more sundancing
issue no.
  january 15
c o n t e n t s
RED Reviews
'Torque' Runs Out of Gas, Explodes, Cuts to T&A
Opening this Weekend

It's a Wonderful Ken: RED Locates Cool-Lookin' Ken Just in Time for the Holidays

Sundance Still an Important Showcase for Small Films
by Jeremy Mathews
Sundance’s American Spectrum, World Cinema and Other Specialty Categories Serve Specialized Niches

Outside of competition and premieres, Sundance offers many more films in its many side programs, including American Spectrum, World Cinema, Park City at Midnight, Frontier and the Native Forum.

The American Spectrum category offers a second chance for unknown filmmakers who didn’t make competition. Last year’s American Showcase category, started to prevent films by established directors from filling up American Spectrum, ended after only two years in exchange for more premieres.

The interesting and amusing documentary “Dirty Work” by David Sampliner and Tim Nackashi humorously examines the world of jobs most people won’t do—extracting bull semen, reconstructing a corpse for a funeral viewing and cleaning septic tanks.

Other talked-about films include Kevin Willmott’s “CSA: The Confederate States of America,” a pseudo-documentary about life in a universe where the south won the Civil War, Matthew Bonifacio’s examination of obesity, “Lbs.” and “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” which sees the metal stars in group therapy.

The Frontier section, which has showed interesting, experimental or strange works like the excellent “Decasia” again will showcase films that push the envelope of cinema. “Tarnation,” Jonathan Caouette’s experimental docudrama-documentary-musical autobiography of sorts, has received some word of mouth. Jake Mahaffy’s “War” looks at U.S. farmers in conflict on a decaying land.

World Cinema has housed breakthrough films like “Whale Rider.” While the festival’s insistence on being the first to play the films in the United States works against the section and there might be some tepid films, others come with high recommendations. Brazilian director Hector Babenco’s “Carandiru,” which played at Cannes, offers an interesting, if episodic, portrait of a Brazilian prison. Icíar Bollaín’s “Take My Eyes,” from Spain, offers a refreshingly authentic look at domestic violence after many Hollywood thrillers have trivialized the subject matter.

Wolfgang Becker’s award-winning German film “Good Bye, Lenin!” is a comedy about the final days of the German Democratic Republic that has already been a hit in other parts of the world and has distribution. The Russian film “The Return,” which triumphed at the Venice Film Festival, “A Thousand Peace Clouds Encircle The Sky” and “Silent Waters,” from Pakistan, also arrive with awards and acclaim.
Started last year, the World Documentary category enhances Sundance’s strong documentary program. With its humorous archival clips and interviews, the sharp Canadian examination of “The Corporation” has distinctly U.S.-related subject matter.
“The Big Durian” examines the racism in Mayalsia through a 1988 rampage a soldier went on—and somehow does it with a bit of humor.

Mika Ronkainen’s striking “Screaming Men” looks at the amusing antics of a troop of Finnish performance artists who scream everything from national anthems to famous laws.

French director Jean Michel Roux looks at the odd Icelandic belief in ghosts, elves and many, many other things in “Investigation into the Invisible World,” which even has a former Icelandic president saying that she hasn’t seen any elves, but she has heard about them.

The Midnight series shows films with more of a cult appeal. These include the over-the-top Japanese samurai film “Azumi” and “Grand Theft Parsons,” the fictional account of the body snatching of The Byrds’ Gram Parsons. There are also several suspense/thriller films like Alexandre Aja’s “Haute Tension” and James Wan’s “SAW.”

The shorts programs often contain interesting projects. The sixth program consists of four fascinating documentaries including “Foo Foo Dust,” a heartbreaking study of the drug addiction of a mother and son.

Of the films I’ve seen prior to the festival, the number that suck is significantly lower than in festivals past. If the trend continues, we could be in for quite a good 10 days.

Guy Maddin’s “The Saddest Music in the World” pits a Canadian veteran against his two sons, who are representing other countries in the competition.


t seems to be at a point where it needs to be said, so here it is: The Sundance Film Festival is still a showcase for independent films. The world’s top showcase for independent film opens tonight with Stacey Peralta’s “Riding Giants” at the Eccles Theater, and runs through Sunday, Jan. 25, with the usual growing combination of film-lovers, filmmakers, distribution and studio reps and naysayers.

In many ways, Sundance has become the definition of a victim of success. It’s hard to see an underdog in the United States’ biggest film festival, especially when bigwigs, stars and dealmakers are taking ski vacations and talking on hands-free cell phones while standing next to you at the venues.

Since Slamdance started in 1995, many other side festivals (or assemblies, as they must be called due to Park City laws preventing more than one festival occurring at the same time) have started up to showcase films that didn’t make the final programming cut. And Sundance is the man who kept the filmmakers out. These festivals are important to keep Sundance on its toes and afraid to miss the next big thing, but it should also be considered that Sundance makes a solid effort in most of its categories (all but the premieres) to include unestablished filmmakers.

Anyone who’s been to the Cannes Film Festival and seen the lines of uniformed policemen on the giant red carpet know that Sundance is a low-key festival, even if it’s filled with Hollywood types. Part of the reason that so many Sundance films have high-profile stars is that the festival made independent films prestigious projects that actors want to work on because they can have more interesting parts and earn respect.

There are two main reasons for the perception of Sundance as a big-shot elitist festival. One is the flawed and limited programming process that surely leaves some fantastic films out. The other is the annual slate of premiere films. Every regular Sundance attendee has suffered through an irredeemable film wondering how the hell it snuck into competition out of 2,000 submissions. But, and here’s where the claim fails, sometimes these are very small, personal films.

Films like “Killing Time” from 2002 have been cited as examples of the flawed programming system, which gossiping festival-goers often relate to each programmer sticking to getting in one or two films he or she loves rather than working out a fairer system. This charge may be justified and perhaps a programming overhaul is in order, but “Killing Time” is a tiny digital movie with no famous people and no budget. It got in because some of the festival programmers liked it, and while other acclaimed films like “Blue Car” (with bigger actors) were shifted to the American Spectrum category, they still earned a reputation at the festival.

As for the Premiere section, a lot of it is just rubbish. It’s hard talking to anyone about the festival without hearing the question, “How the hell is ‘The Butterfly Effect’ an independent film?” But the section is around for bigger films, and it keeps those films from edging out younger filmmakers in competition. Even a first-time director with connections like Sofia Coppola has been placed in the premieres rather than in competition.

If you go to nothing but premieres, you won’t see that many really interesting films, although there are always some. Many fascinating and daring films like “Northfork” and “Waking Life” have played as premieres, so the category isn’t a complete wash. This year’s festival includes works by Guy Maddin (the strangely intriguing silent-movie-like “The Saddest Music in the World”), Bernardo Bertolucci (“The Dreamers,” which Fox Searchlight is now releasing in its uncut form and with an NC-17 rating, despite previous reports of possible censorship) and Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries”).

While it might be necessary to watch some dreadful films to find them, nothing beats seeing an amazing work for the first time, like “American Movie,” “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “All the Real Girls” and whatever we come across this year.

[DAVE: Run as a separate article or with this based on room]



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