Six things we learned at the Sundance film fest -- Maybe it's the altitude, but here are the films that emerged with buzz

By Josh Wolk
Updated January 24, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Naomi Watts: Lionel Hahn/ABACA Press/NewsCom

Six things we learned at Sundance

And so, after 10 days of mountain air and popcorn breath, the Sundance Film Festival has drawn to a close. The big winners were the cryptic technothriller ”Primer” and the raucous music documentary ”DIG!” but those of us who don’t go home with awards (the nerve of Robert Redford, only commending those who actually made a movie) will go home with some memories and lessons, like these.

1. SUNDANCE: WHERE TV STARS GO TO STRETCH ”The Guardian”’s Simon Baker shucked his aggressive TV persona to play a too-eager-to-please suburban husband in the murky ”Book of Love.” And that eagerness to please gets him cuckolded by another familiar face: ”Everwood”’s Gregory Smith, playing a love-hungry high schooler whom Treat Williams would never forgive.

Courteney Cox went anti-Monica in the mindbending ”November,” and ”Six Feet Under”’s Peter Krause portrayed the man Nate Fisher would be if he let his id run wild in the painfully honest marital drama ”We Don’t Live Here Anymore”; his adulterous character sleeps with his best friend’s wife and doesn’t understand what’s wrong with it. Finally, in the comedy ”Eulogy,” Ray Romano is the irresponsible father of twin boys, but here’s the stretch: unlike in ”Everybody Loves Raymond,” his character has a moustache!

2. WELCOME TO SUNDANCE… AND COME BACK SOON! Many stars dedicatedly come to the festival to support their films, and are usually gone by the time the next movie starts. Naomi Watts (”We Don’t Live Here Anymore”) and Romano came to do a few interviews and attend their premieres, and like Willem Dafoe (who had to rush back to finish shooting Wes Anderson’s ”The Life Aquatic”), were gone the next day. Edward Norton had the speed record, landing for four hours to promote the documentary ”Dirty Work,” which he executive-produced, and Jamie Foxx came and left in the same day for the debut of the FX telemovie ”Redemption.” Then he had to rush back to the set of Tom Cruise’s ”Collateral.” Ahhh, from a TV movie to Tom Cruise: now that’s indie cred.

3. EVERYTHING’S BETTER WAY ABOVE SEA LEVEL The ambling, endearingly oddball Idaho-made comedy ”Napoleon Dynamite,” about a dweeby student whose stepfather throws meat at him, is charming, starring a largely unknown cast (with cameos by Diedrich Bader — ”The Drew Carey Show” — and ”Waterworld” tyke Tina Majorino… like we said, largely unknown), and the audiences have laughed so explosively you’d think they were being paid. It’s no wonder that Fox Searchlight bought it for a reported $5 million. However, it does make one think of other quirky comedies that were bought after killing in Park City, like the equally no-name-casted ”Jump Tomorrow,” and the benchmark for bad investments, ”Happy, Texas.” Fox Searchlight is no doubt hoping their ”Napoleon” can conquer the lowlands, too.

4. THE BIGGER THE EGO, THE BETTER THE SUBJECT Walking the Park City streets and listening to cocky bastards shrieking on their cell phones is unpleasant, yet seeing egotists get their comeuppance on screen is a delight. The documentary ”Overnight” follows a screenwriter who got a sweet deal with Miramax (including Harvey Weinstein buying him a bar), and tracks his self-confidence as it runs so wild that he ends up losing most of his friends and ends up with a no-picture deal. It’s the ultimate cautionary tale for any filmmakers who sell their films this year.

Then there’s the Grand Jury Prize-winning ”DIG!” — an outstanding music documentary which follows two bands, the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, for seven years as one (the Dandies) makes it, and the other doesn’t. The supremely arrogant BJM leader is musical genius Anton Newcombe, who continuously sabotages any hint of success his band might have, and gets into numerous on-stage fistfights with his ever-revolving band members (the brawls occasionally spread off the stage, as in one jolting moment where he kicks an audience member in the head). It’s a disturbing and riveting look at the dangers of creative genius untempered by mental stability.

5. SIDDOWN! People often speak of ”Sundance fever,” where every movie seems better at the festival. It has been shocking to watch how nearly everything, regardless of worth, receives a standing ovation at the festival’s largest venue, the Eccles Theater. ”Iron-Jawed Angels,” a preachy, HBO made-for-TV movie about the suffragette movement starring Hilary Swank, got audiences on their feet twice. And the crowd also leapt up at the end of Foxx’s tedious ”Redemption,” the true story of the founder of the Crips gang who, on death row, became an advocate against gang violence. It’s probably best that the festival ends now, before Sundancers start carrying McDonald’s employees on their shoulders just for serving the McNuggets hot.

6. YOU DON’T NEED BUZZ TO WIN At the awards show, when juror Danny Glover announced that ”Primer” had won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, the entire audience was shocked — just as shocked as writer/director/star Shane Carruth. Throughout the week, few were talking about the complicated cheapie (it cost $7,000 to make, and first-time director Carruth edited, looped, and practically scotch-taped the movie together in his apartment in Texas). The polished movie doesn’t feel nearly as low-budget as, say, ”Clerks,” and people have been comparing it to another Sundance science thriller, ”Pi.” However, ”Primer” is more challenging: It revolves around a group of engineers trying to invent a new product in one’s garage, and the accidental discovery they happen across.

The characters speak scientifically and cryptically and, unlike in a Hollywood film, there is no character who happens in and says, ”Give it to me in layman’s terms!” to make it easier for the audience. You have to pay intensely close attention to follow the rewarding twist; perhaps this is why the film hadn’t sold by the end of the festival. David Sullivan, the costar of the film with Carruth, was trembling with excitement after the awards (Carruth was visibly dazed), and said that three companies had been talking to them about buying the film, but ”I think the bar’s just been raised as far as negotiations.”