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Indie Cultural Impact: Sundance and Award Season

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik December 8, 2008 at 7:54AM

Indie Cultural Impact: Sundance and Award Season
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With the Sundance lineup out and the award season having officially kicked off with the Gotham Awards and the National Board of Review picks, It's got me reflecting on the impact of indie films in today's cultural space, particularly good indie films. Admittedly, I was disappointed that "Ballast" did not win the Gotham for best picture, nor make the NBR's list of best independent films.

If it's true that if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all, the less I write about "Frozen River," now this year's indie frontrunner, the better. But I will say that "Ballast" is art, and "Frozen River" is serviceable drama, and when people spoke of them after last year's Sundance in the same breath, I didn't buy it.

So now look what's happened to the critically heralded films from last year's Sundance. "Ballast" and "Momma's Man," as much as the New York Times's Manohla Dargis praised them, have vanished from the public discussion--even more tragically, they've vanished from much of the indie discussion. I've persuaded certain art-house filmgoers to see "Momma's Man," and they just found it "too weird" or "annoying." What they want, instead, is "Slumdog Millioniare."

One industry insider recently complained to me that "independent film has effectively made itself a niche of a niche." Given that Sundance is the biggest "brand" for an indie film, what does it say that few people were interested in seeing the most buzzed-about "Sundance products" from last year's festival, whether "Ballast," "Momma's Man," "Trouble The Water" or even "Hamlet 2," for that matter? It certainly doesn't inspire confidence going into Sundance '09.

Perhaps my favorite film from last year's festival, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's "Sugar" comes out in April next year. It's a terrifically made character-driven immigrant sports movie that subverts every convention of the genre: For some, this will be a revelation; for others, it could be the very thing that keeps the film from breaking out. If only it ended with a rousing musical number...