Sundance: An enthralling time capsule

The festival's offerings couldn't reflect the nation's post-Sept. 11 sensibility, but some movies excelled anyway


January 20, 2002|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,Special to the Sun

PARK CITY, Utah -- Wait till next year for the Sundance Film Festival to capture the post-Sept. 11 zeitgeist. By then, filmmakers will have had time to create with the attack in their rearview mirror. Consider this year's festival, which concludes today, a timepiece.

Take the robust crop of good films, a lock of hair from the busiest actor, Christina Ricci, and a leaf of spinach nibbled on by festival darling Jennifer Aniston, and pack them all into a capsule to be buried in the local Wasatch Mountains. Unearth it in 25 years so we can remember a more frivolous New York and protagonists more consumed with themselves.

The movies that enthralled over the last 10 days did so on their own merit. The one that cut the deepest was Bart Freundlich's unheralded World Traveler. Billy Crudup gives a heartbreaking performance as an architect who leaves his wife and son and drives cross-country on a road strewn with lost souls. Freundlich never ignores the fact that Crudup (Almost Famous) is pretty. His character's looks, charisma and alcoholism make his encounters with troubled yet beautiful strangers plausible. Terry Stacey provides stunning cinematography on a budget. In this case, the journey is indeed far more important than the destination.

Rounding out the top five, in one man's opinion, in no particular category, in no particular order:

* One Hour Photo: Patch Adams is dead. Long live Sy, Robin Williams' drugstore photo clerk who conjures a disturbing relationship with the family of a customer. Williams equals restraint. Who would have believed that equation? Writer-director Mark Romanek elevates creepy to a new standard.

* The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys: After earning an incomplete in Anna and the King, Jodie Foster gets the school-marm thing right as a mother superior to Catholic boys and girls in a coming-of-age tale spiked with cartoon animation. Kieran Culkin, Emile Hirsch and Jena Malone make believable young rebels.

* The Dancer Upstairs: Marking his directorial debut, John Malkovich's artsy meditation on misguided terrorists and the confused cop (Javier Bardem) who pursues them deftly moves into thriller mode in the second half. Malkovich said that wasn't his intention, but who cares? Fox Searchlight picked up his creation for a tidy $2.5 million.

* Love in the Time of Money: You can put this in the time capsule, too. Manhattanites throw dinner parties, chase sex on the side for self-esteem and furnish their digs in desperate-to-be-hip fashion. We've seen it all before, but director Peter Mattei manages this ensemble with a deft touch. Having the sultry Jill Hennessy as one of the leads doesn't hurt.

Even if nobody can predict the next In the Bedroom, studios took off their mittens and dug into their wallets.

Eight movies had sold by Friday, with a dozen more expected to find a distributor by today.

The crowd-pleasing Tadpole, about a Voltaire-loving teen-ager who pursues Sigourney Weaver, was among the first to find a home despite its mostly no-name cast.

The most intriguing purchase was Fox Searchlight's $4 million for Miguel Arteta's The Good Girl. The sum was higher than any deal made last year. On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer: Aniston, Friends cutie and Brad Pitt's wife, is onscreen the entire time. But one wonders how her fans will react to her playing a bored adulteress. Aniston melted the snow with her charm while she was here.

The former child star Ricci, who appeared in three films, was the workhorse of the festival. In the role she felt closest to, she plays a conniving sorority sister who falls for a disabled jock in the comedy Pumpkin. She's also a con artist in Miranda and a protester in the fictionalized account of hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard, The Laramie Project.

This will be a year of reckoning for Ricci. In addition to her Sundance films, she has two other movies set for release, The Gathering and Prozac Nation. She will also direct for the first time, taking on a death-row comedy called Speed Queen.

Asked if industry types forget she is just 21 years old, she replied: "They do sometimes, and then they conveniently remember at others. It works for and against me."

Rhys Ifans, who bared his dirty jockey shorts in Notting Hill, flew here to blow off steam on Main Street and promote Michel Gondry's Human Nature. The Welsh actor plays a feral man whom Tim Robbins' scientist tries to civilize, but Ifans' lust impedes any progress. The Welsh actor said his animal instincts have served him well in real life.

"Often I've gotten myself out of barroom brawls," he said. "You get a sense of knowing when it's gonna kick off, and you can weigh and measure whether you're going to have fun getting involved or whether the odds are stacked against you."

Ifans' first Sundance came as a pleasant counterpoint to the circus-like Cannes. "There's such an air of generosity and sharing," he said, "[of being] genuinely interested in filmmaking as opposed to selling movies."

Note to Robert Redford: Put that in the time capsule, too.

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