A Chilly Reception for Sundance

Salt Lake City Weekly | January 28, 2008
Every year during the Sundance Film Festival, two things reliably happen around Tuesday of festival week. First, about half of the journalists, celebrities and studio bigwigs in attendance head home. Second, at least one or two films have become the ones that all the remaining critics are telling their colleagues that they really shouldn't miss. It's hard to decide which is the more fervently anticipated occasion.

But while the predictable Tuesday exodus did in fact take place in 2008 -- everyone was even more eager to escape after a Monday storm made Park City’s single-digit temperatures a further challenge to Southern Californians' endurance -- the buzz-building title never quite did. Everywhere you turned, people were trying to muster enthusiasm for something they had seen, but you could hear the reality in the phrasing they chose. "Such-and-such was pretty good," would go one refrain, or its close cousin, "This one was definitely worth seeing." There were plenty of movies that people seemed to like, and almost nothing that people seemed to love.

Perhaps it was too much to ask for Sundance 2008 to generate three films that would end up on my year-end top 10 list, as happened in 2007 with Once, My Kid Could Paint That and Joshua. The best of the American Dramatic Competition films I saw, Sugar(about a 19-year-old Dominican pitching project adjusting to minor-league life in the American Midwest) was expertly crafted, yet never quite transcendent. The best of the American Documentary Competition films I saw, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (a look back at the director's controversial trial on statutory rape charges) and Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (a thoughtful exploration of steroids in American life) were engrossing, entertaining works without that magic of a true classic.

The sad truth was that too many of the competition films felt in some manner either half-formed or self-indulgent. There were documentaries like The Order of Myths that announced the historical curiosity of two racially segregated Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Ala., then had little else to say. Or, like Traces of the Trade, took a woman's overly-sincere angst about her family's slaving history and subjected audiences to her globe-hopping therapy sessions. In the Dramatic Competition, The Wackness found a director so obsessed with 1994 that every touchstone of the year demanded multiple references (Kurt Cobain, Forrest Gump, the new Rudy Giuliani administration), leaving him little time to notice Ben Kingsley's scenery-chewing. And promising concepts like Sleep Dealer's near-future of Mexicans performing virtual immigrant labor from the other side of the border fell victim to underwritten characters.

As frustrating as it was not to discover a new talent really worth watching, it was even more exasperating when the known quantities in the festival turned out sub-par fare. Super Size Me creator Morgan Spurlock's international relations-themed follow-up, Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?, started with the goofy premise of Spurlock hunting for the reviled terrorist. And it ended with his realization that the problems in the Middle East are bigger than one man -- which could be helpful for those who haven't been reading newspapers over the last five years. Boaz Yakin, who once upon a time made the shattering urban drama Fresh, tried to recapture his indie spirit after making Hollywood films like Uptown Girls and Remember the Titans. The result, Death in Love, turned the family psychic fallout of one Holocaust survivor's experience into something self-satisfied with its brutal pessimism.

If you wanted to find really compelling characters, winning filmmaking and something worth genuine enthusiasm, you had to turn to the Spectrum category, often assumed to be the place where non-Competition-worthy fare went to die. Sacha Gervasi's charming documentary Anvil!: The Story of Anvil explores the career of the titular Toronto-based heavy metal band, for which the director was once a roadie. He watches them still striving for fame 25 years removed from the halcyon days of hair-metal, and twists the comparisons to This Is Spinal Tap to his own hilarious yet affectionate purposes. It was, at long last, the sort of film that could warm a viewer's heart. When you're spending 10 days in a frigid ski town, it's hard not to hope for a few more flickers of that sort of inspiration.

End Notes:

* Call it something in the indie-film air, but there always seem to be a few thematic threads that show up in a handful of Sundance films. In 2008, there was a preponderance of masturbation (Choke, Towelhead, Death in Love, Good Dick, The Wackness), suicide or suicide attempts (Chronic Town, The Last Word, Ballast, Sunshine Cleaning) and traumatic sexual experiences (Good Dick, Downloading Nancy, Towelhead). And for some reason, also a lot of dead pets (Funny Games, Towelhead, Goliath).

* I understand the political leanings of most filmmakers, as well as the political leanings of most festival-goers. But seriously, can Sundance documentary directors get over using footage or a quote from George W. Bush whenever a laugh or snarky audience response is needed? Fine, the guy's a dunderhead; let's get over having to congratulate ourselves for realizing it.

* True story: In one venue's bathroom, a man was overheard talking movie-biz in the stall. Sure enough, he emerged post-flush still engaged in a conversation on his earpiece cell phone. And we wonder why Hollywood movies end up so much like crap. Thank you! I was here all week ...

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