SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL January 19-29, Park City, Utah. www.sundance.org. Rating: NNNNN
Park City, Utah -- On the way out of the new Paul Giamatti movie, you can see British director Julien Temple videotaping the mountains, or a clutch of Japanese filmmakers slip-sliding down the sidewalk.
Up on Main Street once you get past security you can see Jennifer Aniston twirling her hair. And if you're actually here for the movies, you can see Ralph Nader taking on big money, American soldiers killing Iraqis or a woman fellating a dog.
So much to look at, but so far none of it's been funny. Between my own screening choices and the festival's plan to go back to its roots, it's been a sober year so far at Sundance.
This is the 25th anniversary of the Sundance Institute, which includes the festival and several filmmaker development programs. They used the occasion to hold their first-ever opening press conference, where Robert Redford insisted that Sundance's legendary fame-whoring happens "on the outskirts of the festival. That's where you get fashion-meets-celebrity."
So this year there's a fatwa on Paris Hilton.
But celebrity doesn't die that easily. Even as Redford talked about programming the festival for diversity rather than commerciality, Toronto paparazzo George Pimentel , planted in the front row, aimed his foot-long zoom lens at the movie star.
This is the Sundance schism. Stars like Aniston make movies like Friends With Money happen. Nicole Holofcener 's festival opener is a classic back-to-the-roots American indie film, a downbeat relationship comedy that includes the line "Sometimes I think we're all just waiting to die." The one difference a marquee cast that starts with Aniston and includes Frances McDormand , Catherine Keener and Joan Cusack .
Friends With Money should really be called Friends With Suppressed Anger Issues, but the dialogue and performances nudge it past cliché. Overall, it lacks the gravitas of what Neil Labute or Jane Campion would do with the material, but it's refreshing to see an American film fly so boldly against the national regime of happiness. In fact, it may be part of a shift in American movies toward a new miserabilism. After Nicolas Cage in The Weather Man last year, all we need is one more star vehicle to make a trend.
Enter Paul Giamatti. We've all seen his furry shoulders in Sideways, but here they are again in The Hawk Is Dying , the most rigorously depressing movie yet witnessed here. He plays an auto upholsterer who lives with his sister and her disabled son (Last Days' Michael Pitt ). He's disastrous at his one passion, falconry, and when one bad thing after another happens, well, it gets worse. Giamatti's great gift is the funny edge of disappointment, but director Julian Goldberger goes way over that edge.
Even the films designed to be clever, like the improbably star-studded Lucky Number Slevin , have a trudging air about them. Paul McGuigan directs it as a shaggy-dog crime story in the Big Lebowski mould, with Josh Hartnett as a deadbeat who might owe gangsters a lot of money. Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley play the kingpins, Bruce Willis is a shadowy assassin and Lucy Liu is Hartnett's ultra-convenient love interest. Not only does she live next door but she's also a coroner! It's a diverting enough movie, but I didn't believe a minute of it.
All this half-success could spell a crisis in American independent movies, if independent stopped at fiction. But the most exciting movies I've seen this week have all been documentaries.
Iraq In Fragments and The Ground Truth: After The Killing Ends might make the most bracing double bill at Sundance. James Longley 's Fragments is a dense immersion in war-ravaged Iraq. Patricia Foulkrod 's The Ground Truth tells the story through American soldiers' eyes, particularly soldiers who've served in Iraq and returned disillusioned, broken and often highly pissed off. The film's anti-war arguments are the stuff of Canadian consensus, but it's so much more convincing to hear the war condemned by men who killed Iraqis themselves.
America's documentary filmmakers are mad as hell and in fine form these days. To those two films I'd add Marc and Nick Francis 's Black Gold , which connects your daily latte to the Ethiopian farmers earning starvation wages to grow your beans, and Joseph Mathew 's Crossing Arizona , which connects the cheap produce in your supermarket to the million Mexicans who stole across the American border last year looking for decent work.
If docs are where Sundance filmmakers show their political smarts, they also contain some of the most personal filmmaking here. Alan Berliner 's Wide Awake rakes over his own insomnia with inevitable narcissism, but finds a great, jittery visual vocabulary for what it feels like to lie awake at night with your mind racing.
It's the docs at Sundance that feel most free. The subject might be the Gulf War or the inside of your own head, but the films go at it with full-on passion. As much as I like the political docs, the one that got me most buzzed was just about three middle-aged white guys jumping around onstage.
For Awesome: I Fuckin' Shot That! , the Beastie Boys recruited 50 fans to shoot a recent New York concert. MCA ( Adam Yauch , aka Nathanial Hornblowér ) stitched the fan footage together with some pro shooting. The result is a machine-gun edit of the Boys and the audience, some of it looking as pixellated as cellphone disaster video.
But it's cool as hell. The Beasties look like video game avatars, and the crowd footage, because it was shot by the crowd, has the buzzy thrill of being there. Two teenage girls trade rhymes to each other on Sure Shot; in the crowd, Ben Stiller spits the lyrics to Hey Ladies.
The same day, the Beasties hold a press conference in a snowboard sponsor's tent at the foot of a chair lift. They say nothing worth remembering, but still I'm captivated. How is it that these guys are still so cool?