nights and five days,
the 2004 Sundance
Film Festival is shaping up reasonably well. On a
series of five-film days, I haven’t seen as
many horrible films as usual, and after seeing some
remarkable ones like “Maria Full of Grace
” and “The
,” it will have been a fine fest if
the final days continue in this tradition.
Thursday: An Opening Night of Change
Tis year’s Sundance Film Festival’s
opening night contained several firsts. It was the
first time the Park City-based event opened in Park
City, and it was the first time that a documentary
opened the 10-day event.
The festival, which runs until midday Sunday, Jan.
25, opened at the Eccles Theatre in Park City with
Stacy Peralta’s “Riding Giants.”
The documentary follows three pioneers in big-wave
surfing (really big waves) with kinetic cutting and
music. Peralta comes up with nice editing techniques
to document elated moments of wave- catching and disquieting
deaths, creating a more involving film than the standard
historical talking- head picture.
The festival has always been very supportive of documentaries,
with the competing documentaries often making for
the strongest category of the festival. Peralta’s “Dogtown
and Z-Boys,” about skateboarding (and a little
of the surfing that influenced it), was an audience
favorite when it played three years ago, and such
breakthrough documentaries as last year’s “Capturing
the Friedmans” and 1999’s “American
Movie” (whose director, Chris Smith, has a
special screening with “The Yes Men” and
is a jury member this year) have emerged from the
In a year when documentaries like “Friedmans,” “Spellbound,” “Winged
Migration” and “Fog of War” played
well in theaters, it seems appropriate that Sundance
gives the documentaries a little more limelight.
Maybe next year they’ll play the doc competition
in bigger venues than the tiny Holiday Village Cinema.
The other change, although not as significant, is
the movement of opening night from Abravanel Hall
in Salt Lake City to the Eccles Theatre, which is
half the size of Abravanel Hall. The only real problem
with this is that they might as well not have the
Salt Lake City premiere, which now takes place Friday
when the festival is in full swing, since most press
and hard-core festival-goers won’t be able
to go to the film, Chris Eyre’s “Edge
of America,” because many other films will
be on in Park City at the same time.
One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is
the poor quality of digital projection. Every year
I try not to see very many digitally projected films — and
sit in the back when I do see them so that the poor
quality details aren’t as apparent (although
there’s nothing I can do about the color problems).
Every year I find myself scribbling into my notes
that the picture looks crappy shortly before I get
a headache. This is the first time I’ve written
the tirade after seeing only one film, though.
The effect was particularly
detrimental to some of Peralta’s clever cutout
animation sequences, which are supposed to look like
an old filmstrip — and
also to the archival footage that actually is an
old filmstrip. While it might make for some interesting
postmodern experiment to have pixelized images that
are supposed to look like old filmstrips, this effect
shouldn’t be forced on movies.
|"Sundance Myth #18: You can never have too much publicity."
Photo by Josh Caldwell / RED Magazine
Friday: Warm Receptions For “Iron Jawed Angels” and “Garden State”
Having gone through entire past festivals with none
or only one of them, it was a bit surprising to witness
two standing ovations on the first day of the festival,
for “Garden State” and “Iron Jawed
Angels.” While neither film was flawless, they
both vibrated with emotion that apparently grabbed
Zach Braff’s “Garden State,” in
dramatic competition, turned out to be much better
than most dramatic competition films that receive
a lot of hype prior to the festival, when no one
has seen them. The film is an intelligent romantic
comedy starring Braff, Natalie Portman, Ian Holm
and Peter Sarsgaard, with clever, thoughtful dialogue
and several hilarious sight gags that recall a forgotten
age of cinematic comedy.
With its many well-known actors and less-than-original
premise, I can already hear people besmirching the
film for being too mainstream, but it really isn’t.
The characters are vivid and thoughtful and there’s
no reason that independent film can’t be filled
with humor — it can be a refreshing break from
a few films that take themselves too seriously.
With strong performances and interesting and joyously
jumpy editing, Katja von Garnier’s premiere “Iron
Jawed Angels” tells the story of the National
Women’s Party, founded by Alice Paul in 1912
to speed up the slow- moving suffrage movement by
demanding an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Hilary Swank plays the brave Paul in a quasi-passion
story as she stands up for what is right, even if
it means breaking with her peers, who want to take
The film’s final act, in which the party members
are arrested for legal protests on fabricated charges
and go on a hunger strike, caries affecting poignancy
and was most likely the source of the standing ovation.
HBO Films produced the movie, continuing its support
of independent narratives and documentaries that
include past festival entries like “Southern
Comfort” and 2003’s hit indie film “American
|You never whom you'll see on the streets of Park City.
Photos by Josh Caldwell / RED Magazine
Saturday: World Cinema Spins Globe in its Category and in Premieres
The World Cinema category at Sundance often holds
some of the most interesting films of Sundance and
this year is no exception, with a blend of charming
and powerful films. Last year saw “Whale Rider,” “28
Days Later” and “Bend it Like Beckham” as
well as the new documentary category, which included “Balseros” and “Bus
Two premieres tonight were foreign works and the
regular categories have displayed strong works throughout
Guy Maddin, that strange Canadian filmmaker who gives
his films a look as if not much has changed in photography
since the silent age, delivered another happy oddity
in “The Saddest Music in the World.” Set
in Winnipeg during the Great Depression, the film
circles around three family members competing for
separate countries in a competition for the saddest
music in the world, a contest sponsored by the beer
baroness of Winnipeg, played by the redoubtable Isabella
The money-obsessed, nonmusician son Chester (Mark
McKinney) has sold out to compete for America with
fancy broadway numbers featuring a French nymphomaniac
he picked up, while his veteran father represents
Canada. Both men have a dark romantic past with the
baroness. The other depressed son, whose wife left
him, is representing Bolivia with his cello. I’d
try to describe more, like the celebratory beer pool,
but it would just sound stranger.
Maddin creates an insane mishmash of cultural and
personal identity, set to the music of scarred, tortured
“Central Station” director Walter Salles
premiered his new film “The Motorcycle Diaries” as
well, resulting in yet another standing ovation, this
time from a packed crowd very excited to see executive
producer (and Sundance Institute founder, of course)
While there might have been a strong bias from the
excited audience, the film is indeed very good,
portraying a young doctor-in-training and his slightly
older friend from Argentina who venture to ride through
all of South America. With Gael Garcia Bernal’s
strong performance grounding the film, Salles paints
a portrait of a pointlessly split continent and a
need for human compassion.
While these high-profile
premieres bring foreign film to the foreground, the
regular World Cinema program has a strong collection
of good to brilliant films. One of the best films
at the festival is the Spanish entry “Take
My Eyes.” In a brave
performance, Laia Marull plays a wife whose husband
abuses her. While most mainstream films deal with
domestic violence as a jumping-off point for a
cheap thriller, writer/director Icíar Bollaín
refuses to paint the husband as a simple villain
and instead shows him as a man with whom a woman
could fall in love and try to forgive — except
in the moments when his jealousy and insecurities
turn him into a monster.
Wolfgang Becker’s “Good Bye, Lenin!” is
already an international hit and Sony Pictures Classics
is going to distribute it in the United States. It
played to an enthusiastic audience at the festival.
The film takes place over the course of the year
in which the Berlin Wall fell and the German Democratic
Republic ended and with it, communism in Germany.
The film is about a young man whose nonsocialist
father left his idealistic mother when the country
divided. Shortly before the wall comes down, his
mother has a heart attack when she sees her son
arrested for protesting, and she doesn’t wake up until
after the drastic social change. The doctor says
that excitement might hurt her, so her son takes
her home and tries to create a world for her that
still looks like the world before she left, creating
fake newscasts and wearing old clothes.
“Stander” has a fantastic source story,
portraying South African bank robber Andre Stander,
who made a name for himself in the early 1980s by thumbing
his nose at a disliked government. A cop from an esteemed
family, Stander grows fed up with apartheid rule and
the killing of unarmed blacks and bucks the system
to become an uncatchable bank robber. At one point,
he hears on the radio that he missed a hidden safe
at a bank robbery and goes back.
As Stander, Thomas Jane offers a performance that
requires his ability to assume many identities,
as Stander did both during his robberies and his
life. Director Bronwen Hughes takes advantage of
wonderfully outlandish and unlikely crimes to make
a film that’s at times entertaining and at
The World Cinema Documentaries category, starting
its second year, is quickly becoming a fascinating
realm as well, with the striking “Screaming
Men,” an exploration of a Finnish performing
One of the most U.S.-related topics of the festival
is in the Canadian film “The Corporation.” An
audience hit at several previous festivals, the movie
uses interviews with icons and experts and humorous
clips from old classic, educational and propaganda
films. In over two hours of studious material, the
filmmakers argue that the drive to make money goes
beyond moral and immoral people because the corporate
structure itself causes the problems since by its
design, it limits personal liability yet claims the
protective rights of a person.
|Interior of the beautifully refurbished Peery's Egyptian Theatre at the top of Main Street in Park City.
Photo by Josh Caldwell / RED Magazine
Sunday: The Nightmare of “The Machinist” and Real-Life Horrors of “Maria Full of Grace”
Two of the festival’s best films debuted today,
with Brad Anderson’s premiere “The Machinist” and
the dramatic competition entry “Maria Full
“The Machinist” is a masterpiece that fully
enters the mind of a troubled, sleepless man. In one
of the most transformative and brilliant performances
ever, Christian Bale looks like a starving man as a
factory worker who has withered away after not sleeping
for one year. “If you were any thinner, you wouldn’t
exist,” he’s told, and it’s true.
I desperately asked Bale, who lost 64 pounds for
the film, if the footage was digitally altered
to make him look any thinner, but no, it was all
His character, Trevor, is a lonely factory worker
who finds company only in a prostitute (Jennifer
Jason Leigh) and an airport diner waitress (Aitana
Sánchez-Gijón) whom he tips big. His
insomnia begins to play on him psychologically as
the film spirals toward a conclusion that denies
the standard pitfalls of puzzling films while combining
with Xavi Giménez’s cinematography for
a hypnotic experience.
First-time writer/director Joshua Marston’s “Maria
Full of Grace” debuted as one of the best films
in competition. With a wonderful cast of unknowns,
it is a mostly Spanish- language film about a 17-year-old
Colombian girl whose situation of poverty and newly
discovered premarital pregnancy leads her to transport
drugs to New Jersey. It follows the recruitment and
mission, as she swallows capsules full of heroin.
If any of them break, she dies, and they must stay
in her stomach until she gets out of customs.
A riveting scene on an airplane shows Maria and
three other women sweating and worrying as they
stay on the plane without any control over their
fates. While there are certainly political connotations
to the film, its greatness lies in its involving
ensemble of characters in desperate situations.
If “Maria Full of Grace” is the most
powerful film in competition that I’ve seen, “One
Point O” is the strangest. Jeff Renfroe and
Marteinn Thorsson have created a futuristic world
that that’s a bit of “Brazil” and
a bit of nothing you’ve ever seen before. The
film is a combination film noir, Luis Bunuel and
David Cronenberg. While the sinister plot can sometimes
drag as much as it intrigues, it’s the best-looking
film in competition so far.
Monday: Dramatic Competition Strongest in Years
||This wouldn't be legal in Salt Lake City. Photo by Josh Caldwell / RED Magazine
I’ve seen two more strong films in dramatic
competition, “Primer” and “The
Woodsman.” With other films I’ve yet
to see like “Napoleon Dynamite” receiving
strong word of mouth and “Maria Full of Grace” and “Garden
State,” this competition program is becoming
quite solid, if a little short on masterpieces.
There are small independent films, and then there’s “Primer,” Shane
Carruth’s $7,000 science-fiction drama in competition.
Despite his lack of funds, Carruth put digital filmmakers
to shame and shot on Super 16-mm film and got strong
performances out of his unknown cast.
The film is a puzzling time-travel story that avoids
the standard time-travel paradoxes for developments
that are all its own. Carruth, who decided to act
in the film because he knew he’d always be
on the set, and David Sullivan play two corporate
technological scientists who operate a side business
with two other friends in their spare time. They
decide to work on an ambitious project without their
friends and the ramifications of their discoveries
slowly become clear.
The film’s spiral structure creates layers
of puzzles that will likely appeal to fans of works
like “Pi,” “Mulholland Drive” and “Memento” that
demand multiple viewings for full appreciation. At
the same time, it communicates thoughts on trust
and friendship on the first viewing instead of being
a convoluted mess and we understand that if it’s
a bit complicated, it’s because the characters
have put themselves in complicated situations.
Nicole Kassell’s “The Woodsman” sees
the humanity and personal struggle of a man who could
easily be dismissed as a monster. Kevin Bacon plays
Walter, a convicted child molester who returns to
his hometown after 12 years in prison and has to
try to readjust to a normal life.
The film admirably tries to understand the struggle
and the horror that the perpetrator feels about his
own reprehensible deeds, while examining the way
others treat him. Kyra Sedgwick plays an employee
at the lumber yard where Walter gets a job, and she
tries to understand and forgive him while most people
want him dead.
An amazing scene toward the end of the film reveals
both the frightening danger of Walter’s impulses
and himself coming more to terms with it.
There have been a few other interesting films in
competition. Jacob Kornbluth’s “The Best
Thief in the World” contains an accurate portrayal
of troubled youth. It manages to have a mother who’s
very caring but also says things like, “At
this rate you’re going to be thrown in jail
before you get laid.”
Untrained actor Michael Silverman plays Izzy, a 12- year- old
growing up in New York City and who likes to be alone
and break into people’s houses — but not
to steal things, just to mess with them by taking
a shower or rearranging their furniture. His father
is incoherent and in a wheelchair after a stroke
and Izzy’s mother, a schoolteacher, is worried
about his recovery, keeping her job while having
to take care of her husband, insurance problems and
her oldest son.
Tuesday: Documentaries Reveal Personal, Historic and Political Realities and Bertolucci Survives Censorship
This year’s documentary competition contains
an assortment of historic, PBS-style films like “The
Fight” that are well- done — if a bit conventional — personal
journeys such as “In the Realms of the Unreal” and “Dig!” and
political statements like “Super Size Me,” which
has become the most popular film of the festival
To investigate the United States’ obesity problem
and corporate responsibility, director Morgan Spurlock
decided to try an experiment in which he eats nothing
but McDonald’s food for 30 days. That’s
three meals a day, nothing that isn’t available
at the restaurant and if they ask him if he wants
to “super-size” his meal, he has to say
yes. Morgan is an amusing and observant interviewer
when he talks to employees about their super-size
success rates and when speaking with his doctors,
who find his health deteriorating at a rate faster
than anyone expected.
Morgan’s humor and clever visual devices, including
various on-screen representations to hammer home
the significance of statistics and studies, make
him a promising force in documentary- making.
Jessica Yu’s “In the Realms of the Unreal” looks
at the life of outsider artist Henry Darger, who
painted hauntingly odd pictures and wrote a 15,000-page
epic novel about a longtime war in a fantastical
Yu splices together different interviews with people
who knew the elder Darger while was working as a
janitor and attending church in the 1970s, demonstrating
that none of them really knew him and weren’t
even sure how to pronounce his name.
The film’s most interesting concept is the
parallel combination of Darger’s novel and
his life story, culled largely from his autobiography.
Animated versions of his paintings bring the story
to life as Darger moves from various fragile emotional
states and questions his faith and purpose. Yu has
cleverly created a study of a man whom nobody knew.
Screening in a special section was “The Yes
Men,” the new film co-directed by Sarah Price,
Dan Ollman and Chris Smith, who is a juror and has
been at Sundance three times previously with “American
Job,” “American Movie” and “Home
Movie.” The film follows the antics of two
men and their many collaborators who, after creating
a satirical Web site making fun of the World Trade
Organization, were mistaken for the organization
several times and invited to speak at conferences.
Their funniest antic involves a presentation in a
textile company in Finland that evolves from a clinical
presentation about third-world labor being cheaper
than slavery and ends with the speaker ripping off
a suit to reveal a gold jumpsuit with a giant phallus
that has a built-in screen so that corporate leaders
can monitor their workers while enjoying leisure
activities. Smith and Co. leave open how useful the
group has been, but they’ve at least gotten
press out regarding their views.
At the screening on Tuesday, the Men revealed their
new model of the phallic gold suit —now a camouflage
one with the phallus as a rocket (or confetti) launcher.
At night, Bernardo Bertolucci’s new film “The
Dreamers” made its U.S. premiere, uncut after
a bit of censorship. “An orgasm is always better
than a bomb,” he said, from a video recorded
in Rome, Italy. Bertolucci was unable to attend the
premiere due to a recently procured injury.
Despite his reputation, Fox Searchlight almost censored
Bertolucci’s film for U.S. distribution, but
made a last-minute decision last week to release
it with an NC-17 rating, which studios avoid because
of an unfair stigma on the rating. It’s sad
to be reminded how much money and marketing concerns
affect independent film, due to the financial risks
The film was a nice marker to the first half of the
century, a bittersweet love letter to cinema and
Paris and one of Bertolucci’s best films in
This diverse round of films, from a guy with $7,000
creatively making a movie to a TV actor using his
connections to get his dream cast on a unique romantic
comedy to a documentarian exploring the identity
of an enigmatic artist, represents the many voices
in independent film today and the Sundance Film
Festival —overly categorical or commercial as
it may be —houses them all.