1999 Sundance Film Festival Update #5: "Dramatic Competition Overview/And the Winners Are..."
Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 31, 1999
Although the Sundance Film Festival features its share of world premieres, foreign language features, and documentaries, the centerpiece of the 10-day event is the dramatic film competition, in which 16 hand-picked motion pictures (chosen from hundreds of entries) go head-to-head in an attempt to capture one of several prizes (including the prestigious Jury Prize and the nearly-as-important Audience Award). Of the 16 movies in competition this year, I saw 11, so I'm in a pretty good position to give an overall view of the playing field, and it's not a pretty picture.
First of all, however, let me list the five films I did not see (none of which had strong buzz or were expected to win anything):
- The Adventures of Sebastian Cole
- The Hi-Line
- Joe the King
- The Minus Man
Here are some brief thoughts about the 11 films I saw:
- The Autumn Heart: The public introduction to The Autumn Heart was one of the most emotional of the festival. After director Steven Maler said a few words, screenwriter/actor Davidlee Willson stepped to the podium and promptly broke into tears while speaking about how much the film meant to him. Sincerity, however, does not make a good movie, and The Autumn Heart -- the melodramatic account of a dying woman's attempts to see the son she hasn't set eyes on for 20 years - is an example of a motion picture that does just about everything wrong. The direction is heavy-handed. Not one line of dialogue in the contrived plot rings true. The comedy is consistently forced, inappropriate, and unfunny. And the acting (by Willson, Marceline Hugot, Maria Sucharetza, and last year's festival darling, Ally Sheedy) is shrill and over-the-top. The Autumn Heart has such a startling lack of subtlety and intelligence that it makes films like Patch Adams and Stepmom look restrained. As of this writing, the movie does not have a distributor.
- Getting to Know You: Lisanne Skyler's debut feature is the story of two teenagers, Judith (Heather Matarazzo) and Jimmy (Michael Weston), who are drawn to each other because they're in search of a sympathetic ear. They meet at a bus station where Jimmy frequently hangs out and Judith is waiting for a ride home. After a few awkward attempts at conversing, they begin telling each other things about themselves and making up histories for other men and women in the station. Getting to Know You is an affecting, although unspectacular, drama that features a tremendous performance by Matarazzo. The script (by Skyler's sister, Tristine) cleverly weaves three Joyce Carol Oates stories into an original framework and provides a view of life that is sometimes darkly funny and sometimes just dark. The transitions between the trio of tales (about a high-stakes gambler in a skid, a contentious father/son/stepmother relationship, and a mother and father who resent their children) are handled fluidly. Getting to Know You does not yet have a distributor, but it's a strong candidate to pick one up at a later date.
- Guinevere: The standout aspect of Audrey Wells' Guinevere is the performance of actress Sarah Polley. Polley plays Harper, a lonely 20-year old girl who is ignored by her parents. She's miserable and filled with self-doubt until she meets Connie Fitzpatrick (Stephen Rea), a photographer who's older than her father. Connie takes an interest in Harper, but is he really concerned with developing her hidden artistic talent, or is he a lecher whose sole purpose is getting her into his bed? Most of the film is devoted to the relationship between these two, and the sharpness of Wells' focus on the characters keeps the movie engaging, even when it ventures into familiar territory. Polley is undeniably brilliant. She has a different look for every scene, and, like all of the best performers, acts with every part of her body and uses her eyes to great effect. Miramax has the distribution rights, so this film will get significant exposure.
- Happy, Texas: Along with Three Seasons (see below), Happy, Texas was one of the hottest tickets at this year's festival. The early word was that it's a real crowd-pleaser, and, on that level, the film did not disappoint. The distributors attending Sundance recognized the movie's revenue-generating potential, and a bidding war ensued with Miramax emerging as the winner after putting together a reported $2.5 million (plus a "huge" back-end) deal. (Miramax's competitors for the film dispute this figure, putting it closer to $10 million, if not higher). The film, from first-time director Mark Illsley, has a top-notch cast, including a laconic Jeremy Northam, Illeana Douglas, and scene-stealers Steve Zahn and William H. Macy. The plot centers on two escaped convicts (Northam and Zahn) who impersonate gay beauty contest directors and hide out in the small Texas town of Happy. The movie's greatest strength (not surprisingly) is the comedy, which varies from mildly amusing to hilarious. Zahn's performance is a comic highlight, and Macy contributes a scene of genuine pathos when his sheriff character is brutally rebuffed romantically. Light and unpretentious, Happy, Texas was one of Sundance's best 1999 offerings for pure entertainment. Miramax plans a major release in October.
- The Item: Of everything I saw at Sundance, there was no worse film than Dan Clark's The Item. A science fiction thriller abut a group of lowlife characters who guard a box containing an alien life form, The Item was designed as a farce/spoof. And, while the outrageously exaggerated violence of the shoot-outs shows some inventiveness, that only accounts for 5% of the running time. The rest of the movie is so dull and uninteresting that it threatened to put everyone in the theater to sleep (except those numerous festival goers who had the good sense to walk out). The dialogue (and there's a lot of it) is nauseatingly banal, the acting is flat, and what's supposed to be clever is actually uninspired. I liked the last scene, but it came 90 minutes too late. The Item does not have a distributor, and, as the most universally reviled movie of the festival, it has no chance of getting one.
- Judy Berlin: Eric Mendelsohn's black-and-white feature debut is receiving a lot of praise as an examination of real-life characters in real-life situations. Or, as critic Harlan Jacobson put it, "You can believe these characters existed before the film started and that they'll continue existing after it ends." And, while that may be true, believable characters aren't necessarily interesting characters, and the individuals in Judy Berlin are as boring as they come. The film examines the day-in-a-life tribulations of several ordinary people - a would-be actress (Edie Falco) and aspiring movie director (Aaron Hornick) who discover an attraction for each other while they're reminiscing about high school, a grade-school teacher (Barbara Barrie) and a principal (Bob Dishy) who share a first kiss, and a housewife (Madeline Kahn) who uses the darkness of a prolonged solar eclipse to shed a few inhibitions. Although the interaction between the two young characters is moderately interesting, uneven acting robs the dialogue of some of its power. At its best, Judy Berlin is a diversion. At its worst, it's a bore. No distributor at this point.
- Roberta: At the outset, Eric Mendelbaum's Roberta tricks viewers into thinking it's going to be a low-budget Pretty Woman. Eventually, however, it becomes apparent that any similarities are superficial. Roberta is the reality to Pretty Woman's fairy tale. It is also, in my opinion, the best film to have played in competition. It's a haunting, powerful tale characterized by an incisive script and a pair of on-target performances (by Kevin Corrigan and Daisy Rojas is particular). Roberta is the story of one man's attempt to save a prostitute from her uncertain life on the street. His motives are murky - he's not attracted to her, but he's trying somehow to right a wrong committed by his father. However, his attempts at redemption meet with frustration when Roberta makes it clear that she doesn't want to be saved. This is a disturbing motion picture, in part because it rejects all "feel good" opportunities. Yet, while there's no Cinderella ending, at least there's a sense of closure. At the time of this writing, Roberta does not have a distributor.
- A Slipping-Down Life: Adapted from the Ann Tyler novel by writer/director Toni Kalem, A Slipping-Down Life is the story of Evie Decker (Lili Taylor), a thirty-ish woman who becomes obsessed with low-level rock star Drum Casey (Guy Pearce). One night, while attending one of Drum's concerts, Evie goes into the bathroom and carves his name into her forehead. From that moment, their destinies are linked. They become romantically involved, then are married, but bliss is not the end result. Although the film contains its share of effective moments and genuine drama, it feels like just one more story of a troubled marriage where the initial feelings of romance prove to be inadequate to keep things going. Although A Slipping-Down Life is pleasant enough while being watched, it quickly fades from memory. There's nothing here to latch onto, except perhaps Lili Taylor's performance. No distributor.
- Three Seasons: This film proved to be one of the hardest tickets to get because the word-of-mouth was so positive. Three Seasons received standing ovations and was the front-runner to win the audience award (which it captured). The acclaim is certainly well-deserved. The movie is a fine effort and the director, Tony Bui, has put together a polished feature on a low budget. Three Seasons is the first American movie to be shot in Vietnam since the war, and it makes use of the setting. The picture explores three disconnected stories in a land that is a curious mix of the ancient and the modern, and the East and the West. The first (and weakest) tale is about a lotus flower harvester who transcribes poems spoken by her employer, who has lost his fingers to leprosy. The second (and strongest) is about a lonely cyclo driver who falls in love with a prostitute. The third follows the search of an American vet (Harvey Keitel) who is looking for his Vietnamese daughter. Three Seasons is well-written, beautifully photographed, and effectively acted - a credit to Bui, his cast, and crew. The movie offers a strong emotional component, but its chief asset is its depiction of Vietnam and its culture. October Films owns the rights.
- Treasure Island: Scott King's Treasure Island takes place during the late days of World War II. The two main characters are American intelligence officers based on San Francisco's Treasure Island and charged with breaking codes and developing ploys to confound the enemy. Their latest gambit involves dumping a dead body into Japanese waters. In the corpse's clothing will be false information about American tactical plans. In order to make the fiction convincing, the two men develop a detailed background for the body, writing to him from loved ones, friends, and relatives. Through their missives, they reveal buried aspects of their personalities. Meanwhile, away from the office, we are given a glimpse into their sexually-confused personal lives. One is a polygamist; the other can only have sex with his wife when another man is present. As tantalizing as this material sounds, the real strength of Treasure Island is the unconventional and non-linear narrative style. The movie jumps randomly from scene-to-scene, intentionally confusing reality with fantasy, and often dropping us in the middle of an event without offering any sort of explanation about what's going on. Code breaking isn't just something that the characters do; audience members must do some of their own. Many viewers will be put off by King's approach; others will find it fascinating. It certainly isn't always successful (in fact, it occasionally fails completely), but it's always interesting, and that's something that can't be said of about half the films in the dramatic competition. Treasure Island doesn't have a distributor, and it isn't likely to get one.
- Tumbleweeds: This movie, directed by first-time film maker Gavin O'Connor, is a pleasant, unambitious picture that uses low-key manipulation to become a crowd favorite. It's a classic "chick flick," focusing on the relationship between a mother, Mary Jo (Janet McTeer), who keeps moving from marriage-to-marriage, and her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Ava (Kimberly Brown). The mother/daughter relationship holds this film together as the plot veers uncertainly through a minefield of melodramatic situations: failed marriages, abusive menfolk, and teenage rebellion. Mary Jo and Ava are almost like sisters; they tell each other their intimate fears and fantasies, and have a seemingly-unbreakable bond. It helps that both McTeer and Brown are capable actresses. In lesser hands, these parts could have become flat and familiar, and that would have doomed the entire production. Fine Line Features bought the rights for between $1 million and $1.5 million, with the intention of releasing it late in the year.
Here are the official winners, as announced Saturday night at the Awards Ceremony. Far too many awards are given out in an attempt to allow virtually everyone to claim that he/she won something at Sundance.
Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic Film: Three Seasons, directed by Tony Bui
Grand Jury Prize, Documentary: American Movie, directed by Chris Smith
Audience Award, Dramatic Film: Three Seasons, directed by Tony Bui
Audience Award, Documentary: Genghis Blues, directed by Roko Belic
Directing Award, Dramatic Film: Judy Berlin, directed by Eric Mendelsohn
Directing Award, Documentary: Regret to Inform, directed by Barbara Sonneborn
Filmmakers Trophy, Dramatic Film: Tumbleweeds, directed by Gavin O'Connor
Filmmakers Trophy, Documentary: Sing Faster: The Stagehands' "Ring Cycle", directed by Jon Else
Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: Guinevere,
screenplay by Audrey Wells; Joe the King, screenplay by Frank Whaley
Cinematography Award, Dramatic Film: Three Seasons, cinematography by Lisa Rinzler
Cinematography Award, Documentary: Regret to Inform, Rabbit in the Moon, cinematography by Emiko Omori
Freedom of Expression Award: The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, directed by Stanley Nelson
Special Recognition in Latin America Cinema Award:
Santitos, directed by Alejandro Springall; Life Is to Whistle, directed by Fernando Perez
Special Recognition in World Cinema Award:
Run Lola Run, directed by Tom Tykwer; Train of Life, directed by Radu Mihaileanu
Distinctive Film Making Vision: Treasure Island, directed by Scott King
Special Jury Award, Documentary: On the Ropes, directed by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgan
Comedic Performance: Steve Zahn for Happy, Texas
Special Recognition in Short Filmmaking Award: "More", directed by Mark Osborne; "Fishbelly White", directed by Michael Burke
[Honorable mention: "Atomic Tabasco", directed by James Cox; "Come Unto Me", directed by Nicole Cattell; "Devil Doll/Ring Pull", directed by Jarl Olsen; "A Pack of Gifts, Now", directed by Corky Quakenbush; "Stubble Trouble", directed by Philip Holahan]
© 1999 James Berardinelli
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