Critic's Notebook: Sundance

 Ben Richardson

At the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, there was Beasts of the Southern Wild, and then there was everything else. A number of past Sundances are thought of that way -- the years of Ruby in Paradise, sex, lies, and videotape, Reservoir Dogs and perhaps a couple of others come to mind -- but it's difficult to think of a festival at which, from an artistic point of view, one film stood so completely apart from the others.

Discoveries like Benh Zeitlin's first feature -- a model American independent film that poetically examines the spirited, organic, punishing and determined lives of fringe dwellers in Louisiana -- don't come along every season. But apart from that film, after the accelerating quality and sense of discovery at Sundance during the past two years, this event represented a measurable, if not drastic, dilution of quality among the new American features in the competitive and premieres sections.

Happily, the jury got it right -- it would have been a scandal if it hadn't -- awarding its grand prize in the dramatic category to Beasts. Now all Zeitlin will have to deal with are the treacherous waters of fame, advanced expectations for his next film and the inevitable backlash he'll receive from opinion makers who, having missed out on the discovery phase, will see the film later and insist it's overrated. I can see it now: If and when it's shown in Cannes, in the main selection or in Directors' Fortnight, French critics will feel the need to snub Beasts, or at best damn it with faint praise, suggesting that what might have been good enough for Sundance merits just a passing nod in Cannes. Such are the problems of success.

I caught up with members of various juries at the Jan. 28 awards ceremony (that's something I'd love to see in Cannes: a closing-night party where jury members are encouraged to mingle with filmmakers, critics, ticket holders and, in the French equivalent of Sundance volunteers, the omnipresent uniformed Palais entrance guardians), and the prevailing view of the dramatic entries was one of adequate, if not exceptional, choices.

In the American dramatic competition, The Surrogate, potentially the biggest commercial offering in the category, was the unsurprising winner of the Audience Award. Ben Lewin's immaculately written and acted film deals with the outre subject of a severely disabled polio victim's loss of virginity thanks to the expert intervention of a sex surrogate. But it does so in a disarmingly frank way that is encouraging and comforting, so much so that mainstream audiences very well might embrace it.

Fox Searchlight picked up Beasts and Surrogate, and the challenges posed by the films are quite different: No matter what the distributor does, I can't imagine Beasts drawing anything more than a seriously art-minded audience, whereas Surrogate demands Weinstein-style relentless promotion and single-minded determination for total conquest. Impressive as Fox Searchlight's track record might be, the company always has been classy rather than ballsy, and it might be that the latter is what's required in this case.

Otherwise, the U.S. dramatic competition was a mixed bag at best. James Ponsoldt's Smashed has some weight thanks to Mary Elizabeth Winstead's wonderfully dimensional performance as an alcoholic trying to turn a corner, and there was appreciable support for a few other category entries such as Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed, for which Derek Connolly won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award; Middle of Nowhere, for which Ava DuVernay nabbed the directing prize; and So Yong Kim's For Ellen. But there were too many innocuous sex comedies of no stylistic ambition by filmmakers who clearly aspire to nothing more than to make similar movies on larger budgets for the studios, something Sundance has no need to accommodate, much less promote.

The same could be said, at least in part, for the Premieres section, where films are expected to be more "commercial" but should nonetheless have something unusual or wayward about them. The two best-known directors in the category, Spike Lee and Stephen Frears, did belly-flops with Red Hook Summer and Lay the Favorite, respectively, and a film that enticed as a potential guilty pleasure, Leslye Headland's Bachelorette, turned into a turnoff.

It was another raunchy comedy, however -- Julie Delpy's farcically French 2 Days in New York, in which the director co-stars with Chris Rock -- that most successfully mixed sex and laughs. Nicholas Jarecki's financial thriller Arbitrage, with Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon, lushly did what it set out to do; Jake Schreier's Robot and Frank, in which Frank Langella fills the latter role, pleased a majority; and James Marsh's Northern Ireland-set Shadow Dancer registered with devotees of low-key, John Le Carre-style political thrillers.

It was noted at the awards ceremony that 12 of 16 entries in the U.S. documentary competition were social-issue films. All were, to one degree or another, impassioned, well-made and vital; to prefer one over another is perhaps simply a function of the intensity of one's inclination toward one cause over another. As jury member Charles Ferguson, director of two essential documentaries of the past few years, No End in Sight and Inside Job, stated from the stage, those dozen titles "were more or less about the same thing: What has happened to the United States?" The answer, as posited by the documentaries individually and collectively, is that it's pretty royally screwed up.

Compared with the past two years, which saw Sundance making gradual inroads on titles that might otherwise have headed to the Berlin International Film Festival little more than a week later, the world dramatic section experienced a noticeable recession in quality at the top; jury members and audiences alike found nothing of first rank. My personal favorite was a totally out-there paean to youthful sexuality from Chilean director Marialy Rivas, Young & Wild, a film born of a raw and raunchy website that will unquestionably make the rounds at festivals and in release within the coming months.

Like its American counterpart, the world documentary section was heavily political, with heavy-duty indictments of situations in the Palestinian territories (the jury prize-winning The Law in These Parts and 5 Broken Cameras), Africa (The Ambassador), Egypt (½ Revolution) and Russia (Putin's Kiss), among others, dominating. However, it was the unraveling of personal mysteries in the Audience Award-winning Searching for Sugar Man and The Imposter that seemed to most rivet their viewers.

Simply as an experience on the ground, Sundance has regained a sense of sanity, balance and perspective in the three years John Cooper and Trevor Groth have been running the show; the focus on stars and premieres shown for the wrong reasons is much reduced, the crowding and traffic are at least manageable, and Park City is far less clogged by tag-along celebrities and scenesters with no reason to be there other than to steal a sliver of the spotlight and grab bags of swag. The focus has returned to where it should be: what's on the screen.

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