Film | Sundance Rewind: Dispatches from a pretty good (and pretty funny) movie year in Park City. | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Film | Sundance Rewind: Dispatches from a pretty good (and pretty funny) movie year in Park City. 

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The Proposition 8 backlash boycott! The collapse of media outlets unable to send journalists! The collapse of boutique distributors for independent films! The collapse of individual bank accounts! Global warming! You name it, and it was being put forth as a reason why the 2009 Sundance Film Festival would be a more sedate affair than in years past. n

Indeed, the vibe was different, though not radically so. Crowds on the opening weekend still turned Main Street into a solar system of club doors orbited by paparazzi orbited by passersby. Distribution deals still were made. There might even have been a bit more spring in everyone’s step thanks to a week of glorious Park City sunshine far removed from the nonstop blizzards of 2008.


Of course, some of us had to spend those sunny days in dark theaters. There, the vibe was a bit different from festivals past, as well—fewer buzz-on-the-street gems, but fewer out-and-out stinkers as well. Humpday grabbed an early lead as the festival’s most widely adored entry, and never really let it go. The high-concept, largely improvised comedy—about two long-time buddies who make a drunken pact to shoot an amateur porn video having sex with each other—was purely, blissfully funny. It was also remarkably wise not just about male bonding, but about the foolish things we’re willing to do in the name of proving something to ourselves.


Maybe it was the desperate need for joy in a frightening world, but virtually all of the festival’s best fiction films were comedies. The hilarious blaxploitation parody/homage Black Dynamite hit a hundred different perfect notes, from its unflappable hero (Michael Jai White) to the intentionally out-of-focus and badly lit cinematography. Adventureland and 500 Days of Summer—both already with 2009 release dates—found big laughs in wistful explorations of young love. And In the Loop provided a darkly satirical, gleefully profane look at the political maneuvering behind a “fictionalized” run-up to an American Middle-East invasion. Even documentaries like The Yes Men Fix the World—the return of the merry pranksters of corporate sabotage—managed to sneak punch lines into social commentary.


It’s a good thing so many films managed to be so funny, because truly unique filmmaking voices were in short supply. While the American dramatic competition largely provided competently told but hardly groundbreaking visions, at least the World Cinema section offered a wild adrenaline cocktail like Bronson, Nicolas Winding Refn’s (Fear X) biography of a notoriously violent British career thug. Yet even in the middle of its bloody fistfights, there was a wild strain of humor. In a weird year for Sundance—and the world—I guess you had to laugh if you didn’t want to cry. (SR)

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Only at Sundance could a film with no screenplay win the top screenwriting award. Each year, the film festival delivers surprises good and bad, little and small, gratifying and confusing—and 2009 was no exception.


This year’s lineup earns acclaim because the pleasant surprises overshadowed the disappointments. Every attendee I spoke with agreed that this slate of films far surpassed that of 2008. The best entries percolated with creativity, whether in the form of philosophical sci-fi (The Clone Returns Home and Moon), riveting biographical documentaries (Big River ManSergio), absurdly comic tales of violence (Louise-Michel and White Lightnin’) or intense drama (Sin Nombre and Five Minutes of Heaven). Actress Carey Mulligan exploded onto the scene with great performances in one excellent film (World Cinema Audience Award Winner An Education) and one mess (The Greatest). and


There were more fascinating documentaries than I can discuss in this space. Ondi Timoner, who won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize for DiG! in 2004, deservedly repeated her victory with We Live in Public. It follows the bizarre life of Internet pioneer Josh Harris, who foresaw the potential of the Web years before technology could deliver it. And the Sundance crowd named a notable Audience Award winner in The Cove, which combined the taut suspense of a heist movie with a call for dolphin rights.


I can’t, however, share in the unqualified enthusiasm for Dramatic Grand Jury and Audience Award winner Push: Based on the novel by Sapphire, about a teenage girl who has just about every problem you can name, other than anorexia. The film’s main drawbacks (besides its subtitle) lie in its overly simplistic, weepy setup and monotonous character arcs. A much more authentic, funnier and touching portrait of inner-city life was found in Cruz Angeles’ Don’t Let Me Drown, a love story told through the lives of two families in Brooklyn in the months after Sept. 11.


And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I laughed during Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, a smart examination of the irrational male drive for creation and adventure. As long as the Dramatic Competition jury decided to present the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award to a largely improvised film, they should have honored this one, rather than the murky, aimless and unfunny Paper Heart. But if there weren’t disappointment to curb my cinematic elation, it wouldn’t be Sundance. (JM) 

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