Sundance strikes a balance

Foreign pics, gutsy indies, some glitz

PARK CITY -- When the Sundance Film Festival produces a "Little Miss Sunshine" or an "American Splendor," everyone declares a vintage year. But when the event delivers solid, insightful and entertaining films as it did at Sundance 2008, which wrapped Sunday, the festival earns a collective shrug.

Journalists are too focused on sales rather than substance, and critics demand major discoveries. The 2008 edition, for my money, was one of Sundance's best. Not everyone shares that opinion, though. Not even among my colleagues.

Of course, it all comes down to which films you actually saw. Maybe I was lucky: Only a couple of times did I leave the theater shaking my head in disbelief. More often, I was exhilarated by new talent and in some cases a sense of adventure where filmmakers challenged themselves to deliver the unusual.

The Dramatic Competition delivered one new artist, Lance Hammer, whose "Ballast" not only wowed audiences here but for the first time anyone can recall moves on to the competition field next month at the Berlin International Film Festival. "Ballast" going up against "There Will Be Blood." Tremendous.

Funny thing, though: I fought that movie for a while. "Ballast" begins like so many past Sundance films, with people in dysfunctional situations and miserable conditions, in this case blacks living lives of quiet desperation in a rural Mississippi Delta township. But Hammer allows his people to work through their many personal problems to achieve a sense of worth and dignity without any of this feeling imposed or artificial. This is, to borrow an old literary phrase, "kitchen sink" cinema at its finest. "Ballast" is an astonishing film.

Other standouts in Dramatic Competition include Courtney Hunt's single-mother drama "Frozen River"; "Sugar," Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's look at the American dream from the perspective of a Latino ballplayer trying to make it in the big leagues; Jonathan Levine's "The Wackness," with Ben Kingsley's rollicking performance as a drug-addled psychiatrist; Alex Rivera's imaginative sci-fi'er "Sleep Dealer"; and Christine Jeffs' surprisingly poignant "Sunshine Cleaning" (though it drew unfavorable comparisons to "Little Miss Sunshine," owing perhaps to its title).

Documentaries have enjoyed an explosion of new talent and renewed interest in the past two decades, in large measure because of the brilliant spotlight this festival has thrown on the form. But this year a few of those films took a quantum leap. Alex Gibney's "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson" caught that mythic American figure in all his glory -- and depravity. It was as if a combination of Mark Twain and Evel Knievel had taken on the American establishment during his heyday from 1965 to about 1975.

Katrina Browne's "Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North," a profound film about a family exploring its roots as slave traders and coming to grips with the topic of race in America, hit a raw nerve with audiences. This film very much needs to play at more festivals.

An interesting companion piece was Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell's "The Black List," in which several prominent blacks address the camera to offer candid thoughts about the state of race relations in 2008, the bicentennial of the abolition of slave trading in the U.S.

My colleague James Greenberg greatly admires Marina Zenovich's "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," a fresh look at what happened when the noted director fled the U.S. with a statutory rape charge hanging over his head. The film makes a convincing case that he was not fleeing justice but injustice.

"This shows the importance of doing your homework," Greenberg said. "Zenovich gathered great archival footage, used it well and interviewed many more people than she wound up using in the film. It also helped that she had a great subject."

Zenovich worked on her film for years, as did Steven Sebring on his "Patti Smith: Dream of Life," a rambling docu on the musician-poet-activist. The Reporter critic Justin Lowe called it "a more experimental than conventional music biopic, as the film incorporates both color and black-and-white footage covering Smith's career as a writer, mother and musician in a tone that's less reverential than movingly meditational."

Sundance always has prided itself on socially conscious documentaries, and this year continued that tradition with "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo," Lisa F. Jackson's compassionate piece about the sexual torture of hundreds of thousands of women during that country's civil war. Patrick Creadon's "I.O.U.S.A." makes compelling points about the disastrous direction our economy is going, while Josh Tickell's "Fields of Fuel" attacks our energy issues.

One disappointment in the Spectrum Documentary Spotlight for Lowe was "Super Size Me" filmmaker Morgan Spurlock's "Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?" He thought the film squanders its comedic potential in favor of platitudes about global peace and understanding.

This seemed like a particularly strong year for international films. Although Sundance began as a showcase for American independent films, it has expanded its reach by developing a stronger commitment to international cinema. The World Dramatic category was exceptional this year, according to The Reporter's Stephen Farber.

"I was especially impressed with the reach of the selections," he said. "The festival made an effort to find films from countries like Jordan and Panama that barely have a film industry at all. In both cases -- 'Captain Abu Raed' from Jordan and 'The Wind and the Water' from Panama -- the films were excellent and opened our eyes to cultures we have barely seen."

Hong Kong contributed a terrific movie, "The Drummer," and there were intriguing entries from Peru, Russia, Colombia, Israel and Lebanon as well as more familiar destinations such as Denmark, France and Germany. Some fine documentaries from around the world complemented the new international flavor that has enriched the festival.

One film that had people talking on shuttle buses was the German pic "The Wave." Director Dennis Gansel bases his film on a real event about the rise of fascism in a Palo Alto, Calif., high school in 1967. But the story has been transposed -- interestingly -- to Germany.

Throughout Park City, one found general agreement that this was the year hype failed. Or to put it another way, the newbies more than held their own against Hollywood and indie heavyweights.

If Sundance is going to offer world-premiere status to such "independent" films as "What Just Happened?" from director Barry Levinson and producer-star Robert De Niro, then the festival might as well debut George Lucas films. After all, Lucas does make his films in complete independence using his own resources.

The festival seems to feel the need to include several high-profile films with top Hollywood players, but many of these were disappointing and did not live up to the quality that the festival hopes to achieve. "The Deal" and "Assassination of a High School President" were mediocre at best, Farber noted, and many of the other titles in this section seemed less than stellar.

"These movies draw fans eager to snap pictures of Mischa Barton or Meg Ryan," Farber said, "but the atmosphere is not quite in keeping with a serious film festival."

The Reporter critic Duane Byrge was impressed by the balance he found in this year's films. Many avoided obvious opportunities for didacticism that is a something of a hallmark of indie filmmaking.

The two "Americans" -- "American Son" and "An American Soldier" -- indicate filmmakers' awareness of the plight of our young soldiers, Byrge said. "Both films were stirring and not politically slanted," he said. " 'American Son' is an engrossing dramatization of a black Marine on leave before being shipped out to Iraq. The documentary 'An American Soldier' is a balanced, up-close look at U.S. Army recruiting, very even-handed and illuminating like a Frederick Wiseman film, a nonbiased look at an institution."

Perhaps balance is what Sundance programrs, led by director Geoffrey Gilmore and director of programming John Cooper, finally did achieve this year. Sundance means to strike a balance among Hollywood glitz, foreign films and more cutting-edge independent fare. There also was a new willingness to bring in films that had debuted elsewhere, especially the Toronto International Film Festival in September. The result was less head-shaking than in the past and more approving nods.