A Week As a Sundance Kid

A page from a journal at the famed film festival

The weather was unusually warm, which was unfortunate for the skiers but perfect for navigating one's way to the multiple screenings and parties at the 17th annual Sundance Film Festival. More than 20,000 people flocked to Park City, Utah, for the 11-day event. When you add the concurrent festivals (Slamdance and others) and mix in thousands of Utah area teens hoping for a star sighting, you have something akin to a Bourbon Street of film mayhem. It wasn't unusual to hear about simultaneous films, panels, parties and other shindigs taking place from 8 a.m. until, well, 8 a.m. I decided to experience a little of each. Friday, Jan. 17I start my screenings with The Mudge Boy by Michael Burke, and it reflects a recurrent Sundance theme — dysfunctional families and quirky characters trying to find their way in the world. Duncan (Emile Hirsch) loses his mother and copes by wearing her clothes and bonding with a chicken, all to the consternation of his father. Next up is The Baroness and the Pig (director Michael Mackenzie), in which a wealthy matron (Patricia Clarkson, who appears in four Sundance films this year and wins a Special Jury Prize for Dramatic Performance) takes in a girl raised by pigs and "presents" her to a dinner party. While the film raises interesting issues, such as what constitutes being human and civilized, the film is marred by Theme Two of Sundance — poor picture quality in digital features.

I spend the remainder of the evening at a few film parties, including a party for Milk & Honey, where I witness the first of several physical fights. These people take films seriously.

Saturday, Jan. 18The fight intrigues me, so I start the weekend at 8:30 a.m. with a screening of Joe Maggio's Milk & Honey, a story of the disintegration of a relationship in which a husband stops taking his anxiety medication and his wife has an affair with a young man who looks like her last boyfriend. The relationship may be dysfunctional but the performances are stellar, capturing elements of love, life and fate rarely conveyed with such emotional honesty and humor. This film also marks Sundance Trend Three — the rise of the sophomore class. Maggio's first film, Virgil Bliss, was rejected by Sundance but played Slamdance and won Best Narrative at the Atlanta Film Festival. Its showing should give hope to those filmmakers whose debut efforts are snubbed.

Sunday, Jan. 19Sunday morning is a rude awakening after the previous night's festivities, but the highlight is Dot the I, starring Gael Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien) in an English-speaking role about a love affair that blurs the lines between reality and reality-TV. Die Mommie Die, a twisted but fun little film about an ex-pop singer, pleases the crowds and then throws an after-party lacking any pretension, a rarity for Sundance. But I wrap up the evening at a condo-party thrown by an indie producer and witness my second film fight, this time between two women.

Monday, Jan. 20One of the most talked about films this year is Pieces of April (director Peter Hedges), a decent-looking digital feature/comedy starring Katie Holmes as April, a daughter estranged from her family. She invites the family to visit her for a Thanksgiving meal, and when her oven dies, she turns to her neighbors for help, or lack of it.

In The Cooler (director Wayne Kramer), William H. Macy gives another brilliant performance as Bernie Lootz, a man whose luck is so bad, a casino pays him to sit next to hot players to cool them off. There are many parties wrapping up the night, but nearly everyone seems to be at the Independent Film Channel party at Ciseros in celebration of Pieces of April and other IFC films.

Tuesday , Jan. 21Documentaries are a large focus at Sundance, with an entire venue, the House of Docs, devoted to documentary art. Today I watch The Weather Underground, by Seth Green and Bill Siegel, telling the story of a band of radicals in the 1960s who hoped to bring the war home and overthrow the government; the film is even more interesting in light of current terrorist activities. I spend the rest of the afternoon at the House of Docs, meeting filmmakers and distributors and listening to part of a panel on the state of the activist documentary in today's political environment. Then it's off to the Sundance Channel party, where I witness a mob scene in the gift bag line, and for good reason — the Kenneth Cole gift bags contain more than $500 worth of goodies. More parties abound, but I've caught the Sundance flu and head in early.

Wednesday, Jan. 22Even with a flu, I have to catch at least one film and Bukowski: Born Into This fits well with my mixture of cold, hangover and Chinaski-esque voice. Director John Dullaghan interviews old friends of author Charles Bukowski, stars like Sean Penn and publisher Jim Martin, and then lets Bukowski have his own say as well, revealing an insecure, tender and loving man underneath his hardened poetry and sometimes caustic public presence.

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