In a ritual that’s as hallowed a part of the Sundance Film Festival as 8:30 a.m. treks up the sunny slope of Main Street or the sight of Christina Ricci valiantly waiting on velvet-rope party lines, the showbiz media chew over the Sundance Purity Question — i.e., When a festival is this connected to Hollywood, can the movies it showcases really be called independent? To those of us who think that the synergistic tango of Hollywood and independent cinema is one of the American popular-culture triumphs of the last decade, the best answer may simply be to say that movies, with rare exceptions, have never been independent — of commerce, of stars, of the system that nurtures their creation. The economics of filmmaking all but dictate dependence in one form or another. The real question is what one does with it.
These thoughts, and other far less responsible ones, were spawned by the most exciting film I saw at Sundance this year. It’s called The Kid Stays in the Picture and it’s a brash and mesmerizing documentary about the rise and fall of Robert Evans, the former geek-grinned matinee idol who in the late ’60s became head of production at Paramount Pictures, helping to bring to the screen some of the greatest movies ever made (The Godfather, Chinatown) and, in the process, doing more than anyone else in a leisure suit to usher in the New Hollywood. The entire film consists of this coiffed post-hippie last tycoon, who speaks in the sputtery cadences of a manic jewelry salesman, reading excerpts from his autobiography, his memories of art wars, babes, and cocaine refracted through a barrage of clips and photographs that becomes a kaleidoscopic scrapbook of pure, decadent glitz. The Kid Stays in the Picture is a candy store for film buffs—it’s like the E! version of Citizen Kane. Steeped in the grandeur of Evans’ ego, it reveals that the key word in the New Hollywood was always Hollywood.
Speaking of which, have the creators of Chuck & Buck gone mainstream? Not exactly, but with The Good Girl, starring Jennifer Aniston as a down-home pixie stuck in a failing marriage and an even more miserable job at a hilariously downscale shopping mart, director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White have crafted a comedy of winning delicacy and heart. It’s a smooth move for them and for Aniston. Film festivals can always use a good love-it-or-hate-it conversation piece. This year it was Gerry, Gus Van Sant’s beautiful, snail-paced, monosyllabic art stunt about two guys (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who get lost in the California desert. It’s Andy Warhol meets Ansel Adams meets Blair Witch meets Beckett, and though the film flirts with testing your patience on purpose, those who give it a chance may get hooked—especially by the haunting finale.
Anyone who has followed Project Greenlight, HBO’s amateur-dude-gets-to-make-a-movie series, is in for a surprise: Stolen Summer, Pete Jones’ cuddly opus about Catholics, Jews, and a big-eyed kid suffering from leukemia in 1976 Chicago, turns out to be competent and watchable. But the bigger surprise, to me, is that it’s a family weeper made with intelligence and feeling. If nothing else, it should earn Jones his next green light. Less conventional, and better still, is Blue Car, Karen Moncrieff’s quiet drama about a young poet, played by the terrific newcomer Agnes Bruckner, drawn into an ambiguous relationship with her high school English teacher (David Strathairn).
The title figure of the documentary Sister Helen is a foulmouthed Benedictine oblate who lords it over a halfway house of recovering alcoholics. The movie is funny, shrewd, and surprisingly forceful—an intimate portrait of a cranky savior who needs her addicts as much as they need her. Only the Strong Survive, the latest from D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, takes a stirring look at R&B veterans (Wilson Pickett, Sam Moore, etc.) whose cleansing music has only ripened with age.
A love triangle and thriller set in small-town Florida, Coastlines proves that director Victor Nunez has become a master at evoking the psychological suspense of real-life relationships. And though Secretary, the comic tale of an S&M bond between boss and assistant, is too stylized for its own good, Maggie Gyllenhaal, as the spank-happy office masochist, has a radiance that transcends the movie’s…well, cheekiness. Gyllenhaal is better than good; she could be the new Gwyneth.
Poised public speaking isn’t a skill many green filmmakers have time to cultivate, so some who introduced their films at Sundance this year appeared unfamiliar with the function of a microphone. But the well-amplified comment of one director hit home: ”I hope you connect with the movie,” Mark Romanek said before the premiere of One Hour Photo, his high-style family-in-peril drama about how it’s always the quiet, bland-looking shlubs who turn out to be stalkers (and how it’s often hyperkinetic movie stars like Robin Williams who go for the indie shlub roles).
I didn’t connect with the lazy class envy and paranoia of Photo. But I did connect with the notion of connecting, especially since one of my favorite films at this year’s festival was an old-fashioned, ethnic-America success story with the dubious feminista title of Real Women Have Curves.
The story is determinedly capital-E Empowering: The college plans of a spirited, working-class Mexican-American Los Angeles high school senior (America Ferrera) are derailed by family obligation; put to work in her older sister’s neighborhood dress factory, the young woman stands up to the nagging with which her mother (Lupe Ontiveros) picks on her weight; and she even raises the body-image consciousness of her equally fleshy sweatshop mates. Yet I connected, surprised and delighted, with the unpreachy joyfulness of the production, the thoughtfulness and visual vitality with which director Patricia Cardoso opens out Josefina Lopez’s stage play, and the sharp, honest flavors of working-class Mexican Angeleno life, conveyed with superior filmmaking confidence. Besides, I saw no more effortlessly exciting performances than those of 17-year-old newcomer Ferrera and veteran Chuck & Buck star Ontiveros.
By degree-of-difficulty standards, it was impossible not to admire the intensity of Philip Seymour Hoffman as a grief-warped widower who mourns the suicide of his wife by flirting with death himself in Love Liza: The fellow sniffs gasoline and stumbles around in a fumy world of self-destruction. And Hoffman brings all his compellingly disheveled gravitas to bear on the role (written by his older brother, Gordy Hoffman). But this alienating study in extreme-sport bereavement, a tentative feature-directing debut for fellow actor Todd Louiso, is all about the stuff of performance, with not enough about the shape of the film. Connection wasn’t an option—and neither, for me, was empathy.
Which is not to say that lovability is a requirement for pleasure. Many of the stronger offerings from developing filmmakers featured characters with no great claims to likability, but who, in the context and style of their stories, came alive as subjects worth caring about. Joe Carnahan’s Narc, a nice little B-style imperfect-cop caper, runs on a propulsive energy, not to mention terrific, raspy performances by Jason Patric and Ray Liotta as uneasy undercover partners. Australian Rules, Paul Goldman’s tough, engrossing Aussie antidote to the mush of Monster’s Ball, grips viewers with the racial strife between whites and blacks on a Prospect Bay football field.
None of the triangulated lovers in XX/XY, a Frenchified, Friends-type drama about two girls (Kathleen Robertson and Maya Stange) and a guy (Mark Ruffalo) over the course of a college-to-adulthood decade, is anyone worth hanging out with. But despite first-timer shakiness from writer-director Austin Chick, the filmmaker does convey a personal tone and provides audiences with incentive to stick around (if only to enjoy the soundtrack’s French-bistro music).
The sexiest, most voluptuous film I connected with this year — here’s hoping it makes it onto American screens uncut — was Julio Medem’s Sex & Lucia, an intriguingly convoluted, time-shifting, erotically charged narrative (from the Spanish director of Lovers of the Arctic Circle) about a writer, his characters, and his (often naked) women. The debut that practically sat up and begged to be petted was Pete Jones’ Project Greenlight winner, Stolen Summer. (With its puppyish moral of tolerance and a welcome appearance by Bonnie Hunt, it doesn’t deserve to be kicked, just gently swatted on the nose.)
Finally, the most tail-wagging trifle was Tadpole, Gary Winick’s short, shaggy romantic comedy set in privileged Manhattan, about a precocious 15-year-old prep school lad (Aaron Stanford) who nurtures a crush on his glam stepmother (Sigourney Weaver). The doll who really steals the show is Bebe Neuwirth as a hubba-hubba family friend. The guy, meanwhile, who really deserves the royalties is Wes Anderson, he of the influential cult-favorite Rushmore—to whom this affection-hungry knockoff owes a big, grateful hug.