"The House of Yes," "Ulee," "Puddle Cruiser": The festival's most arresting films put a spotlight on darkness

After attending Sundance, EW’s movie critics sat down to discuss its highs and lows.

Owen Gleiberman: Is it my imagination, Lisa, or was this the darkest collection of films ever assembled? It seemed as if every movie at Sundance this year was drenched in gloom — families falling apart, romance on the rocks, downtrodden teenagers venting their angst by ripping off convenience stores.

Lisa Schwarzbaum: True, many of this year’s Sundance specimens show a preoccupation with moping and sniveling — not to mention masturbation, drug use, misogyny, and the agony of young men with goatees in love with lesbians. After last year’s festival hits, like Shine and Big Night, made Sundance look ”mainstream” and ”nice,” this 1997 crop is a reminder that Age of Anxiety indie filmmakers are looking for distributors, too.

OG: To me, a lot of these filmmakers revel in ”edgy” themes in an attention-getting way that doesn’t cut very deep. Here’s an irony for you: Back in 1980, a few years before taking over the U.S. Film Festival and expanding it into Sundance, Robert Redford made Ordinary People, the original dysfunctional drama of the therapeutic era. The film was so mainstream it won the Oscar, yet it was also tougher, more raw and emotional than either of the big family-cataclysm movies at Sundance this year, The Myth of Fingerprints and The House of Yes.

LS: Cataclysm? On what planet? Myth is about four grown children who come home to work out their romantic problems and their parental issues during one Thanksgiving weekend. I’d describe it as the back story to a Ralph Lauren ad: pretty people (ER‘s junior hunk Noah Wyle and Julianne Moore, among others) in pretty settings Woody Allen might admire, having tasteful crises.

OG: It’s a watchable movie, but the conflicts seem predigested. Personally, I preferred the gothic absurdism of The House of Yes, a movie that dares to make sibling incest look sexy. It stars Parker Posey as a demented young woman who thinks she’s Jackie Kennedy and has been in love with her brother ever since they slept together as teenagers. The film is incredibly synthetic, like Tennessee Williams gone Fox TV, but Posey’s high-camp magnetism holds it together.

LS: Owen, Yes is way too arch and contrived. It’s the ultimate in irony instead of emotions — the refuge of green filmmakers. Now, In the Company of Men, on the other hand — hoo, boy, that packs a punch. Here’s a strong, provocative drama about a couple of young corporate buckoes who hate women and who set out to date, dump, and humiliate one chosen victim just because they can. I have an awful feeling that retro sexism is back in style — probably tied to all this interest in big, stinky cigars — but I can’t deny that Men was one of the best and most original pieces I saw.

OG: It’s a riveting film, with a hushed intensity that reminded me of sex, lies, and videotape. The director, Neil LaBute, makes corporate encounters feel like thriller confrontations, and the film is so uncompromising in its view of how manipulative men can be that it’s almost scary to watch. Not as scary, though, as Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, an amazing documentary about the infamous performance artist who specialized in self-mutilation.

LS: Life is too short to spend time seeing something as grotesque as Sick. I refuse.

OG: So did most of the people at Sundance. Sick may be the most disturbing film I’ve ever seen—it makes Crumb look like Capra—yet it’s also extraordinarily rich and haunting. It’s about how Flanagan, who had cystic fibrosis, martyred his flesh in order to master his pain.

LS: The most affecting, and adult, film at Sundance this season was probably missed by three quarters of the festival mob, too. Ulee’s Gold, from Victor Nunez—he made Ruby in Paradise—is a poor title for a beautiful piece about a beekeeper in Florida who holds his family together. Peter Fonda gives a great performance in the lead role. And—get this—the story is optimistic! The characters are developed! The pace is poetic! No one says f—!

OG: The most sheerly entertaining movie I saw was Puddle Cruiser, a wonderfully funny and observant comedy about campus dating rituals in the age of gender politics. It reminded me a lot of Swingers, a movie that, I think, is going to turn out to be the prototype for the new indie romantic comedy.

LS: Swingers, don’t forget, was rejected by Sundance last year, and entertainment wasn’t high on the agenda this year—but there was a certain charm to Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, a sweet, oddball documentary from Errol Morris that featured a chatty specialist in naked mole rats and a voluble robot builder.

OG: The truth is that even a lot of the most buzzed-about movies were, at best, merely okay. Hurricane, cowinner of the audience award, is a kinder, gentler Kids, with a plot that feels a bit too warmed-over. If anything, the documentaries at Sundance generate more drama than the fiction features. One that grabbed me was Waco: The Rules of Engagement, an investigatory epic about the FBI siege of the Branch Davidian compound. It presents powerful new evidence that the FBI, and not the Davidians, caused the fatal inferno at Waco. Ideologically, the film is too slanted. It mounts an apologia for David Koresh and, I think, soft-pedals his complicity in the tragedy. But it’s still a vital and mesmerizing document.

LS: Funny what mesmerizes at a festival like Sundance. Who would have guessed that after all the hype about Parker Posey and Gen-X-in-crisis films, the Grand Jury Prize would go to Sunday, a lyrical, “unsexy” meditative drama about a middle-aged homeless man in a charmless New York City borough and the melancholy woman who picks him up. I loved this un-chic movie, but relatively few Sundancegoers saw or talked about it. Which is, in a way, the great thing about this interesting and unwieldly festival: When you least expect it, a quiet little “find” boldly goes where all the slacker chroniclers in the world do not.