Monday, January 17, 2011

Greatest Sundance hits: Must-see indie classics

Posted By on Mon, Jan 17, 2011 at 1:46 PM

click to enlarge sundancing1.jpg

Sundance starts up again this week, and I'll be there to cover the highlights with a group of my students.  In preparation, here's a list of some of the greatest Sundance hits since the festival got its improbable start in the snowy mountains of the cozy resort town of Park City, Utah.  (I'm updating a list I posted last time I went to Sundance in 2009).

click to enlarge Richard Edson, Eszter Balint and John Lurie hang in Florida ("Stranger than Paradise")
  • Richard Edson, Eszter Balint and John Lurie hang in Florida ("Stranger than Paradise")

Sundance really hit its stride in 1985. Before that it was called the Utah/US Film Festival and hadn’t yet been sponsored by Robert Redford and the Sundance Institute. In 1985 it got a new name and gave the world an introduction to two of the country's most prolific and exciting filmmaking teams. Jim Jarmusch brought his second feature (following his largely unheralded debut film Permanent Vacation), and introduced the world to his own peculiar take on America in Stranger than Paradise.

This same year, the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) stunned audiences with their visceral take on pulp film noir in Blood Simple. Their ability to create intensity through memorable images — a shovel dragging on the pavement, shafts of light that stab through the darkness as bullets penetrate the walls that shelter a terrified Frances McDormand — signaled the emergence of a powerful new team of storytellers.

Since then, the roster of filmmakers and films discovered at the Sundance Film Festival has confirmed its ongoing importance as the premier location for independent film in America.

Here’s a quick chronological list of some of the best things I’ve seen come out of Sundance. For more reviews of “Indie Classics” and “Indie Icons,” take a look at our website.

click to enlarge "Sherman's March"
  • "Sherman's March"

1987: Ross McElwee’s intensely personal and idiosyncratic search for Southern love in Sherman’s March begins when his girlfriend breaks up with him just after he has gotten a grant to document the infamous general’s destructive rampage through the Southern states.

1989: Then, of course, there was Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies videotape, that put Sundance on the map for making a lot of money on a very little investment. What is easy to forget in the face of its indie-blockbuster status is that it is a brilliant little film and a compelling story, that ranks easily with the very best cinematic meditations on modern love, sex, personal identity and truth. This one’s playing again in a retrospective at Sundance this year, and the director will be present to introduce and answer questions.

1990: Legendary African-American filmmaker Charles Burnett really should have become known to the world when he completed his powerful UCLA thesis film, Killer of Sheep, in 1977 (re-released to outstanding critical acclaim in 2008). But it was not until To Sleep With Anger received a Special Jury award at Sundance and a subsequent Independent Spirit Award that he began to be recognized for his powerful gifts as an intimate humanist and realist filmmaker. The same year saw Whit Stillman’s dissection of the lifestyles of the falling upper class in Metropolitan; and Roger and Me, Michael Moore’s quixotic hero on the track of the greedy corporate villians; and Hal Hartley’s impressive feature debut film, The Unbelievable Truth, about a convict who returns home only to find that his crimes have become wildly exaggerated by his former friends and neighbors.

click to enlarge Bargaining with a "Madonna pap smear" in Linklater's "Slacker"
  • Bargaining with a "Madonna pap smear" in Linklater's "Slacker"

1991: Todd Haynes followed up his experimental Barbiefied Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story with the controversial Poison, which tells three interweaving stories about the difficulties of self-definition and paved the way for the so-called “New Queer Cinema” movement; Richard Linklater broke completely with conventional narrative, allowing his camera to follow the intersecting paths of Austin’s aimless 20somethings in Slacker.

1992: Quentin Tarantino exploded on the scene with his unexpected combination of violence and volubility in Reservoir Dogs.

1993: Robert Rodriguez, now bosom buddy with Tarantino and fellow grindhouse fanatic, sold blood to raise the seven grand required to make his ultra-low-budget neo-Western, El Mariachi.

1994: Peter Green turned in an astonishing performance as a schizophrenic on a mission to take back his daughter in Lodge Kerrigan’s kinetic and disturbing Clean, Shaven; and Kevin Smith (aka Silent Bob) introduced the world to his brand of slacker dark comedy in Clerks (he's back this year with a fundamentalist horror pic Red State).

1995: Richard Linklater showed that he knows how to tell a more conventional, and incredibly moving, story in the race-against-time romance Before Sunrise; Terry Zwigoff’s inventive documentary Crumb introduced the world to the unexpectedly popular but shy and unassuming creator of audaciously explicit and exploitatively sexual cult cartoon imagery.

1996:  Welcome to the Dollhouse was Todd Solondz’s bitter and hilarious examination of the horrors of seventh grade.

1998: Vincent Gallo starred and directed in the visually sumptuous Buffalo ’66, a quirky and unpredictable romance about an ex-con who kidnaps a woman in order to convince his parents he has been happily married and running a successful business; visually inventive and wildly intellectual, Pi introduced audiences to the incredible talent and imagination of Darren Aronofsky; Smoke Signals was Chris Eyre’s rich and amusing portrait of contemporary life on the reservation.

1999: Before becoming a cliché, the handheld intensity and viral marketing behind The Blair Witch Project broke new ground and astonished audiences with something they really hadn’t seen before; Mark Borchardt’s independent horror flick Coven didn't quite manage to be nearly as scary, but American Movie, Chris Smith’s documentary about his heroic effort to pull it off, was both inspirational and funny, a first-rate documentary.

2001: Hedwig and the Angry Inch was both one of the best rock films ever made and a tragic and moving love story about a German transsexual whose botched operation inspired both the name of his band and an impossible but creative longing.

click to enlarge Parker Posey and Tim Guinee in "Personal Velocity"
  • Parker Posey and Tim Guinee in "Personal Velocity"

2002:  Personal Velocity was one of the first Sundance films to be shot entirely on digital video, marking a new trend, and making inventive use of the new medium. Based on director Rebbeca Miller’s novel, the film consisted of three portraits of women making important choices.

2003 (the first year I brought a group of students to the festival):  Capturing the Friedmans revealed just how complicated and obscure the truth can be, as director Andrew Jarecki pieced together extensive home movie footage with contemporary interviews to examine a seemingly ordinary family whose father is accused of pedophilia. Thirteen was the debut film of Catherine Hardwicke, and is a much more compelling and realistic portrait of teenaged angst than her more recent rendition of Twilight, which disappointed critics but couldn’t deter the leagues of young fans from making it the blockbuster of the fall season.

2004:  Ondi Timoner directed the exceptional and invigorating rockumentary Dig!, examining the friendship and rivalry between rising indie rock bands The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre from 1996 onwards; Shane Carruth’s inventive science fiction time travel thriller Primer was made for next to nothing, and proved that a good story and a bit of invention can still wow audiences and juries and achieve remarkable success; nobody suspected coming into the festival that it would become a runaway cult classic, but I’ve never heard the audiences at Sundance laughing so hard as when I saw the premiere screening of Napoleon Dynamite.

2005: Miranda July took the sensibility drawn from her eccentric and delicate performance art and created a very intimate and unusual love story in Me and You and Everyone We Know.  She's back this year with her second feature film, The Future.

2006: The big deal at Sundance ’06 was, of course, the indie smash hit Little Miss Sunshine, a Steve Carell-starring dysfunctional family quirky road trip on the way to a child beauty pageant flick; but the real find was God Grew Tired of Us, a simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming documentary about a few of the “lost boys of Sudan” who left home for America.

2007: No End in Sight was Charles Ferguson's devastating and non-partisan depiction of how badly the U.S. botched the reconstruction process in Iraq; Once was devastating and lovely at the same time, a realistic modern musical set on the streets of Dublin, about a romance taking place at just the wrong time.

2008:  Jay and Mark Duplass took the “mumblecore” do-it-yourself style of acting and cinematography and created a uniquely funny and even scary spoof on horror with one of last year’s Sundance favorites, Baghead (they've gone on since then to direct Marisa Tomei, John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill in last year's Cyrus); but the best film of the festival to my mind was Sugar, which provided a unique and emotionally powerful look at America’s favorite pastime, following the success and struggles of a Dominican player recruited to play minor league baseball in the United States.

click to enlarge The awful slaughter that forms the focus of "The Cove"
  • The awful slaughter that forms the focus of "The Cove"

2009: The Cove, a film about the senseless slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, won an Oscar for Best Documentary of the year after premiering at Sundance.  The big buzz this year surrounded a moving and intense film about an illiterate and obese teenage girl from the Harlem ghettos, on the brink of giving birth to her second child, having been impregnated by her father.  It was originally named Push, after the novel it was based on, but confusion with a science-fiction flick appearing the same year led to its being given the improbably long new title of Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire.

2010: Hailed as the first must-see film about the war in Afghanistan, Sebastien Junger's Restrepo documented the daily struggles of a platoon of soldiers stationed in a strategically critical valley. Debra Granik's Winter's Bone portrayed the harrowing experience of a young woman in search of a drug-dealing father who has left her to fend for her younger siblings and a catatonic mother.

2011 - ??? - stay tuned.....

For updates on the latest festival as it happens, check back here or see my student's takes on what they've seen on our class website.

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