Sundance 2010 Wrap-Up
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?
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.