Down From the Mountain
No snow, but a strong slate at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival
Attendance was up this year at Robert Redford's annual festival of independent film -- and so was the glitz factor. This meant that not only were more individuals clamoring to get into screenings, but that more bona fide stars, handlers, entourages, and gawkers also crowded the streets of the tiny resort town of Park City, Utah. Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino were here with movies; so were William H. Macy, Jessica Lange (in two movies), Philip Seymour Hoffman, Penelope Cruz, Kevin Spacey, and many, many others. Bob Dylan was here for the premiere of his film Masked and Anonymous, and J.Lo was here with Ben, who was here with Matt for the announcements of the next round of winners of Project Greenlight.
After an attendance slump last year caused by the post-9/11 circumspection and the Park City pre-Olympics commotion along with Sundance's attendant date change, things were humming again for the unseasonably warm 2003 fest. The same was true for Slamdance, the most stalwart of the many alternative festivals, which this year reclaimed its old headquarters on Main Street, in the thick of the festival swirl after a couple of years in a bigger but farther away location. Their sold-out opening-night movie, Kenneth Bowser's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, based on Peter Biskind's tell-all compendium of American filmmaking and filmmakers in the Seventies, was echoed by the Sundance offering of A Decade Under the Influence, an IFC-produced documentary by screenwriter-turned-director Richard LaGravenese and Ted Demme (who died unexpectedly during its making) that screened as a work in progress at last year's Austin Film Festival. Both films present fascinating if incomplete pictures of Hollywood's "age of the director," during which a number of singular filmmakers such as Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, Ashby, and Altman came into prominence. It was a theme appropriate to the films in this year's festivals, where individual visions were everywhere in evidence.
Although several movies were purchased by distributors during the course of Sundance, prices did not reach the astronomical figures seen in years past. As more films will be sold in the coming days and weeks, it remains to be seen if this more realistic tendency continues to hold. One producing trend that stood out this year was the number of films financed by cable outfits such as HBO and Showtime. Showtime had Ernest Dickerson's Good Fences, Salma Hayek's directorial debut, The Maldonado Miracle, and Frank Pierson's A Soldier's Girl. HBO was there with Normal, starring Jessica Lange and Tom Wilkinson in this effectively rendered story about a longtime married couple in Middle America who deal with the implications and consequences of the husband's sexual reassignment surgery; HBO also produced Grand Jury Dramatic competition winner American Splendor, which is based on the dour world-view of Harvey Pekar -- a frequent freelance Chronicle contributor -- as portrayed in his underground comics. It's likely that American Splendor will be sold to a distributor who will give it a theatrical release prior to its debut on HBO. One of the best-received movies of the festival, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's American Splendor adroitly combines live-action and comic-book material, as well as documentary footage of Pekar and wife Joyce Brabner with their movie-world counterparts, Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis.
Four Austin-based filmmakers were represented at Sundance with screenings of their short films. Richard Linklater's "Live From Shiva's Dancefloor" showcases the incomparable Speed Levitch (The Cruise) ruminating on New York City post-9/11. (He suggests the World Trade Center site be turned into a bison park.) Former UT filmmaking professor Francesca Talenti received an honorable mention for her beautifully abstract experimental piece "The Planets." Apathy, Drugs and Driving publisher and Zombiefest czar Scott Calonico showed "The King and Dick," a technically fresh confabulation about the relationship between Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon. And the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, presented their amusing minidrama of angst "this is JOHN," in which a person crumbles under the pressure of choosing an outgoing message for his answering machine.
Onetime UT student David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls, his follow-up to George Washington, shows once again his brilliance in evoking an honest sense of place and emotional geography. The film received a Special Jury Prize for Emotional Truth. Courtship and the awkward beginnings of relationships are generously portrayed in All the Real Girls, and the film's evocative strains are greatly helped along by the moody sonic drone of the soundtrack composed by Austin musician Michael Linnen and former Austinite (and Green roommate) David Wingo. (The pair also provided the soundtrack for George Washington.) The Dramatic Directing Award went to first-timer Catherine Hardwicke for thirteen, a harrowing study of an adolescent girl who falls under the bad influence of another teenager. Holly Hunter, the festival's recipient of Sundance's Tribute to Independent Vision, gives an astonishing performance as the girl's mother. Switching to directing after years as a much-sought-after production designer, Hardwicke is known around these parts for her work on Linklater's subUrbia and The Newton Boys.
Perhaps the most anticipated film of the festival was Masked and Anonymous, starring Bob Dylan and helmed by Curb Your Enthusiam director Larry Charles. The film certainly had the most star-studded premiere: In addition to Dylan, in attendance were co-stars Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Penelope Cruz, Val Kilmer, Mickey Rourke, Christian Slater, and others. (Co-stars not in attendance included Jeff Bridges, Luke Wilson, Angela Bassett, Ed Harris, Bruce Dern, and Cheech Marin.) The entourage alone had theatregoers atwitter prior to the film, whose start time was delayed while the assemblage worked their way to their seats. I'm sad to report, however, that Masked and Anonymous is a barely coherent mess that might be best summed up with two words: "Renaldo" and "Clara." The movie -- which was presented as a work in progress and thus could substantially change before its theatrical release -- has only the barest outline of a story, and is heavily laden with Dylanesque metaphors and crypticisms. Regrettably, the language that works so vividly in song does not work in film, and the effect is further diffused by Dylan's poker-faced screen presence. It's as if he's mumbling one-liners off at the edge of the screen but never truly interacting with this amazing array of actors who were obviously willing to try anything in order to be in a film with Bob Dylan.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was The Station Agent, perhaps the most widely adored film of the festival. Winner of two awards -- the Dramatic Audience Award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for writer/director Tom McCarthy -- the film also co-stars this year's "It" girl, Patricia Clarkson. Perhaps best known for her current run in TV's Six Feet Under, Clarkson co-starred in four festival films: The Station Agent, All the Real Girls, Pieces of April, and Canadian entry The Baroness and the Pig. In The Station Agent, Clarkson plays a grieving mother and artist who forges unlikely bonds of friendship with a misanthropic dwarf (Peter Dinklage) and a garrulous coffee vendor (Bobby Cannavale) in rural New Jersey. Pieces of April, written and directed by Peter Hedges, was another of the festival's hot tickets. In it, Clarkson portrays a wife and mother who is traveling by car with her family to share Thanksgiving with her black-sheep daughter April (Katie Holmes). Clarkson's hairpin turns from dystopic to hilarious to disaffected are truly the stuff of movie magic. Co-stars Holmes, Oliver Platt, and Derek Luke also contribute greatly to the film's charm. Curiously, the film received no awards come final judgment time, although it was wooed by virtually all the distributors.
Winner of the Grand Jury Documentary Prize was Capturing the Friedmans, an amazing work by Andrew Jarecki, the CEO of Moviefone. As the movie gradually reveals its information, the viewer is pulled back and forth in the process of trying to determine the guilt or innocence of various Friedman family members. An apparently average family in Great Neck, Long Island, the Friedmans were torn asunder amid charges and convictions of the father and one of his three sons on charges of child molestation. Aided by miles of home-video footage filmed by the Friedman men before, during, and after the convictions, the documentary is an astonishingly frank exposé of a family in distress.
Other highlights include Thailand's epic Legend of Suriyothai, directed by Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol and presented by Francis Ford Coppola, who helped the director cut down the film from five to two and a half hours and appeared in person at the premiere. Oliver Stone interviews Fidel Castro in Commandante, a fascinating if not hard-hitting one-on-one between two forceful men. The Polish Brothers (Twin Falls, Idaho) are back with Northfork, a haunting story about the death of a Wyoming community, the men who carry out the evictions, and the angels who watch over it all. The film features wonderful performances by Nick Nolte and James Woods. Open Hearts is a new Dogme 95 film by Susanne Bier that manages to be a heart-wrenching melodrama despite its formal austerity. Many other films might be mentioned here; there were a great many very good movies to choose among at this year's festival, and, hopefully, they will begin to trickle down from the Utah mountains in the months ahead. Let's also hope that the trickling-down process works better in terms of film distribution than in economic theory.