Sundance 2010 Wrap-Up

By Scott Macaulay | February 1, 2010
The Temptation of St. Tony A scene from The Temptation of St. Tony

Scott Macaulay takes a step back to assess the movies and trends of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

After attending a festival — and particularly after years of attending many festivals — writing festival wrap-ups gets harder and harder. The assignment requires that a journalist assimilate the diverse and disparate cultural strands unreeled at an event and use them to construct some kind of overarching statement about film and the larger world. But the more festivals you go to, however, you realize the impossibility of that task. You miss the films that turn out to be the most important, you only find out what didn’t get into a festival months later, the business terrain is best viewed in retrospect, and the cultural currency of a particular film is only validated over time. Sundance is particularly challenging. There’s the weather, of course — this year I was missed a day while grounded in Phoenix on my connecting flights — but also the contrast between the hype machine that tags along to the festival and the small, often personal films it champions. There’s the cognitive dissonance of an impenetrable yet enjoyable Estonian drama about the mental breakdown of a married middle-class man (Veiko Öunpuu’s Temptation of Saint Tony) screening while Bill Gates is dancing at the Bing Lounge on Main Street.

But Sundance made it easy for journalists this year to process out the extraneous details and ruminate on the festival through its bit of calculated rebranding. As I noted in my festival preview on this site, Sundance 2010 hitched its wagon to the sexy call of the revolutionary. “This is the renewed rebellion,” publicity materials claimed. And lest one forget, the short promotional films affixed to the head of every feature reemphasized the point; each spoke to themes of renewal and ended with the word “Rebel” on screen. (The elegant spots were a far cry from ones years ago by the comedic team of JibJab, which insouciantly mocked indie filmmakers by depicting them as dangerous incompetents.)

After staring at the word “rebel” so many times, though, it was only natural to think more about its meanings within the context of filmmaking, film viewing and film festivals. In the first few days of the festival, I assumed the word referred to Sundance, as in, “Sundance is a rebel.” Midway through I realized that rebel is a verb and a directive too. “You rebel!” the screen seemed to be shouting at me. I began to think, what would constitute rebellion for a festival visitor? Not see any movie with a star? Only watch shorts? Skip movies entirely and volunteer at a Salt Lake City shelter? Boycott parties (particularly the ones I wasn’t invited to)? Or, perhaps, to grab a Flip and some local residents and make a movie of my own?

Hesher

Hesher

Other journalists went through similar mental calculi. For the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, “rebel” caused her to think back to a time of true cinematic rebellion — the early 1960s and the New American Cinema Group. For Todd McCarthy in Variety, a Sundance rebellion would mean a curatorial veering away from left-leaning activist docs and towards more conservative voices. But no matter how one chose to imagine rebellion, it was hard after those trailers not to look for it in the films.

Some films wore an atmosphere of rebellion on their sleeves. Hesher, for example, was Spencer Susser’s feature debut following his brilliant zombie comedy short, I Love Sarah Jane. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a violently anti-social misfit with bad tattoos and a menacing Econoline van. In the tradition of movies ranging from Teorema to What About Bob?, he insinuates himself into a family — in this case, a broken-down, grieving one — and, despite his outwardly violent persona, helps them find themselves again. For all its profanity, speed metal and comic-book violence, its outward signs of rebellion, the film is deeply traditional in its drama. A family whose dynamic is upset by an outsider is also the storyline of Lisa Cholodenko’s winning comedy, The Kids are All Right (purchased during the festival by Focus). Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play lesbian parents whose teenage son and daughter are secretly searching for their sperm donor father. He arrives in the form of a sexy, free-spirited restauranteur (played beautifully by Mark Ruffalo), whose own barely articulated mid-life issues collide with fault lines in the relations between the wives, son and daughter. While delivering plenty of humor, Cholodenko maintains an empathetic point of view, and her dramatic moments are natural and unforced. Understanding the fluidity of desire and assisted by movie star performances all around, she has made a crowd-pleasing relationship film that expertly bridges European and American comic idioms.

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop

In other films, the artist as rebel was on center stage. These included Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s opening night movie Howl, about Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem; Tamra Davis’s doc portrait, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, and Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways, which looked at a specific rebellion of the past — the brash teen-girl ‘70s rock of Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Cherie Curie’s (Dakota Fanning) L.A. band — by deconstructing it, dramatizing the construction of the band’s rebel image by producer and manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon). Her film reminds that the spirit of rebellion today is as much marketing statement as a political one.

Banksy, the secretive U.K. conceptual street artist, appeared in his brilliant documentary Exit through the Gift Shop only in silhouette and with his voice disguised. Still, his provocative wit was firmly behind the camera. According to the documentary’s self-contained creation myth, a would-be French documentarian, Thierry Guetta, become obsessed with street art, filming many of the movement’s key figures and eventually making it into Banksy’s inner circle. Banksy, however, convinces Guetta to give him his footage and to allow Banksy to make a film about him. So, while Exit through the Gift Shop has thrilling footage of street artists at work, it’s mostly about Guetta’s improbable rise from hanger-on to commercial artist. Having learned from the best, Guetta launches his career with a hilariously over-promoted and under-prepared warehouse show in Los Angeles that still manages to score the cover the L.A. Weekly and stretch lines around the block. Guetta’s art is mostly derivative, and while Banksy’s documentary appears to be something of a take-out of his sycophantic former helper, the artist is hardly unaware that the industrial tools of contemporary art production that he himself partakes of — not only the processes of stenciling and reproduction but also the teams of qualified assistants available to fix and refine the work — have created an art-making ethos that encourages an egalitarian aesthetic that devalues more critically attuned work. 

“If they are serious about this rebellion thing, they should get rid of all the traditional features and let New Frontiers take over the festival,” said one colleague of mine as we waited for a shuttle together. For the past few years, New Frontiers has been Sundance’s oasis of art with a capital “A.” This year the installations in the basement of its home in the Main Street mall emphasized the use of films and film screens to encompass the body and create virtual and imaginative spaces. In Ragnar Kjartansson’s The End, the viewer is surrounded by film screens on which are seen various views of Kjartansson and Davio Por Jonsson as they plant their piano, banjos and drums in the middle of Canadian Rocky Mountains and perform a strangely intimate concert. A similar loneliness pervades Petko Dourmana’s Post Global Warming Survival Kit. In this piece, the viewer dons night-vision goggles and gropes his or her way into a dark room. At the center is a survivalist’s tent, and the landscapes projected on the wall are of a post-apocalyptic future in which the rising sea is decimating mankind.

Utopia in Four Movements

Utopia in Four Movements

Also part of New Frontier was Sam Green and Dave Cerf’s Utopia in Four Movements. In what was billed as a “live documentary,” filmmaker Green, who previously helmed a doc on genuine radicals the Weather Underground, explores a precondition for revolution: a shared vision of utopia. Green collaborated with Cerf, who composed the score, which was played live at Sundance by the Quavers, and also did live voiceover over film clips and slides. Recalling at times Errol Morris’s brilliant documentary Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Green wondered if the utopian urge is still alive or whether it’s been crushed by the large-scale genocides and small-minded consumer culture of the 20th century. To ponder this he isolated four unlikely and oddball examples of what he viewed as utopias lost, including the failure of Esperanto to succeed as a universal language and eradicate world conflict; the economic collapse of the world’s largest shopping mall in China; the sad flight of an indicted American revolutionary and fugitive to Cuba, which takes her away from her children; and, finally, the work of forensic anthropologists, whose work puts closure on the past for the families of genocide victims. Green’s piece had a charm to it, much of it deriving from his sincerity as narrator and the poetry of Utopia’s quixotic goals. Perhaps appropriately, the piece, which began by placing “utopia” within a historical frame, tracing it from Sir Thomas More onward, had a hard time finally answering its central question; retreating from historical analysis, it refused to declare utopia dead, finding the seeds of its renewal in such ahistorical values as “hope” and “faith.” Still, the idea that one could reintroduce the concept of utopia to a jaded 21st century audience through the power of the spoken work, three musicians, and a video projector was perhaps its own utopian gesture and thus the piece’s true ending point.

Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine

The forensic anthropologists of Green’s film make an appearance in Son of Babylon, a moving neo-realist tale by Iraqi filmmaker Mohammed Al-Daradji. Set three weeks after the capture of Saddam Hussein, a Kurdish grandmother and her grandson travel across Iraq searching for the woman’s son and boy’s father, who has been missing since the Gulf War. The film’s narrative is beyond simple, but its backdrop is both spectacular and wrenching. Dodging sectarian violence, navigating their way through American checkpoints, and generally riding the wave of chaos that has engulfed the country, the film’s protagonists seem embarked on a futile quest but not one that can be denied them.

A reconciliation with a father is also the subject of Nicholas Entel’s Sins of My Father, the story of the son of notorious Colombian drug lord (and, yes, self-styled revolutionary) Pablo Escobar, and his attempt to reconcile with the sons of the men his father killed. Filled with home movies and first-person insight, half of Sins of My Father is a gripping account of Escobar’s rise from drug kingpin to a quasi-political figure with an almost unchecked power. The other half is the less involving quest for familial forgiveness, a quest that while undoubtedly emotional for the young Escobar feels vague for the viewer.

The inability to capture the past is at the heart of one of the best films of the festival, Blue Valentine. Derek Cianfrance’s long in-the-works (12 years!) directorial debut stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a couple in a dissolving marriage. He works as a mover, she works in a medical clinic, and they have a young daughter together, but as the film starts, something is wrong. When we first see her, Michelle Williams’ face shows evidence of a depression caused by a relationship that just isn’t working. Against her masked pain Gosling’s outsized emotions, both his quick temper and childlike exuberance, seem out of whack. Cianfrance teases out this extended moment, cutting back and forth between the happier days when they first fell in love. Rather than show the beats in between these times, Cianfrance fills in enough of the couple’s backstory so as to allow the viewer to construct the couple’s history. Nothing if not a post-screening conversation starter among couples, the film features great performances by Gosling and Williams as well as beautifully fluid and composed handheld camerawork by Andrij Parekh.

Sympathy for Delicious

Sympathy for Delicious

A personal relationship is at the heart of Mark Ruffalo’s directorial debut, Sympathy for Delicious. Ruffalo and actor/screenwriter Christopher Thornton have been friends for years. After a mountain climbing accident in 1992 that left him in a wheelchair, Thornton started an early version of a screenplay about a paralyzed homeless man with faith healing powers. At Ruffalo’s bachelor party, the actor proposed to Thornton that he direct the movie, and further development occurred with, as Ruffalo said in his Q&A, nearly half the script being reworked yet again just weeks before production. Thornton stars as the paraplegic healer and turntablist, and Ruffalo is the homeless shelter priest who is tempted to exploit their relationship. And then there’s rock stars Orlando Bloom and Juliette Lewis, for whom the spectacle of faith healing is nothing more than a marketing hook. While, Sympathy for Delicious has a few awkward, over-the-top dramatic beats, it also has a refreshingly unpredictable narrative that feels exactly like the outgrowth of a complicated friendship. Chris Norr’s cinematography is vividly expressionistic, Thornton gives a passionate and urgent performance, and Ruffalo’s direction is audacious.

Ruffalo’s film won a Special Jury Prize at an Awards Ceremony that bypassed some expected winners — Blue Valentine, for one. The Grand Jury Prize went to Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, an Ozark-set drama containing what many said was an Awards-caliber performance by Jennifer Lawrence. The Grand Jury Prize for Documentary filmmaking went to Restropo, about U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. The Audience Awards went to Josh Radnor’s relationship comedy happythankyoumoreplease and Davis Guggenheim’s education doc, Waiting for Superman. Eric Mendelsohn won the Dramatic Directing Award for his 3 Backyards while Leon Gast picked up the doc Directing Award for his look at paparazzi, Smash this Camera. “The Best of Next,” an award given to the best film in the festival’s new low-budget section, went to Homewrecker, by Todd Barnes and Brad Barnes. The World Cinema Jury Prize, Dramatic went to David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom. The World Cinema Jury Prize, Documentary was awarded to The Red Chapel, the tale of director Mads Brugger’s comedic, Borat-like journey to North Korea. The World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award went to Contracorriente (Undertow), by writer-director Javier Fuentes-Leon. The World Cinema Documentary Audience Award went to Wasteland, by director Lucy Walker. The World Cinema Directing Award, Dramatic was given to Southern District, by writer-director Juan Carlos Valdivia. The World Cinema Directing Award, Documentary went to Space Tourists, director Christian Frei. Southern District, by writer-director Juan Carlos Valdivia, won the World Cinema Screenwriting Award. The World Cinema Documentary Editing Award went to A Film Unfinished, by Joelle Alexis.

Winter’s Bone, written by Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini, won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. The Documentary Editing Award went to Penelope Falk for Joan Rivers—A Piece Of Work.

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