By Hannah Eaves and Jonathan Marlow
December 6, 2005 - 1:37 PM PST
With the lineup unveiled, buzz is now building for Sundance 06. It's an excellent time to begin our review of the year, first with a look back at our coverage of Sundance 05, when many first heard the names Miranda July, say, or Ellie Parker. We're already bracing ourselves to offer you first impressions of the films you'll be seeing in the year to come as well.
On January 20, before heading out to Park City Jonathan Marlow took a look ahead to the two festivals that may well be more "in sync" than ever before.
In an article entitled "The Sundance Odds Get Even Longer" that appeared in Sunday's New York Times, National Geographic Feature Films President Adam Leipzig described the crap-shoot of feature filmmaking. By his estimation, only five percent of the films submitted to Sundance actually screen at the festival. The situation is even worse than he suggests. The majority of the films in competition are on the radar of the programming team long before the submission process is completed. When a film comes in relatively cold, like Robinson Devor's exceptional Police Beat*, the publicists scramble.
For the uninitiated, much of the talk surrounding the festival (unjustly) centers on the Dramatic Competition and the subsequent acquisitions that inevitably result. It is, in fact, relatively rare for an otherwise unknown film to be submitted and then selected for the competition. A number of contenders - Mike Mills's Thumbsucker, Steve Buscemi's Lonesome Jim, Scott Coffey's Ellie Parker - are no surprise to industry observers and were long-expected to be included in the fest. Nor are the other projects hailing largely from unknowns. Certainly not when their citing filmmakers Gary Winick, John Singleton or Wes Anderson as producers or with a cast that includes actors Keanu Reeves, Laura Linney, James Woods, Liv Tyler, Naomi Watts or Campbell Scott (the latter two also sharing producer credits). To the casual reader, this wouldn't strike anyone as particularly "independent" and yet the situation reflects the current realities of the motion picture business. It takes a celebrity, more often than not, to get noticed.
Therein, the safest bets at Sundance tend to be the documentaries. Not by any coincidence, the most successful film to come out of the event last year was a doc - Super Size Me. Films like I am Cuba, the Siberian Mammoth and Shake Hands with the Devil, along with new works from Werner Herzog, Frederick Wiseman and Steve James, offer much potential at the 2005 edition. This year also marks the introduction of a World Dramatic Competition, thus presenting an opportunity for films that would otherwise likely go overlooked - Jun Ichikawa's Tony Takitani (based on a Haruki Murakami story), Chul-soo Park's Green Chair and Zeze Gamboa's The Hero, among many others - to finally get their due.
For a real sense of independent filmmaking, look no further than the bastard step-child, Slamdance. New festival director Kathleen McInnis has been venturing to the mountains of Utah every January since 1992. "More than ever," she noted in a recent phone call, "these two festivals are in sync." When asked of the films screening in this edition of the festival, she claims that there's "not a clunker among them." A quick look at the schedule and I'm inclined to agree. Out of nearly 2,800 submissions, the programming team of three dozen selected a number of promising pictures: Amélia, a filmed adaptation of a stage performance by the legendary Canadian dance troupe La La La Human Steps; Abel Raises Cain, a documentary that follows the life of "media prankster" Alan Abel; the work-in-progress Malfunkshun, chronicling the short life of singer Andy Wood and his band Mother Love Bone, the demise of which sadly sparked the foundation of the truly awful Pearl Jam; Mall Cop, an unconventional comedy evidently attempting to follow in the path of Napoleon Dynamite; even This Very Moment, a German film about two missing children and a series of attempts to locate them. The production values, McInnis explains, are of "higher quality across the board." That remains to be seen but would largely follow a trend. Cheaper tools equal better-looking films.
Dan Mirvish, one of the original co-founders of the event, expresses a great deal of confidence in McInnis. "As we move into our second decade, we're really excited to have such a committed filmmaker and festival vet as Kathleen at the helm." Unlike many regional festivals, Slamdance is in a constant state of evolution. Mirvish, in particular, is "excited about our gaming competition this year which puts Slamdance on the cutting edge of the convergence between film and video games." A diversion, perhaps, but there will be any number of them to pursue in Utah over the next ten days.
* Full disclosure: I saw a rough cut of the film many months ago. Furthermore, Devor's film isn't entirely cold - his first feature, The Woman Chaser, also screened at Sundance and Devor was even identified a few years back as one of Variety's "Ten Directors to Watch."
Hannah Eaves, too, sent along a few notes on what she was looking forward to...
Canadians tend to get short shrift in American cinemas - from the world-famous (outside of the US, that is) Robert Lepage, to recent great political documentaries like The Corporation and The Take, they don't seem to make much headway on this side of the border. Hopefully, Shake Hands With the Devil will get the wide release it deserves. The documentary is based on the memoirs of Canadian General Roméo Dallaire, focusing particularly on his time as head of a UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, before and during its horrific and largely urban genocide. Dallaire's story has changed in recent months from "if only they had..." to "if only they'd just remember..." as evidenced in his recent op-ed piece for the New York Times on Sudan. If the UN had heeded Dalliare's request for 5000 more troops, nearly one million lives might have been saved. Shake Hands provides clear evidence for the dire consequences of tragic inaction, on both a personal and a political level. Dallaire's supporting appearance at Sundance is a great example of one of the strengths of the festival. He will be appearing alongside director Peter Raymont on a panel examining the role of documentaries in social change entitled "The World is Watching." We can only hope that it's true.
Another documentary highlight - a revival screening of Barbara Kopple's Academy Award-winning Harlan County, USA, accompanied by a discussion with Koppel and other key contributors (including the legendary Hazel Dickens, who wrote original music for the film).
In the narrative department, Hal Hartley returns to feature filmmaking, venturing into sci-fi with The Girl From Monday. Hartley has recently partnered with long-time editor Steve Hamilton to form his own distribution company, Possible Films, and hopefully this new offering will be on par with The Book of Life. Other interesting indies that show some promise include The Squid and the Whale, from Noah Baumbach, who co-wrote The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and Mitchellville, previously seen at CineVegas and a true American indie. Mitchellville is amazing for many reasons - it's a film about a dream, and it works. It's a film by a white guy about racism, and it works. It's a film about being a high-end corporate clone made by a lawyer, and it works. At any rate, you have to admire anyone who makes a stack of money and then spends much of it on creating a very unique 35mm (35mm!) film.
Several forthcoming screenings are already noted for their extreme aggression. The Australian horror flick Wolf Creek is just one example and has caused more than one person to tell me, "You know, it was just a real mind-fuck."
With near daily coverage in the week ahead, look forward to reports on Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man and the long-awaited Strangers With Candy movie! Humor at last!
The PreviewsThe Dispatches
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Hannah Eaves and Jonathan Marlow
Hannah Eaves is an Australian-born writer and filmmaker currently based in the Bay Area. Her writing can also be found in Intersection magazine, which she co-publishes with Jonathan Marlow.
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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