Sundance opens, after a year of living dangerously

Number of bombs, plus last year's 'Big Fat' surprise, make some wary


January 19, 2003|By Mark Caro | By Mark Caro,Special to the Sun

The Sundance Film Festival, which kicked off this weekend, traditionally serves as a sneak preview of the year in American independent film as well as the launching pad of some of the biggest crossover hits -- Memento, In the Bedroom, You Can Count on Me and The Blair Witch Project among them.

Yet the top indie film story of last year -- just about the only indie film story of last year -- involved a movie that Sundance chose not to play: My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Its wholly unexpected $200 million box-office score triggered much punditry about the new commercial possibilities for no-name, low-budget, heartwarming comedies.

But to Sundance Film Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore, My Big Fat Greek Wedding serves as a helpful reminder of the difference between the mainstream and his 10-day festival that takes place amid the ski mountains of Park City, Utah.

"I actually don't have any regrets about not running it," Gilmore said. "It clearly had an audience, and it clearly will have an impact on people who want to see independent film as having a commercial orientation, but in terms of the qualities of the film, I really didn't think of it as much of a festival work."

"It's indie by providence but not indie by personality," agreed Mark Urman, U.S. distribution head for the small distributor ThinkFilm. "It's very mainstream, and while I have nothing against mainstream, it has little to do with the very edgy and free-spirited stuff that Sundance and the independent sector are traditionally associated with."

So while the corporate muckety-mucks may request that their film buyers find this year's Big Fat Greek Wedding at Sun-dance, the hands-on distribution people more realistically expect the festival to offer its typical combination of idiosyncratic features and shorts made by filmmakers who, at least so far, have eluded the cookie-cutter stamp of Hollywood.

Feeling shaky

At the same time, those distributors may be wary given the fates of last year's Sundance acquisitions. Miguel Arteta's The Good Girl, starring Jennifer Aniston, was a solid hit, and Patricia Cardoso's Real Women Have Curves and Steven Shainberg's Secretary proved popular on a modest scale.

But festival award-winners such as Tadpole, Personal Velocity, Bloody Sunday and Love Liza have all but disappeared amid flashier competition.

"Anybody who did a very intelligent analysis of what was bought at Sundance and released over the past year would find it sobering and very alarming," said Urman, whose company picked up Love in the Time of Money last year only to see it bomb.

On the flip side, Paramount Classics co-president Ruth Vitale said she was especially eager to see this year's slate revealed.

"Every year we go through the schedule, and we target films we think are priorities, and this year we have targeted more films than in any other," Vitale said. "We have 25. That means there are more movies that have recognizable elements in them that we need to pay attention to."

Those recognizable elements tend to be names. This year's high-profile premieres include Robert Downey, Jr. starring in Keith Gordon's version of the great Dennis Potter BBC musical series The Singing Detective; Neil LaBute's film version of his stage play The Shape of Things, starring Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd; James Foley's con-game movie Confidence, starring Edward Burns, Dustin Hoffman, Andy Garcia and Weisz again; Masked and Anonymous, Larry Charles' allegorical film about a benefit concert that features Bob Dylan as a cult star plus Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, John Goodman and Jessica Lange; The Celebration director Thomas Vinterberg's surreal new romance, It's All About Love, starring Claire Danes and Joaquin Phoenix; Al Pacino in the much-delayed New York press agent story People I Know; and Oliver Stone's documentary about his three days of bantering with Fidel Castro, Commandante.

Showcasing indie stars

The festival also showcases stars of the indie world. Patricia Clarkson, currently garnering Best Supporting Actress accolades for Far From Heaven, is this year's belle of the fest (a title previously held by Parker Posey and Lili Taylor), appearing in three films, including All the Real Girls, David Gordon Green's follow-up to George Washington, and The Station Agent, Tom McCarthy's film about a train-enthusiast dwarf who affects the lives of two loners.

Both of those films will compete for the dramatic feature prizes, as will Wayne Kramer's The Cooler, starring William H. Macy as a hard-luck casino fixture; the Kevin Spacey-produced The United States of Leland, starring Ryan Gosling as a teen murderer and Don Cheadle as his prison teacher; Party Monster, a club-scene murder story that marks the big-screen comeback of Macaulay Culkin; and Scott Saunders' The Technical Writer, which does the same for Tatum O'Neal.

There are 120 features in all, including dramatic films and documentaries, chosen from a pool of 2,050 films submitted (including shorts), up from 1,730 last year.

Mark Caro is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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