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In its function as a farm league for the majors, the Sundance Film Festival (January 21-31) is coming off its best year in recent memory. Sundance 2009 premieres (500) Days of Summer, An Education and Precious are all box-office successes and serious awards contenders, and when the latter nabs its all-but-certain Best Picture Oscar nomination, it will become the only Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner to ever do so. As the indie-film world reels from the collapse of studio art-house divisions and the evaporation of financing, Sundance has emerged as a viable delivery system for moderately budgeted, commerce-friendly content.
Riding high on this return to pop relevancy, the festival's programming team announced NEXT, a sidebar dedicated to reflecting "a new aesthetic enlisting low- and no-budget filmmaking techniques." NEXT has been perceived as a correction to Sundance's apparent indifference to the most recent wave of DIY cinema. The fact is, if you look at the festival that discovered directors like Steven Soderbergh and Kevin Smith through their early, low-budget, defiantly non-Hollywood features as a kind of finishing school for future auteurs, then Sundance is coming off a bit of a dry spell. Some have even suggested that by rejecting the films of "mumblecore" stars such as Andrew Bujalski, Aaron Katz and Joe Swanberg, as well as acclaimed non-mumbly lo-fi features like Medicine for Melancholy and Shotgun Stories, Sundance missed the boat on much of the truly exciting American indie filmmaking of the last half-decade.
"There was this perception that was out there," admits Sundance's newly promoted director of programming, Trevor Groth, but, he maintains, the press — not the festival — overlooked micro-indies. "It's not as if we stopped showing low-budget films," Groth says, citing two 2008 films, Goliath and Momma's Man, that screened in the festival's now-defunct American Spectrum sidebar. "We were looking for the new voices, the low-budget films, but the ones we did show sometimes didn't get the attention they deserved."
If Groth and company have taken any kind of cue from the buzz surrounding the films of the late '00s that hit the indie zeitgeist without the festival's help, it's that en masse branding may be shallow, but it works. "Most of the filmmakers who were put under the mumblecore label didn't even want to be there, but the truth is, there's strength in numbers," says Groth. "These eight films are going to get way more attention individually than Goliath did when it was at this festival, just because they're grouped into this section."
If NEXT is partly a marketing gimmick — an institutional intervention to make it easier for a press corps easily distracted by shiny objects to care about starless films — perhaps it's fitting that its first incarnation feels less like a revolution than a rebranding. I've seen five of the eight films premiering in NEXT, and none reinvents the Sundance wheel. They're more like low-cost reproductions of wheels we've seen before.
Katie Aselton, wife of producer Mark Duplass and his co-star in The Puffy Chair and the FX series The League, stars in and directs The Freebie, a chatty lo-fi dramedy about a married couple struggling with maturity and monogamy. The film doesn't benefit from comparisons to Sundance '09 hit Humpday, a chatty lo-fi dramedy about a married couple struggling with maturity and monogamy ... that happened to star Mark Duplass. Aselton borrows Humpday's structured improv technique (and its editor and cinematographer), but she doesn't pull off the deceptively breezy comic insight that made director Lynn Shelton's film a rare crowd-pleaser cum critical darling. Aselton works awfully hard in front of the camera to please herself as director, but the strain belies the film's intended naturalism.
Bass Ackwards, which, like Freebie, was produced by Duplass, similarly suffers from a director/star's strained seriousness. Linas Phillips' lost-young-man-finds-himself-on-the-road movie plays like a vintage Sundance film, for all the good and bad that implies. Lovely to look at but rote in its lyricism, Bass Ackwards is shockingly irony-free. An end credit dedicates the film "to everyone learning to love themselves." Such total lack of cynicism begs a cynical response.
The better NEXT films are, at best, uneven. The tone-deaf pretension of Bass Ackwards pops up again in The Taqwacores, a nicely shot but awkwardly scripted and acted adaptation of a cult novel about Muslim punks in suburban America. An actual line of dialogue, spoken without sarcasm or subtext: "I'm too wrapped up in my mismatching of disenfranchised subcultures, man." With One Two Many Mornings, Michael Mohan shows that he knows how to move a camera through an ensemble in action (particularly impressive: a long party scene cracked open by sudden violence), but his characterization of a drunken manboy's fall to clarity is frustratingly superficial; the shocks of rock bottom feel as contrived as the addiction catchphrases that substitute for dialogue. The overall effect is like an after-school special directed by Jim Jarmusch.
The NEXT films run the gamut of familiar indie-film archetypes: sad-eyed boys on twinkly-scored road trips, sympathy for underdogs and criminals, longhaired dudes with "surprisingly" conventional attitudes toward women.With the indie industry in trouble, there's some value to spotlighting the fact that generic indies can be made for a tiny fraction of the money and resources of bloated recent history.But it's still hard to get it up for generic indies.
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