OWEN GLEIBERMAN'S SUNDANCE HIGHS AND LOWS
Film festivals tend to be alternate realities. The sunstruck, snowbound, up-where-the-air-is-thin-and-clear beauty of Park City only heightens the worlds-away quality of the Sundance Film Festival, an event that offers one the slightly surreal experience of traipsing through a pristine ski resort to interface with movies that are Dark, Quirky, Aggressively Ironic, Erotically Outré, or Politically Righteous. That disjunction works for the festival it can make even a modest movie stand out yet I admit I've grown impatient over the years with how a Sundance film can be celebrated, by audiences and critics (including me), until it sounds bigger and more important than it is.
I saw movies at Sundance this year I'd heartily recommend, like Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, a documentary by Julien Temple (The Filth and the Fury) that passionately evokes the spiky fervor of the late Clash frontman, or the spooky child-rearing dramedy Joshua, or the grippingly journalistic Mexico-to-Jersey sex-trade thriller Trade, or David Gordon Green's tender and searing Snow Angels, a small-town tale of divorce and adultery, madness and murder, that to me was the movie Little Children wanted to be. Months from now, these films will be released, and with a little help from God or fate or maybe Fox Searchlight, they will find a devoted audience. Yet what I was looking for questing for at Sundance this year was a film that had the potential to break out of the festival's hothouse bubble atmosphere and cause a genuine stir, maybe even a minor earthquake, in the real world.
I found that film when I saw No End in Sight, a coolheaded, devastating exposé that, with the right handling, could turn out to be An Inconvenient Truth for the Iraq war. Let's be clear: This is no leftist agitprop, no Michael Moore harangue. The director, Charles Ferguson, works with a thirst for history that transcends ideology, as he gets a platoon of Bush officials, from Richard Armitage to Jay Garner to the eloquently outraged former officer of strategic policy Col. Paul Hughes, to go on record about how their advice was trivialized and ignored. As they speak, the film pulls back, like a telescope, to reveal each link in the gasp-inducing chronology of the Bush team's bungling arrogance. No End in Sight leaves you furious at an administration of armchair warriors, yet it offers the catharsis of cold hard truth.
Waitress offers something more uplifting: a spangly reinvention of the chick flick and, just maybe, the birth of a movie star. That would be Keri Russell, who's as tartly irresistible as the desserts she creates playing a Southern pie-shop waitress who gets pregnant by her awful husband and then has an affair with her obstetrician (the delightfully befuddled Nathan Fillion). This vibrant comedy of sisterhood embraces the happy craziness of following your instincts at any cost. Early on, there was a hush over the screening, as tribute was paid to the film's writer and director, Adrienne Shelly, who was killed in New York last November. Yet by the end, the tasty bittersweetness of Waitress was only enhanced by the revelation of what a talent she possessed.
A handful of other comedies tore muscles as they tried to go mainstream. Year of the Dog, the first movie directed by the brilliant screenwriter Mike White (School of Rock, Chuck & Buck), begins as a sharply funny portrait of a canine-fixated wallflower played, winningly, by Molly Shannon. But as she goes off the deep end, so does the movie. Son of Rambow, an English coming-of-age tale in which two public-school boys try to make a home-movie version of Rambo, was picked up for more money ($8 million) than any other Sundance film this year, but for my money it was a fractious and whimsical bore that bonks you over the head with its '80s nostalgia.
Eager to follow the buzz, I felt compelled to check out Zoo, a nonfiction look at how can I put this delicately? I can't men who have sex with horses. I believe that you can make a good movie about anyone, but Zoo sorely tests that theory; it's a crock. It tells us nothing about these people (or the details of what they do), concocting instead a naive ''poetic'' meditation on zoophiles as the ultimate misunderstood minority group. I was in the minority myself in disagreeing with the sour buzz over Chapter 27, a morbidly fascinating dramatization of Mark David Chapman's life in the three days leading up to the murder of John Lennon. Directed by Jarrett Shaefer, the film may tell you little about Chapman that you didn't already know, but Jared Leto, who gained 65 pounds for the role, disappears inside this angry, mouthbreathing psycho geek with a conviction that had me hanging on his every delusion.
Finally, let me return to Joshua, in which Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga are sensational as wealthy New Yorkers with a new baby girl and a demonically detached 9-year-old boy, played by the marvelous Jacob Kogan. The film is destined to be compared to The Omen and The Bad Seed, yet it's something vitally new: a portrait of parental anxiety in the age of technology, hedge-fund capitalism, and kids who are far more brilliant than their elders. It's a horror comedy that has cool and savvy fun with your fears.
For more of Owen Gleiberman's Sundance impressions, see his video report here.
NEXT PAGE: Lisa Schwarzbaum's Sundance highs and lows