1998 Sundance Film Festival Update #4: It's a Wrap (January 25, 1998)

By James Berardinelli

Here are the winners in the various categories. Not having seen many of the films, I don't have much to say, but I will offer a few comments below, followed by a short "wrap up" session.

Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic Film: Slam, directed by Marc Levin

Grand Jury Prize, Documentary: The Farm, directed by Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus; Frat House, directed by Todd Phillips (tie)

Audience Award, Dramatic Film: Smoke Signals, directed by Chris Eyre

Audience Award, Documentary: Out of the Past, directed by Jeff Dupre

Directing Award, Dramatic Film: Pi, directed by Darren Aronofsky

Directing Award, Documentary: Moment of Impact, directed by Julia Loktev

Filmmakers Trophy, Dramatic Film: Smoke Signals, directed by Chris Eyre

Filmmakers Trophy, Documentary: Divine Trash, directed by Steve Yeager

Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: High Art, screenplay by Lisa Cholodenko

Cinematography Award, Dramatic Film: 2by4, cinematography by Declan Quinn

Cinematography Award, Documentary: Wild Man Blues, cinematography by Tom Hurwitz

Freedom of Expression Award: The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III, directed by Penelope Spheeris

Special Recognition in Latin America Cinema Award: Who the Hell Is Juliette, directed by Carlos Marcovich

Special Recognition in Short Filmmaking Award: Snake Feed, directed by Debra Granik [Honorable mention: Human Remains, directed by Jay Rosenblatt]

Special acting award: Andrea Hart, for Miss Monday

Although I didn't see either Slam or Smoke Signals, I hadn't heard many good things about either of them during my time in Park City, so I was surprised that they cleaned up. (One critic called Slam "a good try, but not quite." Another described it as containing several powerful scenes, but, overall, not attaining the level it was striving for. As for Smoke Signals, three individuals (one of whom is a critic) told me it was an utter waste of time and money. So much for the people I hang around with...

I'm frankly shocked that a mediocre film like High Art won a screenwriting award. It was pretentious, though, and I guess award-givers like pretentiousness.

Andrea Hart, who won an award for her performance in Miss Monday, was very good, but was she good enough to merit a special citation? Was she any better than, say, Christina Ricci in Buffalo 66? (For those who didn't figure it out, that's a rhetorical question.)

Anyway, enough about the awards. Like all film festival handouts, they don't mean much of anything to me anyway. All awards are overrated, which is probably why film critics spend so much time writing about who should win them, why they should win them, and why the real winners should be sunk at sea. (No reference to Titanic intended.)

To wrap up my coverage of the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, I thought I'd answer a few questions I have received by e-mail. (All of these, except one, are real questions. It's up to you to guess which one I made up.)

Q: The fact that you came out with your summary of World Cinema reviews on Monday makes me a little suspicious. That means that either you didn't see any World Cinema movies after Monday or you weren't in Sundance after Monday. How long were you actually in Sundance?
A: Actually, I was "in" Park City "for" Sundance (instead of being "in" Sundance, which is a different locale). Hey, I never pretended to be there for the entire festival (that's why I frequently referred to my coverage as a "sampler"). Real-life business limited my time there. I arrived in Utah on Thursday and left early on Monday. Most of what appears in my updates was written while I was there (often scribbled on the back of the sheets I take notes on), and all I really did when I got home was to edit them into a semi-coherent form. That's probably the reason why the tenses are all screwed up.

Q: You said somewhere that seeing a lot of films at Sundance means not eating or sleeping. Since the festival is about 10 days long and you only saw 15 films, I assume that means you did a lot of eating and sleeping. I mean, 1.5 films per day isn't a very good average, is it?
A: If I had been there for 10 days, that wouldn't have been a good average. Considering that I was only there for 3 film-going days, I think it's pretty damn impressive. And, while I did manage to eat fairly regularly, my total sleep quota while there averaged about 4.5 hours per night.

Q: How would you rank Sundance compared to other film festivals that you've attended?
A: Bottom rung. While it wasn't as unpleasant as advertised, I was nonplused at the lack of quality of films presented. I wanted to be blown away, and wasn't. Plus, the unfortunate weather, snow-choked streets (I like walking and it was downright dangerous sometimes), and erratic realiability of transportation occasionally made Sundance more of a trial than a pleasure. It would have all been worth it if the films had been special, but, for the most part, they weren't. The best ones look like they'll be released locally and most of the rest probably weren't worth seeing, anyway.

Q: Are you going next year? Is this going to be an annual thing?
A: I don't know. For some reason, I'm of the opinion that it's important for a critic to attend this festival. This year was something in the nature of a scouting expedition. Next year, if I go, it will be for 6 or 7 days -- enough time to see an impressive parcel of films. But I won't make a decision for another six months.

Q: Do you think the festival is going to be bigger next year?
A: I hope not, but it probably will be. Attendance was up by 1000 people this year, and there's no sign that the upward trend is likely to stop in the near future. The only thing likely to slow things down is a major blizzard.

Q: Do you think the awards are fixed?
A: I don't know. Maybe. Probably not, though. And does it really matter? I know some people get worked up over awards (that's why I went to the trouble to present the complete list), and I admit to a little curiosity, but, when all is said and done, I really could care less who won, and, by extension, whether they won fair and square.

Q: I think I saw you at Sundance. I was in the ticket line every morning at 6:30 am, and I think you mentioned you were there too. Were you the tall, overweight guy with curly black hair and a big beard? I was talking about movies and you said you hated everything. The notepad gave you away.
A: Everyone at Sundance has a notepad, and I don't think I had mine with me the one morning that I stood in line for tickets (not an experience I'm ever likely to repeat, by the way). The man you describe, while he probably has good taste, was definitely not me. I'm a short, underweight guy with straight brown hair and no beard whatsoever (unless you count a few days' stubble). Although I'm not sure who you are, I think I recognize him. He was about 15 people behind me.

That's it for Sundance 1998. For me, the next festival will be the 1998 Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, April 29-May 10. I'll be there for the whole thing, so the coverage will be somewhat more complete.

© 1998 James Berardinelli

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