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