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History of the Sundance Film Festival (Part 6)

By Benjamin Craig

< Back to Part 5: "Harvey's not going to like this"

New Milennium, New Life

With the turn of the new millennium, the relentless hype machine that surrounded the Sundance Film Festival in the 1990s seemed to have finally run out of steam. It was going to be very difficult to match the excitement of the 1999 event, and instead of trying, the festival showed its maturity with a move back in the direction of its roots — concentrating more on the films than the hype surrounding them. Many of the memorable films in the 2000 program focused on strong character-driven stories, including Miguel Arteta's "Chuck & Buck", Karyn Kusama's "Girlfight", which won the Grand Jury Prize, Kenneth Lonergan's "You Can Count on Me", and Jenniphr Goodman's "The Tao of Steve". Kevin Spacey was also honoured at the 2000 festival with the Tribute to Independent Vision.

The 11th festival under the Sundance moniker continued along the path laid down the previous year. The hype was kept under control, and the 2001 event focused firmly on the films and filmmakers. Christopher Nolan's striking debut "Memento" was a treat for festival audiences, but a number of other films were also well received, including Scott McGehee and David Siegel's "The Deep End", John Cameron Mitchell's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch", Henry Bean's "The Believer", which won the Grand Jury Prize, and Todd Field's "In the Bedroom" (which earned several Academy Award nominations later in the year). On the documentary side, Stacy Peralta's ode to the skateboarding days of his friends' youth, "Dogtown and Z-Boys", also made a splash (picking up the Audience Award), and in recognition of the independent spirit in filmmakers who were producing works for online distribution, the first Sundance Online Film Festival hit the web.

In February 2002, the juggernaut that is the Winter Olympic Games rolled into Park City, and Sundance kicked off early to make room for the massive event. Although Salt Lake City was the official Olympic host, more than a third of the events were held in the Park City area. Perhaps spurred on by the size of the upcoming event, the 2002 festival presented a record 120 feature films to eager audiences, in addition to one of the widest selections of non-film events (such as panels and music performances) seen in Park City for years. Memorable films included Gary Winick's "Tadpole", Rebecca Miller's "Personal Velocity", which won the Grand Jury Prize, and Patricia Cardoso's crowd pleaser, "Real Women Have Curves" (unsurprisingly the dramatic Audience Award winner).

After all the excitement in Park City in 2002, most people would have been fairly forgiving if the festival had taken it easy the following year. However, staying true to form, Sundance 2003 continued on its steady course of discovery. With the mildest weather in recent memory (almost no snow at all fell during the festival), a record crowd of over 38,000 visitors enjoyed a bumper crop of 250 films. Among the highlights were Tom McCarthy's "The Station Agent", Shari Springer-Berman and Robert Pulcini's "Grand Jury Prize winning "American Splendour", and Andrew Jarecki's fascinating documentary, "Capturing the Friedmans", which focused on a middle-class family whose obsession with videoing themselves is interrupted when the father and youngest son are arrested on child molestation charges. The World Cinema program also presented some strong offerings, particularly Niki Caro's popular "Whale Rider", which unsurprisingly, bagged the coveted World Cinema Audience award. Another notable fact in 2003 was just how much digital video had taken over as the medium of choice for independent filmmakers. Nearly 50 feature films (including all, but one of the 16 documentaries) were shot on digital video, compared to only 13 just two years before.

The line-up for the 2004 festival marked a notably return to traditional Sundance territory, with a string of low-budget films showcasing quirky characters, clever screenplays, and alternative visions. It was suggested in some circles that 2004 was perhaps the most low-key festival in more than a decade. However, Newmarket Films boss Bob Berney was probably closer to the mark when he suggested that it was simply because the event was "... more focused on the films, instead of the people and the parties" (a reference also, to the number of column inches generated the previous year by the presence of non-affiliated celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears).

On the film side of things, the festival curtain was raised for the first time in Park City (historically the opening night took place in Salt Lake City) with the sophomore effort from Stacey Peralta, "Riding Giants". Peralta's follow-up to 2001's "Dogtown & Z-Boys", this time centred on surfing, was not only the first non-dramatic film ever to open the festival, it was also one of a record haul of over 40-odd documentaries screened during Sundance 2004. Other notable films in the program included the US premiere of Walter Salles' "The Motorcycle Diaries", based on the journals of Cuban revolutionary (and student pin-up) Ché Guevara; Shane Carruth's "Primer" (winner of the dramatic Grand Jury Prize); Ondi Timoner's "DiG!", shot over seven years and chronicling the friendship/rivalry between two rock bands; Audience Award winners "Maria Full of Grace" (Joshua Marston) and "Seducing Doctor Lewis" (Jean-François Pouilot); and Morgan Spurlock's "Super-Size Me", an eye-opening piece documenting his gruelling experiment of surviving for 30 days on nothing but McDonalds fast-food. And not forgetting "Napoleon Dynamite", almost the very essence of a Sundance movie, which went on to gross over $100m in the US and spawn a subculture of ironic emphatic crazy dancing.

As the festival moved into its 2005 edition, it was clear that the shift in public sentiment against the war in Iraq was starting to permeate the consciousness of non-fiction filmmakers and festival selectors alike. War and politics dominated the 2005 documentary selection, with 12 films on the subjects. In his opening address, Robert Redford celebrated the event as a "festival of dissent" and the dissenters were certainly rewarded. No less than five of the festival awards went to films about military conflicts: "Why We Fight", by Eugene Jarecki (Grand Jury Prize); "The Hero", by Zézé Gamboa (World Cinema Grand Jury Prize); "The Liberace of Baghdad", by Sean McAllister (Special Jury Prize); "Wall", by Simone Bitton (Special Jury Prize); and Audience Award-winner, "Shake Hands with the Devil", by Peter Raymont.

But the films at Sundance in 2005 weren't all doom and gloom. Star-power was alive and well in Park City with a post-Bond Pierce Brosnan strutting his stuff in "The Matador", Michael Keaton as a troubled playwright baseball fan in "Game 6", Kevin Costner in low-key romantic drama "The Upside of Anger", and Adrien Brody, Keira Knightly vehicle, "The Jacket". There was also a strong showing from the indie sector with Rian Johnson's high-school noir, "Brick", Craig Brewer's hip-hop musical drama, "Hustle & Flow", Steve Buscemi's third directorial outing, "Lonesome Jim", and Miranda July's romantic crowd-pleaser "Me and You and Everyone We Know". 2005 also saw the festival recognise its growing international pre-eminence with the introduction of the first fully-competitive World Cinema program.

Continue reading... Part 7: Would You Like Brand With That? >

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