SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL January 20-30, Park City, Utah. Rating: NNNNN
Park City, Utah -- Sundance pro gramming head John Cooper jumped onstage at the awards ceremony and called out to the crowd.
"Put your hands up -- who here's wearing dirty underwear?"
Not many volunteered, but we're lying.
After 10 days of screenings, interviews, shuttle bus crushes and eating standing up, laundry is the last thing on your mind. Besides, a funky pair of shorts can be an asset in some situations. This is Sundance. You've got to keep an open mind.
It's only in the cold light of the next morning, packing a suitcase full of stink, that the measure of this year's festival comes into focus.
First, money flowed. Paramount and MTV bought Craig Brewer 's pimp-rapper drama Hustle & Flow for $9.5 million (all figures U.S.). The overall three-picture deal for producer John Singleton is worth $16 million. Big money also went to the Joan Allen-Kevin Costner drunken romance The Upside Of Anger and the Pierce Brosnan -in-a-Speedo film The Matador . Each sold for over $7 million.
Compare last year, when the top price was about $4 million for Napoleon Dynamite. It looks like the money earned last year by Dynamite, Garden State and Super Size Me (over $100 million combined at the box office) brought Hollywood studios bellying up to the buffet table. They call this a festival of independent cinema, but people in Park City talk percentages before they talk art.
It's too bad, because there's great art on display here. Thomas Vinterberg 's Dear Wendy is a sublime, perfectly achieved allegory, from a script by Lars von Trier . Noah Baumbach 's The Squid And The Whale captures a hyper-literate Brooklyn family in full fragment, and does it with bracing insight and ruthless wit. It took the prizes for best screenplay and direction. It'll be this year's Igby Goes Down.
Even Hustle & Flow counts as a aesthetic marvel. Director Brewer crafts the story as a pimp's mid-life crisis and gives it a narrative arc straight out of Rocky.
But as Brewer said in a mid-festival interview, "I can always tell people who haven't seen Rocky," he said, "because they think he wins at the end."
The thrill of Hustle & Flow comes in how it follows the genre rules of a rousing underdog story even as it warps that music with blue notes. This is a ferocious, funny, surprisingly moving film. Brewer says the plan is to open on the July 4 weekend.
To nobody's surprise, Hustle & Flow won the audience award for best American drama. Because the Sundance audience is composed mostly of cinema-literate Americans, the these prizes strike a unique balance of art and pop appeal. The audience award for best documentary went to the quadriplegic rugby film Murderball .
But for the true pop pulse of this year's festival, you have to look to the growing wave of girlsploitation movies. In Pretty Persuasion , Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen) plays a tart-tongued teenager who stage-manages a social apocalypse at her high school.
In Hard Candy , a girl meets a pedophile on the Internet, then brutally turns the tables on him when they meet in person. Hard Candy's high point is a castration scene that always got audiences squirming, or dashing for the exit.
It may be a coincidence, but both films have strong Canadian elements. Pretty Persuasion was written by Toronto filmmaker Skander Halim , who wrote and directed a brilliant short called Guest Room two years ago. And Hard Candy star Ellen Page is a Halifax native who's been growing up wild in films like Marion Bridge and Mouth To Mouth. In spite of this film's excesses, Page is terrific in it.
Sundance remains a festival devoted to that narrow slice of cinema called American independent, though it rejigged its program this year to shift focus. The section devoted to aboriginal films was dropped, and a new competition section for world cinema started. The Ugg-booted hordes still thronged to the David Schwimmer movie over the Israeli-Palestinian doc, but the doc went home with a prize.
Simone Bitton won the special jury prize in the world documentary section for her film Wall , about the security barrier Israel is building against Palestine. Accepting the prize, she summed up the peculiar experience of being cossetted up here in the Wasatch mountains for the 10 days of Sundance.
"I came here knowing there is another America," she said, "than the one spreading bombs, missiles and bad films."
Amen. Now get me out of here.
Sundance award winners
Grand Jury Prize, American Drama Forty Shades Of Blue , directed by Ira Sachs
Grand Jury Prize, American Doc Why We Fight , directed by Eugene Jarecki
Grand Jury Prize, World Drama The Hero , directed by Zézé Gamboa (Angola)
Grand Jury Prize, World Documentary Shape Of The Moon , directed by Leonard Retel Helmrich (the Netherlands)
Audience Award, American Drama Hustle & Flow , directed by Craig Brewer
Audience Award, American Doc Murderball , directed by Henry-Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro
Audience Award, World Drama Brothers , directed by Suzanne Bier (Denmark)
Audience Award, World Documentary Shake Hands With The Devil: The Journey Of Roméo Dallaire , diected by Peter Raymont (Canada)
American Directing Award, Drama Noah Baumbach , The Squid And The Whale
Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award Noah Baumbach , The Squid And The Whale