2008’s festival began for me this year at my favorite place, New Frontier on Main, (333 Main Street) a social and creative space that showcases artist installations, live performances, thought-provoking panels, way-out films, plus The rabbit Hole, a DJ Lounge and Café, all ably presided over by Shari Frilot.
There, I was introduced to many thought-provoking artistic endeavors, including ©ause Collective’s Along the Way, a mesmerizing digital video canvas of what makes up a town, Hasan Elahi’s Tracking Transience: The Orwell Project (the result of a run-in with the FBI), in which he tracks himself in a website installation, allowing anyone to see what he’s doing anytime and anywhere, and Jennifer Steinkamp’s Mike Kelly Trees, a high-definition projection of a magical forest that twists and turns and changes with the season. Also attracting my attention was the Brooklyn-based Graffiti Research Lab, which consists of a former NASA scientist, James Powderly and his band of wild men whose L.A.S.E.R Tag is a Weapon of Mass Defacement that gives individuals the power to communicate their 60-foot-high thoughts on buildings, or snowbanks. And unlike the original dislikable form of graffiti, it’s not permanent. Another amazing project was Stephanie Rothenberg and Jeffery Crouse’ clothing factory called Invisible Threads: A Virtual Sweatshop in Second Life. Here, anyone can buy a pair of designer blue jeans in their correct size utilizing a Second Life Sweatshop (you can see your jeans being made in the virtual factory on a large screen), and watch them being printed out on a very large printer 10 ft. away from you at Sundance. Using old-tech (should we be grateful?), the pair sews them up by hand and voilà! Your jeans are ready.
Though probably not your usual theatrical fare, I enjoyed several outstanding New Frontier features, including the soulful Eat, For this is My Body, by first time Haitian filmmaker Michelange Quay, Reversion, set in a vacuous, contemporary Los Angeles of the imagination by Director/Screenwriter Mia Trachinger, and casting a glance, a new film by James Benning, where the sky and the water provide the perfect paint for his cinematic vision.
Next, we crossed the street to The Egyptian Theatre, where Robert Redford, Geoffrey Gilmore, and a specially chosen director (this year In Bruges director Martin McDonough), for their annual festival kick-off press conference. To find out what the trio had to say, click here
The next day, the 120 dramatic and documentary feature length films in seven distinct categories, and 80 short films shown each year began screening, beginning at 8:30 every morning and ending well after midnight. As you can imagine, this presents quite a challenge to a lone journalist like myself, who wishes she could clone herself for the week. So much fabulousness, so little me! In case you were wondering, many of these films are in competition to win a coveted Sundance Award in the categories of World Cinema Documentary and Dramatic, and Documentary and Dramatic Competition, among others. The films are judged by an accomplished group of well-respected film professionals, and this year included Sandra Oh, Diego Luna, Marcia Gay Harden and Mary Harron, among others.
If I wanted to tell you the order in which I saw the following films, I’d be lost. Because I saw them day and night and in-between, it got confusing, but I am certain I saw In Bruges first because it was the Opening Night film, and I was lucky enough to get a ticket! Directed by esteemed playwright and director Martin McDonough, and set in the preserved medieval Flemish town of Bruges, Colin Farrell (Ray) and Brendon Gleeson (Ken) are two assassins sent there by their boss Ralph Fiennes (Harry). Ray is to wait for further instructions after a botched murder attempt, and Ken is there to keep an eye on Ray. Ray is not happy about being there, saying “Why take us to hide out in Bruges, when you can hide out in Croydon?” but Ken enjoys exploring the ancient place. As it turns out, Ray is suicidal, Ken has a soft heart, and Harry botches a job himself. Full of colorful characters including a dwarf film director, and tasty hookers, the smart dialogue and able acting make this surprising and funny-sad film well worth watching.
The very next day I had the pleasure of watching a very well researched documentary called Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired about the famed film director’s (Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown) arrest and trial for having sex with Samantha Gailey, an underage girl. The film is directed by Marina Zenovich, who deftly re-asks unanswered questions about the people including reporters, detectives and lawyers, and events that took place over 30 years ago, and caused Polanski to run for his life (he was facing a 6 month-50 year sentence) to Paris, a refugee. Featuring shocking new information about Superior Court Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, the meticulous, short, colorful judge in the case who loved to dance and hang out with the stars, and a first-time-ever interview with the purported victim, now in her 50’s. This film succeeds in making one wonder whether Polanski, though perhaps not entirely innocent, was actually the victim in this sensational case.
The coming-of-age, on-the-road feature The Yellow Handkerchief directed by Udayan Prasad may have come next, featuring a dreamy cast that included William Hurt, Maria Bello, Kristen Stewart, and introduced me for the first time to Eddie Redmayne. (Click here to read my interview with the rapidly rising young star). As this odd-couple group go from being strangers to a loyal, and close-knit even if troubled ersatz family, long-kept secrets are revealed. By the time they reach New Orleans, all are ready to banish their demons and let love in.
One of the highlights of this year’s Sundance for me was Savage Grace, an unexpected work of brilliance brought to us by Director Tom Kalin, and adapted from the book of the same name by Natalie Robins and Steven M. Aronson. The film tells the astonishing true story of Barbara Daly, brilliantly portrayed by Julianne Moore, a former actress who married above her class to become the wife of the very wealthy Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane). Alluring and charismatic, but an unabashed social climber, Barbara becomes an embarrassment to her husband, who leaves her and their only son Tony (Eddie Redmayne) for another woman. With Tony as the narrator, (“Taking care of mommy has been your job, Brooks, but when you left it became my inheritance”) we follow the pair down a vortex of sex, degradation and emotional destruction as they try, not very well, to adjust to their new circumstances. In the end, Savage Grace crescendos with a shocking climax that is both horrifying and inevitable. Not to be missed!
Another outstanding effort that goes way beyond the somewhat normalcy that most of us inhabit is Downloading Nancy, directed by Johan Renck. When Albert (Rufus Sewell) returns home from work one day, he finds his wife of 15 years, Nancy (Maria Bello) gone. She has left a note though, saying she has gone to visit friends. Where she has really gone though, is to an assignation with Louis (Jason Patric), a man she has met on the internet who seems to share her interests, especially in perverse sexual encounters.As their bizarre relationship develops, and the darker forces of life take over- it’s easy for a viewer to feel empathy or even sympathy for them, but understanding remains elusive. Not for the faint of heart, Downloading Nancy is an unforgettable experience.
Although it would take forever to write about all the films I saw, here are some of my favorites from this year’s line-up: American Teen- Watch this documentary for an intimate look (it was shot daily over a ten-month period) at four high school seniors living in a small town in Indiana and decide how close your own high school experience resembles theirs. Assassination of a High School President- Don’t expect this to be your average, melodramatic teenage angst movie. The nerdy main character Bobby Funke will show you how high school can be different when you stand up to the ‘cool’ kids. August- Josh Hartnett’s character Tom Sterling, a dot-com entrepreneur, is in denial over the downfall of his company while everyone else prepares for the worst. Be Kind Rewind- When the movies at a lowly video rental store are erased, video clerk Jerry (Jack Black) and his co-worker Mike (Mos Def) figure out a plan to make their own versions of popular films. A Complete History of My Sexual Failures- When director Chris Waitt finds himself yet again in the throes of another ruined relationship, he can only help but wonder, ‘Am I to blame?’ Only his ex-girlfriends can give him the honest answer, and for his sake, let’s hope he learns something. The Great Buck Howard- Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) has the seemingly impossible task of staging the comeback of a once popular “mentalist,” or magician otherwise known as Buck Howard. Patti Smith: Dream of Life- Director Steven Sebring shot this documentary over a period of eleven years, as he closely followed Patti Smith to see not only her engaging performances and her artistic method, but also to see the internal struggles she faces in creating her music, poetry, and artwork. Good Dick- Marianna Palka amazingly took on three roles in the creation of this film, writer, director, and actor. She plays the romantically cynical Anna who avoids every attempt of Jason Ritter’s stalker-esque character to make her fall in love with him. Ritter pursues her to seemingly no avail, but perhaps he will succeed in tearing down some of her deep-seated emotional barriers. The Deal- When Hollywood producer Charlie Berns (William H. Macy) has had it with his career and life, he suddenly gets the chance to con a production company into letting him produce a film about Benjamin Disraeli starring a newly converted action star, played by LL Cool J, who is seeking Jewish material. Meg Ryan also stars. Funny Games- Director Michael Haneke’s shot-by-shot remake of his own 1997 Austrian film is a thriller that will leave you shocked and, if Haneke has anything to say about it, musing about American culture. When two polite teens show up at the door of the Farber’s country house, this all-American family have no idea they are in for the fight of their lives, as one of the boys bets them that they will not survive the next twelve hours.
Films are only part of the game at Sundance, because even if you didn’t go to one single screening, you could still be busy 26 hours a day. First of all there’s the music- each year Performers Rights Organizations BMI and ASCAP have important events that feature anyone from cutting edge acts to legendary artists to superstars. This year was ASCAP’s 10th anniversary producing the Music CafA© and they pulled out all the stops with their line-up. Featured artists included Patti Smith (Wow!), Tim Finn (double Wow!), Sea Wold, Peter & Gordon, John Rzeznik, Ingrid Michaelson, and Walk Hard songwriters Mike Viola and Dan Bern (Wow! Wow! Wow!) For those of you who have never been to Sundance, the Music CafA© happens every afternoon, in a tiny below ground club on Main Street called the Star Bar. One of the most popular draws at the Festival, you can recognize it immediately by the long, long line of people waiting outside to get in.
BMI also puts on two great musical events that should not be missed: First are six nights of live performances at the Leaf Lounge (a partnership between BMI and Turning Leaf Vineyards), also located on Main Street. This year’s shows featured Graham Colton, Emi Meyer, and Alexa Wilkinson among others. BMI also produced the Sixth Annual ‘Sundance Snowball’ Showcase, which featured the fabulous Los Angeles “dirty reggae”/rock group The Aggrolites, Nick Urata from “gypsy punk” band DeVotchka, Steve Smith from rock group Dirty Vegas and Six Degrees recording artist Cheb I Sabbah,. You can be sure that I was there!
Also seen around town- Velvet Revolver, The Bravery, Mos Def, David Crosby, Jack Black, 50 Cent and more, much more! And what would you say to U2 premiering U2 3D at Sundance? Well, it happened, as did CSNY Déjà Vu, with David Crosby and the gang very visible around town.
Well people, I could just keep on going and going as you can see, but if I do, you’ll be bleary-eyed and hallucinating, as though you’d actually been to Sundance! So suffice it to say, everything written here is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this stimulating event. Did I mention the amazing panels at both the Filmmaker Lodge and the Prospector, by, for, and about film and filmmakers? Or the amazing and fascinating mix of characters (I mean people) walking up and down the very lively Main Street? Or the parties? Oh, the parties! I’m getting a hangover just thinking about them!
I hope I’ve given you a somewhat personal view of what it’s really like to be at Sundance, but I would actually prefer that I inspire you to check it out for yourself. Whether you’re a film buff, a music maven, or a party animal, there’s something wonderful there for you. Or, you could just ski down the mountains that loom over the Festival. Or, you can watch all the Sundance films, coming soon to a theatre near you!
Plan to attend the 2009 Sundance Film Festival January 15-25, in Park City, Utah.
Hope to see you there!