No matter what Robert Redford or the official literature might tell you, the 2003 Sundance Film Festival ended three days early. You could see it in the half-empty screenings, the ease of scoring prime restaurant reservations, or the fleets of vans hauling Prada-clad execs and vacant-eyed ski bunnies out of Park City.
By Jan. 23, Main Street was as empty as a ''Kangaroo Jack'' critics' screening, and when the awards were handed out on Saturday, the 25th, the shock wasn't who won, but that two or three of the filmmakers were still in town to accept the hardware.
Yes, this was a slightly odd Sundance. One that was perceived as soft going in, that yielded no deals over $3 million, and perhaps most curiously, that featured not an inch of snow. The early end of the festival was laregly due to the weakness of the movies at the back end, including Sony Pictures Classics' Bob Dylan starrer ''Masked and Anonymous,'' which drew scads of camera toting starseekers, but some of the harshest word of mouth in years -- made even harsher by the widely-accepted-as-gospel rumor that Mr. Dylan wrote the screenplay himself. (Overheard immediately after the Eccles Theater gala screening: ''The only question now is where this ranks on my worst movies of all time list.'' Ouch.)
Also due for a slapdown was the widely anticipated midnight movie ''The Hebrew Hammer''; the ''Jewsploitation'' film was pounded by the yammering classes of Main Street and quickly disappeared into the ether along with Mark Illsey's ''Happy Texas'' follow-up, ''Bookies,'' and Thomas Vinterberg's ''It's All About Love.''
Of course, some reactions were really visceral. At the first screening of ''Buffalo Soldiers,'' a Miramax film starring Joaquin Phoenix that has been moldering on the shelf for a year and a half due to it's scathing portrayal of the American military, a woman was so incensed by the film's biting black humor that she threw a bottle of water at the director.
But why focus on the negatives? The end of the festival also yielded some terrific pleasures. ''Born Rich,'' a documentary about the children of the ultra-wealthy (the director, Jamie Johnson, is heir to a portion of the Johnson & Johnson fortune), caught fire as filmgoers gasped at the cluelessness of these very isolated -- and in some cases, painfully dim -- 20-somethings.
After a week of sexual abuse, dysfunctional families, and murder, Danny Boyle's zombie flick, ''28 Days Later,'' provided great trashy fun.
Perhaps no film gained more late momentum than David Gordon Green's Special Jury Prize winner, ''All the Real Girls,'' which drew standing ovations and attention from acquisitions execs.
And finally, what would Sundance be without some kind of serious surprise? It came in the form of the movie most ridiculed before the festival -- ''The Station Agent,'' about a dwarf who befriends a grief stricken artist and a hyperactive hot dog vendor -- which turned out to be warm and sweet as a mug of hot chocolate. Make that very rich hot chocolate. Miramax grabbed the Audience and Screenwriting Award winner, which stars Special Jury Prize Winner Patricia Clarkson, for around $1.5 million.
By the end of the frenzied cocktail party that followed the awards ceremony, a kind of quiet catharsis ruled: There may have been minimal wheeling and dealing, no clear breakout film, and stars hijacking the buzz who had no clear reason to be in Park City. But a look at the tired eyes and fizzy grins at the ceremony told you all you needed to know. It was still that happy cocktail of booze, art, and business. The Sundance Film Festival had ridden again.