By Jonathan Marlow
January 2, 2005 - 1:54 PM PST
Winter is a busy time for Jonathan Marlow. Before racing off to Rotterdam, he sent dispatches to GreenCine Daily from Park City, where he soaked up as much as humanly possible of the festival most immediately associated with the American independent film movement, as well as its alternative fest, Slamdance.
With thousands still scrambling from screen to screen in the snowy mountains of Utah, both the 20th installment of Sundance and the 10th for Slamdance are set to wrap this weekend. Another festival season has begun in earnest. Fortunately, as goes Sundance, so (usually) goes the year at the cinema.
By all accounts, including my own, the movie selection in Park City this time around was stronger than it has been in recent years. As always, these events provide a swell opportunity to see a few films that I've missed at other festivals (the outstanding Last Life in the Universe, the exhaustive "visual archeology" documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself and the exceptional Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring) and skip a few that I've already seen elsewhere (Guy Maddin's wonderful Saddest Music in the World and Takeshi Kitano's haphazard Zatoichi in particular). Twenty films, fifteen shorts, one dozen parties in five days (and naturally very little sleep). Sadly, Lars von Trier's anticipated Dogville and Andy (Infernal Affairs) Lau's The Park will screen after my departure. Skipping the films with established release dates (Good Bye Lenin! will simply have to wait) leaves a short digest of the best of the rest.
Fiction remains something of a grim spot for Sundance. However, there were a few highlights. Napolean Dynamite, one of several films snapped-up in the opening days of the festival, is a likeable if largely forgettable comedy in the mold of Welcome to the Dollhouse (or, to paraphrase dear friend and fellow critic Andy Spletzer, "Election for morons"). Performances are strong (although San Francisco audiences could easily mistake the lead character as a pastiche of a Kasper Hauser sketch) and the story, such as it is, continues to slightly charm the viewer throughout its reasonable duration.
Never Die Alone, the latest from DP-turned-director Ernest Dickerson might very well be his best film to date. DMX plays a despicable, deceased drug dealer alongside David Arquette as a writer who befriends the hoodlum (and spends the rest of the film try to unravel his secret ascension and abrupt fall). Following a screening at the Egyptian, an audience member asked if Donald Goines (the author of the book on which the film is adapted) had seen the film. Dickerson politely (if solemnly) informed the questioner that Goines died nearly thirty years ago.
For fans of Versus, director Ryuhei Kitamura returns with an exceptional entry into the samurai genre with this tale of a band of hitmen (including the lovely Aya Ueto as the female assassin Azumi of the title) trying to spare Japan from a few warlords bent on starting further battles to splinter the peace. While the manga-adapted story is full of the expected stereotypical plot-points, Ryuhei's abilities abound with clever innovations (less wire-fu and more 3D-assisted action sequences). The feel-good chicks-kick-ass film of the festival (even more so than D.E.B.S.).
There are plenty of first-timer efforts worthy of note. Two, in particular, are the Russian film The Return, a meditative, atmospheric tale of two boys on an ill-fated trip with their recently returned father, which strays seemingly into ponderous Tarkovsky-lite territory, at least in terms of camera movement, and One Point O, a futuristic Cronenberg-influenced tale that is beautiful to look at if somewhat frustrated by absurd plot holes. Both filmmakers (and eight others) were selected as Variety's "10 Directors to Watch."
No one will deny that Sundance excels with its documentary selection. The awful repercussions of capitalism surface in The Corporation and the superior (and shorter) Super Size Me, both eventually essential viewing for the entire country. Still, for all of their greatness, a rather surprising black comedy by the legendary Robert Young makes the same points in Below the Belt while potentially reaching a broader audience not already inclined to see a film on the topic. (See also our extensive interview with Young.)
In the Realms of the Unreal could be said to be this year's How to Draw a Bunny, although Henry Darger's works in the former do not translate to celluloid as well as the Ray Johnson materials in the latter. Documentaries on artists, particularly deceased ones, are always a tricky business.
Artists are one thing, musicians are another. Seemingly an immense amount of good footage and a terrific central rivalry between two bands - the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols - makes DiG! one of the most fascinating "behind the music" films in quite some time, chronicling the price of a rock-and-roll lifestyle and the pressures that drugs and fame (or lack thereof) can create for any band.
Jørgen Leth returns to Sundance for the second consecutive year with The Five Obstructions, a collaboration between the celebrated filmmaker and his friend Lars von Trier. The simple premise has Leth remake a short film (five times) that he released in the 60s but, in each attempt, with a different series of obstacles, each more complicated than the last. Remarkably, the variations prove to be endlessly fascinating.
Finally, in a rare screening of Melvin Van Peebles's classic Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss (the "making of" which is documented in son Mario's latest, Baadasssss, also at the festival), director/writer/star Peebles had a bit of advice for all of the filmmakers in the audience. "Don't let the motherfuckers beat you down." As true today as it was then.
Meanwhile, Dennis Woo sent word that Persons of Interest, a doc about American 9/11 detainees, is definitely worth catching when and if you can. Also: "I hugged Patty Hearst." Hm. She was on hand for Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the SLA. Dennis had also evidently been enjoying his newfound role as a member of il paparazzi, snapping away in the direction of a certain dreadlocked film critic and, once he slipped into the Gersh Agency Party, Paris Hilton, of all people. The highlight of the evening, he assures us, was being asked, in no uncertain terms - to leave.
The full list of Sundance winners is here, but worth mentioning is that the two toppers - Documentary Grand Jury Prize winner DiG!, directed and produced by Ondi Timoner, and Primer, directed, written, and produced by Shane Carruth - both have sites to poke around in and, another positive aspect of filmmaking in this Modern Age of the Net, you can read (hopefully real) congrats to Carruth and others in the discussion area following indieWIRE's awards story.
Sundance.Slamdance, the parties and Never Die Alone.
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In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.
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