By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
The buzz at Sundance this year — and it was deafening — was no buzz. "I’m waiting to be blown away" and "Nothing stellar" were the most frequent answers to the question "What have you seen that’s good?" No film arrived at Park City with the must-see imprimatur, and few earned that distinction once the festival began. But it wasn’t just art-house fiends who felt the chill of disappointment; bottom-line industry types also had their buy-small-sell-big dreams dashed hard. This year’s Sundance managed to bum out the full spectrum of attendees.
The opening-night films set the tone for the days to come. Robert Altman’s star-studded Cookie’s Fortune (which, like many festival films, came equipped with a distributor) generated far less interest than the party that followed, and was noticeably never mentioned again during the festival. Nancy Savoca’s disappointing The 24 Hour Woman, starring Rosie Perez, attempted to blend the comedic trials of a working wife and mother with a media satire, resulting in a mush of clichés that were, as one festival volunteer noted with a shudder, "unwatchable."
"We went back and forth for a long time about whether or not we should even come to Sundance. Our film is experimental. It’s not a feel-good film, and we do expect walkouts. Sundance really isn’t the place for that kind of film. Not anymore."
—Adrienne Gruben, producer of Treasure Island
Gaspar Noe’s hypernihilistic I Stand Alone, which caused a huge stir at Cannes last year, provoked the expected walkouts, but, while brilliantly crafted, it is too nakedly calculated to "shock the bourgeoisie" and "implicate its audience" (yawn) to make a real impact. (Still, it had the pale, bespectacled guy next to me giggling when the lead character beat his pregnant wife.) Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, a Western starring Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle, uses cannibalism to critique Manifest Destiny, but even if you slept through history class, it’s a blast. Running on over-the-top energy, gore and style, it offered the most pure-fun at the festival.
"It’s no accident that the film is set in California in 1847. Having lived in Cal-ifornia in the ’90s, I think the metaphor still works."
—Antonia Bird, after the premiere screening of Ravenous
There was a celeb-packed house for The Minus Man, a psychological study of a serial killer written and directed by Hampton Fancher (co-writer of Blade Runner) — and a colossal bore, wasting the talents of Mercedes Ruehl, Janeane Garofalo and current Hollywood It-boy, Owen Wilson. Eric Mendelsohn’s melancholic comedy Judy Berlin, though a little slow, is a deftly written, superbly acted ensemble piece about some Long Island neighbors trying to get through a single day while wrestling with their dreams and disappointments. Throughout the week, I heard buyer after buyer say how much he or she loved it, but would have to pass because he or she had no idea how to sell the film. Mike Figgis’ The Loss of Sexual Innocence, an unintentional art-house parody, looked great but was torture to sit through. The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, from writer-director Tod Williams, is a smart teen coming-of-age film that, mercifully, has no one from Party of Five or Dawson’s Creek in it. The Blair Witch Project, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s extremely low-budget flick, dazzled its audiences as a thinking-man’s horror film, and became one of the first high-profile purchases.
The breakout film of the festival, finally, was Mark Illsey’s Happy, Texas, a comedy about two hetero guys who escape prison, make their way to a small Texas town and are mistaken for a pair of gay beauty-pageant organizers. The film, a highly polished pastiche of a zillion other films, hawks castrated outrageousness while standing firmly on the side of convention. At the premiere screening, the buyer-packed audience gave the film a thunderous ovation, prompting one Hollywood insider to sigh, "This is the single most depressing moment at the festival. They’re applauding because this film validates their own bad taste. This is precisely what they came up here for." Miramax bought the film’s rights for a rumored $10 million, though its spokespeople put the sum at $2.5 million.
"Every buyer here is panicked at this point. There’s really been nothing to buy, and everyone’s under pressure to bring something home. But there’ll be a breakout film. There always is."
—Rachel Rosen, programmer with the San Francisco Film
Festival, just hours before the
premiere of Happy, Texas
"He’s Forrest Gump. He’s in the right place at the right time. He’s so dumb, and he’s soooo lucky."
—A Hollywood insider assessing
one of the producers of Happy, Texas
—Rosen, on this year’s films
The days of formally innovative queer films with challenging content (Swoon, Poison, High Art) seem to be a thing of the past, with feel-good, love-me-do faggotry filling up Sundance screens (Trick). The sole nondocumentary film helmed by a Negro was Cauleen Smith’s Drylongso, the story of a young Oakland woman who tirelessly photographs the young Negro men in her neighborhood in order to document their endangered existence. One of her subjects turns out to be a young woman who dons men’s clothing and swaggers so she can walk the streets in safety. Though the film is a tad didactic, its strong premise floats it above dryness.
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