2001 Sundance Film Festival Update #7: "A Dull Thud"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 28, 2001

Last night, if you awoke in the darkness and heard a dull thud, that was the sound made by the 2001 Sundance Film Festival dragging its unwieldy bulk across the finish line. Rivaling the 2000 edition for disappointments and lackluster premieres, the 2001 incarnation of the festival does not bode well for the year in movies in general. In Update #1, I went to some length to point out the synergy that has recently existed between the quality of Sundance offerings and that of the overall year-to-come in film. Let's hope 2001 breaks the trend. If it doesn't, this is going to be a long 12 months, and will easily rival 2000 for lack of cinematic distinction. It's enough to make a critic want to cry.

The best film by far at this year's festival was Memento -- everyone I talked to agreed. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, it didn't win any awards. The jury prizes went to The Believer for Best Drama and Southern Comfort for Best Documentary. The audience award for feature film went to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, as expected. For documentary, it was split between Scout's Honor and Dogtown and the Z-Boys. Other noteworthy films that went home empty-handed were two by Richard Linklater: Waking Life (which wasn't in competition) and Tape (which was), as well as Lukas Moodysson's Together. Most everything else is kind of a blur.

Sundance 2001 wasn't just disappointing in terms of film quality, but the level of enthusiasm also was at a low ebb. Walking down Main Street, I didn't feel the energy of recent festivals. I don't know what the official attendance was, but, at least judging by the anecdotal evidence, it was down. There seemed to be fewer people wandering the streets, the theater lobbies were less crowded, and the wait list lines were diminished. Sundance officials claimed that nearly every show was sold out, but many of the screenings I was at had numerous empty seats, indicating that there is a lot of flexibility in determining what "sold out" means.

For filmmakers hoping to go home with distribution deals in their pockets, this has also been a slow festival. Not many contracts were signed. Only about a dozen films sold, and none for the huge sums of money that the festival has been known for in the past. (Among titles that have sold or are likely to sell within the next few days: Raw Deal, Waking Life, The Believer, Wet Hot American Summer, Things Behind the Sun, Green Dragon, The Deep End, Madison, and Lift.) More than one hopeful director will leave Park City's icy slopes with little to show for his/her efforts.

Celebrity watchers were also disgruntled this year, as the number of participating actors plunged to an all-time low. Aside from Mick Jagger, who blew in and out quickly, there was minimal star power. Those who chose to see films in Salt Lake City were consistently snubbed by both performers and directors, proving that the big city is still the ugly stepsister when it comes to this festival.

Organization was expectedly abysmal, with wait list lines being mismanaged, films starting inexplicably late (several times, every seat was filled by the posted starting time, yet there was still a five-to-ten minute delay), and various technical problems (see Update #3, in which I detailed the one-hour stoppage that plagued a screening of Donnie Darko). I'm convinced that a less viewer-friendly film festival does not exist. Usually when a film festival ends, I feel a mixture of weariness and elation. With Sundance 2001, it's just weariness. Home has rarely looked so good. Next year, the time may be right to bypass Sundance. There's not enough there to justify the expense of time and money. If I want to see a list of marginal films, I don't have to fly across the country, I can go to the local multiplex.

© 2001 James Berardinelli

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