Celluloid Atrocities | 03.06

Granted, this was only my second year attending, but I think that the issue here wasn’t so much that Sundance was bad, but just that it wasn’t as good as it has been in years past.


The overriding opinion about Sundance 2006 amongst critics making small talk in line was that it was a misstep that had no real revelations like the more famous festivals of years past. While this position is easily argued (there were no real out-of-left-field masterpieces, like last year’s Me & You & Everyone We Know, and most of the acquisitions were of films that very well could have been made in Hollywood, like the very good Little Miss Sunshine, the very bad The Darwin Awards, or the mediocre The Night Listener), the festival wasn’t quite as disappointing as you may have been led to believe by various wrap-ups. Granted, this was only my second year attending, but I think that the issue here wasn’t so much that Sundance was bad, but just that it wasn’t as good as it has been in years past.

My favorite film of the festival was Kirby Dick’s documentary on the MPAA, This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Dick is easily one of the best living documentarians (he was nominated for an Oscar last year for the brilliant Twist of Faith), and the combination of he and a subject matter that is debilitatingly interesting to me ensured that he would have seriously had to drop the ball for it to not have been my favorite film of the festival. This Film works from a broad thesis that the MPAA doesn’t do a very good job, and covers topics such as their favoritism to giving lighter ratings to violent films over sex-filled films, giving easier ratings to mainstream films over indie films, and generally interfering with and stifling the creative process of making a movie. Additionally, a great deal of the film is focused on questioning MPAA’s practice of keeping the identities of their board members secret, with Dick even hiring a private detective to ferret out who these people are and whether or not they fit Jack Valenti’s claim that they are average American parents. While This Film was generally very well received by the press at Sundance, almost everyone but me complained that the film is not very thorough, that it does not explore the alternative of not having a ratings board at all (they do serve an important function), and not really offering advice on how the ratings board could be better. These criticisms are all valid, but I’d like to point out that this is a very broad topic, and if Dick had covered all of that material, it would have been a very long movie indeed. This is a film, not a doctoral dissertation.

The closest thing to the big, out-of-nowhere hit of the festival was Wordplay, a documentary about crossword puzzles and the people who love and/or create them. Wordplay was directed by newcomer Patrick Creadon and focuses on the career of The New York Times’ crossword puzzle editor, Will Shortz, who apparently has a very large, cult-like following (unbeknownst to me prior to seeing this film). While it might sound like Wordplay would only appeal to people who really, really like crossword puzzles, it actually has very strong potential for crossover appeal, and I won’t be at all surprised if it becomes this year’s hot arthouse documentary, like Super Size Me or Spellbound.

In the vein for which Sundance is best known—American independent narrative films from unknowns—the two best films were Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy and Jody Hill’s The Foot Fist Way. Both arguably have known actors in them, as Old Joy stars the husky-voiced indie rock legend Will Oldham (and it features a score by Yo La Tengo) and The Foot Fist Way stars Danny McBride, who was Bust-Ass in the Sundance alumni All the Real Girls. Regardless, both films preserve the low-budget, specialty film feel that Sundance movies stereotypically should. I have not yet heard if either of these two films will be readily available to American audiences (at press time, neither has been picked up for U.S. distribution), but keep your eye out for them at film festivals.

Other highlights included Destricted, made up of seven short pornographic films from internationally renowned directors such as Matthew Barney, Larry Clark, and Gaspar Noe; Half Nelson, which stars Ryan Gosling (best known for The Notebook, but whose best performance was in the 2001 Sundance award winner The Believer) as a crack-addicted junior high history teacher whose secret is uncovered by one of his smarter students; Art School Confidential, the new film from Terry Zwigoff who re-teamed with his Ghost World writing partner, Daniel Clowes; Stay, a comedy about a girl who blew her dog in college and can’t decide if she should tell her fiancée, from Shakes the Clown’s Bobcat Goldthwait; the Paul Giamatti vehicle The Hawk Is Dying, adapted from a Harry Crews novel and directed by Julian Goldberger; and Glastonbury, a sprawling doc about the music festival of the same name from Julian Temple, director of The Filth and the Fury. Not to mention such likely arthouse hits as the Joey Lauren Adams–directed, Ashley Judd–starring Come Early Morning, Tilda Swinton and Amber Tamblyn’s Stephanie Daley, the St. Louis–friendly Steel City, the Maggie Gyllenhaal–starring Sherrybaby, and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, a film that was garnering more Mean Streets comparisons than it could handle after its first screening at the fest. Plus, there were holdovers that premiered to great success at other festivals, such as Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven, Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking, and the Matt Dillon–starring Factotum.

I’ve just mentioned 19 movies that showed at Sundance that are worth seeing, and I only saw 40 films at the festival. Now, how can one reasonably argue that the festival was a disappointment?

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