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Sundance Film Festival 2002

Shan Fowler

For 10 days each January, Park City is a conversely utopian and dystopian microcosm of the entertainment industry, a Hollywood-as-mountain kingdom that is as isolated and insular as it is enviable and confounding.

Real Women Have Curves

Personal Velocity

Sister Helen

Daughter from Danang

Paradox Lake

The Inner Tour

Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony

Human Nature



Hollywood On Ice

The Sundance Film Festival doesn't fit. It's too big for its perennial location, Park City, Utah, yet too small for New York or Los Angeles. It's too creative and defiant for mainstream Hollywood, yet too entrenched and predictable for the independent film world. It's too exclusive to welcome all possible audiences, yet too accessible to be a glorified Hollywood trade convention. And as hard as it tries to remain on the "outside," everyone who's anyone in the business wants to be inside it.

Sundance hasn't always been this way. Although the Festival existed before Robert Redford, when he came on board 20 years ago, it began to evolve. At first it became another stop on the film festival circuit -- another Mill Valley, another Telluride. What thrust it to the forefront of the film world was the increasingly organized and respected independent film industry, and, of course, the independent filmmakers themselves, who increasingly secured funding for their films outside of Hollywood and came to consider Sundance a non-Hollywood venue for first screenings. In 1989, sex, lies & videotape premiered at Sundance and went on to gross over $100 million at the box office. Its success instantly "validated" the independent film world in the eyes of the mainstream movie business.

Since then, Sundance has not only become the Holy Grail for indie filmmakers, but also the most important winter vacation spot for every level of Hollywood player. Today, the snowy sidewalks and shoddy theaters in this resort town 30 miles east of Salt Lake City (which in turn seems like it's 1,000 miles from nowhere) are filled with visitors -- tourists, industry people, artists, movie stars, and many, many reporters. For 10 days each January, Park City is a conversely utopian and dystopian microcosm of the entertainment industry, a Hollywood-as-mountain kingdom that is as isolated and insular as it is enviable and confounding. It's also one hell of a good time.

Part of the fun is the spectacle. Every year, you're bound to see incredibly powerful men and women, pleading and screaming for distribution rights to The Next Big Thing. You're also bound to see the biggest actors in the world uncomfortably seated next to the commoners at the Eccles Theatre, which doubles as a high school auditorium. And don't forget everything else associated with the uncontested independent behemoth: thousands of filmmakers and actors handing out promotional flyers and free merchandise; tiny basement clubs and private condominiums hosting the biggest names in the music world; an endless stream of guerilla festivals (primarily Slamdance, along with others that come and go, such as Nodance, Lapdance, Fundance, and Slumdance); and, of course, the massive lines for everything, from the hottest movies to the hottest pizza slices.

Immediate word out of the 2002 Festival is that business was up and quality was down, which was more or less the opposite of pre-Fest predictions. (One major management company that usually sends 20 agents to Sundance reportedly only sent four this year.) But the relatively small expense of buying rights to a movie, as opposed to bankrolling one from conception to completion, combined with grimmer-than-normal release slates (caused by fears over last summer's writers' and actors' strikes that never happened), led to one of the busiest buying sprees in Sundance history. Miramax paid $5 million for Gary Winick's dramatic competition entry, Tadpole, before the end of the first weekend, and by the end of the second weekend, 13 movies had secured distribution deals, with more reported to be just handshakes away.

As for quality, it would be tough to hold up any Festival to last year's, which included critical favorites, like The Deep End, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, In the Bedroom, Donnie Darko, and Go Tigers!, as well as the box-office hit, Memento. This year's slate didn't include as many unique and well-crafted stories, but where 2001 may be remembered as the Year of Plot, 2002 may be remembered as the Year of Character and, specifically, the Year of Busting Female Stereotypes.

This supports the Festival's well-known but often forgotten reputation as a strong breeding ground for non-mainstream perspectives put to film, in addition to being a launch-pad for occasional blockbusters. One prominent mainstream screenwriter who was at the festival in 1989 told me that at the time, he'd never seen anything like the sex, lies & videotape phenomenon (in which a blockbuster came from an unknown filmmaker with absolutely no prior hype), and that he doesn't think it will ever happen again.

He may be right, but let's not forget that Steven Soderbergh, who is arguably the most successful and respected director currently working in or out of Hollywood, wasn't the only filmmaker who's come to Sundance a nobody and left with instant industry clout. Quentin Tarantino, Todd Solondz, Robert Rodriguez, Miguel Arteta, and plenty of other writers and directors have experience the same Sundance boost. These include Native American filmmakers Chris Eyre and Sherman Alexie, who came to Sundance in 1998 with Smoke Signals, and returned this year, not in competition, but to premiere new movies, Eyre's Skins and Alexie's The Business of Fancydancing.

This year's Festival focused on unique female characters, in films by women. The Dramatic Audience Award winner was Patricia Cardoso's Real Women Have Curves, a portrait of Mexican-American family dynamics as seen through a young woman's eyes. The Dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner was Rebecca Miller's Personal Velocity, a collection of stories about three modern women in flux. The Documentary Directing Award winner, Rob Fruchtman and Rebecca Cammisa's Sister Helen, features an incomparably strong and complex lead character. The Documentary Grand Jury Prize winner, Daughter from Danang, by co-Directors Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco, considers generational and cultural differences between mothers and daughters. Other spectacular depictions of women abounded, including the three generations of Chinese Americans in Bertha Bay-Sa Pan's Face, Patricia Arquette's hairy turn in Michel Gondry's Human Nature, and Kathy Bates' quietly desperate mother-in-law in Todd Louiso's Love Liza (whose writer, Gordy Hoffman, took the Best Screenplay Prize).

Other Festival films addressed themes rarely taken up by mainstream movies with originality or sensitivity. Przemyslaw Shemie Reut's Paradox Lake, this reviewer's pick for best film in Dramatic Competition, is a touching portrait of autistic children. Solondz's Storytelling depicts a college student (Leo Fitzpatrick) with Cerebral Palsy; while it's hardly touching, it's certainly not the typical manchild-savant story favored by mainstream Hollywood. Even Adam Larson Broder and Tony Abrams's Pumpkin, which suffers from a juvenile script, takes a new approach to characters with developmental disabilities.

Another major, if unintentional, theme at the Festival was behind the scenes unity. At least three of this year's best films were produced, directed, and even funded by traditionally adversarial groups. Bloody Sunday, Paul Greengrass's dramatic recounting of the "Bloody Sunday" massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland 30 years ago, was acted, funded and produced by Irish and British partners. The Inner Tour, Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's breathtaking documentary about Palestinians on a bus tour of Israel, featured an Israeli director and a Palestinian cinematographer. And The Two Towns of Jasper covers the trial of the white supremacists who murdered James Byrd in 1998, using two separate film crews -- Marco Williams' black one and Whitney Dow's white one, to interview residents. Face, Paul Goldman's Australian Rules, Lee Hirsch's Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, and The Business of Fancydancing, also consider issues of racial intolerance and cultural identity.

You could probably find dozens of other cogent themes running through the Festival, which is yet another of Sundance's countless strengths. It's one thing to sustain a festival that focuses on independently made movies. It's another thing to premiere some of the most financially successful and critically acclaimed movies of that same 20-year period. But to do both while providing a welcoming venue for free-thinking filmmakers who are shunned by mainstream Hollywood (or at least shunned until they arrive at Sundance) -- that's revolutionary in practical and political terms. No wonder everyone wants to be part of it.

With such lofty ideals that it reaches with such regularity, it's almost a shame that the Sundance Institute has to pick favorites among a crop of movies that are so inherently different. Yet, the results are also revealing: the Grand Jury prize winners are rarely the same as the Audience Award winners, and none of these prizes has historically meant much once the films, or at least the ones that secure distribution, make it to the mass movie marketplace.

And with that inherent arbitrariness in mind, here's my take on the best and worst at Sundance 2002:

Best Picture in Dramatic Competition
Paradox Lake
Director: Przemyslaw Shemie Reut

The dream world we're taken to in Paradox Lake is not a dream at all, but the reality of autism. Reut uses real autistic children at a summer camp in upstate New York, and he sends Matt Wolf -- a privileged young Manhattanite who's searching for meaning in his life -- to work with them as a counselor. What Matt discovers is a world where simple chores can leave nearly grown men a shattered mess, where every action can have a surprising reaction, and where secrets are the currency of communication. He also finds that ego can be the most dangerous handicap of all. Where mainstream Hollywood tends to Forrest Gumpify its developmentally disabled characters, Reut takes them very seriously, and the result is a film of inspiring depth and emotional resonance. Reut's frantic yet seamless style makes us feel the confusion and frustration that defines life at the camp, and though the last 15 minutes are a bit of a non-sequiter -- save for the mesmerizing final scene -- the rest of the movie brilliantly portrays not only the idiosyncrasies of autism, but also the tangled emotional webs of human nature.

Best Director in Dramatic Competition
Rebecca Miller, Personal Velocity

The sharp dialogue and stark narrative tone of Miller's second feature (based on her book of the same name) owe a debt to one of the greatest-ever playwrights and the filmmaker's father -- Arthur Miller. That family dynamic is also felt in the hereditary Nature vs. Nurture burdens that guide Personal Velocity's three vignettes about women: Kyra Sedgwick is a battered wife and reformed tough-girl who tries to break from her past but ultimately finds solace in a depressingly co-dependent routine; Parker Posey is a newly successful book editor who's having second thoughts about how stable her life has become; Fairuza Balk is a former runaway who picks up a young hitchhiker and sees in him a shot at her own redemption. What drives the women to action are the men in their lives -- abusive, ineffectual or philandering fathers, husbands, and lovers -- as well as the unspoken concern that, no matter how hard they might try, they will end up like the generation that preceded them. Miller gets affecting performances out of all three women, in brutally honest depictions of relationships that aren't so serious that there are no laughs. With Personal Velocity, Miller illustrates how unconsciously the familial seeds of similarity are sewn.

Best Documentary
The Inner Tour
Director: Ra'anan Alexandrowicz

One scene sums up the power and paradox of The Inner Tour: A young Palestinian man who, along with about 20 other Palestinians, is on a three-day bus tour of Israel, walks to the high, razor-wired fence that separates Israel from Lebanon; some distance from the opposite side of the fence stands his mother and several family members, whom he cannot visit because Palestinians cannot travel to Lebanon -- he, along with everyone else on the tour, is only in Israel on a special permit; the two sides exchange their love and throw presents to each other over the fence, as if both are trapped in prisons they cannot escape. There is a poignant irony in seeing a Palestinian imprisoned by the Israeli government in much the same way Jews were imprisoned by many European nations over the centuries, and that irony is not lost on the makers of this enlightening and moving documentary, a joint Israeli-Palestinian production. When the tour participants speak to each other, it is with a contemplative understanding of a life of war and persecution. When they speak to Israelis, you can watch as each side discovers the humanity in the hearts of their adversaries. The bus tour is only three days, but the journey the participants and viewers are taken on will last a lifetime.

Best Director in Documentary Competition
Lee Hirsch, Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony

The musical tradition of South Africa often makes it to American shores through the well-intentioned but ultimately filtered recordings of white pop musicians such as Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon. But in Amandla!, Hirsch lets those who created the beautiful and complex songs tell their own stories. The result is a deftly organized history of the Anti-Apartheid movement as chronicled by the powerful protest songs that marked the struggle of black South Africans, from the inception of Apartheid to the excavation from a pauper's grave of the body of the nation's greatest protest songwriter nearly five decades after his death by hanging. We see and hear the anger that permeated the protestors' songs, the beautiful harmonies that buoyed their spirits, and the dances that moved them forward, literally and figuratively. Amandla! illustrates in vivid sound and color how unifying music can be to a society in turmoil, and how much strength a community gains from songs everyone -- from grandparents to parents to children to grandchildren -- can claim as a rallying cry.

Most Original Script
Human Nature
Writer: Charlie Kaufman

Regular Bjork music video collaborator Michel Gondry creates a hyperreal world of saturated hues and fairy tale exteriors in his directorial debut, but the real genius behind Human Nature is screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich). Patricia Arquette is a nature writer with a terribly carnal secret that she's trying to keep from her husband (Tim Robbins), a scientist who's charged himself with the task of teaching the world some manners. All sense of sophistication goes out the window with the salad fork when the couple goes hiking and find Puff (Rhys Ifans), a grown man who was raised as an ape by another man who thought he was an ape. Kaufman explores what it means to get back to basics without resorting to an ignorance-is-bliss myth or self-realization garbage, and he does it all with punchlines and turns of phrase that you're guaranteed never to have heard before. Kaufman is one of the most original and subversive minds writing today, and he's proving it with each successive script made into an incomparable movie experience.

Funniest Movie
Run Ronnie Run!
Director: Troy Miller

Nearly four years after completing the last season of Mr. Show on HBO, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross bring their whippet-fueled train wreck of sketch comedy to the big screen. Ronnie Dobbs is a white trash loser like no other; Terry Twillstein is an infomercial loser like no other. Together, they become the biggest thing to hit Hollywood since penis pumps. Scene after scene of ridiculous predicaments, unsubtle misunderstandings, and good old fashioned crudeness come at you so fast that you only catch half the jokes the first time around. The only flaw is the plot: the sketches are so funny and so neatly connected already that the story arc just seems to get in the way. Other than that, Run Ronnie Run! is the funniest thing to hit the big screen since South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.

Most Entertaining Movie
Director: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo

Some movies are just cool. Intacto has got coolness it in spades. And aces, and hearts, and jacks. Frederico used to be lucky, but he had his luck stolen by an aging Jew (played with sinister humanity by Max Von Sydow) who lives in an isolated casino. Frederico believes Tomas, the only survivor of a plane crash, may be able to get his luck back for him. Director and screenwriter Fresnadillo takes the ingenious step of treating luck as a preternatural destiny for an unironically lucky few, a few who also have the ability to rob others of their luck. This secret society of high-stakes gamblers meets in secluded locations and bets "stakes" -- snapshots of people whose luck they've stolen -- in crazy games on the way to the ultimate prize: a 5-to-1 odds game of Russian Roulette with the old Jew, with his thousands of stakes going to the winner. Intacto is extraordinarily shot, meditatively acted, and consistently surprising. Hollywood only wishes it could make movies this cool.

Worst Movie
(tie) Cherish and The Business of Fancydancing

If I hadn't seen Finn Taylor with my own eyes, I'd think the real director of this catastrophe was a 14-year-old who was trying to make a movie about what it's like to be an adult. The plot is intriguing in the abstract: a young, pop-music-obsessed animator who's unlucky in love soon becomes unlucky in life after a carjacker/stalker runs her into a pedestrian police officer and then takes off, forcing her to take the rap and serve a two-year house arrest. Rather than explore the psychological and humorous possibilities of such urban isolation, Taylor treats it like a combination sitcom and suspense thriller. Everything is so antiseptic, from the Ikea furniture to the eerily spotless "seedy" neighborhood to the cast of characters (cute-as-a-button lead, dorky male co-star, "Sesame Street"-esque racial mix of neighbor kids, et. al.) that what could have been a scrumptious dark comedy ends up somewhere between Gidget N the Hood and Nancy Drew Presents: The Case of the FM Stalker. Either way, without tongue in cheek, such homages to bad TV and ridiculously overplayed love songs make for one massive Sundance disaster.

And if you're looking for proof that good screenwriters don't always make good directors, The Business of Fancydancing should convince you in less than 15 minutes. Smoke Signals writer Sherman Alexie pontificates all over his directorial debut, in which a young poet returns to the reservation to find a community that ostracizes him both for being a sellout and for being a homosexual. Alexie manages a handful of beautiful sequences, but merges them with too many embarrassingly underplanned ones that are personalized to the point of banality. If the directing doesn't turn you off, the acting will. And if the acting doesn't turn you off, the shoddy production will.

Best Category
Whereas the U.S. films, in and out of competition, seemed to be too personal, too political, or too rehashed, almost every foreign film this reviewer saw balanced emotion, politics, and innovation with the most important thing of all: brilliant stories. Even if the action gets a little confusing, as in the Russian movie Lubov and Other Nightmares, the stories are still far from the cookie-cutter approach that plagues Hollywood and, increasingly, U.S. independent movies.

Most Likely to Succeed (Non-Premiere)
Narc or Intacto

(Note: this prediction is made without seeing Tadpole, which generated the most buzz at this year's Festival.) Joe Carnahan's follow-up to Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane features an A-list cast and already has distribution. Though it's a bit heady for a cop drama, it has just enough shooting and intrigue to attract moviegoers in droves. And if Intacto was a U.S. film, it would be the most likely to succeed, hands-down. As it is, it may be the "Most Likely to Get Remade in English."

Best Character
Sister Helen, as herself in Sister Helen You can't make up people like this foul-mouthed, recovering alcoholic, saintly, and undeniably lovable Benedictine nun.

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