1999 Sundance Film Festival Update #6: "Final Thoughts"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
February 1, 1999

An exercise in mediocrity - that's as apt a description of the 1999 Sundance Film Festival as any I can think of. Virtually everyone attending agreed that this year's crop of films, especially those in the dramatic competition, were weaker than last year's, and the 1998 group was no great shakes, either. Distributors concurred, as well -- of the 16 movies vying for the Grand Jury Prize won by Three Seasons, the rights to only three (Happy, Texas; Trick; Tumbleweeds) were purchased. Two others (Guinevere, Three Seasons) came in with those deals already in place. That leaves 11 directors who went home shaking their heads sadly at what might have been.

Not everything showing at Sundance was bad. In fact, most of the films were entirely watchable. With 75% of these movies, had I seen them in local multiplex or art house, I would have left with a small smile on my face and a good feeling inside. But, after traveling 2000 miles and enduring the snow and ice of Park City, I was hoping for something more. In two years, I haven't given one four-star review to a Sundance movie (by comparison, during the same period, three films from the Toronto Film Festival have earned that accolade).

Of course, the secondary boon of attending a film festival doesn't have much to do with the movies. It's the little side moments, like a dinner with film critics Roger Ebert and Scott Renshaw, sharing a wait-list line with the father of film maker Michael Steinberg, (a born storyteller), or overhearing publicists try to outduel each other in the name-dropping game. Still, it's easy to understand why many people (especially those on my side of the business) are so discouraged by Sundance. It's a hassle, and the end result hardly seems worth the struggle. I think I'll adapt Ebert's approach of going every other year. It may diminish my ability to remain on the cutting edge of the independent film world, but it will reduce my stress level.

The hottest films of the 1999 edition of the festival were (in order of difficulty to gain admission): Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, American Pimp, Three Seasons, Happy, Texas, and Go. I missed Sex because I wasn't interested enough to stand in the long lines (the buzz on the film, a documentary about a woman who had sex with 251 men in 10 hours, was mixed). I tried to get into American Pimp (the Hughes Brothers' doc about the real lives of pimps and prostitutes), but the only people to obtain a space in the 170-seat theater from the waiting line were those who had been there for three hours. I procured tickets for both Three Seasons and Happy, Texas (see update #5), but one glance at the 350-person line for Go, Doug Liman's follow-up to Swingers, encouraged me to look elsewhere for entertainment.

To close out my coverage of the festival, here are a few thoughts regarding the six movies I saw but haven't yet written about. They're a mixed bag: three premieres, two world cinema entries, and one from the American spectrum program. All but two (The Invisibles, When Love Comes) currently have U.S. distributors.

© 1999 James Berardinelli

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