With films about street poverty and egghead mathematicians commanding the floor, 1998 may have been the most offbeat Sundance yet

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated February 06, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

One measly year ago, Ben Affleck was just another faceless, can’t-get-arrested actor at the Sundance Film Festival, promoting a teensy, yet-to-be-released movie called Chasing Amy. A year later, he’s back in town. Except this time, the Good Will Hunting Golden Globe winner is at a swanky cocktail party nuzzling and whispering sweet nothings to Sliding Doors star Gwyneth Paltrow…and she’s not calling the cops! In fact, she’s nuzzling right back.

Affleck is Exhibit A in how dramatically Robert Redford’s annual 11-day indie film-a-go-go can launch a career right out of the thin alpine air. Of course, most of the fledgling filmmakers who make the snowy pilgrimage to Park City, Utah, set their sights a tad lower than Affleck’s — they’re just hoping to find a distributor and get out of hock to their folks. Well, okay, secretly they are crossing their fingers, hoping their work will become Sundance’s next sex, lies, and videotape, Shine, or The Full Monty.

This year was a little different, though — and not just because Parker Posey was in only one movie. Yes, there were still scads of Tinseltown types bragging over their StarTacs about their new parabolic skis. And there was almost as much talk about whether ex-flames Daryl Hannah and John F. Kennedy Jr. would cross paths as there was about the movies. Yet Sundance ’98 (sponsored in part by Entertainment Weekly) seemed to mark a return to the festival’s original mission: the discovery of promising talent rather than ready-made hits. (Strangely enough, this year’s most studio-friendly film, the collegiate thriller Dead Man’s Curve, could not come to terms with a distributor before Sundance wrapped, though was expected to line one up soon.) “If you came in looking for a breakthrough commercial film, you would have had major misgivings,” says Amir Malin, president of LIVE Entertainment, which picked up the frenetic math-meets-mysticism flick [Pi]. “But if you came in and utilized Sundance for what it was intended to be, which is a playground for up-and-coming directors, then it was wonderful.” In fact, the class of ’98 doesn’t seem to be very commercially minded at all compared with previous years, taking on such alternative topics as the life of Hasidic Jews (A Price Above Rubies), American Indians (Smoke Signals), and Irish construction workers (2×4).