Sundance has many differences from other film festivals. But in one respect it is indistinguishable. Its juries tend to live on other planets. They see different films from the rest of us, or the same films differently. So news came down from Planet Crazy that Winter’s Bone, a drama about Ozarks clansmen that received no critical buzz whatsoever, had won the Grand Prix for Dramatic Feature.
Heigh-ho, what can one do? I had pounded the beat. I had walked a million miles between snow-sundered theatres. I had told everyone whom I could shout at without risking an avalanche that the worthy winners were Blue Valentine or The Killer Inside Me. Winter’s Bone was not even on my long list. Next time I will change my routine. I will book a hotel on Planet Crazy, to eavesdrop on the judges, and commute by space shuttle.
They got the Documentary Grand Prix half right. Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo, praised earlier on this page, is a harrowing report from the Afghan front line. Even here, though, the jury missed a trick. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Catfish – the hottest ticket in the festival – was the best documentary because it teased new meanings from the word “documentary”. Interweaving comedy, mystery and actuality, and wittily interrogating the notional transparency of the blog and internet worlds, it had us asking on every level: “What is truth?”
But few festival juries are interested in “what is truth?” The question is tackled mainly by people who know they won’t win prizes and are prepared to sit around splitting philosophical hairs, like the VIPs of Sundance’s best on-stage discussion.
This followed Michael Winterbottom and Matt Whitecross’s exuberant, up-your-nose documentary The Shock Doctrine, an assemblage of the socioeconomic views of intellectual whiz-person Naomi Klein. Mixing archive footage into a giant plum pudding and then setting it ablaze with outrageous statements – mainly that all unhindered capitalism is bad – the film will make you want either to guzzle it or to throw it at the wall in impassioned fury.
There they were afterwards: Klein, Winterbottom, Whitecross and a chap in jeans and sneakers called Robert Redford. They pondered art, culture, finance, politics and the meaning of life.
While the jurors were sitting in their high chairs on Planet Crazy, wondering how to lift their spoons to their mouths, the fate of the universe was being discussed on ground zero.
Movie-wise, the festival was not quite the revolution we were promised. There is still too much second-rate cinema at Sundance: too much “we love it, whatever it is, if it’s by a woman, a maverick, a liberal or an actor-turned-director”. Furthermore, no non-Sundancer can know the hardships of moving around this town – the white hell of Park City in January – as snow/ice/slush try to stop you making it in 10 minutes, as you must, from Cinema Igloo to Theatre Permafrost.
But this year Sundance tried. It tried everything. Festival shuttle buses, if you could get on one, were terrific. You met everyone. You could gaze across the aisle at the frozen figure of the chap who made the great Khmer Rouge documentary Enemies of the People (no prize, of course) or the icicled apparition of the director of Blue Valentine (ditto), my favourite film after Catfish, awaiting a kinder universe presided over by an intelligent jury.
Before the screening of the last feature film I saw, Three Backyards, a gentle, enigmatic three-hander, the director Eric Mendelssohn (late of Judy Berlin), said he knew it was a cliché but he had to thank Sundance for its uniqueness as a place of opportunity in America for new cinema. He is right. It is a cliché. Yet it is also true. It has been true and is true. And next year, whichever planet I decide to make my festival-going base, it will still be true.