say your piece

1594 DECEMBER 2003
Sundance Fest Announces Unknown-Oriented Batch of Feature films
By Jeremy Mathews

t’s once again time for film lovers to take out their divining pens and start circling the films they think will be masterpieces at this year’s Sundance Independent Film Festival—the largest and most important film festival in the United States.

On Monday and Tuesday, festival organizers announced the feature-film programs (the shorts will be revealed next week). Monday’s announcement held the main vein of the new blood, with the Documentary and Dramatic competition selections as well as the American Spectrum category, for films that didn’t fit into the competitions. Tuesday saw the Premiere selections, known for stars and established directors, as well as the smaller specialty categories like World Cinema, World Documentary, Midnight Movies and the Sundance Collection, with restored prints of classic independent films.

Some have complained that the star-filled Premiere selections include too many stars and big names regardless of quality, but this year’s overall selection appears to have a little more art-minded selections in it. Though we’ll still have Ashton Kutcher in town with “The Butterfly Effect,” we’ll also have new films by Guy Maddin, Takeshi Kitano and Bernado Bertolucci.

The films will show in Park City, as well as in Salt Lake City, Ogden and the Sundance Institute, from the festival’s opening on Thursday, Jan. 15, to its wind-down on Jan. 25. Individual tickets go on sale Jan. 6, but Utah residents get an early open window to buy tickets in person on Jan. 3 and 4. For more information or to purchase a package, visit

Changes in this year’s program include the switching of the opening night event in Salt Lake City at Abravanel Hall with the Park City opening-night screening at the Eccles Theater. The logic is that the Salt Lake City event, traditionally held on Thursday, always moved people the moment that they arrived in Park City, making them drive the sometimes snowy 45-minute trip down I-80. Now, Sundance’s statement argues, people will be able to settle in and head down to Salt Lake City the next night.

There’s one problem with this logic, however. Salt Lake City opening night usually takes place the night before the screenings in Park City start, but the films will already be avalanching down on the city this year. To attend the Friday premiere, film lovers and critics must concede to missing the two films—one before and one after—the event. While this might be a better system for the casual filmgoer, it puts those of us trying to find all the best films at a disadvantage. Abravanel Hall will no doubt be at capacity, but some truly disturbed people like me will remain in Park City rather than miss the opportunity to be one of the first to see the next “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”

The Opening Night Premiere this year is “Riding Giants” by Stacy Peralta, whose documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys” won two awards at the 2001 Sundance. His first film was about the evolution of skateboarding (including surfing), and his new film is a portrait of professional surfers. The film marks the first documentary ever to open the very documentary-friendly festival. The Salt Lake City Opener is promising American Indian director Chris Eyre’s (“Smoke Signals,” “Skins”) “Edge of America.”

The other notable festival change is less drastic. Programmers deleted the American Showcase category, which they created two years ago to avoid the placement of established directors into the American Spectrum selections, which are meant to give new voices a forum. There will now reportedly be more premieres.

Since 2,426 features were submitted this year—a significant increase from last year’s 1,774—there should be at least 100 interesting films at the festival if the programmers have done their jobs. The biggest jumps in submissions were in the World Cinema and World Documentary categories, the latter of which started last year with promise, and both of which received approximately twice as many submissions as last year.

While analysis of the selections in Premieres and other categories will appear in these pages as the festival nears, a look at the competition categories is important for a nice festival experience, as the true festival snob avoids the more glamorous elements of the premiere in favor of the unknown. The competitions, as usual, feature many first-time, unknown directors.

Get Your Documentaries Here
While often overlooked in the festival and placed in smaller screening rooms, the festival’s documentary competition always has a greater overall quality than the other categories and sometimes houses the best films of the festival.

English-born documentarian Robert Stone, who made “Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army,” is the oldest Sundance veteran of the competition. His “Radio Bikini,” a combination of archival military material, including film footage and radio broadcasts of the Bikini Islands prior to nuclear testing, and new material of the Marshall Islanders, appeared in 1988. His new film is about the notorious U.S. domestic terrorist group that kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in 1974.

Stanley Nelson, who was at the festival last year with the historical documentary, “The Murder of Emmett Till,” returns to the competition with “A Place of Our Own.” The new film also deals with race relations, touring the upper-middle-class, African-American community in the United States through a resort community. Another historical documentarian, Barak Goodman, who co-directed the 2000 entry “Scottboro: An American Tragedy,” will make another appearance with “The Fight,” about the lives behind the famous pre-World War II boxing match between American Joe Louis and German Max Schmeling.

Academy Award-winner (for Best Short Subject Documentary) Jessica Yu’s “The Living Museum” appeared at Sundance in 1999, and after some work for television, she returns to the festival with “In the Realms of the Unreal,” about a janitor who writes fantastical novels at night.

Following “Speaking in Strings,” also from the 1999 festival, Paola di Florio will appear with “Home of the Brave.” The film is about the children of the only white woman killed during the Civil Rights Movement.

Alison Maclean, who directed the impressive “Jesus’ Son,” teams up with Tobias Perse to make “Persons of Interests,” a political film featuring the stories of Muslim Americans subjected to unfounded arrests during the United States’ War on Terrorism.

Kirsten Johnson, who made the TV documentary “Innocent Until Proven Guilty,” will explore another aspect of the legal system with co-director Katy Chevingy in “Life After Death Row,” about prison inmates who got a second chance due to suspensions of the death penalty. Both directors are making their Sundance debuts.

Several filmmakers are making their Sundance debut, many with politically themed works. Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski made the social documentary “Born into Brothels,” about the children of prostitutes in Calcutta’s red-light district. Shola Lynch’s “Chisholm ’72—Unbought & Unbossed,” is about U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm’s frenzied bid for the presidency in 1972. Ramona S. Diaz’s “Imelda” examines the political power of former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos.

“Farmingville,” by Catherine Tambini and Carlos Sandoval, explores the Long Island town that became famous when two Mexican day-workers were murdered there, sparking suburban turmoil. Speaking of political deaths, Ivy Meeropol’s “Heir to an Execution” spends time with the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg 50 years after their execution.

While the political stuff is important, don’t forget that documentaries can also present amusing studies of characters and situations. “Word Wars,” directed by Julian Petrillo, studies some odd people to whom Scrabble is something more than just what to do in between drugs, sex, booze, eczema and angst (read on into the Dramatic Competition entries for more info)—they don’t do any of that stuff. Just Scrabble.

Matt Mahurin, who worked with Irish pop band U2, directed “I Like Killing Flies,” about an eccentric family-run restaurant in Greenwich Village, N.Y.

For those who haven’t heard enough about American obesity, Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me”—about America’s weight problem and obsession with fast food—should be a treat.

And Ondi Timoner’s “Dig” examines the differing career progressions of important modern rock bands The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre.

Don’t Forget Those Dramatic Entries
The dramatic competition in Sundance often provides some of the best films of the year (“All the Real Girls,” “American Splendor”), but also contains many films that inspire the thought, “They picked that out of 550 submissions?” Among the angst and the love triangles, it’s hard to know which films will really be impressive, but it’s always fun trying to guess.

The competition is very centered around the director as an auteur with a specific vision. Only two of the directors in competition didn’t write or co-write his or her film’s screenplay. The directors are the stars of the festival, which perhaps explains why there aren’t any giant red carpets.

Like the documentaries, a few films are by previous Sundance names, but most films are by unknown directors who hope you’ll remember their names in six months.

Jacob Kornbluth co-directed the amusing office-life satire “Haiku Tunnel”—which screened out of competition in American Spectrum in 2001—with his brother, actor Josh. His solo and competition debut this year is “The Best Thief in the World,” about an 11-year-old who breaks into people’s apartments to live out a strange fantasy life.

Greg Harrison follows up the low-budget “Groove” with “November,” a fantasy drama starring Courteney Cox, Nora Dunn, Anne Archer and James Legros and written by Benjamin Brand.

John Curran made the oddly amusing and impressively depressing 1998 World Cinema entry “Praise,” about angst, alienation, sex, booze, drugs, eczema and Scrabble. Now he is working stateside, in competition with “We Don’t Live Hear Anymore.” The film stars Laura Dern, Naomi Watts, Mark Ruffalo and Peter Krause. Larry Gross adapted the screenplay from stories by Andre Dubus, who is responsible for the source material of Todd Field’s Sundance-born, Oscar-nominated, domestic drama “In the Bedroom.”

Several of the directors already have made names for themselves in short films, and one of the directors won’t have to travel very far to Park City, having trained in Provo. Brigham Young University graduate Jared Hess, who worked as cast and crew on some LDS-aimed Utah films of questionable merit like “The R.M.” and “The Singles Ward,” makes his feature directorial debut with “Napoleon Dynamite,” co-written with his wife, Jerusha. Named after one of Elvis Costello’s pseudonyms (or Hess and Hess could have come up with it independently, I suppose), the film came from Jared Hess’ experiences growing up in rural Idaho. The hero apparently uses ninja and dance to make it through. While the film doesn’t seem to have any specific LDS references, it was based on a nine-minute short that won an honorable mention in the LDS Film Festival held in Provo and also screened at Slamdance.

Writer/actor/director Ray McKinnon—who won an Academy Award in 2002 for Best Short Film, Live Action—makes his feature-length debut with “Chystal.” The film is about a man who returns home to his wife after going to jail for a drug-induced car accident that injured her.

Another established shorts director, Debra Granik, who won the Short Filmmaking Award at Sundance in 1998, returns with the feature “Down to the Bone.” Joshua Marston, who directed the well-liked short “Bus to Queens” in 1999, will present his new film, “Maria Full of Grace.”

Three-time Sundance director Christopher Much (2001’s “The Sleepy Time Gal,” 1996’s “Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day,” 1991’s “The Hours and Times”) will find out if the fourth time will be a charm to hit the big time with “Harry and Max,” his return to films with the word “and” in the title. The film is about two showbiz brothers, one rising to and the other falling from teen idoldom.

There are also bound to be some good films by the many unknown directors at this year’s festival.

Jane Weinstock describes her feature debut, “Easy,” as a film about a “jerk magnet” who works as a “namer,” giving products their identities. When she seems to find two decent men, she’s forced to make a choice. Oh my!

Jeff Renfroe and Marteinn Thorsson’s “One Point O,” starring Jeremy Sisto (“Clueless”), tells the story of a computer programmer who becomes a pawn in a corporate advertising experiment.

Stars including Kevin Bacon, Benjamin Bratt, Mos Def, Eve, David Alan Grier and Kyra Sedgwick appear in Nicole Kassell’s “The Woodsman,” about a pedophile who returns to his hometown after 12 years in prison and tries to start a new life.

Actor Zach Braff (“Scrubs,” “The Broken Hearts Club”) makes his directorial debut with “Garden State,” about a young man who, after fighting with his family for years, returns home for his mother’s funeral. Braff’s favorite film is “Annie Hall,” so this might have a bit of Woody in it.

Alan Brown’s “Book of Love” portrays a high school history teacher who befriends a hard-to-understand teenage boy. I can’t think of what might happen when his restless wife comes into the picture.

With “Brother to Brother,” Rodney Evans looks at a homosexual African-American who befriends an elderly veteran of the Harlem Renaissance.

Enid Zentelis’s “Evergreen” portrays an impoverished young girl who tries to pretend to be affluent in order to place herself in a cute, rich boy’s world.

Shane Carruth’s zany “Primer” looks at two inventor friends who experience strange side effects from their new idea.

American Spectrum
While the Sundance programmers like to say that the American Spectrum category isn’t just a sort of second place for films that didn’t make competition, everyone’s main goal is to get into competition, so it seems like not being in competition is…well, kind of like second place. But since some odd programming tastes always result in some controversial admissions and omissions from the main categories, American Spectrum often features some strong works, like the acclaimed “Blue Car” from two years ago.

There are 13 films in the category, and possible highlights include “CSA: Confederate States of America,” a pseudodocumentary that satirically looks at history if the south would have won the Civil War and draws many similarities to the modern United States. Joe Berlinger’s and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” features the metal band undergoing group therapy.

In a little more than a month, people will be talking about an amazing new discovery or the two pointless hours they just spent, but for now, it’s pretty much a guessing game. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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