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A Decade of Sundance Films, but Where are the Masterpieces?

A Decade of Sundance Films, but Where are the Masterpieces?

A Decade of Sundance Films, but Where are the

by Danny Lorber

As indie film guru John Pierson said in a recent article in Premiere,
the Sundance Film Festival is a “made event.” While that is indeed true,
the hoopla encompassing the fest – fueled by media and industry players
who deem it by and far the most significant and substantial American
indie film event of the year – does not hide the fact that no matter
what the profile of any festival, its films speak for themselves. And
when looking back at some of the most “buzzed” about films that have
played at Sundance, one will realize that not only has a masterpiece
never been screened, but the festival’s overall quality – compared to
the top tier of Hollywood and world cinema screened at international
festivals such as Cannes and Venice, simply, in fact, doesn’t compare.
While the popularity of Sundance proves that the American independent
film scene is thriving in terms of the number of films produced and the
vast audience willing to see those films – the overall quality of the
films makes Sundance seem like the all star game of a minor league film

The above paragraph may be an upsetting one to some, and don’t get me
wrong, worthy films – even near great ones – have played at Sundance in
the past. Some come to mind instantaneously – “Sex, Lies and Videotape,”
“Blood Simple,” “Hoop Dreams,” even Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”
have rocketed out of the festival and settled themselves into the
discriminating pantheon of contemporary film lore. But will any of those
films ever earn classic status? No way – and we’re just talking about
the festival’s standout fair. What about award winners from the past few
years: “The Brother’s McMullen,” “Public Access,” “Slam,” “The Spitfire
Grill,” etc. These films were lauded as significant films at the fest –
and when truly looking at their merits, one comes to the conclusion that
they’re sloppy, manipulative works whose praise is simply undeserved.

So what gives Sundance its reputation as the premier non-Hollywood North
American film event? For audiences looking for a festival that will
offer them cinema that often touches on art, they’d be much better
served attending high-brow, non-buyers market festivals such as the ones
in New York City and Telluride. Even when talking strictly acquisitions
(which, obviously, is what really matters at Sundance) – production
company execs and acquisitions staff probably prefer the Toronto film
festival where the vast lineup is absolutely more eclectic, exciting,
and artful.

Maybe it’s the true festive nature of Sundance – a mountain side party,
full of creative folks and their providers praising themselves for their
integrity and humbleness while relishing in the possibility of excess
and a monumentally lucrative financial future. It occurs in a small ski
town, smack dab in the middle of winter, in a place otherwise far away
from the psychological vibe of Hollywood. For ten days, the industry’s
players and wannabes share the same crowded sidewalks, restaurants, and
screening facilities, get interviewed by hip television programs and
very publicly commune as supporters of art made out of the
establishment. Dreams come true at Sundance – young film geeks become
players over night, as the brothers Weinstein and their extended
brethren make a splash and cause a party by bestowing millions of bucks
on the most traditional, lacking in guts – the most Hollywood inspired –
“independent” filmmakers.

Why the rant, you ask? Because of frustration – because of an
independent film scene that – at events like Sundance – makes it very
clear that it’s not living up to its possibilities. How many films from
last year’s fest that found distribution were worth seeing? If you ask
me, only two. There was Vincent Gallo’s sardonically beautiful “Buffalo
66″ and Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi” – which was not really a good film, but
was undeniably made by an artist, which is surly a rare occurrence these
days. Other than that there was the overbearing and melodramatic “Smoke
Signals,” the well shot, well acted but obvious and pretentious “High
Art,” and the cutesy and mediocre “Next Stop Wonderland.”

Obviously, Sundance has showcased some pretty interesting, worthy, and
artistically ambitious films in the past. The best of them, films like
“Safe,” “Poison,” “Fresh,” “Hoop Dreams,” “What Happened Was,” “Blood
Simple,” “Reservoir Dogs, “Spanking the Monkey,” “Ruby in Paradise,” and
this year’s “The Blair Witch Project,” are deserving of mention in a
discussion about the most interesting contemporary American films. But
the festival’s been around since the mid-eighties, and these gems are
unusual amongst the mediocrity of the fest’s usual offerings.
Independently financed art is an exciting thing, and a showcase for that
work is crucial. But when that showcase ends up only fueling hype around
an artistic movement rather than inspiring an increase in the actual art
of the movement, there’s a problem.

[Danny Lorber has joined the indieWIRE team to write a weekly review column
for iPOP: indieWIRE’s Movie Magazine. A writer based in Los Angeles, Danny
has been a contributing film critic for The Boston Phoenix and The Los
Angeles New Times. He has also served as a freelance film critic and film
reporter for Daily Variety, and currently serves as one of the associate
programmers of the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival.]

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