Sundance Film Festival 2010 Wrap-Up


This year’s version of the Sundance Film Festival came to a close over the weekend as it does every year – with festival juries awarding prizes to a number of noteworthy films.

Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone dominated the U.S. Dramatic Competition, winning both the Grand Jury Prize as well as the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Granik’s film tells the story of a 17-year-old girl living in a remote, impoverished region of the Ozark Mountains who is forced to deal with violent relatives in an effort to track down her drug-peddling father.

The U.S. Documentary Competition was topped by Restrepo, directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. The gripping and raw doc follows a single platoon of soldiers during their 15-month deployment in Afghanistan. Providing a close-up, gut wrenching perspective of modern warfare, Restrepo generated a deafening buzz from the moment its first screening ended.

This year’s big Sundance winner however may not actually be a film. Instead, this year’s festival will be remembered most for John Cooper’s inauguration. After nearly two decades under the leadership of Geoffrey Gilmore, Cooper took over programming duties as the festival’s new director. In past years, it was not uncommon to walk out of half a dozen Sundance screenings wondering not only how such misguided films could be made, but how they could wind up at such a prestigious festival. Thanks to Cooper and his programming staff headed by Trever Groth, this year’s Sundance was packed with entries that were, if not outstanding, at least watchable.

Variations On A Theme

Sundance has always been a festival that has tried to set trends, or at the very least, track them, so it came as no surprise that this year’s Sundance program included films focusing on hot button topics such as the economy, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In fact, the struggling economy hung over the festival like giant grey snow clouds. If last year’s festival-goers dubbed the event “Recession Sundance,” than this year should be referred to as “Depression Sundance.” Attendance was way down, as was the number of swank premiere parties and ambush marketers renting out storefronts on Park City’s Main Street. Such fiscal problems were reflected directly in some of the festival’s official selections. Movies such as Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom’s The Shock Doctrine, a documentary based on Naomi Klein’s best selling book which chronicles the rise of disaster capitalism and the effect it has had on the world over the past 50 years. Many viewers who had read the book did not like the film and some audiences were turned off by the filmmaking, which consisted mostly of historical footage. What can’t be denied though is the strength of “Shock Doctrine’s” argument and the power of its message. Meanwhile in the Premiere section you had John Wells’ directorial debut The Company Men featuring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper as white collar executives who struggle to find employment after being downsized from a multi-billion dollar transportation company. The film received mostly positive word-of-mouth and while it can be faulted for being a little superficial or too “Hollywood” it was engaging all the way through.

The ongoing wars being fought by the United States in various parts of the world turned up not only in Restrepo, but also in The Pat Tillman Story, a buzzworthy documentary about the former NFL-star killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Laura Poitras’ The Oath, while not specifically about either war, tells the story of two jihadists who were formally Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguard and driver. Mostly comprised of talking heads and absent one of its main subjects, the film’s strength lies in its depiction of the Muslim world as well as the access Poitras had in both Yemen and Guantanamo Bay. A Midnight Madness entry that helped round out the war theme was Buried, a film directed by Rodrigo Cortés that stars Ryan Reynolds as a contractor in Iraq who finds himself buried alive. Even though the whole film takes place in a coffin, with a flashlight, Zippo lighter and cell phone providing the only lighting, the suspense over its outcome will keep you interested right up to its final frame.

Boy Meets Girl, Etc.

As it has in its previous incarnations, this year’s Sundance also featured a number of films revolving around difficult romantic relationships. The festival that served as the launching pad for such movies as “sex, lies and videotape” as well as last year’s (500) Days of Summer programmed a number of strong entries that explored the emotional turmoil which can occur when two or more people try to co-exist. The Dramatic Audience Award was given to Josh Radnor’s happythankyoumoreplease, a light romantic comedy that marks the television actor’s directorial debut. The enjoyable movie features an ensemble cast headed up by Radnor as a struggling writer who befriends a lost seven-year-old while trying to get his life in order. Douchebag was a highly anticipated film from Drake Doremus about two estranged brothers who go on a fruitless road trip which serves to bring them closer together. Faulted for its “mumblecorp” style, Douchebag falls a little flat.

Brian Poyser’s Lovers of Hate, also received a lukewarm reception, despite being far more engaging. Produced by Mark and Jay Duplass, the film is partially set in the festival’s hometown, Park City. The dramatic competition entry tells the story of a down-and-out writer who hides away in a mansion to spy on his ex-wife’s romantic weekend with his more successful younger brother.

The Duplass brothers also brought their Fox Searchlight backed Cyrus to the festival. The twisted romantic comedy stars John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei as two characters whose budding romantic relationship is purposely thwarted by Tomei’s grown son, Cyrus, played by Jonah Hill. It was interesting to see how the Duplass brothers, who got their start at Sundance with The Puffy Chair, have grown as filmmakers to the point where they can deftly serve up a glossy, enjoyable studio movie.

Without a doubt, the relationship film that earned the most praise and buzz was Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, and justifiably so. Ten years in the making, this masterfully crafted drama stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams and documents the last day of their characters’ marriage cross cut against scenes in which the two originally met and fell in love. A minority of critics found the film emotionally manipulative, but most, like myself, were captivated by Blue Valentine‘s strong, raw performances. Initially the film was deemed a front-runner for Sundance’s top prizes, however in the end it walked away from the festival empty-handed.

In the realm of dysfunctional family relationships Sundance lived up to its usual standards. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play lesbian lovers in Lisa Cholodenko’s entertaining The Kids Are All Right. The couple’s happy home life is turned on its head when their children seek out their sperm-donating biological father played by Mark Ruffalo.

Another film that could be lumped into the family-in-need-of-counseling category is Hesher. Featuring an outstanding performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the punk rocker juvenile delinquent, Spencer Susser’s dramatic competition entry casts Rainn Wilson and Devin Brochu as a father and son struggling to overcome the death of their wife/mother. When Gordon-Levitt enters their lives it predictably provides just the right amount of turmoil to help bring them closer together. At least that was the film’s intention, however Hesher winds up being a little uneven, especially towards the latter half of the film.

Documenting The World

Dramatic films at Sundance, such as last year’s Precious, may steal the lion’s share of attention from mainstream press thanks to what seems like a never-ending supply of movie stars, but true Sundance veterans know that some of the best films can be found in the documentary sections. This year proved no different.

Beyond the docs previously mentioned the standouts from 2010’s official competition selection included GasLand by Josh Fox. Like past first-person documentaries that have appeared at Sundance, Super Size Me springs to mind, GasLand follows its filmmaker through 32 states as Fox uncovers the toxic practice of “fracking,” a technique used to extract natural gas from deep beneath the earth. What initially sounds like the answer to the United States’ energy problems quickly turns into poisoned water supplies, fields of dead livestock and unexplained illnesses. An audience favorite during the festival, GasLand won the Special Jury Prize.

Two documentaries used comedians as their subjects, including Joan Rivers – A Piece of Work. What many festival-goers initially shrugged off as a throw away bio of the queen of schmaltz, was actually an intimate and entertaining portrait of the comic. On the other hand, there was Louis C.K.: Hilarious, a filmed live show of the television writer and comedian.

Davis Guggenheim, who premiered An Inconvenient Truth at Sundance in 2006, returned to the festival with Waiting for Superman, a study on the American education system. The film’s gala screening attracted an A-list audience, including the likes of Bill Gates.

Two documentaries that appeared in the Spotlight selection attracted a lot of attention: In fact, Catfish proved to be the hottest ticket at this year’s festival despite the fact that those who had seen it wouldn’t reveal what the film was actually about; apparently it has a surprise twist which would ruin the film if it were known upfront. Getting shut out of Catfish screenings practically became a running joke for some, including myself. Then there was Life 2.0, which unfortunately may have been overshadowed by Catfish. Jason Spingarn-Koff’s film delves into the virtual world of Second Life, chronicling a handful of people who have become addicted to “playing” the video game. Spingarn-Koff uses actual screen captures from Second Life, which proves to be an interesting technique as it literally animates portions of his film and serves to introduce not only the docs’ subjects, but also their avatars.

A documentary that managed to split audience opinions as much as the subject it covers was 8: The Mormon Proposition. Directed by Reed Cowan, the film details how the Mormon Church campaigned for the passage of Proposition 8 in California, banning gay marriage.

Cane Toads: The Conquest brought 3D to Sundance in 2010. Filmmaker Mark Lewis returns to a subject he documented in 1988 with an update on the Cane Toad infestation plaguing Australia. Just over 100 of the amphibians were brought into the country in the 1930s to help save sugar cane crops from insect infestations, however since then the population has exploded to roughly 1.5 billion toads causing a huge ecologic disaster. What could have been nothing more than stunt programming actually proved to be fascinating both in its subject matter and visual presentation.

One documentary that didn’t make the Sundance program guide, was the surprise entry of Exit Through The Gift Shop by guerilla graffiti artist Banksy, who keeps his true identity a secret. It’s safe to say the film was a huge hit with audiences. At the outset of the festival, strange murals began to appear on the outside of buildings around Park City, allegedly stenciled by Banksy himself, however, true to the artist’s reputation, their appearance remains a mystery.

Artists (and that word is used lightly) of a different kind were the subject of two docs on paparazzi. Smash His Camera is the portrait of Ron Galella, considered to be one of the first photographers to transform the celebrity snapshot into an art form. A more modern day look at the practice could be seen in actor Adrian Grenier’s Teenage Paparazzo in which the star of “Entourage” takes a 13-year-old shutter bug under his wings to help uncover the truth about celebrity and stardom. Ironically, audiences that appreciated Smash His Camera tended not to like Teenage Paparazzo and vice versa.

The list of worthwhile documentaries at the 2010 edition of Sundance is truly endless. There was Casino Jack, the film about the scandal surrounding Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. And I’d be remiss for not mentioning Space Tourists about incredibly wealthy individuals who pay a small fortune to stow away on Russian space launches for a week or two. As in past years, it was impossible to find a doc that one could complain about.

Acquiring Tastes

After the lack of acquisitions at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, when mourning officially began over the death of independent filmmaking, all eyes were on Sundance to see if the climate for non-studio movies had reversed itself.

At least ten films were picked up for domestic distribution during Sundance 2010, a rate which hadn’t been seen for many years. That collective sigh of relief you may have heard last week undoubtedly came from Park City, Utah.

Gone are the days of $10 million deals like the one Fox Searchlight made for Little Miss Sunshine, but there were a few pricy acquisitions nonetheless. Among them were The Kids Are All Right which went to Focus for $5 million and Buried which Lionsgate nabbed for $3.2 million. Hanover House acquired Joel Schumacher’s latest Twelve for $2 million, although nobody who had seen the poorly reviewed film could comprehend why.

Both Winter’s Bone and Blue Valentine found homes, at Roadside Attractions and Weinstein Company respectively. Weinstein is also rumored to be circling The Pat Tillman Story though a deal had not been reached by the festival’s end. Even Hesher found a buyer in Newmarket, who paid $1 million for the movie.

News that Catfish had been grabbed never seemed to materialize, despite a number of distributors who were said to be interested. A scheduled screening of the film at Paramount the Tuesday after the festival set off a flurry of speculation the studio was close to taking it off the market.

Another film that caused a stir, albeit more for its violent and sexual content, was Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Jim Thompson’s pulp novel The Killer Inside Me. The period thriller starring Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson landed at IFC Films.