Making it through the entire 10-day run of the Sundance Film Festival is a feeling akin to the completion of a marathon run—a combination of elation, exhaustion and satisfaction at the cross of the finish line… followed almost instantly by a bittersweet nostalgia.

Saul Rubinek as Howard Kauffman and director-star Mario Van Peebles as his father, Melvin, in Baadassss! (2004); Dave Kalama and Laird Hamilton ride the Peahi, Hawaii waves in Stacy Peralta’s Riding Giants (2004).

This year the festival seemed to limp to the starting gate licking a few raw wounds, the nastiest of which was inflicted by the publication of Peter Biskind’s inflammatory Down and Dirty Pictures, the high-profile bestseller which delivers some glancing blows to festival’s rep. The book, a dishy, behind-the-scenes history of the independent film world, addresses the longstanding accusation that Sundance has, over the years, sold its original indie cred downstream.
Whether or not this accusation holds any validity at all, no critic could deny the effect the festival has had on American independent cinema over the past decade. In fact, a kind of signature “Sundance style” has evolved—creating a genre all its own. Examples of this distinct aesthetic were evident this year in the many small, personal narratives (many of them threaded through with subtle political and cultural subversions) that supplied audiences with their usual Sundance fix.

“Sundance remains one of the few places where CREATIVE VISION AND CINEMATIC EXPERIMENTATION are still showcased and championed…”

Perhaps the classic example of this evolving genre was Garden State, a sweetly comic coming of age film starring Peter Sarsgaard, Natalie Portman and Zach Braff. Braff, the 28-year old whose acting credits include a current role on NBC’s “Scrubs,” also wrote and directed the film, making him just the sort of auteur Sundance is fond of showcasing in its new moviemaker debutante ball. The film was one of the first to sell, with Fox Searchlight and Miramax teaming up to hand Braff a reported $5 million.

Throughout the run of the festival, in fact, Fox Searchlight proved to be one the most enthusiastic buyers of the season, paying a similar amount to first-time moviemaker Jared Hess for his hilariously offbeat comedy, Napoleon Dynamite.

The infamous buying frenzies which marked many festivals past, however, seemed to have again this year proven to be a thing of the past, with most of the films purchased for relatively sober amounts. Sony Pictures Classics snagged both the opening night film, Riding Giants, Stacy Peralta’s (Dogtown and Z-Boys) high-energy surfing doc, and Ian Iqbal Rashid’s comedy Touch of Pink, with Kyle MacLachlan.

IFC Films purchased the mockumentary C.S.A., which imagines the United States if the Confederacy had won. Newmarket put down a cool million for Nicole Kassell’s The Woodsman, starring Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick and Mos Def. Maria Full of Grace, a neatly crafted drama from first-time director Joshua Marston, will be released jointly through HBO Films and Fine Line.

The latter also snagged the coveted Audience Award, while the Grand Jury prize went rather unexpectedly (but certainly deservedly) to the über-low-budget sci-fi flick Primer. Made for $7,000 by first-time writer-director-producer-star Shane Carruth, Primer is exactly the sort of film Sundance might have championed back in 1990. It’s hard not to wonder if the committee set out to make a deliberate statement with its selection of a cleverly executed debut, made on little more than guts, gumption and sheer stubbornness.

The same moviemaking philosophy applied to the fest’s Grand Jury doc winner, DiG! a wonderfully energetic exploration of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Director Ondi Timoner spent the last seven years making the film, which documents the simultaneous evolution of two indie bands, The Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre.

For the People: TromaDance turns five

If Sundance is the industry’s festival,
and Slamdance the independent’s, then TromaDance is definitely the festival of the people. With a reputation for egalitarianism—and a tendency toward the offbeat—few other festivals anywhere (let alone Park City) offer as much as TromaDance does, for so little return.

With no submission fees for moviemakers, and no ticket fees for attendees (this includes screenings, panels and parties—all of which are on a first come, first served basis), the TromaDance claim that it’s “the first film festival wholeheartedly devoted to filmmakers and fans” doesn’t seem to be just a PR ploy.

The event may not have the history of its more established neighbors, but as the brainchild of Lloyd Kaufman and legendary indie powerhouse Troma Entertainment (which has been around for more than 30 years and produced such pop culture icons as the Toxic Avenger and Sgt. Kabukiman), it’s safe to say that this is one event that is sure to become a mainstay of the Park City scene.

Taking place over a three-day period, this year’s lineup was comprised of nearly 50 works. Making their full-length premiere this year were Rod Murphy’s documentary Greater Southbridge, about a colorful New England town, and Chris Burgard’s The Ruining, a seemingly unexplainable homage to the horror films of the late ’70s and early ’80s that took more than 10 years to complete. Troma also served up its own Tales from the Crapper, a film that took three years of shooting in three different countries with six different directors and 15 writers—and stars Kaufman himself as “The Crapkeeper.”

Of course, some of the genius (and probably much of the success) of Troma’s work can be attributed to its titles, and the program of shorts at this year’s event did not disappoint when it came to creativity. On the schedule were Heidi Sjuresen’s A Potato Chip Tale, Ryan Schaddelee’s Zombie Chomp, John Venturini’s Succubus, Phil Gunn’s Kung-Fu Kitties, David Zellis’ Cannibalism: A New Taste in Style and, of course, Aiden Dillard’s Battle Between Burps and the Farts. Need we say more?

DiG! was one of this year’s many stellar documentary entries. In fact, it’s safe to say the genre stole the Park City spotlight away from the traditionally more flashy dramatic narrative category. But Sundance has always been a champion of the documentary form, particularly films that explore social and political issues, and this year was no exception. The World Doc Audience award went to The Corporation, a thorough investigation of the history of big business and the subsequent effects on economics, culture and the environment. The Documentary Directing Award winner was Super Size Me, a hilariously executed self-experiment that follows director Morgan Spurlock’s rather foolhardy plan to eat McDonald’s three times a day, every day for a month. What might have been merely an amusing lark turns out to be a harrowing medical saga—and a tidy indictment of the enormous fast-food conglomerate.

The Audience Award for Documentary went to Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman’s brutal and beautiful Born into Brothels, which documents the lives of several children living in the Red Light district of Calcutta. The Shorts Awards went to Shilpi Gupta’s When the Storm Came, Ryan Fleck’s Gowanus, Brooklyn and Paul Catling’s Tomo—with fashion photographer David LaChapelle earning an honorable mention for his dance doc Krumped.

Other standout premieres were Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, which was promptly snapped up by Focus Features following its first screening. A wonderfully vibrant narrative, the film uses as its foundation the true story of a trans-South American journey made by a young Che Guevara. Starring Y tu mamá también’s Gael García Bernal, Diaries is a classic Sundance showcase piece, subtly photographed, gracefully acted and emotionally resonant.

Special screenings included Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song, the granddaddy of all blaxploitation flicks and one of the most daring bits of American cinema of all time. The film was paired with Mario Van Peebles’ Baadasssss!, which explores his father’s trials and tribulations in getting Sweetback to the screen.
The Danish auteur Lars von Trier had two stellar screenings at the fest: a sneak peek at Dogville and an early look at his new documentary, the utterly enthralling The Five Obstructions.

In addition to a jam-packed schedule of fine films, Sundance also offered a wealth of alternative events. Its Music Café featured the likes of Edie Brickell and film composer Jon Brion and its Filmmaker’s Lodge hosted a variety of lectures and informal talks on everything from collaborative art to international documentary sales. And then there was the nightlife, of course—a Main Street bustling with fur coats and cell phones, young stars and aging execs enduring the icy air for entrance to parties such as IFC’s anniversary event, Blender’s weeklong series of live concerts and Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch awards.

In between the soggy appetizers and the free drinks, the conversation inevitably turned back to film. Despite the weight of its legacy and all the outside criticisms, Sundance remains one of the few places where creative vision and cinematic experimentation are still showcased and championed, which is no small feat in an industry where integrity and economics are too often an ill fit.

Over the course of the last decade, Slamdance, the alternative “rival” to Sundance, has slowly grown into an impressive festival in its own right—a kind of an unapologetically experimental, eagerly subversive kid brother. This year the fest celebrated its tenth year in its convenient digs at the top of Main Street, providing weary filmgoers with one-stop cinema shopping. Highlights included the world premiere of animator Bill Plympton’s newest feature, Hair High, as well as the fantastic Monster Road, a documentary exploring the work of legendary animator Bruce Bickford.

Famous for his unbelievably imaginative claymation experiments for musician Frank Zappa, Bickford joined director Brett Ingram in Park City to support the film, which went on to win the Grand Jury Sparky Award for Best Documentary Feature. The prize for Best Dramatic Feature went to the coming of age film Homework, directed by Kevin Asher Green.

Closing night ceremonies included a screening of Death & Texas, an anti-death penalty satire starring one of the most eclectic casts in recent years—country star Billy Ray Cyrus, comic Andy Richter and punk rocker Jello Biafra. Following the film, throngs of partiers arrived at the Snow Park Lodge to get down to the sounds of celebrity DJs D:Fuse, Money Mark and DJ Me DJ You.

As always, Slamdance provided some of the best celebrations of the season. It’s always been more adept at entertainment than its older brother, a fact particularly evident this year, as the fest enjoyed its tenth birthday in high style. MM