nIn 1985, a struggling little operation called the U.S. Film Festival turned a corner when it was taken over by Robert Redford’s nonprofit Sundance Institute. The rest is 25 years of snow-covered independent cinema history. n
With the festival’s 25th Sundance-supervised incarnation on the horizon, that history continues to be written. By way of looking back—and wondering what we’ll be looking back on in another 25 years—City Weekly has put together five lists of five covering notable successes, love-’em-or-hate-’em films and some of the quirks that make the Park City event unique. We did the math, and even showed our work. Now you can argue over the results.—Scott Renshawn
Five Divisive Sundance Movies
nA showcase for independent film isn’t really working unless it’s got some true love-it-or-loathe-it classics. These five are among those with as many friends as foes.
1. Napoleon Dynamite
nPRO: Comedy, as a rule, doesn’t hold up well. Laughter is surprise, and that’s hard to achieve when you’ve watched a comedy multiple times. By all rights, I should have lost my enthusiasm for Jared Hess’ Napoleon Dynamite somewhere around the 20th time I channel-surfed into it on MTV or Comedy Central. The fact that I haven’t tells me, as much as anything does, that the naysayers are missing something.
Five years ago, big-city critics in particular engaged in the kind of synchronized sphincter-clench that can only be inspired by stylized comedies about characters from flyover states. Napoleon simply had to be a condescending slap at rural Idaho, even if the filmmaker hailed from those environs. No other response computed.n
What at first glance appears to be little more than episodic silliness—Napoleon (Jon Heder) and his friends and family moving through their deadpan days in their deadpan ways—turns into something more when it’s all put together. Far from being losers, they’re defiant outcasts, people who see in themselves something more than the world keeps telling them they are. And if you’re not seeing in particular a swipe at the kind of casual racism that Hess might have seen in his time, you’re just not looking very hard. Beyond all the “Vote for Pedro” T-shirts was something sneakily edgy. (Scott Renshaw)n
CON: There’s nothing I love more than a great cinematic comedy. And during Sundance, even a mediocre one with a few chuckles is a welcome break from the roar of angst-ridden tales of emotionally crippled mopes with ironic and unlikely careers. So I enthusiastically listened to tales of this hilarious movie called Napoleon Dynamite. Unfortunately, I proceeded to watch it.n
I remember kids in grade school who wrote humor on par with this film. Derek in the circle down the block was coming up with the same gags in first grade. He probably had a better sense of camera placement as well.n
Good comedy sets up concepts and builds on them, feeding off character and setting. Director Jared Hess and his co-writer/wife Jerusha throw out half-baked ideas at random, then abandon them. The characters have no opportunity to react to this nonsense before the film abruptly cuts to a new, equally amateurish non sequitur.n
Napoleon isn’t a lovable loser; he’s a miserable loser. Jon Heder wows us with his acting range, effortlessly playing perturbed in one scene and annoyed in the next. I certainly bought that this guy had no friends, but when he started to make some … well, the suspension of disbelief can only go so far. (Jeremy Mathews)n
2. The Blair Witch Project
nOne of Sundance’s most successful discoveries, BWP earned fame for its innovative pseudo-documentary style. Critics hailed it as a chilling and original horror film with well-acted, humorous characters, while media attention and early online promotion made it one of the most profitable films of all time (See “Five Film Success Stories”).
But not everyone was a fan of its improvised, handheld format. As more people saw the film, more reported motion sickness. Reports surfaced of people going out to the lobby to vomit. Others failed to grasp why they should plunk down $8 to see crappy video and sound. Nine years later, we have no word how those people felt when lots of money was poured into achieving the same effect on Cloverfield. (JM)n
nIt’s safe to assume that writer/director Gaspar Noé knew he wouldn’t be pleasing everyone with this drama that inspired as many walkouts as it did defenders. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either tough but brilliant, or unwatchable, nihilistic, pornographic trash. And not everyone who hated it left within the first half-hour. Some festivalgoers sat through the screening for the Q&A just so they could ask Noé what the hell was wrong with him.
A story told with its scenes sequenced in reverse, the film opens with a chaotic, disturbing burst of violence as two men beat another man to death by bashing his head in. Shortly thereafter, it portrays the rape that inspired the vengeful murder. During the rape, Noé’s camera unblinkingly records the entire nine minutes in one static, wide, ugly shot.n
In Noé’s defense, he puts the violent material in context by forcing us to look at it first, and makes none of it appealing. It would have cheapened the film and made it more gratuitous if the scenes had come at the end, without any commentary to follow. But one certainly can’t argue with those who find it unpleasant to watch. (JM)n
4. Donnie Darko
nAt one infamous public screening of Richard Kelly’s trippy sci-fi/fantasy/dramedy in 2001, one reel was attached upside-down and backwards. During the ensuing technical delay, Kelly quipped to the audience, “My movie’s weird, but it’s not that weird.”
But audiences—and potential distributors—still had no idea what to make of it. Sure, it had Drew Barrymore (also a producer), and it even had special effects. But it also featured a possibly disturbed teen (Jake Gyllenhaal) receiving mysterious doomsday warnings from a bunny-looking creature. A correspondent for Ain’t It Cool News (AintItCool.com) referred to Darko as “a confounding mess”; one distribution executive reportedly exited a screening calling it “an impressive failure.” Meanwhile, Village Voice critic Amy Taubin was calling it her favorite film of that year’s festival.n
Kelly and Donnie Darko left the festival without a distribution deal, eventually signing with independent distributor Newmarket Films. But even when the film finally made it to theaters, it met with a tepid response (perhaps partially related to a post-9/11 audience’s discomfort with its plot element of a plane crashing into a house). Only upon its DVD release did the film achieve cult popularity among those who loved it in spite of the fact that it was that weird. (SR)n
nNo sooner had Gus Van Sant turned himself into the kind of populist filmmaker who made crowd-pleasers like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester than he rediscovered the inner iconoclast who broke through with Drugstore Cowboy. Inspired by Hungarian director Béla Tarr, Van Sant came to the 2002 festival with a 103-minute formalist experiment involving two pals (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who go on a desert hike and wind up lost without food and water. And as the pair begins a descent into despair, the camera goes along with them—including single takes of the characters walking silently that run four or five minutes in length.
Needless to say, some audience members were either befuddled or bored—though Van Sant himself said in an interview that he only counted “about eight walk-outs” from the 1,200 seat Eccles Center premiere. Many viewers and critics mocked it as pretentious; the notoriously bitchy Rex Reed described it as “an in-joke made with Monopoly money, and the joke is on anyone foolish enough to pay real money to see it.” But others found themselves hypnotized by Gerry’s unique rhythms. It took more than a year for Gerry to make its way to theatrical distribution, and Van Sant would continue his more avant-garde experiments in Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park. (SR)n
Five Great Sundance Film Success Stories
nOver the years, the festival has launched plenty of critical and popular favorites. Here are just a few of the most noteworthy.
1. Sex, Lies and Videotape
nIn 1989, a first-time feature filmmaker named Steven Soderbergh premiered a low-budget drama about unhappy couple John and Ann, and how the appearance of John’s old college friend Graham acts as an unexpected catalyst. The film won the audience award, but more significantly, it became an art-house hit and earned an Oscar nomination for Soderbergh’s screenplay. And the search would always be on for the “next sex, lies and videotape.” (SR)
2. The Blair Witch Project
nIt was tucked away in the relatively unpublicized Park City After Midnight category in 1999, but within a few days it was the buzz film of the festival. While reaction varied widely over its hand-held, found-video “gimmick” (see also: “Five Divisive Films”), filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez built on the mythology through the subsequent months with a fascinating Website that went “viral” before anyone even knew what “viral” was. By the time Artisan Entertainment released the film in the summer of 1999, the hype was feverish—and the film went on to gross more than $140 million, by far the most ever for a Sundance film. (SR)
3. Little Miss Sunshine
nThere was reason to wonder whether the love audiences heaped on this dysfunctional-family-on-a-road-trip comedy would move beyond Park City; naysayers only had to point to the flop of 1998 darling Happy, Texas to show that quirky festival favorites might not have momentum. But this time, the affection hit the moviegoing public in general, to the tune of $59 million. And by the time the Oscars rolled around, it had scored a Best Picture nomination and wins for Supporting Actor Alan Arkin and Michael Arndt’s original screenplay. (SR)
nIt didn’t exactly fit the typical Sundance profile—it was an Australian film, rather than American, and therefore not part of the high-profile competition category. But response in 1996 was so positive to the true story of pianist David Helfgott that it provoked one of the most legendary battles over distribution rights in the festival’s history, including a public shouting match. By the time audiences got a chance to see what all the shouting was about, it was on its way to becoming one of the critical hits of the year, including seven Oscar nominations and a win for lead actor Geoffrey Rush. (SR)
nMade on a shoestring in Ireland by an ex- musician, this musical romance between a busker and a Czech immigrant represented everything that was best about the festival. Bubbling under the radar in the World Cinema category in 2007, it quickly became the movie that people needed to tell others about, landing a distribution deal shortly after it won an Audience Award. And when it was released in the summer, in continued its crowd-pleasing ways. The plaintive central ballad “Falling Slowly” went on to win an Oscar for Best Original Song—but by then plenty of people had already fallen in love with the story. (SR)
Five Most Prestigious Sundance Alumni
nThe greatest filmmakers to come out of Sundance don’t merely please the critics or make popular hits. They do it all.
1. The Coen Brothers
nNo winners of the Sundance Dramatic Grand Jury Prize have forged a career distinguished enough to match the duo who won it in Year 1. Joel and Ethan Coen’s noirish thriller Blood Simple took the top prize in 1985, when the festival was known as the U.S. Film Festival. The career that followed led to the brothers receiving three Oscars, including Best Picture for No Country for Old Men last year. Their films include screwball comedy, hard-boiled dialogue and a distinguished visual sheen, whether they’re essential film-school viewing (Fargo, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing), popular favorites (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Raising Arizona) or cult classics (The Big Lebowski). (JM)
2. Quentin Tarantino
nTarantino’s voice as a writer/director is so distinct that countless imitators have tried—and failed—to emulate it. He followed his 1992 Sundance debut Reservoir Dogs with Pulp Fiction, the film that defined its decade. Tarantino’s style reflects his love for violent, low-budget exploitation films, but his smart writing and direction make his work more interesting than the movies to which he pays homage. Despite reports of his chaotic working process, including unwieldy screenplays and extended production schedules, Tarantino’s final product usually suggests that he knew exactly what he was doing all along. (JM)
3. Steven Soderbergh
nIf Soderbergh (pictured left) rapidly raised Sundance’s stature in 1989 with sex, lies and videotape, it took several more years for him to define his own career. Much of his 1990s output was uncommercial and off-the-radar, but his mainstream versatility started to show in 1998’s crime comedy Out of Sight, which also upped George Clooney’s credibility as a movie actor. Soderbergh works quickly, and refuses to limit himself. You never know if he’ll direct a New Wave-throwback like The Limey or a piece of Hollywood fluff like Ocean’s Eleven. He isn’t afraid to experiment, even if the result may be disastrous critically and/or commercially (Full Frontal). But when he’s not baffling Hollywood, he can become its darling with films like Traffic and Erin Brockovich, which both earned Best Director Oscar nominations in 2000; he won for Traffic. (JM)
4. Richard Linklater
nHe may not have gathered as many awards as others on this list, but since Slacker debuted at Sundance in 1991, Linklater has quietly constructed a venerable filmography. He made two landmarks in independent animation, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly,Dazed and Confused, and made a pair of low-key masterpieces, Before Sunrise (1995) and its unlikely sequel Before Sunset (2004). As a screenwriter, Linklater is one of the best conversationalists at work today. His intelligent characters naturally discuss complex, interesting ideas. As a director, he effortlessly captures the big and little moments that define our lives. (JM) launched the careers of several young actors with
5. Michael Moore
nIn 1989, an opinionated documentarian with a sly sense of humor came to Sundance with a film about his attempt to interview General Motors Chairman Roger Smith on the plant closings that crippled his hometown of Flint, Mich. Roger & Me revealed Moore’s gift for making arguments through personal stories and delivering them with empathy and laughs. It soon became the highest-grossing documentary of all time, a feat Moore twice repeated with 2002’s Oscar-winning study of gun violence Bowling for Columbine and his 2004 attack on the Bush administration Fahrenheit 9/11 (still No. 1). Some love him—and just as many hate him—but he’s impossible to ignore. Many have won Oscars, but few can say they were booed during their acceptance speech. (JM)
Five Places You Need to Go
nWhen the credits roll, here are a few essential nonshuttle stops for your visit to Park City.
1. New Frontier on Main
nIn its third year, this exhibit stands out as one of the most fascinating and entertaining places to poke around during the festival. Located in the mall across the street from the Egyptian Theatre at 333 Main St., New Frontier hosts a variety of installations—some 3-D, some interactive, some bizarre, some all of the above. While many Sundance-goers steer away from New Frontier feature screenings due to fear of being stuck for 90 minutes watching masturbation (figuratively and/or literally), they are actually safe here. If one piece isn’t working, they can walk right past it and look at another one. (JM)
2. Music Café
nSundance’s Music Cafe, which just moved downhill to a tent on Main Street and 7th, offers cheap and easy entertainment—the rarest kind at this film festival. No one can argue against free, quality live indie music from well-known and up-and-coming artists. (Must be 21 or older. Sundance badge-holders have first dibs on limited space. Open 1:30 - 5:30 p.m.) (JM)
|n||How to Sundancen |
n Many—if not most—Sundance screenings are sold out by the time the festival opens. But tickets can still be found through two primary sources: n
Day-of-Show Releases: A limited number of tickets are released when the box offices in Park City (Gateway Center) and Salt Lake City (Trolley Square) open at 8 a.m.; tickets for the first show at each venue are released the day before. Lines usually are long, so arrive early.n
Wait List: Arrive at the venue two hours before scheduled showtime to receive a wait-list number, then return half an hour before showtime. Larger theaters (like the Eccles Center), early mornings and screenings later in the week are the best bets. Cash only.n
3. The Queer Lounge
nSome gay-rights advocates wanted to protest the LDS Church by boycotting Utah’s crazy degenerate liberal film festival. But most of them thought that was a stupid idea, so GLAAD and Absolut’s stylish Queer Lounge (608 Main) remains a place for people of all orientations to relax or party, depending on the time of day. (JM)
4. Slamdance HQ
nIf Sundance’s presence spawned Slamdance, Slamdance spawned a series of other so-called “satellite festivals,” held in conjunction with the big one. Some prospered while others vanished, but Slamdance remains the biggest of the little guys. Before you dismiss the wild-eyed kid thrusting his film’s postcard on you, remember that The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan screened his first feature (Following) here. Stop by the Treasure Mountain Inn on top of Main Street for an alternative perspective on independent film. (JM)
nDetached from the mayhem of Main Street, Squatters (1900 Park Ave.) remains busy throughout the festival, but almost comes off as subdued compared to the overstuffed eateries and party locales in the heart of town. Unwind and enjoy some local food, brew and atmosphere. (JM)
Five Film Guide Phrases to Know
nOver the years, Sundance programmers have developed a language all their own for the film descriptions in the annual festival guide. Here are a few helpful translations.
1. “… defies categorization …”
n“You will have no idea what the hell is going on in this movie.” (SR)
2. “… audacious personal expression …”
n“You will see either a naked penis, a decapitated body part, or a decapitated, naked penis.” (SR)
3. “… poetic and beautifully crafted meditation …”
n“If you have been watching four or five movies per day, and are running on four hours’ sleep, you will doze off at around the 20-minute mark.” (SR)
4. “… moving and intensely satisfying …”
n“There is a possibility that someone outside of Park City might actually want to pay to see this movie.” (SR)
5. “… truly fresh filmmaking voice …”
n“After this week, you will never hear this director’s name again.” (SR)
Visit Sundance.org/Festival for film guide and additional information. tttt