Tucked in among the 34 films (18 features and 16 documentaries) in
competition at this year's Sundance Film Festival were more than a few serious gems. The most talked-about (and best) competition films focused on female characters -- a reaction, perhaps, to last year's glut of Tarantino-style shoot-'em-ups.
One of the best of the batch is "Welcome to the Dollhouse," Todd Solondz's bitingly funny and accurate portrayal of the agonies of puberty. Solondz's protagonist, ugly-duckling seventh-grader
Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo), is a film heroine for the ages. Hers is a tale for everyone who ever spent a junior-high dance sitting in the bleachers, and especially for those who, in certain dark moments, deep in some recess of their psyche, are still sitting there.
Another astonishing portrayal of female angst comes from the British actor Tilda Swinton, who stars in "Female Perversions" as a a high-powered attorney bedeviled by ferocious sexual needs and gnawing insecurities. Director (and former talent agent) Susan Streitfeld adapted the screenplay from a best-selling nonfiction book by feminist behaviorist Louise J. Kaplan, crafting a story in which characters embody such "perversions" as kleptomania and exhibitionism. The challenging movie is filmed in a lush
style reminiscent of Peter Greenaway.
A friendship between two women in Manhattan forms
the center of "Walking and Talking," directed by Nicole Holofcener. Some of the dialogue and situations could have been lifted wholesale from the TV series "Friends" -- the gals flirt with coffeehouse waiters and have a cat called "Big Jeans" -- but it's rare to see female friendship portrayed in a such an unaffected way. It's much more genuine than the typical Hollywood "women's film."
"I Shot Andy Warhol" is a biographical film about Valerie
Solanas, the loony female supremacist who won 15 minutes of fame when she enacted the film's title. Lili Taylor delivers a stunning performance as Solanas, but the film fawns too much over the familiar Factory milieu.
Crowd pleasers included "Care of the Spitfire Grill" (winner of the Audience Award for dramatic feature), with a strong female cast featuring newcomer Alison Eliot, and "Big Night" (winner of the festival's screenwriting award), directed by actors Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci ("Murder One"). In the documentary competition, "Paradise Lost," by the makers of the award-winning "Brother's Keeper," was a favorite, as were two excellent examinations of Hollywood,"The Battle Over Citizen Kane" and "The Celluloid Closet." Outside of the competition, an Australian premiere film, "Shine," ignited a furious battle for its rights that almost brought two executives to blows in a local restaurant.