Sundance has become a spectator business event, like the weekly box office returns. This year turned out to be a surprise bull market when the same buyers who went in saying there was little of apparent commercial appeal on the program wound up spending tens of millions in an acquisitions frenzy. I didn't get to see Son of Rambow, an '80s nostalgia piece about action movieobsessed kids that earned a cool $8 million distribution deal. But that movie at least sounds like real fun. Predictably, most of the features that scored dealwise were on the safe, earnest, kinda bland side, such as Adrienne Shelly's posthumously completed Waitress, the Australian dramedy Clubland, and the John CusackasIraq War widower vehicle Grace Is Gone.
Other big-noise titles expired on arrival, including several exploring (or is that exploiting?) the de rigueur shocking subject of our moment, child abuse. Noses were held around Hounddog (the Dakota Fanningrape film) and An American Crime (Catherine Keener as a monster foster mom), though child abduction drama Trade won some appreciation. Such controversial flicks were often more exciting in advance hype than onscreen, though conversely several bad-taste movies proved more than edible. Many thumbs went up for vagina dentata black comedy Teeth, and my own at least were hoisted for all-star, Commandments-inspired The Ten (in which Winona Ryder enjoys vigorous pleasuring with a ventriloquist's dummy), from the good folks of comedy troupe the State. Not to mention (in a different realm entirely) Robinson Devor's Zoo, an extraordinarily poetic and nonjudgmental documentary-dramatization mix about something you might expect those adjectives couldn't apply to: the 2005 death of a Seattle man whose colon was perforated by an Arabian stallion's member.
Zoo was a startling exception to a problem that's become common among the kind of indie cinema Sundance programs stuff that, since it's often funded by HBO or PBS or whatever (or is simply produced with the expectation of a small- rather than big-screen career), tends to look, act, and smell like TV. There's nothing wrong with that, since good fiction stories can be told and compelling documentaries crafted without the need for great visual panache. Still, the lack of aesthetic excitement, the sheer broadcasty-ness (abetted by so much HD photography) increasingly makes anything that feels like a real film seem refreshing. Examples most often surfaced among more experimental features (yes, they still get programmed at Sundance you just don't hear about them), such as Zoo and the ecstatically intimate soccer documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.
Sundance proved again this year that it's the premier showcase for movies starring people who can single-handedly make viewing worthwhile. Parker Posey, Sam Rockwell, Vera Farmiga, and Samantha Morton had two entries each. Steve Buscemi, god bless him, had three (including one he cowrote, directed, and starred in). Plus, there were opportunities to see actors like Ryan Reynolds (The Nines), Queen Latifah (Life Support), and Anna Faris (Smiley Face) get the generous roles you knew they were capable of filling. At times at Sundance the US film world almost seems like a repertory company of versatile, brilliant professionals one that sometimes lets A-list Hollywood guest stars take part, in which context they tend to flounder (i.e., Lindsay Lohan in the achingly dull Jared Leto is Mark David Chapman drama Chapter 27; first-time director Anthony Hopkins's embarrassing, surreal egofest, Slipstream). They may not get the big breaks, but the cool kids in class can always make the popular ones look insipid. (Dennis Harvey)