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PRINT March 2000

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Sundance 2000

In recent years, with the media outnumbering filmmakers by about three to one, the Sundance Film Festival’s purported emphasis—challenging, independent film by promising new talent—drastically shifted. Mirroring Hollywood priorities to a disconcerting degree, Sundance succumbed to stars, glamour, parties, and fashion—not to mention profit. Rather than critically appraise even a significant fraction of the films on view (this year, 120 features were screened during the fest’s eleven-day run, January 20–30), Sundance coverage typically reports on buzz, promiscuously propagating gossip about who paid how much to acquire whose film.

So what made this year’s Sundance different? In a word, maturity. Gone were the spectacularly absurd distribution deals, in part because Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein—whose aggressive acquisitions tactics often made front-page news—was conspicuously absent. Conspicuously present were directorial mavericks grown old, like the Coen brothers, who brought back their 1985 Sundance hit, Blood Simple, and documentarist Barbara Kopple, who screened My Generation, her chronicle of Woodstocks ’69, ’94, and ’99. But perhaps the most telling demonstration of the radical turned ragged was Julien Temple’s stunning chronicle of the Sex Pistols, The Filth and the Fury, not so much for its inside history of punk music (an update of the director’s 1980 The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle) as for the appearance of an aging John (“Rotten”) Lydon amid the snowdrifts of Park City.

True, one still couldn’t slide down Main Street without sideswiping a Heather Graham, Matt Damon, or Ethan Hawke. But at least at this year’s fest, the stars (and their films) seemed like window dressing, merely part of the temporary local color. Even a film like Beat, Gary Walkow’s dramatization of William Burroughs’s William Tell–esque killing of his wife, played, respectively, by media darlings Kiefer Sutherland and Courtney Love, aroused little interest this year. And Emilio Estevez’s fifth directorial outing, Rated X, was about as titillating for festival audiences as a run down Park City’s bunny slope.

Sundance 2000 actually seemed to make good on its mandate to highlight small, innovative films by emerging filmmakers. Miguel Arteta’s Chuck & Buck, a perversely playful comedy of childhood pals reunited as adults, was a model of innovative filmmaking and, shot on digital video, a harbinger of things to come. You might even say that writers and scripts were this year’s stars. Analyze This scribe Kenneth Lonergan shared the Grand Jury Prize for his directorial debut, You Can Count on Me, a heartfelt drama of orphaned siblings reunited as adults, and actor-playwright Jon Shear’s Urbania, a dark fantasia about life in the city, was a revelation.

Blessedly missing was the by-now-exhausted voice of nihilistic twenty-somethings. It was refreshing to see so many films whose vision could easily have spiraled into despair and self-destruction push themselves to imagine a different world. Raymond DeFelitta’s Audience Award–winning Two Family House turned a drama of neighborhood bigotry in ’50s Staten Island into a heroic tale of tolerance. Karyn Kusama, whose Girlfight isn’t exactly a feminist retooling of Rocky, nevertheless enjoyed her own Stallone-like victory: The onetime office assistant of John Sayles garnered the Directing Award and (with Lonergan) the Grand Jury Prize. Her lead, first-time actor and boxer Michelle Rodriguez, was transformed overnight into, well, a star.

Peter Bowen is a senior editor of Filmmaker.