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The 2004 Sundance Film Festival

SF Station Goes to Sundance

Friday, January 16th marked the beginning of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, held annually in Park City, Utah. Sundance has become the most popular film festival in the United States, and the event itself represents a cross section of the entertainment industry. For two weeks in January, Park City becomes the ultimate point of convergence for the creative and the commercial. It's as studio-oriented as it is independent, as Billy Bob as it is Paris Hilton.

I attended Sundance for four days this year, and the festival's opening weekend was as frantic as I've seen it. Crowds of what Park City locals call PIBs (People in Black) descended upon the mountain town 45 minutes up the canyon from Salt Lake City, most of who hail from Los Angeles and New York.

In a social sense, Sundance serves as an arena in which the Hollywood tragic, the creative dreamers, and the lovers of film and celebrities can all intermingle in the severe cold. Indeed, the very first night we went to Main Street in Park City the traffic, both automobile and pedestrian, came to a grinding halt with the advent of a grey Hummer containing Paris herself, the tragic, troll-like Nicole Richie at her side. They were not dressed for the cold weather.

The stars and celebrities aside, I was able to catch a handful of films this year, several of which took hours of waiting out in the cold in order to get a seat. Here are some comments on four of the films I was able to see.

Saturday, January 17

Written and directed by character actor extraordinaire Ray McKinnon, this tale of hope and tragedy stars Billy Bob Thornton as Joe, a well-meaning guy that always ends up on the wrong side of the law. The film begins with Joe driving his family car off of the road as police chase him. His wife Chrystal (Lisa Blount) is terribly injured in the crash, and they lose their only son. Joe goes away for twenty years, and when he gets out, the loss of their son is the centerpiece in the tension between Joe and Chrystal. Filmed on location in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, Chrystal is a beautiful, languid piece of filmmaking. It's far from perfect, but as far as being something different, well, it has achieved that. Frankly, I'd be somewhat surprised if it got picked up for distribution because it is a rather slow moving affair, but all in all it was a worthy effort.

Sunday, January 18

This documentary focuses upon the relationship between two musicians, Anton Newcombe, of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and Courtney Taylor, of the Dandy Warhols. I went into this movie knowing very little about either of these bands (the Dandies have at least had some radio play), but came away from it wanting to hear just about everything they've done. Director Ondi Timoner sifted through over 1500 hours of footage, shot mainly in the second half of the 1990s. The music is fantastic and the storylines are at once funny and tragic. Definitely a high point of this year's festival.

Open Water
When a poorly-organized diving trip leaves two divers out on the open sea, the most basic human fears of being eaten come into focus. Written and directed by Chris Kentis, this was without a doubt one of the most intensely frightening movies I've seen in a while. The key word here is: sharks. Luckily for non-Sundance goers who are interested in seeing this film, Lion's Gate has picked up the North American distribution rights.

Monday, January 19

One Point O
The most hyper-stylized film I saw this year was One Point 0, which fits quite nicely into the "mindfuck" category. Jeremy Sisto plays a computer programmer named Simon J., and his name isn't the only Kafka quality this film has. It's set somewhere in the near future, in a strange apartment building. Simon J. keeps receiving empty brown boxes in his apartment, and he gradually starts unraveling. Jeff Renfroe and Martienn Thorsson co-direct this slow, eerie drama with artistic eyes. While One Point 0 hasn't been picked up yet, there's a good chance it will, considering its artsy feel and strange moralistic messages.


Some of the films with the heaviest buzz in the earliest part of the festival are:

Super Size Me: This documentary about a man who eats nothing but McDonald's for a month, gaining thirty pounds in thirty days, is in the process of being sued by McDonald's. But it was the most talked-about film at Sundance, and chances are it'll be distributed, so long as it survives the wrath of the Golden Arches.

Garden State: A quirky comedy starring Natalie Portman and Scrubs' Zach Braff (who also wrote and directed the film), Garden State has been picked up in a joint venture by Miramax and Fox Searchlight.

Well, that's it from Sundance this year. Keep it Indie, y'all.