2001 Sundance Film Festival Update #1: "Shots in the Dark"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 18, 2001

As I was looking back over my Sundance festival coverage for the last few years, a thought occurred to me: at least recently, the relative quality of the Sundance Film Festival has mirrored the overall quality of the entire year's theatrical output. The 1998 festival was average; the year in movies was average. The 1999 edition brought out a strong roster of titles (including the likes of Run Lola Run and The War Zone, both of which ended up on my Top 10 list), and, when the dust had settled, most critics agreed it was the best year in a decade or more for movies. Then came last year's morose, abysmal festival, which was, in turn, followed by a morose, abysmal year.

The men and women behind the scenes at Sundance would look at this unscientific study and claim that their festival was driving the market. Somehow, I doubt it. Sundance is important to the industry (it gives promoters and publicists something to do in January), but not that important. In fact, from an economic point-of-view, not many Sundance babies have made a major impact (one significant exception: The Blair Witch Project, which arrived at the festival in early 1999). Instead of leading the way, Sundance is more of a barometer. With its mix of independent and mainstream fare, the festival offers a glimpse of the cross-section of movies coming out over the next 12 months. Consequently, the synergy noted above is more than a coincidence.

It's a little too early to be making predictions about 2001, since I haven't seen one festival film yet, but, judging strictly by the program book, Sundance 2001 looks to be stronger than Sundance 2000 (not a difficult task) but not as strong as Sundance 1999 (again, not surprising). Time - specifically the next ten days or so - will tell.

Of course, any individual's festival experience can be significantly more or less impressive than the consensus opinion. It all comes down to choosing films, which is as much an art as a science. Each pick is like taking a shot in the dark. With the exception of some of the World Cinema selections, almost everything showing at Sundance is a World (or at least U.S.) Premiere (that's one of the festival's requirements for inclusion), so there's frequently no buzz to go by. As a result, word-of-mouth becomes important, but that doesn't start until several days into the festival. At the beginning, choosing movies is largely based on educated guesswork. Those who guess best will have a more satisfying festival than those who guess poorly.

Three factors typically go into picking titles on a festival schedule. The first is the director's name and reputation. Of course, this is often a non-factor, since a significant number of the filmmakers at Sundance are making their debuts. Next is the cast list. That too can be a red herring, because many of the best films star unknowns. Finally, and most importantly, there's the infamous "gut feeling" that comes from reading the three paragraph description in the program guide. After having read enough of these, one starts to get a sense of which movies are genuinely worth seeing and which are being hyped up.

Here are some of my shots in the dark for this year. This isn't a comprehensive list of what's playing, but, with the exception of the documentaries (which often are banal), it hits all the main categories.

My First Mister is Christine Lahti's feature debut (she previously directed the short Lieberman In Love, with Danny Aiello). It's a May/December - make that March/August - romance featuring up-and-coming actress Leelee Sobieski and veteran Albert Brooks. The movie could be a winner if it follows two simple rules: stay away from contrived melodrama, and avoid getting too cute. My First Mister is the Salt Lake Opening Night film, making it the most prominent offering at the festival.

The Park City Opening Night film is called Caveman's Valentine. The fact that it stars Samuel L. Jackson and is directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou) is enough to convince me that it's worth a chance. The basic storyline of the film sounds intriguing - it's about a paranoid schizophrenic street person trying to re-connect with reality.

One of the few films showing at Sundance to have an advance buzz is Series 7 (primarily because it's opening theatrically shortly). Series 7 has been described as The Blair Witch Project meets The Running Man, and taps into the current public fascination with "reality based" TV shows. Sexy Beast is a twisty comedy/thriller featuring a strong, against-type performance by Ray Winstone and a powerhouse acting job by Ben Kingsley. Enigma is a mystery centered around World War II codebreakers. It stars Kate Winslet (who rushed to get this work completed before her pregnancy began to show) and is directed by Michael Apted. Jack the Dog features a cast of unknowns in a story that explores the gradual humanizing of a narcissistic womanizer. Finally, Waking Life is an experimental, partially animated film by Richard Linklater featuring a cast of dozens.

The Sundance category to receive the most attention from distributors is the Dramatic Competition. Last year's co-winners, Girlfight and You Can Count On Me, were both picked up for distribution (although the latter film was more successful at the box office than the former one.) As usual, I intend to see less than half of the 15 films in competition.

The American Astronaut looks to be one of Sundance's most innovative films this year, which could be good or bad. A science fiction yarn told using bizarre visual and audio cues makes the film sound tempting to a jaded critic like me, but will almost certainly scare away distributors. After all, what studio wants to market a movie that the program guide describes as being "like eating a Rice Krispies treat laced with a hallucinogenic"? Far more conventional is director Patrick Stettner's The Business of Strangers, which follows Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles through the events of one wild night. Stiles has quickly become a big Sundance favorite. Last year, she seemed to be omnipresent; in 2001, she has returned for an encore.

Donnie Darko is rumored to have something to do with time travel, or perhaps those are just the delusions of the main character, who is supposed to be psychologically maladjusted. Written and directed by Richard Kelly, the movie has an accomplished cast that includes Jake Gyllenhaal (in the title role), Drew Barrymore, and Patrick Swayze. Green Dragon, from Timothy Linh Bui (the brother of Tony Bui, whose Three Seasons was a big winner at Sundance two years ago), offers several different stories of Vietnamese refugees arriving in the United States during the mid-1970s.

One of the most intriguing titles of a competition film is In the Bedroom, from director Todd Field. It's a simple family drama about a group of New England characters whose lives are altered by an unexpected tragedy. The impressive cast boasts the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, and Marisa Tomei. Meanwhile, Memento boasts a seemingly can't-miss premise: a man with no short term memory tries to avenge his wife's murder. Featuring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano, this one has been singled out as one of the best and brightest surprises to come out of last year's Toronto International Film Festival.

The American Spectrum category is usually the weakest category at Sundance. Despite the program guide's hyped-up claim that it offers an "abundance of compelling new voices" of American independent cinema, American Spectrum films are historically as likely to be unwatchable as intriguing. As a result, I'm staying away from all but one - and that one, I simply can't miss.

Tape is Richard Linklater's second film at Sundance 2001. By all accounts, this is a smaller effort than Waking Life. It's essentially a three-character piece (featuring actors Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, and Uma Thurman) with a lot of dialogue and not a lot of action. Considering what Linklater did with Before Sunrise, there's every reason to be optimistic about this film, even if it has been relegated to the American Spectrum category.

World Cinema offers its share of intriguing titles, some of which have shown at earlier festivals, and some of which are making their debuts here. 101 Reykjavik, one of the most talked-about films at Toronto 2000, brings its bizarre brand of kinky sexual comedy to Park City. Set in Iceland, the film takes a look at an unusual romantic triangle that features a 28 year-old man, his mother, and his mother's friend. Also from Iceland is Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's Angels of the Universe, which offers a powerful and non-sensationalized look at schizophrenia.

Chopper hails from Australia. A thriller about an author and underworld executioner, the film was recommended to me in no uncertain terms by someone I met at Toronto. So, four months later, I'm taking his advice. Fuckland certainly has the most explicit title of any film at the festival, but those looking for non-stop sexual activity won't find it in this Argentinean "Dogma 95" effort. The movie follows the exploits of an Argentinean who comes to the Falkland island with the intention of impregnating as many women as possible. The film's style makes it seem as if it's a home-made documentary being produced by the protagonist. Possible Loves is another "road not taken" movie, this one from Brazil. Finally, there's Together, Swedish director Lukas Moodysson's follow-up to Show Me Love (a.k.a. Fucking Amal). Unlike his previous effort, Together, which depicts life in a '70s commune, is an ensemble piece, not a focused look at one or two characters.

Unquestionably, at least a few of the above shots-in-the-dark will meet or exceed my level of anticipation. Equally inevitably, more than one will fail to live up to expectations. And, of course, there will be a fair number of movies that I'll wish I'd seen but end up missing. Check back over the next ten days to see which category has the greatest number of entries.

© 2001 James Berardinelli

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