A Report from the 2009 Sundance Film Festival
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
One was left wondering why such obviously studio-derived films as Gregor Jordan's screen adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis'
(just to name one feature film) was given a much-coveted spot at this festival that prides itself on championing new talent and challenging audiences to see cinema with fresh eyes and new perspectives.
Regardless of the festival's mixed-bag of content, one of the best parts of Sundance remains meeting other cinephiles and filmmakers eager to make their own films, and talking about projects. The flame burned brightly for many artists who chase the dream of making films with something to say. And this festival-goer in particular crossed paths with many of my fellow brave seekers of the cinema while waiting in line, or walking to a screening, or just hanging out anywhere in Park City during the festival.
Filmmakers flocked to Sundance's annual "Meet the Funders" roundtables where they pitched their projects and solicited feedback. This indie variation of speed-dating for filmmakers looking for funding proved to be a great way to learn the fickle art of pitching a film idea. Being in the trenches of personal filmmaking myself, I never miss this event as filmmakers refine their ideas by articulating a documentary premise in a matter of minutes.
Surprisingly, some of the festival's best work was found in its selection of shorts featured in the Animation Spotlight and writer-director Adam Elliot's one-of-a-kind, feature-length animated film, Mary and Max . One after another, the Animation Spotlight's cross section of eclectic shorts ranging from computer animation to old-school, hand-drawn images delighted in pushing the envelope. Animated shorts like Don Hertzfeldt's I Am So Proud of You , Adam Foulkes and Alan Smith's playfully macabre This Way Up , and Jeremy Clapin's wonderfully inventive Skhizien raised the bar high for the rest of the festival's fare.
Watching the enchanting, claymation comedy, Mary and Max , made viewers believe that cinema can still evoke a sense of magic pulled from the everyday. This is a film where bizarre humor collides with heartfelt pathos. Eliot and his collaborators spent five years animating by hand, proving that passion and a great story populated with engaging characters can transport an audience to a place in the human heart that most computer-generated images never dare to venture.
Likewise, my favorite live-action short was the 11-minute Next Floor , which left viewers simultaneously laughing at its dark, absurdist humor and marveling at the striking artistry of director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc's atmospheric camerawork. Screenwriter Jacques Davidts' sparse script based on Phoebe Greenberg's original concept pivots around the eating habits of a strange group of aristocrat-type people feeding their faces at an endless feast of exotic animal meat. It emphasizes visual storytelling with minimal dialogue, taking its theme of consumption and unchecked carnality to a new level.
Ripping a page out of the late Luis Bunuel's surrealist classics, 1962's The Exterminating Angel and his 1972 Oscar-winning The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie , Next Floor sinks its teeth into the audience's nerves with the slow-burning menace one might expect from the bastard cinematic offspring of Peter Greenaway and David Lynch with a healthy dose of Samuel Beckett thrown in for good measure. The film's savage elegance has an eerie calm best represented in a single line of recurrent dialogue, "next floor" that perfectly sums up the consequences of the characters' ravenous eating. Needless to say, Villeneuve's mean little film is a real gem, and Next Floor has to be seen to do justice to its surreal weirdness.
London-based video artist-filmmaker Maria Marshall's experimental films were also noteworthy in their ability to transform captured moments derived from the artist's relationship with her children into a kind of poetic, cinematic reverie. In the process, Marshall's strangely beguiling art looped in politics and other issues with an effortless grace and precision, most notably in pieces like Playground, The Emperor & His Clothes , and the literally skin-crawling When Are We There?
The festival's Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Dramatic film went to producer-turned-director Lee Daniels' well-crafted yet problematic film Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire. There is no denying that Daniels, who produced the Oscar-winning Monster's Ball, is a talented filmmaker and he gets a heart-breaking performance from newcomer Gabourey Sidibe in the lead role. But we've seen countless variations of this story before. Push takes us into the gritty urban hell of a black, pregnant and obese teenager who suffers endless abuse at the hands of her uncaring mother living in the ghetto. Does this sound familiar? That's the problem with the film, even though it was made with considerable skill.
Hopefully, in this new era signaled by the election of President Obama, Hollywood will take a risk and greenlight films offering something more than the same shopworn, urban malaise that has become a genre unto itself. There are far more stories about African-American life than recycling the usual ghetto mystique that traffics in racial stereotypes.
San Diego filmmaker Destin Creston won the Grand Jury Prize for Best U.S. Short Film for his drama, Short Term 12, which anchors a character study to the slice-of-life rituals at a facility for at-risk, troubled children. Creston's film delivers a strong performance from his lead actor, which won over both audiences and the festival's short-film jurors. This award will definitely open doors for the young filmmaker whose 22-minute film also got accepted to France's much-acclaimed short-film festival, Clermont-Ferrand. You can read Creston's first-hand account of his award-winning tour through Sundance on the KPBS movie blog, Cinema Junkie .
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