PARK CITY, Utah—An old-timer, by which I mean someone five years older than me, was telling me the other day how the Sundance Film Festival used to be 10 days of nonstop movie premieres and parties.
Now, she sighed, “all the premieres are at the beginning because everyone wants to get out of here.”
Well, if you’re a card-carrying member of the indie filmmakers’ society, I can see the reluctance. But after seeing 25 films in five days, I’m ready to go.
Not that I don’t have regrets. I have a formidable list of independent films that were recommended to me at Sundance, but because I had something else to see - or, heaven forbid, sleep to catch or stories to write - I didn’t.
Top of that list is “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” a documentary about the controversial director. In terms of buzz it completely overshadowed the Colin Farrell film “In Bruges,” the much-ballyhooed crime film that opened Sundance. “Polanski” was like a lot of this year’s great crop of documentaries - a small story used to tell a bigger story, specifically what Polanski’s 30-year-old criminal case, and its aftermath, says about our judicial system.
A couple of fiction films are also on my regrets list: “Sunshine Cleaning,” about people who clean up crime scenes, and “Frozen River,” a feature film starring Melissa Leo as a single mom who agrees to smuggle illegal immigrants into the U.S. for money.
I also didn’t catch the documentary about homeless men playing soccer called “Kicking It,” and though it’s not really my cup of tea, I wanted to see “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” a sort of true-life “This I s Spinal Tap” about a Canadian metal band trying to emerge from two decades of obscurity.
But as I say, I’m ready to go. Brain capacity has been sapped by sleep deprivation, and movies are starting to run together in my head. On Tuesday night, at the premiere of HBO’s “Sugar,” the story of a minor-league baseball prospect from the Dominican Republic, there is a scene where Sugar (Algenis Perez Soto ) is making a little extra money working in a diner. As a co-worker shows Sugar how the dishwasher works - the kind you see in church basements, with guillotine-style doors - I had the weirdest deja vu moment.
And then I realized: There’s a scene in the documentary “Up the Yangtze,” set on a pleasure boat cruising up the Yangtze River, where a young Chinese girl is taught to use the exact same dishwasher in a strikingly similar scene. What are the odds?
Also, tempers are wearing thin. People are getting tired of waiting out in the cold. Volunteers have had it with annoying moviegoers. On Tuesday at a packed press screening for Morgan Spurlock’s latest docu-comedy, “Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?” a Sundance volunteer known only as “The Bullfrog” (it’s even on his official badge) said to me, in a voice loud enough for 50 of my neighbors to hear, “Turn off that phone!” - not because it was ringing but because I was using it as a penlight to take notes.
All that said, if I could hook up an external hard drive to my brain, I’d stay longer.
At a noisy Sundance Channel party Tuesday night, the chatter was how all the predictions of bidding wars for Sundance’s biggest movies proved to be about as accurate as a Patriots-Cowboys Super Bowl. That is, about half right.
After all, there’s a writers’ strike on, and it’s bound to affect the movie calendar in the coming months. A lot of people thought Sundance would offer low-hanging fruit for distributors to put into cineplexes.
As I write this on Wednesday morning, however, movies that were sure-fire sellers pre-Sundance - “Transsiberian,” “The Great Buck Howard,” “Sunshine Cleaning” - don’t have buyers.
But as I say, the prediction is half right, because documentaries, the movies I came to see, are selling. HBO went into the wee small hours of Saturday night and came away with “Polanski.” ESPN snapped up “Kicking It,” and I’m reading that a handful of other crowd favorites are in deep negotiations.
I had dinner Tuesday night with David Wilson and Paul Sturtz, the co-directors of the True/False Film Fest (truefalse.org), an all-docs showcase now in its fifth year in Columbia, Mo. Wilson, a native of Columbia, told me that many of the most raved-about documentaries this month at Sundance will wind up next month at True/False, which begins Feb. 28.
I mentioned Spurlock, who is one of Sundance’s homegrown stars. His film “Super Size Me” was the toast of the 2004 festival and went on to become the eighth-highest-grossing documentary of all time. His bin Laden film didn’t make my top-10 list, but I can’t imagine people won’t want to pay $10 to see it at the movie theater.
Framed once again around his personal life - in this case, the impending birth of his first son and his desire to see his child inherit a safer world - Spurlock gallivants through the Middle East, talking with ordinary folks, no experts, about bin Laden, his popularity and Muslims’ perceptions of the U.S.
He gets water balloons thrown at him by Orthodox Jews and the cold shoulder from Saudis. But give him credit: He meets some interesting folks along the way and makes the challenge of radical Islam palatable and understandable in a way that, say, an episode of “Frontline” can’t.
If getting yelled at by someone named “The Bullfrog” was my most embarrassing moment, my second most embarrassing moment happened at the Sundance Channel party.
Standing next to me in the press kennel was a distinguished-looking gentleman in a leather jacket talking to a TV camera. I asked somebody who he was. “That’s Geoff Gilmore,” she said. As in, longtime Sundance Film Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore - whom I’d shaken hands with at an earlier event.
I learned two things right there. First, I’d been away from Sundance far too long, and second, it was about time I headed home.
// Moving Pixels
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