Dance, Girl, Dance

It was a good year for women filmmakers at a recharged Sundance Film Festival

<i>Please Give</i>
Please Give

The 2010 edition of the Sundance Film Festival, which took place Jan. 21-31 in Park City, Utah, showed signs of trying to change the overall direction of the event. The festival organizers are leading the charge into the future by encouraging a return to independent filmmaking's past. Using the opportunity afforded by the changeover of festival leadership during the past year (longtime Director Geoff Gilmore left last year for Tribeca Enterprises, which owns and operates the Tribeca Film Festival, and his underling, John Cooper, is the new chief), the organizers heralded a return to their roots at every opportunity. The prefix "re-" marked the overall theme of the festival. The letters were seen on the tote bags and program books, as well as on all festival screens. Also appearing in a loop on every auditorium screen prior to the start of each film were the following sentences: "This is cinematic rebellion. This is the renewed rebellion. This is the recharged fight against the establishment of the expected. This is the rebirth of the battle for brave new ideas. This is Sundance reminded."

The constant repetition of these sentences was meant to remind attendees at America's leading showcase of independent filmmaking that we can no longer conduct business as usual. Technological developments, along with the overall economic tenor of the times, are forcing film purveyors and consumers to rethink all aspects of the industry. Old distribution networks and models are failing, as more and more studios shutter their specialty distribution arms (R.I.P. Miramax, Warner Independent Pictures, Picturehouse, et al.) and the online digital distribution of films becomes a growing reality. And now that almost every self-respecting city in America hosts some sort of film festival, the festival circuit itself has grown into a legitimate, if labor-intensive, means of getting one's film seen throughout the country. Plus, new video-on-demand models and coordinated day-and-date festival and theatrical releases are changing the conventional paradigms.

<i>The Runaways</i>
The Runaways

The Sundance programmers also appear to be proactively shifting their focus away from star-driven, low-budget indies to artier projects with less luminous star wattage. There definitely seemed to be a reduced celebrity quotient at this year's festival, and the herds of hangers-on and entourages also appear to be thinning. (The streets of the small resort town were much easier to negotiate than in other recent years, and after the opening weekend when many industryites start heading back to the city, the cell phone airwaves even cleared up enough to deliver instant on-demand service.) Another sign of the programmers' attempt to reboot the predictability of their offerings is the establishment of a new sidebar titled Next, which is devoted to microbudget films.

I don't yet know if this was part of the programming plan, a happy convergence of events, or truly emblematic of the current state of independent filmmaking, but a great number of the festival's films were made by women. And among these women-directed films were some of the festival's best offerings. My favorite film of this year's Sundance was The Kids Are All Right by Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon). Starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a middle-aged lesbian couple, the film examines what happens within their family when their two teenage children seek out their biological father (played by Mark Ruffalo). The performances are uniformly superb, with Benning and Moore making their characters' two-decades-long marriage and home life seem believable and true, and the dialogue and nuances of Cholodenko's screenplay have the feel of real life. To date, the $5 million sale of The Kids Are All Right to Focus Features marks the biggest sale of the 2010 festival. (Also notable, however, is that this purchase price is half what the festival's hottest films sold for just a couple years ago. Presumably, distributors are wary of repeating the profligate mistakes they made by paying $10 million fees for such films as 2008's Hamlet 2, which garnered only a tiny fraction of that outlay at the box office.)

The festival's double prizewinner was Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, which took home the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, as well as the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. In 2004, Granik brought Vera Farmiga to world attention with the actress' riveting performance as a junkie who has every intention of quitting in the similarly titled Down to the Bone. Granik's eye for talent strikes again with newcomer Jennifer Lawrence's rich and moving performance as the central figure in the Ozarks-set Winter's Bone, a location-drenched backwoods story about family connections and economic realities. Yet most indicative of the unrestrained presence of female sensibilities were the opening shots of two festival entries: The Runaways and Please Give. Floria Sigismondi's narrative film about the meteoric rise of the punk girl group the Runaways and the band's lead performers Joan Jett and Cherie Currie (played by Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning) starts with a splat of menstrual blood hitting the pavement. The opening sequence of Please Give by Nicole Holofcener (Walking and Talking, Friends With Money) is a montage of different female breasts plopping onto the screening plate of a mammogram machine while a radiologist, who is one of the film's lead characters, goes about her business of arranging the breasts for best X-ray visioning. These are most definitely sights I have never witnessed on a movie screen.

As for the local angle, Austin was particularly well-represented in this year's edition of Sundance. Bryan Poyser's Lovers of Hate was selected to screen in one of 16 slots in the festival's dramatic competition. Amy Grappell's short film "Quadrangle" took home an honorable mention. They were joined in Park City by several other alumni of the Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund: Ryan Piers Williams, whose feature The Dry Land screened in the Dramatic Competition; Sundance regulars David and Nathan Zellner, with the short "Fiddlestixx"; and Dallas native Clay Liford, with the short "My Mom Smokes Weed." Former Austin filmmakers also screening at the festival included Anthony Burns with the feature Skateland and Mark and Jay Duplass with the very funny comedy Cyrus, which stars John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, and Jonah Hill. With such a terrific array of work coming out of Texas, the question "Why leave home to see it?" becomes a valid point to raise.

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Sundance Film Festival, The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko, Debra Granik, Winter's Bone, Jennifer Lewis, The Runaways, Please Give, Floria Sigismondi, Nicole Holofcener, Bryan Poyser, Lovers of Hate, Amy Grappell, "Quadrangle", Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund, Ryan Piers Williams, The Dry Land, "Fiddlestix", David Zellner, Zellner Bros.

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