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10 Worst Sundance Sensations

by Spout
January 13, 2009 2:38 AM
3 Comments
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"Napoleon Dynamite"

By Christopher Campbell

Getting ready for the Sundance Film Festival can be very exciting. As we await the event’s Thursday opening, we can’t stop wondering what will be the next big thing. Will this year’s hit be the highly-anticipated Michael Cera project Paper Hearts, or will it be something that we as of yet know nothing about?

It’s easy to forget, however, that oftentimes the next big thing is also the next lamest thing. Sundance sensations, those films that are much-buzzed-about, that sell for a lot of money, that go on to be marketed like crazy and ultimately receive Oscar recognition, tend to lend themselves most easily to backlashes. Usually such derision is deserved, as in the case of the following ten films, each of which made a big splash at Sundance despite being bad.

10. Brick (Rian Johnson; 2005 Sundance premiere)

When Blade Runner was first released, critics attacked its novelty of combining film noir with science fiction. Yet when Brick arrived in Park City, its similar genre-bending mix of film noir and teen films was welcomed as the most original film in years. In both circumstances, critics were wrong, and while Blade Runner ultimately became a classic, Brick is retrospectively even sillier now than it was when it won a Special Jury Prize “for originality of vision” four years ago. Yes, the film is a fresh idea in theory, but it doesn’t really work on screen, no matter how much you want it to or think it does. It’s simply a novelty gag for film geeks who love noir — while not quite as enjoyable for fans of the teen genre. Is there really anyone who wouldn’t just rather watch a double feature of The Big Sleep and Heathers?

9. Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris; 2006 Sundance premiere)

Never mind its impact on the culture of Sundance. The annoying “what will be the next Little Miss Sunshine?” idea was just a substitute for similar questions going back as far as 1990 (“what will be the next sex, lies, and videotape?”). The real problem with LMS is that it’s a decent dysfunctional family comedy that falls apart in the third act. On the positive side, it finally got Alan Arkin an Oscar. But on the more glaring negative side, it also got Abigail Breslin an Oscar nomination. Hardly worthy, also, of its Best Picture nod or its Best Original Screenplay win, the film’s success is the product of a terrific marketing team and moviegoers’ acceptance of cheesy endings — and has nothing to do with the quality of the film.

8. The Brothers McMullen (Edward Burns; 1995 Sundance premiere)

While the name Fox Searchlight is now synonymous with marketing the hell out of “indie” sensations like Little Miss Sunshine, Juno and Slumdog Millionaire, the specialty division has been overdoing it with unworthy films since the very first Sundance hit they distributed. The Brothers McMullen is not necessarily a bad film, but it isn’t anything special either. Some say the 1995 fest was the downward turning point for Sundance, whether because it showed us a major “sellout” who wasn’t actually as good as he’d been celebrated as being (Kevin Smith, who disappointed with his sophomore effort, Mallrats) or because a lackluster picture like McMullen won the Grand Jury Prize. And like Smith, Edward Burns ultimately revealed himself to be something of an embarrassment, talent-wise, to the reputation of Sundance alums.

7. Garden State (Zach Braff; 2004 Sundance premiere)

2004 was the year that indie quirkiness got out of hand at Sundance (see #3). Sure, Garden State got us all into The Shins, but it also got filmmakers too into a genre I call “homecoming of age” movies, those banal stories about twenty- and thirty- somethings who revisit their homes due to a dying or dead parent and involve themselves with wacky townies in the process. Any idiot can write a script of this type and fill it with quirky scenery and an obnoxious yet adorable love interest. Sundance must still be getting countless submissions of this kind of film, but unfortunately for the rest of the world’s idiot filmmakers, they aren’t TV stars like Zach Braff.

6. SherryBaby (Laurie Collyer; 2006 Sundance premiere)

Sundance has long been a haven for depressing films involving junkies and/or incest, but few have been as overrated as SherryBaby. Once again, it’s all about the star power, as the film might not have been so hyped had Maggie Gyllenhaal not been in the lead. Then again, it might have actually been a better film without her. Grandly over-praised for her performance as the easily played rehabilitating mom, the actress got undeserved kudos simply for being raw and despicable. Her Oscar snub was a relief, at least.

5. Born Into Brothels (Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman; 2004 Sundance premiere)

It may have won the documentary Audience Award at Sundance and the documentary Oscar a year later, but that doesn’t excuse Born Into Brothels from being a disgrace to nonfiction filmmaking. One of the most self-satisfying docs ever made, the film will forever be marked by its footage of co-director Zana Briski figuratively patting herself on the back during a fundraiser, with which she sinfully seeks sainthood for involving herself in the lives of her film’s subjects. If documentary was synonymous with charity, Born Into Brothels would indeed be a great film, but documentaries like this should merely be an inspiration to charity, not charity itself.

4. Masked and Anonymous (Larry Charles; 2003 Sundance premiere)

One of the most anticipated films of the 2003 festival due to a script co-written by Bob Dylan and an unbelievable cast including Dylan, Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Penelope Cruz, Ed Harris, Luke Wilson, Mickey Rourke, Angela Bassett, Jessica Lange and many other big names, the very messy Masked and Anonymous therefore ended up the biggest disappointment of that year. Its worth was later defended and praised by such critics as Jonathan Rosenbaum, who included it in his 2003 Top Ten list, and Salon.com’s Stephanie Zacharek. But most of us are in agreement that it’s one of the biggest wastes of talent in years.

3. Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess; 2004 Sundance premiere)

Napoleon Dynamite’s inclusion on this list is likely to upset more people than Brick’s, but at least the Brick devotees can defend their fandom with more than just shouts of “It’s funny!” Because the thing is, Napoleon Dynamite is not comedy. It is merely quirky, which is not the same thing as funny. Jared Hess’ pop culture phenomenon does feature some highly original characters and situations, but his execution of these elements is obvious and uninteresting. “Gosh!” is neither a good punchline nor a good catchphrase.

2. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez; 1999 Sundance premiere)

It must be appreciated as much as attacked for its groundbreaking marketing campaign, and in many ways the film itself can be acknowledged for having a terrific premise with an almost perfect realization of that idea. But for the most part, The Blair Witch Project is a basic, amateur and poorly concluded effort that turned the appeal of indie simplicity on its head. Almost a decade earlier, when filmmakers saw Slacker and said “I can do that,” they were mostly mistaken. But The Blair Witch allowed every schmo with a digital camera to declare, “I can do that,” and be relatively correct in his or her statement. It’s okay for indie filmmaking to seem easy, but when it really is that easy, it degrades the truly talented.

1. Boxing Helena (Jennifer Lynch; 1993 Sundance premiere)

Cult appeal notwithstanding, Boxing Helena was one of the first really awful movies to be up for Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize. And although in the 17 years since, the festival has been easily criticized for allowing bad films with lots of buzz and/or big name talent to be included in competition, no film has been as unworthy as this. Had it starred original choice Madonna in the part of the titular amputee, Boxing Helena might have really deserved to at least become a midnight movie. However, with its lesser-name casting, it’s barely even good enough for Skinamax programming.

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3 Comments

  • indy42 | September 12, 2012 3:54 AMReply

    I second Jacob's comment. You are comically, hilariously, uproariously mistaken about 'Brick'.

    Not about Napoleon Dynamite though. Spot-on.

  • Christopher Campbell | October 27, 2011 4:54 AMReply

    So I've heard. In a few months I think I owe it another viewing, seven years later.

  • Jacob | October 27, 2011 3:12 AMReply

    Let me just be the first to say: you are comically mistaken about 'Brick.'

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