Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Place for discovery

This photo shows Naomi Watts in a scene from writer-director Scott Coffey's
David Germain Associated Press

PARK CITY, Utah – Critics say the Sundance Film Festival has become too big, too commercial, too focused on celebrity sightings and star-driven movies at the expense of spotlighting undiscovered talent.

“Hollywood on ice” is a frequent wisecrack hurled at the 11-day festival, which opens today amid the snow and cold of Park City’s upscale ski resorts.

Yet unlike Hollywood, where many Sundance filmmakers would be able to get onto a studio lot only if they took a tour with the rest of the general public, the festival is cinema democracy in action.

Where else could unknowns such as Pape Sidy Niang, Anna Oxygen and Eric Breedlove star in a film competing for top festival honors against movies featuring Keanu Reeves, Liv Tyler and Naomi Watts?

“As much as the press argues that Sundance has completely changed, it hasn’t changed that much,” said festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore. “It’s still a place for discovery. It’s a place for common ground among filmmakers and audiences more than it is the celebrity stuff.”

Niang, Oxygen and Breedlove are among the cast of director Robinson Devor’s “Police Beat,” one of 16 films in Sundance’s dramatic competition, a launching pad for past critical and commercial hits such as “In the Bedroom” and “You Can Count On Me.”

A culture-clash romance following an immigrant West African bicycle cop involved with a Seattle woman, “Police Beat” faces off against such competition entries as “Lonesome Jim,” the tale of a dysfunctional family featuring Tyler and Casey Affleck; “Ellie Parker,” starring Watts in an expansion of her short film about a wannabe Hollywood actress; and “Thumbsucker,” with Reeves as a dentist in an ensemble tale about a teenager (Lou Pucci) with an oral fixation on his thumbs.

Co-starring Tilda Swinton, Vince Vaughn and Benjamin Bratt, “Thumbsucker” is considered one of the hot potential acquisitions for distributors prowling Sundance in search of the next big indie hit.

Sundance’s dramatic competition is a dream slot for filmmakers seeking a high-profile place to premiere a movie for distributors. It’s also a nerve-wracking experience.

“Obviously, it’s a great honor, but it’s given me a major stomach ache right now,” said “Thumbsucker” director Mike Mills.

Along with the competition for U.S.-made independent dramas, the Sundance lineup of 120 feature films includes competitions for American and world-cinema documentaries.

New this year is a competition for world-cinema drama, whose lineup includes the Latin American tale “Cronicas,” starring John Leguizamo as a crime journalist; the British flick “On a Clear Day,” with Peter Mullan and Brenda Blethyn in the story of an out-of-work laborer trying to swim the English Channel; and Denmark’s “Brothers,” a sibling drama featuring Connie Nielsen.

Among films in Sundance’s celebrity-heavy premiere category: “The Upside of Anger,” a comic romantic drama with Joan Allen and Kevin Costner; “The Matador,” a hit-man comedy starring Pierce Brosnan; “The Jacket,” a time-travel thriller with Adrien Brody, Keira Knightley and Jennifer Jason Leigh; “Loverboy,” directed by Kevin Bacon and featuring his wife, Kyra Sedgwick, as a dangerously overprotective mom; “Nine Lives,” an ensemble drama with a cast including Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Sissy Spacek and Robin Wright Penn; and “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” a father-daughter drama starring Daniel Day-Lewis and directed by his wife, Rebecca Miller.

Sundance is a rare festival that gives equal time to fiction and nonfiction films. Each year, many of the most popular films are documentaries, including last year’s “Super Size Me,” which won the festival’s documentary-directing prize for Morgan Spurlock and went on to become a $10 million theatrical hit.

Robert Redford, founder of the Sundance Institute, credits the festival’s nurturing of nonfiction films for contributing to the explosion of audience interest in documentaries over the past few years.

In the late 1980s, Sundance organizers decided to put greater emphasis on documentaries, he said.

“At that time, documentaries were where they usually are at most festivals, off to the side or down lower on the register,” Redford said. “We decided each year to devote more and more screenings to more and more documentaries and see if the audience would allow it. Well, the audience did allow it. The more we pushed, the more the audience came.”

Led by “Super Size Me,” the geek comedy “Napoleon Dynamite,” the romance “Garden State” and the shark tale “Open Water,” last year’s festival produced Sundance’s broadest range of breakout indie hits ever.

“It was a big year,” said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films, which acquired “Open Water” and is releasing this year’s opening-night Sundance film, director Don Roos’ comedy “Happy Endings,” with Lisa Kudrow, Laura Dern, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Tom Arnold.

“As an acquisitions market, it has peaks and valleys; it ebbs and flows,” Ortenberg said. “But I have in my 10 years of going there never been to a Sundance Film Festival that wasn’t a terrific festival.

“Sundance is still the pre-eminent launching pad for American independent film, and it has been and always will be a great place to discover new talent.”