Sundance Film Festival January 17-27, Park City, Utah. www.sundance.org/festival Rating: NNNNN
Park City, Utah – You can’t think straight. The must-see 8:30 film overlaps with the must-see 9:30, so you watch half of both and you’re already bleary-eyed by 10 in the morning.
The cold keeps your shoulders tight, the snow slips crazily under your feet, and your Blackberry growls with calls and e-mails. Your face keeps smashing into countless other faces, so you try to sneak looks at their accreditation badges just to keep everybody straight. You’re 8,000 feet up in the mountains, and when you walk fast you can’t breathe. “So what did you think of the film?”
Opinion is a scattershot science at Sundance.
Last year at this festival, a John Cusak film about the slow implosion of an Iraq war widower had great buzz. Grace Is Gone was bought for $4 million, then released in theatres to the echoing sound of only $37,000. Nobody wanted to see Cusack slumped over in a downer war movie that didn’t even have any blood in it.
In fact, of last year’s Sundance crop, only one film went on to a combination of great critical word, adoring audiences and box office earnings of 50 times what it cost to make. That film was Once, the Irish busking romance (and my top film of 2007). At Sundance it barely raised a flicker on the opinion meter.
This year the chequebooks have stayed holstered so far, and opinion hasn’t yet coalesced around any one film. German drama The Wave has a strong concept – a high school teacher conducts an experiment in totalitarianism with his students – but falters as it marches to its climax.
Barry Levinson’s What Just Happened? is pretty much universally seen as a misfire, and the most anticipated film of the festival, Christine Jeffs’s Sunshine Cleaning, collapsed under an avalanche of misplaced expectations. With Enchanted’s Amy Adams in the lead, Alan Arkin and a cute kid in supporting roles and the word “sunshine” in the title, people kept comparing it to 2006 Sundance hit Little Miss Sunshine before they’d even seen it. There’s no buzz worse than the awkward short spurt of premature buzz.
So Sundancers are left to find their pleasures where they least expect them. U2 showed up for the launch of their U2 3D concert movie, with Al Gore as part of their entourage. The film is largely irrelevant at a spectacle like this, but the highlight for many in the audience was hearing Bono tell one guy to “fuck off” when he asked the wrong question during the Q&A. He asked if Bono would ever make a film with social relevance.
Onscreen, the one film to score universal acclaim has been Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired. Marina Zenovich’s documentary returns to Polanski’s conviction 30 years ago for unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Styled as a legal procedural, this is the one film that opinion-makers praise for its drama, social conflict and the nostalgic pleasure of movie fandom.
If your pleasure has no need of narrative or social content, there are the hypnotic trees on display at Sundance’s New Frontiers installation venue. Jennifer Steinkamp’s Mike Kelley Trees projects four floor-to-ceiling images forming the corner of a large underground room. Each image shows an animated tree twisting slowly back and forth on the trunk’s axis, with each tree representing one of the four seasons. As the branches move, they look and feel like lungs breathing in and out. I could watch it for hours.
Instead, I’m in a rush to gather opinions. Isaac Julien’s Derek, I decide, makes a potent memento mori for anyone who came of age on the films of Derek Jarman. Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno shorts are total-ly delightful nature lessons for ad-ults.
Under The Bombs and Trouble The Water both use video shot in horrific crises – Israel’s bombing of Lebanon in 2006, Hurricane Katrina the same year. Both are harrowing, but only one is geniuinely moving. Tia Lessin and Carl Deal evoke empathy for New Orleans that Under The Bombs director Philippe Aractingi can’t quite match.
Brendan Gleeson (left) and Colin Farrell have a good time In Bruges.
Opinion has already settled on Sundance’s opening film, In Bruges. Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as gangsters sent to a postcard Belgian town to hide out after a job goes wrong. It’s a clever time-waster with sharp writing and outsized performances, so it’s easy to dismiss. But I’ve decided to love the film’s big, loping score, and that’s really all I need from In Bruges.
And that is what journalists used to call “30,” the end of the story. This is my last article as a regular NOW writer. I’ve taken a new position as co-director of the Toronto International Film Festival, which means I no longer get to work out my opinions in front of you every week.
Had I made it two more months to March, it would have been 20 years writing for NOW. In that time, I’ve seen thousands of films, interviewed hundreds of filmmakers and fallen in love briefly with Charlotte Rampling. Her fault – actors should really keep interviews professional.
This work has made me who I am. Saying I’ll miss it doesn’t begin to tell the story. But it’s time for new voices.