Sundance always seems to come to a halt with a weird thud, handing out awards that muddy the issue of what this festival is actually about and make nobody happy. This year is no exception. By my count, 29 prizes were spread around among filmmakers, producers, writers and cinematographers at the ceremony in Park City, Utah, on Saturday night. This is still big news, dutifully reported in every newspaper in the country. Beyond the slack-jawed, autonomic response of the entire entertainment media to the festival's name -- which may indeed be the point -- I'm not completely sure why.
Sundance has meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people in its 23 years of existence, but if its awards were ever important, they aren't now. This festival still matters because it hosts glitzy premieres, in a picturesque setting, of noteworthy films that are slightly outside the Hollywood mainstream, and because it represents an oleaginous coming together of movie-biz life forms from both coasts. Deals are made, and maybe 10 percent of them will work out. (Which, believe me, is a good number.) Careers are launched, and sometimes ended. Pitches are rehearsed, delivered, rejected and embraced. French wine and name-brand liquor are drunk in impressive quantities. (At Park City's altitude, sometimes sticking with Utah's infamous 3.2 percent beer is wise.)
All that has almost nothing to do with the juried competitions, which have become a sort of sidebar to the main event, and an increasingly confusing one at that. This year, four sets of 16 films competed for four different grand-jury prizes and four different audience awards. Most of the name films you've already read about at Sundance screen out of competition. Films in competition are a miscellaneous assortment, but they tend to be earnest of intention and modest in scale. There are always a couple that break out -- last year's competition brought us "Half Nelson," while 2005 produced a bumper crop, including "Brick," "Hustle & Flow," "Junebug" and "The Squid and the Whale." (Before you say the words "Little Miss Sunshine," that was not a competition film.)
But most Sundance competition films never find a significant audience or a niche in the culture, and several narrative features of the past two years -- "In Between Days," "Loggerheads," "Police Beat," "Right at Your Door," "Who Killed Cock Robin?" "Somebodies," "Steel City" -- either weren't released at all or whizzed through a few theaters for a few days on their way to disc. (The list of unreleased documentaries would be significantly longer.) Sundance competitions remain a crucial opportunity for little-known films and directors to get exposure, but the sheer quantity is overwhelming and the quality is pretty ragged. Adding a random assortment of 40 to 50 foreign films to a festival almost exclusively known for showcasing American films has only further clouded the waters.
Who won this year, you say? Well, who won what? Any festival that gives out four different awards called the "Grand Jury Prize" is losing its focus and spreading its brand as thin as Country Crock, if you ask me. (They give out a pile of prizes at Cannes, too. But only one is called the Palme d'Or.) If you mean the Grand Jury Prize for an American-made dramatic film, that went to Christopher Zalla's "Padre Nuestro," a thriller about an illegal immigrant whose identity is stolen en route from Mexico to New York, where he hopes to find his father. (I haven't seen it, but reviews and word of mouth have been extremely positive.)
With his trophy clutched in his paws, Zalla can -- well, he can stick it up over his mantelpiece, take a long, cold shower and hope for the best, that's what. He can get a ride on the New York subway -- if he's also got two bucks. You get my drift. I hear "Padre Nuestro" is an excellent film, but here's what's going to happen with it: Some small distributor will take a flier on it, pile up the good reviews from folks like me and pray that the curse of the Grand Jury Prize can be undone.
OK, "curse" is a little much. But Sundance prizewinners, with rare exceptions, don't become impact films. They generally do poorly at the box office, and not all that amazingly among critics and film buffs either. They don't make money and they don't make a splash. Only two Grand Jury Prize films of the past decade could remotely be called hits ("American Splendor" in 2003 and "You Can Count on Me" in 2000), and neither of those grossed $10 million. To find a culture-shifting breakout moment, you have to go back to "Welcome to the Dollhouse" in 1996 (a cult hit that made almost no money).
This year's Grand Jury Prize for an American-made documentary went to the high-style "Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)," an impressionistic study of Brazilian corruption from Errol Morris protégé Jason Kohn. (Both of the "American" winners this year are films with Latin American themes.) In the universally ignored world cinema category, the jury's prizes went to "Sweet Mud," a coming-of-age film set on an Israeli kibbutz in the '70s, and "Enemies of Happiness," a documentary about the first woman elected to the post-Taliban legislature in Afghanistan.
Audiences also vote on awards at Sundance, and one could argue they have a better track record than the juries of film-industry pros do. In 2005, when the jury gave its prize to Ira Sachs' "Forty Shades of Blue" (a fine film that was essentially never released), audiences picked "Hustle & Flow," one of that year's true impact films, which went on to earn $22 million at the box office. In 2004, audiences picked the future hit "Maria Full of Grace," while the jury voted for the cultish sci-fi picture "Primer." In 2001, the jury honored the Jewish-Nazi saga "The Believer," which took more than a year to find a theatrical distributor -- and audiences picked "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."
This year's audience award for drama went to James C. Strouse's "Grace Is Gone," in which John Cusack plays a retail store manager who has to figure out how to tell his two girls that their mom has been killed in Iraq. In documentary, the winner was "Hear and Now," about the decision of director Irene Taylor Brodsky's parents -- both deaf all their lives -- to undergo cochlear-implant surgery. Both of those films have already been acquired for release, and the Weinstein Co. is planning to make "Grace Is Gone" a centerpiece of its fall calendar.
Beyond the highly ambiguous realm of the award winners, what were this year's biggest Park City discoveries? I would argue that it has been an exceptional festival for documentaries and only a middling one for narrative films. But in an overheated market where executives -- chasing last year's trend, as ever -- are looking for the newest "Miss Sunshine," a lot of narrative features are being acquired at inflated prices, while some of the best documentaries remain on the shelf.
Setting aside movies that have already been bought, packaged and scheduled for release (including "Red Road," "Away From Her" and "Black Snake Moan," three of my personal favorites) and much-publicized sure things like "Chicago 10," here are five narrative features and five documentaries that premiered here and ought to make some noise -- among the public at large, among the film-geek lizard people or maybe just between you and me. I haven't seen all of these, because it's not physically possible to see even half the films that play at Sundance, but I'm relying first and foremost on my own judgment, secondly on the considered opinion of people I trust and only thirdly on empty and meaningless industry gossip.
"Chapter 27" This is the film with Jared Leto in an extraordinary role as Mark David Chapman, John Lennon's assassin. I saw it late in the festival and wasn't sure what I thought, but it has really stuck with me. Clammy, creepy, memorable. Captures its era brilliantly. Even the boycott by Lennon cultists will help.
"Great World of Sound" I still think this inexpensive little North Carolina-made indie, about a couple of semi-likable scam artists at the ass end of the music industry, is the best narrative premiere I saw at Sundance. Low budget, no stars. A tough sell. But anybody who actually starts watching it will be hooked.
"Joshua" Middle-class Manhattan family has a new baby and goes to hell in this meticulously made, cliché-avoiding horror film. Some have called it a high-class remake of "The Omen," but that sounds OK to me. Acquired by Fox Searchlight for a reported price of $9 million in one of Sundance's biggest deals.
"Low and Behold" This docudrama made by a guy who worked as an insurance adjuster in post-Katrina New Orleans has amazing footage of the devastated city and a wistful sensibility some are likening to Kelly Reichardt's 2006 cult hit "Old Joy."
"Son of Rambow" Somebody was quoted in Variety describing this movie as "'Billy Elliot' directed by Tim Burton." So I might really hate it! From the guys who made "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," a whimsical fable about an '80s kid who has grown up completely insulated from pop culture, until a classmate shows him a "Rambo" film. Possibly the fest's most expensive acquisition, this one for Paramount Vantage.
"Starting Out in the Evening" Of all the films I didn't see, I'm most bummed about this. Frank Langella, Lili Taylor and Lauren Ambrose star in a supposedly bristling adaptation of Brian Morton's novel about a secluded, once-famous writer, his 40ish daughter and the brash grad student who enters their lives. Not for everyone, but a must for some of us.
"Crazy Love" Moving on to documentaries, we come to the remarkable New York saga of Burt Pugach and Linda Riss. He paid to have her blinded with acid -- and she married him when he got out of prison! Directed by well-known New York publicist Dan Klores. Acquired by Weinstein.
"The Devil Came on Horseback" Human rights doc of the year. Tells the story of U.S. Marine Capt. Brian Steidle, who after visiting Darfur, Sudan, as a military observer has become one of the world's leading witnesses and activists on the ongoing genocide (his word) in that region. People emerged from screenings in tears, vowing to change their lives, send money, write furious letters to Congress.
"For the Bible Tells Me So" Heartstrings tugger about religious Christian families dealing with gay adult children, more or less successfully. One of the families profiled is that of former Rep. Dick Gephardt, but all the stories are told with compassion, sympathy and openness. Should be a smash hit among similar families anywhere in the country.
"The Future Is Unwritten" Julien Temple's terrific documentary on punk pioneer Joe Strummer, late frontman of the Clash, is a film about aging and mortality as much as a pop-culture history or biopic. It's also the most thrilling cinematic experience I had at Sundance. Just a great film, but will anyone outside Strummer's fan base ever find it?
"In the Shadow of the Moon" It has taken a British director to do something obvious: Get the surviving Apollo astronauts together for a sweeping visual and aural testimonial to America's 1968-72 moon landings. Includes stunning NASA footage, lots of it never seen before, and authentic mission control audio. Techno-nostalgia and an environmental message too! Kind of a can't miss, and I can't wait for the IMAX edition.