PARK CITY, UTAH—”This year’s festival is as ‘independent’ as it’s ever been,” Sundance head Geoffrey Gilmore told Variety last November as he unveiled the lineup for the 2006 festival. The use of quotation marks at least acknowledged the long-standing tension between Sundance’s official myth and its more complicated reality. In the celebrity spa cum acquisitions casino that the festival has become, Gilmore’s back-to-our-roots declaration brought with it a whiff of downplayed expectations. Was he apologizing for the relative dearth of actor-turned- directors and slumming sitcom stars? Sending a warning to buyers that the movies would perhaps not have them feverishly thumbing their Blackberrys mid-screening?
In truth, Sundance ’06 seemed about average—fewer discoveries, maybe, but also less dreck. And in one sense, Gilmore was right. The year’s best fiction entries were, for the most part, also the smallest: the cheapest, the quietest, the most resourcefully minimal, the most visually inventive, and the most independent, in the without-quotes sense. But is Sundance—where the opening-night feature was this year, perhaps not coincidentally, called Friends With Money—still a remotely hospitable environment for the little guys? Three case studies:
1. It was bizarre enough to see Kelly Reichardt’s OLD JOY rudely bundled off to the Frontier section, the “experimental” sidebar. It was stranger still that Gilmore told The Hollywood Reporter before the festival, “I most regret [Old Joy] is not in competition”—something he would in theory be in a position to fix. Atmospherically shot by Peter Sillen, Old Joy follows two Portland friends on a weekend camping trip. As the men—one bracing for fatherhood (Daniel London), the other an aging goofball hippie (Will Oldham)—feel each other out, looking for a perhaps lost comfort zone, we sense their unspoken awkwardness and sadness. Complex histories are embedded between the lines of small talk, or evoked in a snatch of body language. A Pacific Northwest Blissfully Yours, or a parallel-universe Brokeback Mountain, Old Joy is a film of microscopic mood shifts, at once open-ended and precise. It left Sundance with strong critical word of mouth but no distributor, and is in competition at Rotterdam this week.
2. Ramin Bahrani’s subtly resonant character portrait MAN PUSH CART applies a rapt focus to its protagonist’s daily routine. By the end of the film, the repeated images of man pushing cart have not only become totemic but merged into an infinite loop, a visually eloquent summation of the stoic hero’s existential plight. A former rock star from Lahore, Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) now works a coffee-and-bagel pushcart in midtown Manhattan and hawks bootleg DVDs on the side. Bahrani and his DP Michael Simmonds illuminate the murky beauty—and hardscrabble economics—of New York’s all-night shadowland. Entered in the noncompetitive Spectrum section, the film snagged a deal with ultra-indie Films Philos. Having premiered at Venice last year, it will play here at New Directors/New Films in March.
3. As the title suggests, the terrain of So Yong Kim’s IN BETWEEN DAYS—the best film in the dramatic competition—is the ghost world of teenage alienation. The coming-of-age mopefest is a Sundance staple, but the first-time Korean American director’s watchful, intelligent minimalism modestly reanimates the genre. Recently arrived from Korea, Aimie (a wonderfully ingenuous performance by Jiseon Kim) lives with her single mother in a bleak Toronto housing block, sending video diaries to the father who left them, unsure of how to handle a growing crush on her best friend. Like Old Joy, it’s a portrait of a friendship under subliminal stress, and like Man Push Cart, a study of the daily trials of assimilation. Like both, it derives much of its power from daring to leave a lot unsaid. Painful, funny, unsentimental, perfectly measured in its ambiguities, it’s exemplary low-budget filmmaking, the rare DV movie with an assured visual style and a strong sense of place, moving between the claustrophobic sanctuary of a teenager’s pink bedroom and evocative in-between spaces like bus shelters and highway overpasses. (The cinematographer is Sarah Levy, and the skeleton crew also includes Kim’s husband/co-writer/producer, Salt director Bradley Rust Gray.) Dismissed by Variety but praised by the Times, it won a “special” prize for “independent vision.” Still without a distributor, it now goes on to compete in Berlin’s Forum sidebar.