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Having changed American cinema for better and for worse, the Sundance Film Festival now inspires both cynicism and enthusiasm

Having changed American cinema for better and for worse, the Sundance Film Festival now inspires both cynicism and enthusiasm

Go to the increasingly glitzy Sundance Film Festival with a skeptic’s heart, and chances are you won’t leave disappointed. Bitter January winds whip through the Hummer-clogged byways of ski-centric Park City—still a faintly absurd place to host a major film event—as does a lingering whiff of the festival’s former glory and elephantine decay, complete with L.A. vultures swirling overhead. But unless you’re a film critic, you can’t hold against the festival its long-faded moment, which it served so perfectly: a decade of revitalized American cinema spanning roughly from Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, through the seismic announcements of sex, lies and videotape and Reservoir Dogs, and ending when the check-waving producers began to outnumber the rags-to-riches indie dreamers, an omega best emblematized by the $10 million purchase of 1995’s Care of the Spitfire Grill. (Don’t worry, no one else saw it either.)

Since then, the magic seems to have somewhat dissipated, as the Sundance-approved formula, typically cohering around studied rawness and actor-based intimacy (think Shine), has taken root as the dominant arthouse mode, itself a measure of the festival’s success. But if Sundance, now grown to gargantuan proportions (137 features in this year’s incarnation), can no longer be called a refuge for the creative homeless, it can’t be denied its relative importance. And while many do arrive with bitter hearts, the opposite strategy is a workable one too, if you’re willing to accept the idea that the sheer volume of quirk here can only increase the possibility for greatness.

Naturally, the truth lies somewhere near the middle, requiring a critical sobriety impervious to cynicism and hype alike. (Let’s simply say I came close.) The fiction lineup’s biggest surprise, both in terms of intellectual audacity and its satisfying victory in the Dramatic Competition, was Primer, a dizzyingly complex techno-mystery from debuting director-writer Shane Carruth, clearly up on his Pynchon. Beginning with secretive goings-on in a suburban Dallas garage, Primer follows a duo of starch-shirted engineers who happen upon the scientific discovery of the century (or any century, for that matter; it’s too good to ruin here). Carruth clearly loves his geek-speak; his brand of Hawksian overlapping dialogue, combined with a spacey sense of weird-science mutability, makes this Pandora’s box of a movie a bizarre successor to both Boiler Room and Buckaroo Banzai.

After Primer’s exhilarating contortion of time and space, the return to finite characters trapped in time warps of their own devising couldn’t help but seem a plunge. Napoleon Dynamite is almost unbearable in this regard, a toxic comedy built of stale ’80s affectations and laugh-at-the-hick superciliousness. A retro-fantasy of utter disposability, it has about as much bearing to its rural Idaho settings as The Untouchables does to Chicago. Similarly, you won’t find much resemblance to New Jersey in Garden State, a mawkish romantic comedy that might have been better suited as the hermetically sealed sequel to The Breakfast Club: After years of avoiding a family that Doesn’t Understand Him, the Brain (Scrubs star Zach Braff, making a Graduate-indebted writing-directing bow) returns home for a week of palling around with the Criminal (Peter Sarsgaard) and ends up in the loving arms of the Basket Case (Natalie Portman).

Both films were picked up almost immediately (with reported payouts of close to $5 million each), proving, if anything, that Sundance’s primary function of late is as an imprimatur for oddball trifles. Jim McKay’s warm ensemble piece Everyday People made for a fine antidote, with its keenly observed Brooklyn working class toiling at a restaurant doomed to impending sale and liquidation. McKay smartly avoids spreading on the blame too thickly, instead focusing on his melting-pot microcosm interacting like a sweetly dysfunctional family. (The site is Jewish-managed and patronized chiefly by blacks.) In many ways a gentler, more humane Do the Right Thing, Everyday People captures its modest corner of the city completely and intimately, as does I Like Killing Flies, Matt Mahurin’s pungent documentary about gruff Greenwich Village restaurateur Kenny Shopsin, an unpretentious culinary genius forced to relocate his tiny kitchen after 32 years in the same cozy location. (His customers should follow him if only for his hilarious diatribes, often directed their way.)

Given the attention paid to last year’s Capturing the Friedmans and American Splendor, programmers took the unprecedented step of scheduling a documentary as the opening-night showpiece, a move that proved unmerited. While undeniably tubular, Riding Giants, director Stacy Peralta’s love letter to the big wave, lacks the fuck-you verve of his previous Dogtown and Z-Boys, ending up dangerously close to a quasi-mystical sports commercial. Sundance did have its documentary triumph—coming in the unexpected form of two years spent with hypersensitive thrashers Metallica (see sidebar, below)—but perhaps more telling was the way that reality (or at least reality TV) encroached on all else. Call it the year of the stunt film: Open Water casts two not-so-great actors for the purposes of feeding them to real-life sharks (no mechanical jaws here, buster). A shoddily made fear film for vacationing yuppies, it was purchased seemingly before it finished unspooling. Other stunts included Christian Bale’s scary shedding of 63 pounds for the unworthy thriller The Machinist, while Morgan Spurlock gained 30 pounds on a monthlong diet of just McDonald’s for his stunt doc Super Size Me.

Going to extremes appeared to be a mark of pride, of commitment, of something (certainly not quality), derailing post-screening Q&As into lurid postmortems. (Bale, deadpanning to the premiere audience, answered the question on everyone’s curious lips: “A lot of coke.”) You half-expected Vera Farmiga, winner of a special jury citation for her harrowing performance in junkie drama Down to the Bone, to admit to Method addiction. And while I didn’t notice the actors from Open Water hanging around, I assume they survived the shoot. As if lending his endorsement to the prevailing extremity, there was Bernardo Bertolucci himself, king of the sexual provocateurs, peering down from a prerecorded introduction before his latest, The Dreamers, the first NC-17-rated picture to be released by a major studio in years.

The Dreamers, adapted from Gilbert Adair’s The Holy Innocents, deserves to be seen as more than the sum of its sexual explicitness, which it carries to make its Parisian spring of 1968 seem all the more revolutionary: The riots become an extension of youthful abandonment. If that sounds self-absorbed, know that it is. Bertolucci embraces a nostalgia that’s breathtakingly earnest, his trio of infatuated film buffs running madly through the Louvre to break the record set in Godard’s Band of Outsiders while the action cuts seamlessly between the two films as if to suggest there was no difference. He spins out the fantasy as long as possible before hitting the brakes; it’s here, movingly, that The Dreamers finally shakes its unwitting resemblance to the most naive of Sundance products—pop-saturated, film-snarky and proudly in love with itself.

Few other films essayed such core Sundance maxims with as much panache; even fewer broke completely free into the realm of the sociopolitical, among them Joshua Marston’s Spanish-language Maria Full of Grace, about young Colombian women drawn into service as “mules” smuggling heroin in their bellies. Unimpeachably sincere if a bit tidy, Marston’s debut won him the audience award, though that may have been an act of penance for everything else festival-goers had seen. Elsewhere, Kevin Bacon continued his career’s stride, fiercely underplaying a convicted child molester attempting to start over in The Woodsman while inspiring courageous work from child actor Hannah Pikes, who squirms on a park bench through the festival’s most wrenching scene.

But no better balance was struck than by director Waller Salles’ tenderly impassioned The Motorcycle Diaries, a deceptively breezy chronicle of young Che Guevara’s pre-revolutionary wanderings through South America on an Orwell-down-and-out road trip with a buddy. (As the subtly radicalizing Guevara, Y Tu Mama Tambien’s Gael García Bernal arrives at the top rank of his generation’s leads.) Salles, working from a densely eventful script by Jose Rivera that weds the notes of Che with those of Alberto Granado, his traveling companion, as well as the hindsight of grand convictions in the forging, makes a deeply persuasive case for a solidarity born of love, patience and simple observation. Raising a glass at a leper colony near the end of his journey, Bernal’s Che salutes his peers and, implicitly, their brothers quarantined across the river; no climax was as devastating or as richly out of place during Park City’s annual navel gaze. Still, you’d be a fool to come out here expecting as much.

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