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The Nerve Guide to Sundance 2003

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OIn Haruki Murakami’s 1995 novel Dance Dance Dance, the narrator, a freelance writer specializing in puff pieces for travel and women’s magazines, describes his profession as “shoveling cultural snow.” Someone’s got to do it, he seems to suggest, and it might as well be him.

Cultural snow was one of several varieties on display at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which in the past decade has evolved into the most highly charged gathering of the independent and not-so-independent film community in the United States. Although it began as an artistic retreat for filmmakers seeking refuge from the “commercial dogma” of Hollywood (as festival founder Robert Redford reminded the audience on opening night), Sundance has become a place where all the triumphs and problems of American filmmaking — the artistic passion, the unforgiving financial climate, the worship of celebrity, and the ongoing conundrum concerning the commercial viability of the art film — come together in one exhausting ten-day stretch in the quaint ski town of Park City, Utah.


INTERPRETIVE ‘DANCE
Rating a random selection of Sundance offerings — now with helpful asterisks

All the Real Girls ***1/2
American Splendor ****
Bend It Like Beckham ***
Born Rich **
Camp ****
Catching the Friedmans ****
Comandante **
Garage Days ***
Irreversible ****
Laurel Canyon ***
Milk and Honey **1/2
Mondays in the Sun ****
Mudge Boy **1/2
My Flesh and Blood ****
Open Hearts ****
Pieces of April ***
Raising Victor Vargas ****
Stevie ****
The Station Agent ****
The Weather Underground ***
Thirteen ***
28 Days Later ****
Whale Rider ****
What I Want My Words to Do to You ****

— Reviewed by Matthew Ross and Alisa Volkman

By all accounts, Sundance 2003 was the most crowded in the festival’s history. This can be attributed to two vastly different kinds of energy: the desperation of an ever-growing number of young filmmakers lobbying to break into the business, and the drooling enthusiasm of celebrity journalists and publicists laboring to create news about famous people doing next to nothing. The number of Sundance spin-off festivals continues to increase: events like Slamdance, No Dance, Slamdunk, Troma Dance, and X-Dance attract hordes of would-be indie darlings who’ll pitch their wares to anyone they can stop on Main Street. The celebrity quotient has increased to the point that the New York Post‘s “Page Six” devoted a special section to Sundance, sometimes running up to three items each day on Britney sightings (she was spotted with Fred Durst), Ben and J. Lo sightings (in town for Affleck’s bizarre Project Greenlight HBO series), and Cruise/Cruz sightings (she’s in the movie Masked and Anonymous with Bob Dylan). Every celeb newsmagazine sent in correspondents, and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Reports even ran a Salma in Sundance special, in which the Vanity Fair cover girl opined on all things indie and plugged her directorial debut, The Maldonado Miracle.

Yet the engine that powers Sundance continues to be its main dramatic and documentary competitions. This are where the genuine discoveries are made: Steven Soderbergh (1989’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape) and Todd Solondz (1995’s Welcome to the Dollhouse) got their first industry recognition here. It’s also a place where festival frenzy can bestow hype — and huge sales numbers — upon marginally interesting work like 1999’s Happy Texas, a banal comedy Miramax bought for $10 million.

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This year, the acquisition frenzy involved fewer films than usual, most notably: Peter Hedges’ Pieces of April (United Artists), a DV family drama about a girl (Katie Holmes) who cooks Thanksgiving dinner for her dysfunctional family (Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt, Derek Luke); Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (Fox Searchlight), a provocative coming-of-age portrait of two thirteen-year-old girls, starring Holly Hunter, Evan Rachel Wood, and Nikki Reed; Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler (Lions Gate), a noir love story set in Vegas, starring William H. Macy, Maria Bello and Alec Baldwin; and Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent (Miramax), a bonding tale about a dwarf and two social misfits which takes place at an abandoned train depot, starring Clarkson, Peter Dinklage and Bobby Cannavale.

Navigating Sundance isn’t easy. Only a smattering of the 100-plus features selected for the festival are shown to the press. We can’t pretend this is a definitive list of the best work the festival had to offer, but these were our early favorites:

28 Days Later
Trainspotting director Danny Boyle returns to the fore with an apocalyptic zombiefest that’s already a hit in the UK. Later follows a group of Londoners fleeing the city after a deadly virus turns people into crazed beasts. First-rate digital camerawork by Dogme 95 maestro Anthony Dod Mantle (including some breathtaking sequences on the deserted streets of London) and two gorgeous lead actors (Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris) make for delicious eye candy that enhances the imaginative screenplay by novelist Alex Garland (The Beach). — Matthew Ross

Irreversible
French provocateur Gaspar Noé (I Stand Alone, Carné) caused a scandal at Cannes with this rape-and-revenge shocker, so it wasn’t surprising that two people fainted during a special screening here. Even the film’s champions (myself included) were taken aback by a brutal killing and nine-minute rape scene. Thankfully, the explicit violence plays an essential role in the story, set during one extremely unpleasant evening in Paris. With spectacular performances from real-life lovers and Euro heartthrobs Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci, this is a visionary and courageous tale about the underpinnings of male rage in contemporary society. — MR

Mondays in the Sun
Javier Bardem is one of the best actors on the planet, and this story of class strife among unemployed Spanish dockworkers is a testament to his technical abilities and boundless charisma. Written and directed by acclaimed social realist Fernando Léon de Aranoa, the film caused a minor uproar last month when it beat out Pedro Almodovar’s terrific Talk to Her for Spain’s foreign-language Oscar entry. But what Mondays in the Sun lacks in narrative invention, it makes up for in heart and intelligence. Victims of the downsizing bug will relate. — MR

Raising Victor Vargas
Twenty-six-year-old director Peter Sollett makes an auspicious debut with this tender portrait of young love on New York City’s Lower East Side. When thirteen-year-old Victor (Victor Rasuk) gets caught with the neighborhood fattie, he decides to redeem his reputation by making a go for the neighborhood hottie, “Juicy” Judy (Judy Marte). But Judy isn’t so easy. Sollett cast the film with nonprofessional locals, and the authenticity shines through in Altagracia Guzman, who plays Victor’s comically overbearing grandmother. Amazingly, Sollett manages to capture the anxiety of teenage sex without patronizing or clichés. — MR

American Splendor
Married filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasens) put a new spin on the biopic genre with this ambitious portrait of Harvey Pekar, the neurotic grandfather of autobiographical comics. In 1976, Pekar wrote the breakthrough graphic novel American Splendor, which expressed frustration with his mundane life in Cleveland and was illustrated by his friend Robert Crumb. Using a mixture of animation, film and video, Berman and Pulcini construct a touchingly raw confessional that evokes wincing familiarity, and Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis are note-perfect as Pekar and his pragmatic wife Joyce. — Alisa Volkman