Attending the Sundance Film Festival as a juror turns out to have much in common with serving on a trial jury. You’re guaranteed the best seats in the house. You’re not allowed to comment on what you’re seeing. And — most important — when you’re sitting there in judgment, it would be a misdemeanor to even try to go to the bathroom. (Imagine being at Sundance in 1992 and slipping out of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs just before the ear-slicing scene.) This year, I had the pleasure of serving on the 1998 Sundance Dramatic Competition Jury along with writer-director Paul Schrader (American Gigolo), actress Alfre Woodard (Miss Evers’ Boys), director Kayo Hatta (Picture Bride), and producer Chris Sievernich (Paris, Texas). Our mission: to decide on the awards for best feature, director, screenwriter, and cinematographer. Here are some of the highlights, and lowlights, of what I saw.
I slip into the festival with Under Heaven, a film-noir modernization of The Wings of the Dove that I just happen to watch while sitting behind Miramax cochairman Harvey Weinstein, who consumes an apple and walks out halfway through. He has the right idea: The film begins well, with Joely Richardson sad and dignified as a cancer-stricken aristo lured into a romantic trap, but everyone on screen soon turns weirdly, blandly nice.
A romance laced with decadence, High Art may prove the birth of Ally Sheedy as a real actress. She has a sinewy, ashen, been-around-the-block force as a junkie photographer (obviously modeled on the punk-bohemian shutterbug Nan Goldin) whose career is revived by the comely young art-magazine editor downstairs. Writer-director Lisa Chodolenko stages the group heroin-snorting scenes with funky, dissipated absurdism, and the affair between Sheedy’s photographer and her editor/savior feels intimate and true.
Next Stop, Wonderland is a winning confection from Boston-bred filmmaker Brad Anderson, who employs a kaleidoscopic jump-cut style to lend dazzle and spice to romantic-comedy conventions. The two leads, Hope Davis and Alan Gelfant, seem to bump into everyone in the city but each other; by the time they meet, we know in our bones how right it is. It’s now a vital function of the indie movement to teach Hollywood how to make better Hollywood movies. To my dismay, though, a couple of the other jurors seem openly disdainful of the film’s commercial qualities. It’s on to Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss, an L.A.-set gay-meets-straight romance from director Tommy O’Haver, who really should make a musical — the film’s lip-synch interludes are spangly rhapsodies — but who can’t seem to find more than one note for his lovelorn protagonist.
Taking a break from judging, I go to see Frat House, Todd Phillips and Andrew Gurland’s wild, scary, amazing, you-are-there documentary about what truly goes on in the macho-fascist underworld of college fraternities. To gain access to the hazing rites, which are executed with an ominous secrecy befitting the Druids or the CIA, the filmmakers agreed to be hazed themselves, and the result, a shock comedy of outrage, plunges us into the dark, sadomasochistic heart of American bad behavior, with Phillips, like a bony-cool Harold Lloyd, as its hero/muckraker/sacrificial lamb.