which they're working. The Competition also saw the strong writing talents of Vanessa Middleton, the poetic and challenging return of Christopher Munch, and the emergence of a viable new improvisational home movie aesthetic in the work of "Some Body's" Henry Barrial, Stephanie Bennett, and Geoffrey Pepos. Though only "Hedwig" and "Memento" are assured releases, the rest are certain to find distribution in the near (or later) future.
While not as finely tuned as the Dramatic Competition, the American Spectrum also held some narrative surprises. In addition to Joel Hopkin's sweet-natured "The Graduate"-infused "Jump Tomorrow," acquired by IFC Films, Ilya Chaiken's "Margarita Happy Hour" is probably the best film to come out of New York's East Village filmmaking community since Larry Fessenden's "Habit." Fessenden also happens to act in the movie (delivering a genuine performance), along with Eleanor Hutchins, who gives a complexity and beauty to the film's protagonist, Zelda, a young mother growing out of her bohemian surroundings. "Miss Wonton," a delicate melodrama about a Chinese immigrant facing the dreams and realities of life in the U.S.A., also shows promise for its Asian American director, Meng Ong.
But for the most audacious, exuberant and purely joyful cinematic experiences to come out of Sundance 2001, I'd have to cite two animated films; the first, Richard Linklater's hallucinogenic "Waking Life," a dream-film that grows on you more every second you surrender to its surprisingly suspenseful narrative, mind-liberating message, and rapturous score by Glover Gill; and Don Hertzfeldt's hilarious 10-minute stick-figure opus "Rejected " -- a collision between art, commercial culture, and madness," he writes on his website -- a description that we've come to identify with the Sundance Film Festival itself. Fortunately this year, however, there was a little more art and a little less commercial madness.