Desslock's Guide to the Sundance Film Festival

As Tom mentioned in another thread, he and I spent 5 days at the festival last week. I’ve gone to the Toronto Film Festival for all but one of the past 15 years, but this was my first time at the Sundance festival. The Festivals are very similar, but different in some notable ways:

  • way more films in Toronto, but most of the additional films are foreign language films. Toronto has separate sections of its festival devoted to Asian films, African films, and spotlights at least one rotating country.

  • both festivals are equally easy to get into, if you’re interested, and probably cost about the same to attend. The Sundance festival is in a much more intimate setting - with only 6,000 people living in the area, pretty much everyone you meet is attending or with the festival. It seemed like a much greater percentage of the attendees at Sundance were in the industry, while Toronto has many more pretentious film school geeks.

  • Unlike in Toronto, there’s a “real awards” ceremony in Sundance, and they reshow the award winners on the last day of the festival (and you can buy tickets for the “to be determined” winners in advance), so you’re guaranteed to see at least some of the best films of the festival if you attend the final weekend. All of the Award winners this year were at least decent films, so if you’re at an Indie theatre and you see “2003 Sundance Award Winner”, you can’t go to badly wrong if you’re debating whether to see it.

  • There are far more viewings for each film at Sundance – generally 4-5 (aside from any reshowings of the award winners). Because Park City is such a small venue, essentially everyone is there for the festival, so you get a very good sense just from talking to people of which films have gotten favourable buzz. Since there’s a lot of screenings, you generally then have the opportunity to try to see the films that are the best regarded. In Toronto, since there’s only 2 screenings of each film (sometimes only 1, which was the case for 8 Mile last year), by the time you even hear the buzz, it’s generally too late to try to see the films that are well regarded. Unless you successfully pick them in advance of the festival, you’re generally out of luck.

Here’s some comments on the films I saw:

  1. Masked and Anonymous (dir: Larry Charles) – the star packed “Centerpiece premiere” of the festival starred Jeff Bridges, Bob Dylan, Jessica Lange, Val Kilmer, John Goodman, Cheech Marin, Christian Slater, Mickey Rourke, Luke Wilson, Penolope Cruz, Chris Penn, Giovanni Ribisi – almost all of whom were at the screening. Absolutely unwatchable drek – the worst movie, at least that featured known “stars”, that I have ever seen at a festival. Incoherent, pretentious and smug Dylan-love-in. Really, really terrible. Most people at the festival seemed to feel the same way. Tom insisted that we leave 90 minutes in, and apparently we didn’t miss much. Not since Breakfast of Champions have I seen a movie as incredibly painful to watch (on a related note to that anecdote, Alan Rudolph’s film at the festival, which I didn’t see, was apparently equally repugnant). Only likeable quality was Jeff Bridge’s performance (and Dylan’s music, if you’re a fan). Embarrassing. GameSpot rating: 0.9/10

  2. Irreversible (Gasper Noe) – I summed up my feelings on this one in another thread; GameSpot rating: 9.0/10

  3. All the Real Girls (David Green) – one of the award winners, which I otherwise likely wouldn’t have seen, it was one of the best films at the festival. Generally no-name actors, other than Patricia Clarkson (who ain’t exactly a big name) – basically a coming of age love story set in a small town in the American south (I actually had difficulty understanding the accents initially, which surprised me). Better than that casual synopsis suggests, it featured an intelligent script with realistic motivations and dialogue (other than in some of the wrap-up scenes) and solid acting. Great indie film. GameSpot rating: 8.4/10

  4. American Splendor (Robert Pulcini/Shari Springer) – the Grand Prize jury winner, this stylish documdrama of comic artist/Letterman guest Harvey Pekar (friend of Robert Crumb) combines a great performance by Paul Giamatti with appearances by the real people upon whom the movie is based. A self-aware documentary, it actually worked really well and was consistently entertaining. I didn’t love the move as much as other festival goers, perhaps because I hate the comics written by the bitter guy from Cleveland. But definitely a solid picture. GameSpot rating: 7.8/10

  5. City of Ghosts: (Matt Dillan) – It also played at Toronto, but I didn’t see it there. In spite of an excellent cast in addition to Dillan (Gerard Depardieu, Stellan Skarsgard, James Caan) and an interesting introduction (Dillan is an officer of an insurance company that scammed insureds with fake disaster insurance and travels to Thailand and then Cambodia to meet with the company owners), this movie devolved into a substandard thriller, with a ludicrous yet obvious ending. Made slightly better than its script because of the location and some interesting performances from Cambodian actors). GameSpot rating: 4.1/10

  6. Fear X (Nicolas Winding Refn) - A movie that I liked a lot more after leaving the theatre and thinking about it and talking with Tom than I did initially. An interesting set-up that is similar to The Vanishing: a security guard at a mall (John Turturro) who is destroyed by the murder of his wife at the mall, and becomes obsessed with finding the killer and (even more importantly to him) the reason behind the killing. Interesting movie about loss and obsession, I don’t think the director was entirely successful in communicating his intentions, but it was thought provoking. GameSpot Rating: 7.5/10

  7. Laurel Canyon (Lisa Cholodenko) – Featuring a great performance from Frances McDormand and decent turns by Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, Alessandro Nivola and Natasha McElhone, I found this film to be too smug and self-important to be enjoyable. A near miss for me (Tom felt more negative), largely because of the faux depth of the message – “people who work out and are responsible aren’t enjoying life as much as carefree rock stars” Whee. GameSpot Rating: 4.5/10

  8. Levity (Ed Solomon) – Another great cast (Billy Bob Thorton, Kristen Dunst, Morgan Freeman, Holly Hunter) that produces about as bad a movie as I think is possible with that cast, which is still a decent watch. Billy Bob returns from prison after murdering a store clerk in a robbery, and attempts to make amends by befriending the sister of his victim. A decent script and resolution, none of the actors had much opportunity to nuance their performances (they had no practice time, and a very brief filming schedule) with memorable characterization. It was the opening gala at Sundance, but it was a pretty forgettable film. GameSpot Rating: 6.8/10

  9. The Missing Gun (Lu Chuan) – The only other foreign language film I saw, this film seemed like inadvertent communist China propaganda in the way it emphasized the differences between American gun-culture and China. Charismatic policeman loses his gun at a party, which prompts his immediate suspension and a desperate search for its recovery (“there were three bullets in that gun. That means you’re responsible for 3 deaths. In the hands of an expert marksman, 2 people could be killed with each bullet, maybe three. You’re responsible for at least 6 deaths!”). A tad different from the Heston perspective. GameSpot Rating: 7.0/10

  10. Owning Mahony (Richard Kwietniowski) – One of the more commercial films we say, starring Philip Semour Hoffman as Canadian gambling addict Dan Mahowny, who ripped off a Canadian bank to feed his addiction. Amazing performance by Hoffman, with a great supporting role played by John Hurt (Minnie Driver also starred), this movie was one of the most satisfying at the festival. Debated giving it bonus points for being filmed a block away from my house (and right next to my old legal firm) GameSpot Rating: 8.2/10

  11. The Station Agent (Tom McCarthy) – Featuring a dwarf and Patricia Clarkson (again), this movie won two different awards and deserved them both. A dwarf who works in a model train hobby store inherits some land on an actual train depot in a small town. This character driven movie has probably resonated with me more than any other film aside from Irreversible. GameSpot Rating: 8.6/10

  12. The Technical Writer (Scott Saunders) – One of the worst films I saw at the festival, but it was unintentionally laugh out loud funny in parts, primarily because a truly abysmal performance by Tatum O’Neil. Story of an agrophobic technical writer, who didn’t resemble Mark Asher in the least, who is seduced by a swinger played by Tatum O’Neil. Terrible performance and a ludicrous script, I disliked this movie so much we didn’t even speak to the (amusingly arrogant) director who we subsequently shared a cab with later in the festival. GameSpot Rating: 1.7/10

  13. Thirteen (Catherine Hardwicke) – Another award winner, but in an undeserving category (best director), this film shows the sex lives and drug use of a couple of 13 year old girls in LA. Not as deliberately shocking as Kids, it features some excellent performances (especially Holly Hunter, as one of the mothers). Uh, the teenage gals definitely look, and act, well beyond what you’d expect for their age. One of the main stars, Nikki Reed, also cowrote the script, which is apparently partially based upon her life. Aside from the Q/A session which turned into a parental support session, this movie was a deserving winner of some accolades. GameSpot Rating: 8.1/10

  14. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle) – I’ve discussed this film in its own thread. It lived up to my high expectations. Admittedly, I’m a junky for the genre, but I was genuinely surprised who enthralled the festival crowd seemed with this flick. GameSpot Rating: 8.8/10

  15. United States of Leland (Matthew Ryan Hoge) – Opinions were varied on this film. Some people thought it was brilliant, and insightful, in an American Beauty kind of way. I thought it was overwrought, smug and ultimately annoying, in an American Beauty kind of way. A simple-minded teenager murders a retarded boy and is examined by Dr. Don Cheadle. Good performances from Lena Olin, Kevin Spacey (although some of his lines seem like outtakes from American Beauty), Ryan Gosling and Chris Klein. Klein’s character arc utterly ruins the movie, however, and Gosling plays yet another “idiot savant whose simple-minded Forest Gump perception of the world shows incredible insight that more intelligent folk miss out on”. Barf. For most of the movie, this flick was on the bubble between pretentious and honest/insightful. Ultimately landed badly. GameSpot Rating: 4.8/10.

  16. Whale Rider (Niki Caro) - The Audience Award winner (I believe it won the same award in Toronto). A feel good fantasy about a Maori community’s struggle to find a new leader (definitely no Once Were Warriors), this movie was universally praised, light-hearted fare. I would have liked it more if not for the supernatural angle that determines its resolution, but the performances were excellent and it definitely works as a feel-good movie. More deserving of the commercial success that Fat Greek Wedding achieved. GameSpot Rating: 7.4/10.

  17. What Alice Found (A. Dean Bell) - One of the best surprises of the festival was seeing this film win an award for “Emotional honesty” (the same award given to All the Real Girls). An extremely low-budget film with rudimentary production values – shot on video, replete with blurry backgrounds while the camera was focused on something in the foreground. A character driven road-trip movie, it’s successful beyond expectations because of an excellent script and a truly outstanding peformance by character actor Judith Ivey. Its production values are so low that it’s unlikely to be commercially released, but it was still one of the most enjoyable films of the festival. GameSpot Rating: 8.0/10

Other movies that got good buzz which I didn’t see, generally because they played prior to my arrival in Utah:

  • Bend it Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha) - this USA/UK film about female soccer players was almost as popular as it was in Toronto.
  • Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki) - winner of the Jury prize for best Documentary, this movie was apparently amazing, in spite of its distasteful subject matter (two members of a family charged with abuse), largely because of some fascinating footage shot by one of the other family members.
  • Cooler (Wayne Kramer), starring William Macy
  • Comandante (Oliver Stone), documentary/interview with Fidel Castro.
  • Dopamine (Mark Decena) – won a minor award, so it had its share of admirers, but I also heard some bad buzz about this one.
  • Education of Gore Vidal – another one of the more popular documentaries.
  • Mudge Boy (Michael Burke) – Father/son journey flick that had consistently good buzz.
  • My Flesh and Blood (Jonathan Karsh) – Another documentary award winner that I never would have seen because of lack of interest in its subject matter (11 special needs children). Messed up children were a pretty common theme at Sundance.
  • Pieces of April (Peter Hedges) – This movie had overwhelming positive buzz, so I’m surprised it didn’t win any awards. The one film I really regret not getting the opportunity to see.
  • Quattro Noza (Joey Curtis) – another award winner. About Californian hip hop and illegal racing, and hopefully better than Fast and the Furious.
  • Same River Twice (Robb Moss) – Another cool documentary. Featuring 24-year old footage of a bunch of nude hippies on a river rafting trip, picking up their lives in the recent past.

Not many outstanding “can’t miss” flicks, but a lot of ones that were enjoyable.

Thank you.

Shouldn’t this be “Desslock’s SUPER RIPPED Guide to the Sundance Film Festival”?

[quote=“Desslock”]the faux depth of the message – ‘people who work out […] aren’t enjoying life […]’"

I can see why you would find this offensive.

HUH? Isn’t this a little too close to his last film, Monster’s Ball, in which an prison executioner attempts to make amends by befriending the lover of a convict he executed?

Is he trying to tell us that he actually killed somebody once, or what?

Gosh, even desslock’s thread titles are insufferable and arrogant.

It’s funny that he’s got you so terrified that you won’t post under your own name, hehe.

:shock: and look, you are scared of me!

Gosh, even desslock’s thread titles are insufferable and arrogant.

Someone needs a time out.

HUH? Isn’t this a little too close to his last film, Monster’s Ball, in which an prison executioner attempts to make amends by befriending the lover of a convict he executed? [/quote]

Yeah, that was mentioned by someone in the Q&A, and the director seemed surprised by that sentiment. At least he’s not playing the Bandits guy again.


I have the strength of 10 Wumpuses.

This thread went limp faster than a severed penis.

Probably because nobody except for Desslock and Tom has seen any of these films. Sometimes, silence is golden.


Hey Dess, whats that one with Nick Nolte that I recently saw a preview for? Something about thief? I can’t remember the title cuz I came in shortly before it ended. Wasn’t it at Sundance? I thought I saw that on the screen.

You’re thinking of Neil (Crying Game, Michael Collins, Interview with the Vampire) Jordan’s The Good Thief. It didn’t play at Sundance, but it was one of the Gala presentations at the Toronto Film Festival, where it got a positive reception.

Yep, thats the one! Thanks Dess. Am definitely looking forward to it. Call me old, but I’m a die hard Nolte fan.

God bless Gamespot ratings.

Wow, I used to put a lot of effort into these posts.

Aw, I saw this thread and thought you’d gone to Sundance again. But of course, it’s August, so why would you be posting about going to Sundance in August?


I’m mainly impressed that we had the foresight to see Nicolas Refn’s first English movie, which I didn’t even remember until I reread this. I haven’t seen it since and don’t recall much of it.

Also kudos for liking Peter Dinklage in pre-Tyrion days, and for us being deservedly cynical about some of the films that were getting buzz in that insular environment (which may show how easy it is to manipulate such things, as much as different tastes) - history has shown our views to be largely dominant on all of these flicks.