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SUNDANCE: Todd McCarthy's Festival Diary: Goodbye, Granola & Tarantino Clones

“Like Crazy”
Courtesy of Crispy Films

THR critic and Sundance juror Todd McCarthy gives the inside story of one of the best festivals in Sundance history.

As a member of the U.S. dramatic competition jury in my 26th year attending the Sundance Film Festival, I can happily report that the experience was satisfying on more than one level. Not only did the five of us — America Ferrera, Tim Orr, Kimberly Peirce and Jason Reitman were my cohorts — fundamentally agree 95 percent of the time, but also we enjoyed the benefit of judging a group of 16 films that was one of the best since independent cinema began displaying its wares here three decades ago. However you parse it, 2011 was a banner year creatively as well as business-wise, which can only bode well for indie cinema’s near future.

At least among American narrative films, genre formulas were out: no more granola, no more Tarantino clones. Instead, several films pulled back the curtain on fascinating Twilight Zone cultures few people know about or could imagine visiting, including the underground youth scene of Tehran in Circumstance and the merged Inupiaq/American culture around Barrow, Alaska, in On the Ice.

It hadn’t even occurred to me until a friend mentioned it Saturday night that 10 of the competition entries revolved around high school students or, at least, kids of high school age. I can only surmise that I didn’t notice this because very few of these films treat high schoolers in the way Hollywood generally does: as an excuse for randy humor and stupid behavior. Mostly, the young people portrayed in these films are striving, trying to carve out a place for themselves in a difficult world: the gender-bending New York minority teens of Pariah and Gun Hill Road or the rural Texas Latina weightlifter in Benavides Born.

I luxuriated in Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, written with his leading lady Brit Marling, because it is genuinely about something (a conjecture about our status on this planet), is startlingly original conceptually and could never have been made anywhere else but in a zone of fearless independence. We gave that a Special Jury Prize.

For the Grand Jury Prize, the festival’s top honor, we chose Like Crazy, which breathtakingly captures the elation of immediate attraction and first love between two college students then impeccably registers the growing distance between them as they are forced to live in different countries for a long period. Director Drake Doremus and his superb cinematographer, John Gulesarian, bring the viewer as close to the couple as possible without inducing suffocation, creating an experience of enveloping intimacy.

Film festival jury dynamics can work (or not) in many ways, and it certainly helps if there aren’t one or two people on the panel with an ideological or artistic ax to grind. Uninterested in agendas, this was a group keyed in on good filmmaking and storytelling — pure and simple. Without betraying any confidences, I can say that, when possible, our modus operandi was to see a film as a group then jump into our waiting SUV after a screening (one of the two great perks of jury duty is a car and driver, the other being roped-off theater seats) and jaw about it for 10 or 15 minutes.

Jury decisions always provoke quibbles from the outside, but from our point of view, the right awards more or less found their way to the right films, as if by natural laws of attraction. This year, Sundance did what is always hopes and intends to do: connect worthy fresh works by emerging filmmakers with appreciative viewers and buyers who, everyone hopes, will find them a much wider audience.