EW's best of Sundance 2008
There was no megalith of a crowd-pleaser like Little Miss Sunshine. There was no Once the sort of tiny gem that rises up out of nowhere to enchant a community of hearts and minds. And yet, for all the absence of a defining center, there was much so much to see. Riding around on the shuttle buses that never quite seemed to arrive on time, I wove my way through the journalists, the publicists, the executives, the bloggers, the freeloaders, the celebrities in their fuzzy cute hats (is it just me, or is it now getting harder to tell the ordinary great-looking people from the special great-looking people?). And I thought, This has become the state of independent film a jubilant controlled chaos, sprawling all over the map of money and taste. At the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, the lack of a center was the center.
On my first day, I saw Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, and I knew I was off to a good start. We all think we know what happened when the fabled film director skipped the country in 1978 as he was about to face sentencing for the crime of ''unlawful sexual intercourse'' with a 13-year-old girl. But Marina Zenovich's startling exposé makes you realize you don't know the half of it. By revealing how a media feeding frenzy shaped the case, oozing into the wheels of justice, the film depicts a legal system warped by the celebrity culture it was trying to rein in. Polanski, that charming creep-genius, emerges as guilty as sin and a victim. It's that duality that makes Wanted and Desired a film of rare fascination and power.
On the subject of kinky outlaws, Choke, adapted from the Chuck Palahniuk novel, is a satirical-psychotic comedy of sexual addiction, and it's a dirty-minded blast. Adapted and directed by Clark Gregg, it comes at you in rude, fast, horndog snippets, popping you right into the fantasies of its scurrilous hero, Victor (Sam Rockwell), a sleazeball who attends Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings mostly so he can pick up the inevitable tramp-of-the-week. This may be the role that clinches stardom for Rockwell, who is boyish and moonstruck, with a dazed reptilian stare; as his mother, Anjelica Huston is grandly insane. Choke is a zany, synthetic movie, but it creates a world you enter like a neurotic playground. The result is an indelibly warped cartoon of lust and despair.
A great deal of media chatter promised that this year's festival was going to offer a relief from the ''dark'' ingrown dramas of years past. This time, there would be fun movies comedies, dammit! It turned out to be true, yet What Just Happened?, a Hollywood satire that finds Barry Levinson returning to the gently merciless, bombs-away mode of Wag the Dog, couldn't even find a distributor. (One rumor was that it hit them too close to home.) The irony is that the crushing of art by commerce is something the movie takes blithely for granted. The hero is a powerful producer, played by Robert De Niro, but he's little more than an errand boy, a giant cog nudging the cogs below him. The movie rambles on a bit, yet it has priceless laugh-out-loud lines, and it's held together by De Niro, who musters a nagging warmth beneath his grumbly facade. I also laughed at, and was enchanted by, The Great Buck Howard, which gives John Malkovich the showcase he deserves. His Buck Howard, a fictionalized version of the Amazing Kreskin, is a former superstar of ''mentalism,'' now a relic of the early '70s. It's a movie in love with kitsch, with the backwaters of showbiz, with genuine magic.
I go to Sundance looking for good films, but what I'm really out to discover is a voice. I found one when I saw Momma's Man, a shaggy, wise, poker-faced comedy of discombobulation that reinvents and purifies that Sundance staple, the quirky family drama. It was written and directed by Azazel Jacobs, the son of avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs, and what Jacobs (the younger) has done is to morph his own life into fiction by casting his parents as the parents in the movie and by shooting most of it in their ancient Manhattan loft, a cavernous hole-in-the-wall, crammed with toys, technology, and a lifetime's worth of junk, that is one of the most spectacularly colorful and eccentric movie sets you've ever seen. On a business trip, schlumpy Mikey (Matt Boren) stops off to see his folks and won't leave. Jacobs' style recalls early Jim Jarmusch, only more so, and Ken and Flo Jacobs are like the Nichols and May of wacked, monosyllabic New York bohemia.
NEXT PAGE: Owen Gleiberman's view from Sundance on Ballast, Anvil!, The Wackness, Sunshine Cleaning, American Teen, and Hamlet 2