Nothing stays still long in America. The country’s most famous film festival has been jolted into new life by the country’s most famous festival founder. “Flatlining” was the word used by Robert Redford at the opening press conference. He was referring to the last few cine-sprees in snowy Utah. While Park City in January never wavers in its popularity for skiing addicts – the snow must go on – we film addicts had started regarding Sundance as a home for middlebrow heart-on-sleeve liberal dramas, sentimental comedy hits for the over-susceptible (Little Miss Sunshine) and too many mainstream Hollywood movies each year in an event created to be rebellious and alternative.
So: action has been taken. There is a new festival director, John Cooper, and a whole new look and attitude. This year’s Sundance logo-movie, projected before each programme, strafes us with words like “recharged” and “renewed”. The opening night was no stuffed-shirts gala but a simple, straightforward start-up to the competition. And those Tinseltown egos – producers, moguls – who think they have an annual right to take over this junket have been told, “Stand in line like the rest”.
Of course it may be too good to be true. Cooper and Redford must know they are trying to out-growl reality. I have already seen one example each of the fey sentimental comedy and the overblown Hollywood star vehicle. The first was Douchebag, an early ticket sell-out but no more than a gentle, soppy road movie about two brothers bonding on the eve of the elder’s marriage. The second was The Company Men, a directing debut for TV writer and series creator John Wells (ER). This boasts a top cast (Tommy Lee Jones, Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner) and a timely theme: the redundancy-terrified America that featured in Up in the Air. But Wells’ film is abundant in all the soapy contrivings that Jason Reitman’s film largely evaded.
Even so, there are signs of hope. The annual documentary section – a staple of international film festivals that was virtually invented by Sundance – is stronger than ever. The opening-night movie was Restrepo, a searing account of the doomed heroism of US troops in eastern Afghanistan, where every push into Taliban heartland is met by death, ambush and counter-push. Co-directors Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) and Tim Hetherington sentimentalise nothing. Their film simply records the everyday rites of a war fought in merciless mountain terrain, in which each side, behaving like brutalised overgrown kids, takes turns to say, “I’m the king of the castle”. They litter their victories in the process with dead bodies and dismembered limbs.
No less poignant, forceful and harrowing is Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath’s Enemies of the People. (Does it take two people to make a top-class documentary today? Read on.) Sambath, a man obsessed by a cause and a crusade, is our guide through the on-screen confessions he has coaxed from Khmer Rouge killers and executors. The horrors happened more than 30 years ago – Cambodia’s rape by its own rulers – but with this film they seem as fresh as undried blood. Pol Pot’s number two, Nuon Chea, became a friend of Sambath, who worked on him for years – cynically but purposefully – to extract the grudging admissions and the look, unforgettable here, when Sambath reveals that his own mother, father and brother were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. If vengeance is a dish best served cold, this dish is at once cold and scalding hot.
But the best film so far at Sundance – I doubt there will be a better – is Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Catfish. Again two directors, again a documentary. Yet this comedy/thriller/video-blog is like nothing you have seen. In its truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale, a young New York photographer, Yaniv Schulman, Joost and Schulman’s real flatmate (and the latter’s brother), is wooed by e-mail and serial gift packages by a Michigan-dwelling family containing a mother, besotted teen daughter and art-prodigy younger girl. Many of the packages are paintings. Soon we are deep into territory that recalls (a) the Joyce Hatto fake classical recordings case and (b) the spooky Armistead Maupin-authored story/movie The Night Listener.
What is this family up to? Should Yaniv and housemates investigate? If so, how far – geographically and psycho-emotionally – should they go? A pixilated human drama often gets a pixellated visual style, playing inventive games with the texture of computer reality. (Sometimes the screen is a Mondrian criss-cross of giant blanks that teasingly fill in with a letter or image-detail.) When the three men finally go to Michigan, Catfish turns into the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never directed: macabre, disorientating and possibly, for our betterment, re-orientating. Joost and Schulman’s ultimate message is surely that the internet, that superhighway for truth, may be the greatest arterial network for falsehood, and the re-imagining and re-inventing of human lives, that the world has ever created.
If Catfish is the hit of the festival to date, the most spectacular miss is Chris Morris’s Four Lions. British TV viewers know Morris as a satirist never afraid to go too far. A feature comedy about British Muslim suicide bombers sounds perfect for his form of rabid brinkmanship. But unlike, for instance, Morris’s famous show on the media hysteria surrounding paedophilia, it’s unclear what the target is here. Four “Britanistanis” arm themselves for a day of mass self-destruction, after training scenes in Pakistan featuring much ill-judged knockabout.
It is obvious these men are idiots, terrorism tourists too daft to see the enormity of their deeds or the bankruptcy of their creeds. But do we need help in despising the herd-like instinct that helps swell terrorism’s numbers? And does making jihadists seem maladroit nitwits do anything but trivialise the conflict? Perhaps if the film were funnier, we wouldn’t look for reasons why comedy and world cataclysm seem a less than perfect match.