The annual scrutiny applied to the award winning films at the Sundance Film Festival borders on the paranoid; Conspiracy theories abound, many of which propose the idea that festival jurors, not sequestered from the hype and flow of information surrounding the numerous film sales at the festival, often award prizes based not on merit, but instead on the premise that films needing an extra boost in the marketplace will be helped out by winning the big prize. How else to explain films like Quincañera (2006) and Forty Shades of Blue (2005) upending superior films like Half Nelson and Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006) and Me And You and Everyone We Know, Junebug and The Squid and The Whale (2005)? There are also the complimentary theories of the ‘Sundance formula’ and ‘Sundance stigma,’ both of which are code for the same thing; The honoring of touchy-feely movies featuring people of color and/or women as protagonists that symbolize the Sundance mission of inclusion but which ultimately fail in the marketplace. I am not sure I buy into the paranoia or the stereotyping; What I do notice how often my own tastes and inclinations diverge from those of the juries at film festivals.* It is always fascinating to watch juries negotiate and arrive at their conclusions; Each group develops their own process for making a decision, paring down choices and favorites and arriving at some sort of consensus that best reflects the will of the group as a whole.
There is, as it is always said, no accounting for taste, which is why opinions vary so dramatically over the issue of award winners. There is certainly something to be said for the films that walk away from Sundance with a prize in hand; The attachment of the Sundance brand (in the shape of those powerful laurels) to a film’s life after the festival can lead to opportunities for distribution that might otherwise have slipped by; The Sundance Channel is only the most obvious symbol of the festival's afterlife. Do the festival’s laurels actually help a film in the market? I am certain it depends on the movie and the distribution strategy, but those laurels (and the prize) never hurt.
And so, the question of "deserving" winners arises as a result of wanting to see films that we enjoyed more than others (or those that we feel are simply better movies) have every chance to succeed out there in the big bad world of the film business. At the same time, to argue about the choices of the Sundance juries and audiences (a blind process that also draws scrutiny at any festival) is to acknowledge the power of the festival as a brand and to authenticate its imprimatur as the star-maker among domestic film festivals. For me, there is no question that Sundance does a great job of culling movies from the sea of American independent film and launching them into the world; The awards are just another component of the overall process.
As such, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to present my own thoughts on the films that captured my imagination at the festival this year. My awards are without conspiracy and without any impact on the marketplace, so I feel safe in simply discussing my favorite films of the festival and presenting my own reasons for selection. Unlike others, I am not opposed to film competitions and awards. At the same time, I certainly do not imagine art is created as a vehicle for the competitive drive, but I do think prioritizing work in some sort of a personal hierarchy can help me arrive at some deeper understanding of my own tastes, ideas and opinions. Whether as an expression of my feelings (in the case of creating ‘Best Of’ lists or silly blog-based awards) or as a statement of standards and values against which to react (in the case of my long-standing disagreement with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and their choices at the Academy Awards), the competition among films in any arbitrary category serves a completely selfish and, I believe, valuable purpose by allowing us all to think about film in ways we otherwise might not.
With all of the caveats and excuses firmly in place (including the fact that I was not able to see every film in every category; Not even close), here are my choices as the best of (what I saw at) Sundance 2007.
Narrative Feature Competition
Snow Angels by David Gordon Green
Snow Angels announces a new phase in the filmmaking career of David Gordon Green. If Undertow was Green's first foray into genre and convention, Snow Angels marks a new level of professionalism and storytelling power for the director. I am a longtime fan of his films, so it might come as little surprise that I found myself rooting for this movie, but Green more than provides; The film's maturity and understanding of its characters is deeply empathetic and heartfelt. The most engaging aspect of the movie is Green's continued commitment to his young characters; A high school romance provides a lovely counterweight to the violence and deceptions of the adult relationships swirling around it. Much like Green's previous films, it is in the philosophy of youth that the film's deeper truths can be found. I heard a lot of festival goers complaining that Snow Angels was a downer (which it undoubtedly was), but I am happy to see that Green has refused escapism in favor of showing us the deeper, complicated realities of loss and misunderstanding. It may not be comfortable or fun, but the movie was, alongside Chris Smith's The Pool, the most accomplished and deeply felt feature I saw in the competition.
Documentary Feature Competition
Zoo by Robinson Devor
Without question, my favorite film at Sundance was Robinson Devor's haunting Zoo, a surprisingly beautiful account of the tragic death of a Seattle businessman who bled to death after having sex with a horse. The least appetizing premise for a film turned out to be an absolute revelation; Using a mix of actors and real participants in the events leading up to the death, Devor presents us with a shadow world of charcters whose inability to connect with their fellow men lead them to the sexual attentions of their pets. At times, I found Zoo to be deeply frustrating because of the subjects' seeming inability to articulate their feelings or to find change; I got the sense that the survivors have few regrets (aside from the accidental death) and that their feelings toward their animals hasn't changed at all. Devor, however, innovatively undermines his subjects' storytelling by providing images of startling beauty and compassion, inviting the viewer to move through the landscapes and interiors of the shadow world while implying far more complex feelings and disconnections than are ever articulated in words. In the run up to the festival, Devor was quoted as saying that he made the movie by "aestheticiz(ing) the sleaze right out of it." He most certainly did.
World Cinema Narrative Feature Competition
Once by John Carney
Mark my words, John Carney's Once is going to be a minor sensation if it is ever given the chance to build word of mouth in US theaters. The story of a busker in Dublin (Glen Hansard of The Frames) who befriends a Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova) before working with her on a demo tape, Once is a love story, a musical and a classic tale of Irish emigration all rolled into one terrific movie. The integration of the film's music into the flow of the narrative is innovative enough to qualify as a Dogme technique; The characters sing and perform as the natural extension of their work as musicians in the film, and the songs are gorgeous and memorable (and available on iTunes; Check out The Moon and When Your Minds Made Up, both of which figure prominently in the film). The movie's heartbreaking romanticism is completely earned, yet it is heightened by watching the creative process unfold between two kind, engaging characters. Once's humanistic approach to issues of love, immigration and generosity make it a movie to root for. Fingers crossed for this one.
World Cinema Documentary Competition
In The Shadow Of The Moon by David Sington
A movie about heroism and the power of science and the human mind to conquer almost unbelieveable frontiers, In The Shadow of The Moon is a triumph. The film is just about as traditional as traditional can be; Using talking heads and archival footage of the US Apollo space program, director David Sington is able to construct the story of our lunar exploration in a way that is accessible to all ages. And yet, the film was unique in this year's Sundance program for its dedication to a heroic ideal of what man should aspire to become; Rational, curious and dedicated to pushing the limits of human potential regardless of nationality or belief system, the astronauts in the film represented (for me) the perfect antithesis of our current American political mindset. One of the most depressing moments of the festival came when this film ended and Holly and I discussed the lack of true ambition and honesty in public life; The underfunding of scientific research (to say nothing of education), intellectually dishonest leaders who utilize whatever information they can manufacture in order to support beliefs they already hold, and the absence of a desire to expand the scope of human knowledge all seem to define our times. There is a clear dedication in In The Shadow of The Moon to the power of our collective will to realize the fullest of human potential, and in the face of so many films highlighting the depths of human behavior, Sington's movie was a true breath of much needed (and highly enlightened) fresh air.
I had a great time at Sundance and thank the organizers (especially Rosie Wong and her team in the Industry office and the volunteers at The Yarrow and Holiday Village, who were terrific) for their hard work. It's always a tremendous luxury to spend ten days in the collective dark of a movie theater, and this year's festival was no exception. Now, off to get my own program in shape...
*Including my own. In 2005, I watched my Best Narrative Feature jury award our prize to Danny Boyle’s Millions at the expense of what I considered to be the best film of the year; Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen. While I still can’t get my head around that decision (despite the fact that I really loved Millions), I respected and honored their choice without a single word of protest or surprise. Which is, of course, how it should be.