1. The “Beast” Has Flown
The big question coming into the festival this year was, would Sundance produce another Beasts of the Southern Wild? Would there be another independent film with such enormous appeal that it seemed destined to sweep beyond the indie category and become a mainstream hit, as Beasts did last year? That question was especially potent with the festival coming just a week after Beasts took home a slew of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
As the festival rounds out its opening weekend — the slot in which the biggest potential hits are generally placed — there is a clear answer to this question: No.
There have been crowd-pleasers at this festival, and some critical raves (see below), but when people around Sundance explain their reactions, they generally begin with, “I liked it, but…” Nothing on the boards has given any hint of potential massive crossover appeal. There will be plenty coming out of this festival to fill the indie slates and the art houses for the next year, but the great white whale of Sundance has not surfaced in 2013.
2. Masterpiece Theater
While there may not be any giant hits emerging out of the pack, there are plenty of films that are making the assembled film community go gaga. Last night’s screening of Before Midnight, the latest in director Richard Linklater’s series about the sometimes love affair of two itinerant characters, played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, had critics throwing around the “m” word (that would be “masterpiece”) far and wide. Jane Campion’s six-hour epic, Top of the Lake, had our own Kate Aurthur on her feet. And others were raving about C.O.G., an adaptation of a David Sedaris story.
Beyond those, half a dozen other dramatic films having been picking up fans, including Crystal Fairy, The Spectacular Now, Breathe In, Sightseers, The East, The Lifeguard, and the cannibal family drama We Are What We Are.
3. What’s Up, Docs?
The most frequent thing one is hearing from festivalgoers this year is, “I’ve been seeing a lot more documentaries than scripted films.” In past years, the documentary competition has existed somewhat in the background of the star-studded dramatic lineup. But this year, it seems like many of the films really exciting festivalgoers are docs.
Part of this may be because the documentary category seems to have broken free from the heavy-handed, pedantic “issues” that dominated the documentary genre for so long. This year’s documentary field swings across the spectrum from sports (The Summit) to music (Twenty Feet from Stardom, History of the Eagles, Pussy Riot) to amazing stories (Valentine Road, Cutie and the Boxer ) to politics (Cheney, Anita, 99%), and much more in between.
4. The End of the Gold Rush
Whether it’s that the indie artists are no longer making films the broad public wants to see, or that the broad public is no longer as interested in the films indie artists make, or that the marketplace is just too glutted, the days of frenzied bidding wars at Sundance are over. In 2008, the little Steve Coogan comedy Hamlet 2 was snatched up for $10 million dollars. Today, one industry source said, the biggest sale would be lucky to be a third that price.
Most of the acquisitions announced thus far have been cable and VOD outlets scooping up documentaries straight for home viewing. Only two major dramatic acquisitions have been announced; and the price is not thought to be massive for either.
5. Women Rising? At Last? Maybe?
Over the years, Hollywood has made many declarations that the industry doors are open for women directors, only to see nothing change. So it seems almost willfully naive still hold out hope. (In 2012 only one of Hollywood’s top 50 highest grossing films was directed by a woman.) But it seems clear an industry-wide change for female auteurs will have to bubble up from the indie ranks. So it is a sign of hope that a critical mass of female directors seems, at last, to have formed at Sundance. It’s not just one or two tokens, but a broad array of women working in a variety of styles — from stalwart Jane Campion to the now-established improvisational voice of Lynn Shelton to some great documentarians and dramatic upstarts, like Jill Soloway and Liz Garcia.
6. Coming-of-Age Fatigue
For years, movies about young misfit teenagers growing up in the ’70s or ’80s has all but been the official genre of Sundance. But this year’s gathering features far fewer of such films, and within those slimmed ranks, the period pastiche/quirk-fests have been scaled back in favor of actual stories and characters. Where the old ways still exist, however, the backlash potential is huge.
7. Michael Cera Backlash
Once the It boy of the festival, the Cera name is heard taken in vain more often than Dick Cheney’s (also a Sundance star this year). Perhaps it’s a sign that Cera represents a time of quirk Sundance would rather turn a corner on. But his performance as an unrelentingly loathsome American dilettante drug tourist in Chile in festival opener Crystal Fairy is the most polarizing of the year, with many taking the character’s awfulness as a statement about Cera rather than a testament to his committed acting. It got so bad that at a party on Saturday, I overheard two women cornering Cera himself to tell him how much they didn’t love his film.
8. We’ll Always Have Paris
Despite festival boss Robert Redford’s declaration that the Paris Hilton Age is over at Sundance, Paris herself is still very much here.
The swag suite hoopla that five years ago made Main Street look like a scene out of Hieronymus Bosch has indeed abated. I estimate the frenzy is down to about half to a third of what it once was. But as long as the smallest fraction exists, and as long as Paris Hilton can still don stilettos, you will find her in the midst of the mania.