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Thoughts on a Third Sundance Film Festival

Thoughts on a Third Sundance Film Festival

I’m sitting here amidst my final hours in Park City, 13 days after I arrived here for my third Sundance Film Festival. It feels like I’ve been here forever, and it feels like I got here ten minutes ago, which is a typical Sundance dichotomy. And I have to say I’m leaving it pleasantly reinvigorated in terms of my thoughts on working in this industry.

When I arrived here, I basically felt overwhelming jaded and disinterested in taking on nearly two weeks of nonstop movies, industry socializing, desperate bus catching, headaches and mountain air-influenced dry skin. And the first few days continued this mood. There’s this overwhelming sense of opportunity in the air when you arrive in Sundance – to see the best films, get the best stories, make the best impressions and make the best new contacts. And it’s impossible to really seize this opportunity. So instead you just start feeling insecure and exhausted, wondering what exactly you’re doing here in the first place. By the first Saturday of the festival – after a string of weak-to-horrible films and one-too-many-missed-screenings due to the at times infuriating layout of the festival (you cannot get from Main Street to the Eccles in half an hour, no matter what the bus times suggest) – I was over Sundance 2010 before it really even started.

But then suddenly there was a wind change, and the two great things that Sundance is known reared their heads beautifully: I saw some excellent films, and I started to gain a real sense of community from my industry.

The film winning streak began Saturday night with the premiere of Jay & Mark Duplass’s wonderfully strange “Cyrus,” and continued with Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right,” Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine,” and Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give.” Now I also saw some excellent docs (“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” was a particularly pleasant surprise), and numerous films I at least appreciated (Grand Jury Prize winner “Winter’s Bone,” which though in my opinion not worthy of its prize, was still an accomplished piece of filmmaking), but its those four films that really struck a chord with me. And with good reason… They are films that loudly speak to what I love the most about American cinema: fantastic performances, masterful authenticity in their characters and dialogue, and emotional resonance

Those qualities speak a bit less to “Cyrus” than the others… I mean, it’s an improvised comedy with considerably less intentions to be profound. But Jonah Hill’s deranged performance is comic genius for the ages, and the Duplasses have created something that’s really their own despite their newfound studio backing. I also had mild issues with “Valentine” as a whole – there was just something obvious about its themes that irked me – but the Ryan Gosling/Michelle Williams relationship destruction acting dual was pitch-perfect, and there were a good dozen scenes that left me emotionally floored. So that leaves two very talented women with last names that are hard to pronounce – Lisa Cholodenko and Nicole Holofcener – as my Sundance MVPs.

I ranted on about “The Kids Are All Right” here, and let me reaffirm: This is one of the most endearing and genuine cinematic portraits of a contemporary American family ever, and one that just so happens to be reared by a same-sex couple. “Please Give” has a similarly subtle profundity. I’ve always loved Holofcener’s work, and am quite certain “Give” is her best. It’s an intentionally slighter film that “All Right,” but its performances (Rebecca Hall, Ann Morgan Guilbert and Oliver Platt in particular) and the way Holofcener can write real characters and real dialogue so easily, make it a great companion piece. And both films should help make 2010 a good follow-up year to 2009’s “year of the woman.” I’d be quite shocked if both don’t end up on my top 10 of ’10.

As for the non-film part of the festival…

For someone who often works in this industry (purposely) from a distance, it’s easy to forget that there’s something more to your professional community than the relationship you have with your laptop and your e-mails. But at Sundance, you’re all of a sudden placed in a small mountain town with 1000s of your colleagues, and though I realize I’m too young to know Sundance’s heydays of community intimacy, some of that certainly still remains. From various parties to the brilliant Late Night Lounge, with each night faces get more familiar and the festival seems less and less like a shitshow and more and more like a summer camp without the summer.

So I’m leaving Sundance with refreshed belief in both the power of cinema, and the power of having some little place in the independent film community. I’m not saying I’m not incredibly glad to be getting the hell out of here (my body is very mad at me), but I will say I’m looking forward to doing it all again come 2011.

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