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A Quieter Sundance, But The Films Still Made Noise: Sundance ’09 Wrap Up (Steve Ramos)

A Quieter Sundance, But The Films Still Made Noise: Sundance '09 Wrap Up (Steve Ramos)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s goodbye to the 2009 Sundance Film Festival involved sprinting across the Eccles Theatre stage and filming the capacity crowd with his digital video camera. The veteran actor and novice filmmaker (His short film “Sparks” is in competition at the festival) had every reason to be on-stage; answering questions from the Saturday morning audience who just watched his sly, slick romance “500 Days of Summer.”

“Sundance kicks ass!” Gordon-Levitt shouted from the stage, receiving almost guaranteed applause. “The stupid stuff is going away but this stuff, the films, are getting stronger. It’s like everyone from LA is out of here.” (Everyone including Gordon-Levitt’s “500 Days” costar Zooey Deschanel)

Gordon-Levitt, tugging on his red Obama t-shirt, could have easily made his shout-out at the festival’s start. Plenty of press and film industry attendees left by mid-fest but the ranks were thin compared to previous years on day one.

Sundance 2009, despite being the festival’s 25th anniversary, was noticeably quiet to all in attendance, from young filmmakers seeking out journalists, “Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle” director David Russo complained openly about the lack of coverage for his film, to servers at Main Street restaurants watching their tips shrivel.

Balmy weather throughout the week in Park City, Utah made for a relatively snow-free Sundance but a perfect storm of outside influences brought a cold feeling of pessimism regarding the indie film biz.

President Obama’s inauguration took a number of celebrities away from Park City, as well as the media spotlight. Several specialty companies closed in 2008 including Warner Bros. divisions Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse reducing the chance for bidding wars over films. There were fewer critics in attendance, resulting in less Sundance coverage.

On Thursday, James Gandolfini, best known as crime boss Tony Soprano, took part in a press day with his director Armando Iannucci and co-star Mimi Kennedy on behalf of their film “In the Loop,” a political comedy about the U.S. and British politicians racing to start an Iraq-like war (IFC purchased the film Friday). All alone in a massive white tent on Main Street, Gandolfini had to wonder what happened to the infamous Sundance press corps that swarms celebrities with the same gusto they show for an open bar.

Of course, there were crazy, chaotic moments straight out of Sundance past. Opening weekend traffic gridlock required an hour shuttle ride to travel what should be ten minutes, from the Eccles Theatre to Main Street. Cell phone reception was spotty at times. There was not enough room for interviews at the Hollywood House on lower Main Street, a popular press spot. So crates of Heineken served as makeshift chairs as casts from various films competed for space.

Unexpected celebrity guests, or guests that had nothing to do with festival films, included “Girls Gone Wild” creator Joe Francis, reality star Kim Kardashian and the entire cast of “Spongebob Squarepants” celebrating the show’s tenth anniversary with a live taping (Adding to the event’s surreal quality, Hip-Hop pioneer Russell Simmons hosted the event wearing “Spongebob” bling).

More importantly, there was still that wonderful Sundance feeling of having a handful of things – screenings, interviews, panels, maybe an hour’s sleep – you could be doing at any given time. That chaos and the stress that comes with it likely contributed to a breakfast smack down between “Variety” critic John Anderson and sales agent Jeff “The Dude” Dowd, who went nose-to-nose over Anderson’s negative review of the eco doc “Dirt,” which Dowd was selling.

There was no deal for “Dirt,” despite the added attention, but a handful of sales closed during the festival. The deals were safe purchases of films with strong marketability. Then again, a perfect storm, as far as Sundance movies are concerned, would be that rare film both artful, smartly told and utterly audience friendly. This year, that prize, including the World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award, presented at Saturday night’s closing ceremony, went to Danish director Lone Scherfig’s sweet and wonderful coming-of-age period drama “An Education.”

Set in 1961 London, Jenny (British actress Carey Mulligan in a breakout role) is a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl intent on gaining a spot at Oxford until she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), an older, Jewish man who dazzles her with his cosmopolitan lifestyle. Screenwriter Nick Hornby adapted journalist Lynn Barber’s short memoir into a full and distinct story. Scherfig, best known for her 2000 foreign-language romance “Italian for Beginners,” brought together all her filmmaking skills, making full use of her impressive ensemble cast, polished technique and ability to craft a story appealing to a large audience.

“An Education,” picked up by Sony Pictures Classics also boosted Sundance’s stature as a place for discovery thanks to Carey Mulligan’s standout performance as Jenny, a young woman desperate to ditch her family’s dull suburban lifestyle for a life with the charismatic David. Mulligan’s performance, along with Jess Weixler in the couples drama “Peter and Vandy” were the female performance highlights of the festival.

“This is the best one,” Scherfig said after the ceremonies, admitting that she will wait until morning to call her colleagues in England and Europe. “I feel so much pride. Making films is an act of generosity and it’s very nice when someone appreciates what you’re trying to show people and share with people.”

Only one documentary was sold during the festival. HBO bought North American television rights to “Burma VJ, director Anders Ostergaard’s fascinating film about the underground video journalists who put their lives on the line bringing accurate news reports regarding the military dictatorship to the people of Burma. At the Saturday night awards ceremonies, many documentary directors expressed surprise that more non-fiction films had not been picked up by that time. The way they put it: in a bad economy, with companies looking for value, documentaries make perfect economic sense.

“The Cove,” director Louie Psihoyos’ environmental thriller about a covert team of activists who risk their lives filming the slaughter of dolphins in the small seaside town of Taiji, Japan, gained a significant boost by winning the Documentary Audience Award. As tense and suspenseful as the best movie thrillers, it’s been predicted that “The Cove” will walk away with two deals soon after the festival, one for theatrical distribution; another for adaptation rights.

In a field crowded with films dealing with environmental issues, Psihoyos and screenwriter Mark Manroe set “The Cove” apart by combing the expected; beautiful photography of its animal subjects, in this case dolphins, with the unexpected; exciting video footage pulled from the surveillance equipment from the team infiltrating the dolphin cove at Taijii.

Richard O’Barry, the trainer for the dolphins that played TV’s Flipper and a longtime advocate for freeing dolphins from captivity brings a humanistic core the movie as the leader of the team. In fact, “The Cove” is doubly exciting because you connect with O’Bary and want him and his team to succeed.

At the ceremonies, O”Barry used the stage to make a plea to longtime festival sponsor NHK

“You can lift the ban on news stories regarding the slaughter of dolphins,” O’Barry said from the stage. I am asking you to do that now. The Japanese people have a right to know.”

Deals were also made for the Ashton Kutcher gigolo drama “Spread” (Anchoy Bay), the Sam Rockwell sci-fi drama “Moon” (Sony Pictures Classics) and the high school basketball drama “The Winning Season” (Lionsgate), the NY cop drama “Brooklyn’s Finest” (Senator Entertainment) and the blaxploitation-inspired comedy “Black Dynamite” (Sony Pictures Classics).

But great specialty films often divide audiences, just like great works of art and some of the outstanding Sundance 2009 dramas proved that theory to be true. With that in mind, they also came off as marketing challenges to industry buyers, although hopefully, challenges worth taking.

Argentine filmmaker Alexis Dos Santos’ lovely London romance “Unmade Beds” was a colorful, vibrant and emotionally sweet a love story. Vera (Deborah Francois) and Axl (Fernando Tielve) are two foreigners and fellow squatters at a London loft. They’re also searching for people important to their lives. Axl is looking for his British father. Vera is looking for a recent boyfriend. Dos Santos created freewheeling tale that benefits from its improvisational spirit and its attractive leads. Undoubetedly, “Unmade Beds” proved itself capable of moving young audiences at the festival and arguably, the older festival patrons as well.

The highlight of the festival turned out to be director Nicolas Winding Refn’s artful, high-energy “Bronson,” an explosive biopic about Britain’s most violent prisoner Charlie Bronson, brought to life by Irish actor Tom Hardy.

Watched at an evening screening at the Egyptian Theatre, “Bronson” turned out to be the type of sensational experience that can only happen at Sundance, nothing to do with celebrities or gift houses, simply about the film.

“I couldn’t watch the film with the crowd,” Winding Refn told us later in the week. “I was upstairs in the theater office. I know that great art is never liked by everybody — never. But I’m a filmmaker and I want everybody to like my movie.”

Winding Refn did not get his way. A few people did walk out of the screenings but those who stayed saw a work of film art worthy of the Stanley Kubrick comparisons. Distributors, anyone?

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