Sundance: Kudos to John Cooper for a year in which 'rebel spirit' really meant 'terrific films'
In my introductory post this year from the Sundance Film Festival — the first Sundance to be presided over by newly appointed festival director John Cooper, pictured at left — I said that the real test, the only test, for the Cooper era wouldn’t be the festival’s novel display of bells and whistles: the NEXT section (which bracketed and highlighted eight films made on very low budgets — just like dozens and dozens of past films shown at previous Sundance festivals), or the freshly trumpeted, take-back-the-megaplex, this is the new rebel spirit of indie film signifiers. (Rebellion, as a word, was long ago co-opted by those who aren’t for it.) I said that what mattered would be whether there was fresh creative DNA in the programming itself.
On that score, Cooper and his team came through, triumphantly. The programming this year was bold, sharp, tasteful, and demanding. It did a first-rate job of separating the wheat from the chaff — and leaving the chaff out of the festival. I can’t tell you how many times, over the years, I have sat through a movie at Sundance that was inept and awful in every way (it might be an unwatchable kitsch comedy like D.E.B.S., or the aptly named Sleepwalking, a road movie that managed the singular feat of standing still), only to spend half the film wondering how this particular waste of time ended up in the middle of the world’s premiere independent film festival, at the expense of a submission that must surely have been more worthy.
This year, I never had that experience, or anything close to it. Every movie I saw, even a half-baked novelty that didn’t really work, like Holy Rollers, with Jesse Eisenberg as a Hasid who becomes a drug runner, justified its presence. I also think it’s encouraging that no single film dominated the buzz-sphere. There was a roundedness and vivacity to the spectrum of movies on display, which is one reason just about everyone I talked to believed that the festival had such a vital year. Here are a few of my random thoughts and observations on Sundance 2010:
For Young Filmmakers, Marriage is the New Dating. By its nature (brash, cheap, hungry for adventure), independent filmmaking is mostly a province of the young, which is why indie movies about romantic relationships have often been mumbly twentysomething comedies about hooking up and dating. This year, however, there was an abundance of films that focused on the promises and perils of marriage: Blue Valentine and The Kids Are All Right, and even text-generation comedies like Douchebag and The Freebie. Which makes me think that a whole generation — of indie filmmakers, or maybe just of Americans, period — are growing up faster than they used to.
Digital Video Finally Looks Exactly Like…Film. Taking in some of those NEXT films, with their functional framing and natural lighting, I suddenly realized that even though I was watching good old low-budget DV, after years of incremental improvements you could no longer tell the difference. The images didn’t have a trace of that murky-clinical video immediacy. They now had the sensuality of film. And that’s a tremendous technological-aesthetic victory, and opportunity, for indie filmmakers. Even spending next to no money, they can now compete, at least visually, on a far more level playing field.
The Traditional Model of Independent Studio Acquisitions and Deal-Making at Sundance is Over; Long Live the Traditional Model of Independent Acquisitions and Deal-Making at Sundance! Yes, the deals aren’t breaking the bank anymore, in part because the companies learned their lesson and got tired of paying a headline-grabbing $10 million for a surefire “crossover smash,” only to be left with egg on their balance sheets when that movie never crossed over. And yet, from listening to some of the gloomspeak prognosticators on hand, you’d think that the eager negotiations of old — the reading of the tea leaves of buzz, the flattery and the bidding wars, the loudly publicized deals — never happened anymore. Tell that to Focus Features, which picked up The Kids Are All Right for $5 million, or The Weinstein Company, which got Blue Valentine for a song at $1 million, or the companies that are still out there negotiating (since the timetable for deals now tends to last weeks past the end of the festival). Which leads me to wonder…
Where the Heck Was Fox Searchlight? Over the past five years, Fox Searchlight has become America’s reigning independent film distributor, with its president until this year, Peter Rice, picking up the king-of-the-indie-world torch once held by Harvey Weinstein. The company produces its own films, like (500) Days of Summer, but a major part of the Fox Searchlight mojo has been acquiring movies at Sundance and turning them into modestly scaled hits, be it Napoleon Dynamite or (in a one-year bonanza) Waitress and Once. Early in 2009, Rice was plucked from his post by Rupert Murdoch and made head of Fox Broadcasting; this is the first Sundance festival in a long time without him. So why didn’t Fox establish its post-Rice Sundance bona fides by finding and trumpeting a major acquisition? (To be fair, they could, as I write, be working on one.) I even have the movie for them. The Company Men, a juicy tale of downsized executives starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, and Chris Cooper, has just the right blend of filmmaking smarts and commercial hooks to be a quintessential Searchlight movie. And no one has picked it up yet.
Why the Sundance Mission Remains Thrillingly Alive. That special new section may be entitled NEXT, but what everyone at Sundance is really focused on is NOW. The excitement of the moment. The movies of the moment. The reason, however, that this festival enjoys the influence it does is that it doesn’t just discover films; it discovers filmmakers — that is, it gives birth to long and vast careers. Twelve years ago, when I was on the Sundance Dramatic Jury, I had the honor of standing up on stage and personally handing the Grand Jury prize for screenwriting to Lisa Cholodenko, who won it for her first fetaure, High Art. Since then, she has worked in television and made the shrewdly entertaining Laurel Canyon (2002), but this year she got the whole world of Sundance talking with The Kids Are All Right (which Lisa wrote about here), a movie that is sure to have a major impact when it’s released. Sometimes, it takes a director quite a while to bear the full fruits of his or her promise. My own choice for filmmaker to watch, not just this year but in the decade to come, is Derek Cianfrance, whose Blue Valentine, a heartwrenching, visually shimmering troubled-marriage drama starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, proves that he’s a director with the gifts to seduce an audience’s eye, heart, and mind.