Sundance Film Festival

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Sex, deals and record cold took center stage at this year's Sundance Film Festival (Jan. 18-28), with midweek word of Oscar noms for '06 edition breakouts Little Miss Sunshine and Half Nelson arriving even as the new year's Next Big Things and Hidden Gems were being named. With terms like "zoophilia" and "vagina dentate" tripping off the tongues of attendees buzzing about Zoo, Teeth and lurid Southern gothic fantasias Black Snake Moan and Hounddog, there was never any question that audiences were going to "Focus on Film" as those ubiquitous buttons entreated. Unfortunately the implied subtext - "Swag is for amateurs" - was a dubious riposte to the co-opting of establishments the length of Main Street by sponsors and brand opportunists alike for gifting suites, celebrity lounges and satellite editions of hot spot nightclubs like New York's Marquee. Redford took off after one day, but Harvey Weinstein was on the ground all week and, for the first time since relinquishing the Miramax moniker, wheeling and dealing and cutting checks. If Harvey didn't actually roust hapless producers out of bed in the dead of night and corner them in their swanky condo bathroom as he was said to have done to pursue one deal, his competitors likely employed tactics even more colorful, as together they spent over $50 million to buy 16 films by the time the last convoy headed for the airport.

Every edition of every festival has its happy discoveries, arduous sits and true dogs, but rarer is the transfixing 90 minutes in the dark unheralded by pre-fest chatter, and this Sundance had buckets of those from showboats like Son of Rainbow, Teeth and Irish musical Once to the unassuming Khadak, a World Cinema competition entry of hypnotic power. Opening-night feature Chicago 10 sounded like it would be this year's consensus choice for power doc, but instead it emerged to critical pounding for director Brett Morgen's concentration on pop technique at the expense of historical context. Most likely to emerge as a runaway hit of the fest's 16-film Premieres section was the raucous Son of Rambow, a celluloid confection about a pair of misfit British preteens making backyard movies from Garth Jennings (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) that stole the hearts of regular folk and critical elite alike; Paramount Vantage won this year's fiercest bidding war to claim world rights for $7 million. My favorite duo, though, had to be Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as emotionally stunted brother and sister thrust into caring for the dying dad (Philip Bosco) who abandoned them in childhood in Fox Searchlight's The Savages, a second feature from Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills) that's pitch perfect all the way and sure to figure in next year's awards.

Another batch of premieres took on romance and its sublimation from '70s Spain (Antonio Banderas's fractured but gorgeous second feature, Summer Rain) to contemporary Australia (Cherie Nowlan's Clubland, a young-love story with Brenda Blethyn as a gin-soaked interfering mom. Warner Independent took domestic and U.K. rights for $4 million). A nearly unrecognizable Gwyneth Paltrow got choice screen time in brother Jake's The Good Night, a madcap noir whose frustrated hero dreams of a perfect lover (Penélope Cruz) that's bound to suffer by comparisons to Michel Gondry's giddy Sundance '06 fave The Science of Sleep. The Nines, an exceedingly - maybe excessively - complex triptych of stories from longtime screenwriter John August (Go) starring Ryan Reynolds, invites speculation as to its auteur's intent but is a compelling and absorbing sit. Less demanding but lots more fun and likely to bound up box office charts is Vantage tragicomedy Year of the Dog, a first feature from actor-writer Mike White (Chuck&Buck) that turned out to be the real human-animal love story to beat at this year's fest. The most withering reviews were reserved for First Look's An American Crime, a kid torture account from the normally whimsical Tommy O'Haver (Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss). …


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