Once the dust has settled from the latest Sundance Film Festival, a ten-day affair that started January 18th, there are essentially three main categories to discuss: The award winners, personal favorites, and the films that actually have distribution. The latter category is the one that is most relevant to the cinephiles that are interested in what they might be able to watch at a theater in the near future. However, deals between distributors and filmmakers continue well through the months that follow, so it’s possible that any of these films might eventually surface for exhibition.
Feature Film Awards for Sundance 2001
Sundance 2001 Coverage
Sundance Glance: festival overview
9 Capsules: Sundance 2001 capsule reviews
Kim Ki-Duk and Jung Suh: an interview with the director and leading lady of the Korean film The Isle
Christopher Nolan: an interview with the promising director of Memento
Ozzy Osbourne: an interview with the lead singer for Black Sabbath
Penelope Spheeris: an interview with the versatile director of We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n Roll
The Documentary Grand Jury Prize: Southern Comfort. A humanistic portrait of transgendered life as it is lived deep inside Ku Klux Klan territory in the rural trailer community of Toccoa, Georgia.
The Dramatic Grand Jury Prize: The Believer. About a young neo-Nazi who comes to grips with his Jewish background.
The Documentary Audience Award: Dogtown and Z-boys, a look at skateboarding culture, and Scout’s Honor, which covers the controversies between homosexuals and the Boy Scouts.
The Dramatic Audience Award: Hedwig and the Angry Inch. A colorful musical based on a successful Broadway play about a (not-quite-fully) transgendered rock-star wannabe.
The World Cinema Audience Award: The Road Home. The latest film by Zhang Yimou.
The Documentary Directing Award: Stacy Peralta, director of Dogtown and Z-boys.
The Dramatic Directing Award: John Cameron Mitchell, director of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Excellence in Cinematography Awards: Albert Maysles, cinematographer on Lalee’s Kin: the Legacy of Cotton from the Documentary Competition and Giles Nuttgens, cinematographer on The Deep End from the Dramatic Competition. Maysles documentary is a penetrating look at the povery and illiteracy found in Mississippi by following a single Delta family. The Deep End is the latest feature by the filmmakers of the 1993 stylistic extrapolation on noir and film theory, Suture. (A fact that makes The Deep End a bit of a surprise insofar as how conventional it is by comparison.) The story follows the lengths to which a mother will go to save her child from extortion.
Freedom of Expression Award: Scout’s Honor
Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: Christopher Nolan, (based on the short story by Jonathan Nolan), screenwriter of Memento. The Nolan brothers cooked up an ambitious tale of a man seeking revenge despite a debilitating injury to his short-term memory, with a subjective structure that forces the audience into the same disorienting perspective.
Special Jury Prize: In the Bedroom, a narrative about the inner workings of an upper-middle-class family faced with tragedy, and Children Underground, a documentary about abandoned children living in a subway station below the streets of Bucharest, Romania.
Jury Prize in Latin American Cinema: Possible Loves, a playful and sexy look at three different lives faced by one character, and Without a Trace, billed as a “woman’s road movie” that traverses from Mexico’s northern border to the lush area around Yucatan.
Special Jury Mention: Coffin Joe: The Strange World of José Mojica Marins, a documentary about a little-known Brazilian indie horror director.
A Personal Viewpoint
Having only attended half of the festival there were only so many films I could watch between interviews and other logistics. Of the seventeen films I screened, the only ones overlapping with those mentioned above were The Believer, The Deep End, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Memento. I thought The Believer had interesting moments and strong performances, but it suffered from sloppy storytelling and looked ugly (it was digitally shot and projected). The Deep End was a solid thriller on every level, but suffered from the kind of story contrivances you would expect from a Hollywood potboiler – still, it was refreshing due to its use of a devoted mother as the main protagonist. Hedwig and the Angry Inch was a clear crowd-pleaser with a great soundtrack and eye-popping colors, and from the way everyone was fawning over it you could tell it would be a clear winner at the festival. As much as I enjoyed this film, it was the drink equivalent of some foo-foo, candy-colored, over-sized Margarita with a bunch of umbrellas sticking out of it. Which is fine, but I’d prefer a shot of espresso, something that jolts the senses, and this is exactly what Memento provided.
Memento (see interview) is an existential mystery told backwards in segments and subjectively so that the question is not “what happens?” but rather “why does it happen?” The protagonist is essentially living in the present-tense only, and asks himself (and the audience) questions like “How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?” It’s a throwaway line, but an example of the gems to be found in the periphery. After all, the cliché is that time heals all wounds, but this film makes you realize that this is not because of subtraction (meaning that you’ll eventually forget what pains you), but rather because of addition (so that the more memories you collect, the more you can distance yourself from the pain remembered).
My second favorite entry was the Korean film The Isle. Ironically, the director who was so pleased with the American crowds at his first screening (as evidenced by his reactions to the accompanying interview) was destined for disappointed at future screenings. Reportedly, festival programmers decided to initiate an I.D. checkpoint that barred entry to The Isle for anyone under 21-years-of-age. While the graphic nature of the film certainly calls for certain restrictions, the use of the drinking age of 21, rather than the adult age of 18, as a cut-off prompted people associated with the film to question aspects of our puritan culture. And, yes, the film depicts moments of surreal unpleasantness, but it tempers these moments with scenes of great and inspired beauty – a bit like alternating licks between an ice cream cone and a car battery. You’ll certainly never forget the flavor.
Honorable mention now goes to a film that I was unable to see, but that a friend assures me is a ground-breaking film that topped his list of personal favorites: Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. With an ensemble cast of over 75 people, this sounds a lot like Slacker, except for one very important detail: using a new animation program, every single frame was digitally painted to produce an altogether new look that fuses real motion and imagery with a colorful and expressive palette.
Okay, now it’s time to address the practical part of the equation. Of all the films discussed, which ones have actually have distributors attached to them that ensure that you, the avid movie-goer, will be able to see the film eventually? As of this writing, here are the films, from the aforementioned lists, that were already picked up, are being picked up, or have deals on the way for some form of exhibition (cable or theatrical): Waking Life, The Deep End, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Memento, and Children Underground.
Now for an overview of films with some kind of release planned that have not been discussed:
- Caveman’s Valentine – The latest film from Eve’s Bayou director, Kasi Lemmons.
- Double Whammy – Living in Oblivion director Tom Dicillo got nothing but nasty press for this vehicle starring Denis Leary and Elizabeth Hurley.
- Enigma – A big budget action film produced by Mick Jagger and directed by Michael Apted.
- Green Dragon – An acclaimed film about Vietnamese refugees in the U.S., from the filmmakers that brought us Three Seasons.
- Happy Campers – A spoof on summer camp films that stars Janeane Garofalo (previous title: Wet Hot American Summer).
- Invisible Circus – Jordana Brewster and Cameron Diaz star in this tale of sisters, Paris, and the ‘70’s.
- L.I.E. – A well-acted bit of corroding urbania, set by the Long Island Expressway, that navigates and updates terrain reminiscent of The River’s Edge.
- Lost and Delirious – The first English film by Quebecois director Lea Pool.
- Madison – Based on the true story of a dying river town in Indiana that managed to host the 1971 Gold Cup of hydroplane boat racing.
- My First Mister – The opening night film by Christine Lahti, which garnered luke-warm reviews.
- Raw Deal: a Question of Consent – A controversial documentary that shows actual video clips of confiscated tapes from Florida fraternity members who taped themselves having various sexual encounters with a woman who then claimed she was raped.
- Super Troopers – Described by a Sundance programmer as Police Academy on crack. Is this a good thing?
- Things Behind the Sun – The latest film from Gas, Food, & Lodging director, Allison Anders.
- Trembling Before G-d – A documentary about Hasidic and Orthodox Jews who come out as gays and lesbians.
- Perfume – A look at the fashion world that stars Jeff Goldblum, Carmen Electra, etc.
- Series 7 – A very dark comedy and spoof on reality programming, this one taking place in the very near future and involving contestants who must kill each other – with the last one standing being declared the winner.
- Sexy Beast – A violent, British gangster comedy with unusual flourishes.
- startup.com – A documentary from The War Room director, Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim that traces the paths of two entrepreneurs and their start-up companies.
So, there you have it: Award winners, personal favorites, and then the films that are actually destined for play (so far). Despite some gems in this latter category, the one thing that is clear is that American distribution, not surprisingly, favors the home-grown titles by a widely disproportionate margin over foreign titles. Of the 27 films that represented World Cinema at the Sundance Film Festival, information is still pending on which have American distribution. The track record, however, is not pretty. And besides, as Kim Ki-Duk, director of The Isle said in his interview, “American movies repeat themselves endlessly.” This cycle of repetition is something that also pops up in distribution. Now, hopefully this trend favoring conventional stories can someday give way to a larger market share for cinema’s more exotic brethren, but distributors can ultimately only be as accountable as the everyday people who buy the actual tickets to see a film. And, honestly, when a person can choose between a known quantity, with familiar faces and predictable plots (e.g., Super Troopers or Happy Campers), versus a subtitled film that makes them uncomfortable, (e.g., The Isle) where would you place your bet?