SUNDANCE PIMPS OUT
Remember when the annual Sundance Film Festival -- Robert Redford's haven for indie talent in Park City, Utah -- put a spotlight on rebel features and docs (sex, lies and videotape, Crumb, Maria Full of Grace)? This year, from January 20th to 30th, the films without buzz or a deal pending had to work hard to distract the media from the hip parties and the swag shops where celebs, such as Paris Hilton, Shannen Doherty and the cast of HBO's Entourage, could each walk off with nearly $6,000 in skis, parkas, iPods and digital cameras, just for shilling the goods. All the pimping and whoring at Sundance 2005 was a major downer, especially if Paris Hilton is not your idea of indie cinema. Even Redford agrees the fest has grown "too big," with 45,000 attending. But hope sprang up just where it should: at the movies. Here's a look at the best and the rest.
Winners : The big news -- a $9.5 million deal from Paramount and MTV Films -- came from Craig Brewer's Hustle and Flow, the story of a Memphis pimp (Terrence Howard) who realizes his dream of becoming a rapper. The New York Times dismissed the film as "a tissue of cliches," but that doesn't allow for Howard, who gives a bust-out performance, or for Ludacris, who nails a supporting role as a star rapper and a superprick, or for Brewer, a white dude from Memphis, who soaks the film in that city's atmosphere of dazzle, danger and resonant music. Whatever its flaws, Brewer's film -- which won the coveted Audience Award -- is alive with humor and heartbreak. It jumps off the screen.
Another Memphis-set film, Ira Sachs' Forty Shades of Blue, took home the Jury Prize, which means it is slower and more thoughtful than the crowd-pleasing Hustle. The story of a horn-dog music producer (the great Rip Torn) with a young Russian wife (Dina Korzun) who has an affair with the old boy's son (Darren Burrows) is ubermoody. I created more drama when I checked into my hotel and they told me my name wasn't in the computer. But this haunting and hypnotic film gets under your skin.
Losers Is there anything worse than a movie that strains to be arty? Of the sixteen films in the festival's dramatic competition, David Ocanas' metaphysical thriller Between is the prime offender. But the premiere of Arie Posin's The Chumscrubber, an absurdist look at suburban angst, which features career-worst turns from Ralph Fiennes, Glenn Close and Allison Janney, among others, sent me screaming into the snow.
Keepers The best movie I saw at Sundance is Rian Johnson's Brick, a film noir set in a modern high school. On paper, it sounds appalling. Onscreen, it pins you to your seat. Johnson has an ear for Dashiell Hammett dialogue, and his direction is fluid without being flashy. This guy has a future, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a dead-on teen Bogart.
Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, set in Brooklyn in 1986, is based on how Baumbach and his brother -- Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline do the roles proud -- dealt with the divorce of their writer parents. Laura Linney is superb as their mom, and Jeff Daniels gives the performance of his career as the academic dad who calls his new apartment "the filet of the neighborhood" and doesn't think he sounds foolish. Baumbach's gift of a movie made me realize I really miss films about people who can read and write.
Mike Mills offered the witty and moving Thumbsucker, with the remarkable Lou Pucci as an underachiever with attention-deficit disorder who finds a new life but not happiness through drugs. Craig Lucas' edgy, erotic The Dying Gaul takes savagely comic aim at the film industry and other soul destroyers with the help of pitch-perfect acting from Campbell Scott, Patricia Clarkson and Peter Sarsgaard.
Robinson Devor's Police Beat is about a Muslim West African bicycle cop in Seattle who sees the series of grisly crimes he investigates through the prism of his disintegrating affair with a white woman. The film is visually stunning, emotionally devastating and a big challenge for audiences -- just the kind of risk Sundance should nurture.
Dynamite Docs Eugene Jarecki's eye-opening Why We Fight, about the rise of the military industrial complex from Eisenhower to now, is as potent and profound as docs get.
Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro's mesmerizing Murderball throws you into a rugby match with quadriplegics and creates a new definition of courage.
Photographer David LaChapelle's Rize is a visual miracle; he hits the L.A. ghettos to film the krumping dance phenom and scores an unexpected knockout as social history.
Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette's The Aristocrats features more than 100 comics telling the same gross joke. You'll laugh till it hurts.
And Keep an Eye Out for... The kinky sex in Marcos Siega's Pretty Persuasion, in which Evan Rachel Wood plays a fifteen-year-old who goes down on a nerdy boy and a lesbian TV reporter (Jane Krakowski) to help her sexual-harassment case against a teacher.
...The kinky sex in Georgina Garcia Riedel's How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer, in which a seventyish grandma (Lucy Gallardo) masturbates graphically in her tub.
...The kinky sex in Miranda July's unique and unforgettable Me and You and Everyone We Know in which a seven-year-old boy on the Internet gets a grown woman hot by writing, "I want to poop in your butt hole and then you poop in my butt hole with the same poop on and on forever." At last, a Sundance movie for Paris Hilton.
By Peter Travers