Getting a movie into Sundance is not unlike making the hurdle into a prestigious school or high-profile street gang: once in, it's almost as tough to get out.
When your film is one of 210 being selected from a stack of 8,731 submissions for the country's premier independent film showcase, alumni status can only be a good thing. As in past years, the 2008 Sundance Film Festival (running Thursday through Jan. 27 in Park City and Salt Lake City, Utah) is welcoming back a preponderance of directors with a strong track record from previous years.
In some instances those first films went on to achieve substantial indie-film success, as was the case with movies by Morgan Spurlock and Tom McCarthy. With their sophomore efforts, the two directors have adapted their particular styles to address life in a post-9/11 world.
Spurlock, the fast-food daredevil who put his liver on the line with an all-McDonald's diet in "Super Size Me," is returning with a stunt of a very different flavor. In "Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?" the 37-year-old New Yorker goes on a manhunt to find the al-Qaida mastermind, an odyssey that spans Egypt, Morocco, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. As with his 2004 festival hit, Spurlock injects playful graphics to make some deadly serious points.
In 2003, Tom McCarthy elicited standing ovations and multiple awards for his beautifully terse writing-directing debut "The Station Agent," in which Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale played three disparate individuals who bond in a sleepy corner of New Jersey. McCarthy (whose frequent acting gigs include "Flags of Our Fathers" and "The Wire") reasserts his interest in the connective tissue of unconnected souls in "The Visitor," which stars Richard Jenkins as an economics professor who finds common ground, quite literally, with a Lebanese man and his Senegalese wife, whom he discovers squatting in his Manhattan apartment.
Craig Lucas is another Sundance veteran accustomed to swapping hats, having made inroads as a musical theater performer, switched to writing plays ("Prelude to a Kiss," "Blue Window") and films ("Longtime Companion," "The Secret Lives of Dentists"), then expanded to directing the film version of his Off-Broadway drama "The Dying Gaul." Lucas sticks to directing on "Birds of America," a quirky comedy of sibling tensions with a cast that features Matthew Perry, Ginnifer Goodwin, Hilary Swank, Lauren Graham and Ben Foster.
Few Sundance feature debuts in recent years have made a bigger splash than Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's "Half Nelson," which garnered acclaim for Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps' performances as a drug-abusing white schoolteacher and an empathetic black student. Race and cultural cross-pollination also inform "Sugar," the filmmaking couple's second dramatic feature, which tracks the struggle of a 19-year-old Dominican baseball player who absorbs the culture shock of small-town Iowa as he makes the leap to minor-league prominence in the United States.
For some, one festival success does not automatically confer a free Sundance ride for subsequent films. After scoring a bull's-eye in 1992 with "Swoon," his stylish revisiting of the Leopold and Loeb case, Tom Kalin toiled over at least another half dozen films before the doors swung open again in Park City. Kalin once again explores the intersection of crime and the privileged classes with "Savage Grace," starring Julianne Moore and Stephen Dillane in the true-life drama of a society marriage gone tragically awry.
Another director who took a circuitous return route to Sundance is New Yorker Boaz Yakin, who came to the festival in 1994 with the excellent inner-city drama "Fresh," then went on to helm such diverse projects as "A Price Above Rubies" (with Renee Zellweger) and the sports film "Remember the Titans" starring Denzel Washington. Family and guilt are the two interweaving themes of Yakin's new drama "Death in Love," which stars Josh Lucas as a New Yorker with a troubled personal and professional life and Jaqueline Bisset as his Holocaust-survivor mom.
One of the most undervalued Sundance debuts of the past decade was "XX/XY," Brooklynite Austin Chick's smartly bisected portrait of a messed-up relationship, featuring a then up-and-coming Mark Ruffalo. Josh Hartnett centers the action of Chick's latest "August," about a sharklike dot-com entrepreneur who suddenly finds himself in the soup. Also prominent among the offbeat ensemble are Naomie Harris ("Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men's Chest"), Adam Scott ("The Aviator") and rocker supreme David Bowie.
Fans of "mumblecore," that creeping movement of chatty, improvisational-seeming romantic comedies epitomized by Andrew Bujalski's "Funny Ha-Ha" and Mark and Jay Duplass' "The Puffy Chair" (a Sundance sleeper from 2005) should relish the second coming of the Duplasses with "Baghead." The duo's navel-gazing interpersonal comedy focuses on a circle of unemployed actor friends who go on a weekend retreat to brainstorm a movie that will star themselves. With any luck, the brothers Duplass will ride back into Park City next year with the fruits of that weekend. "Son of Baghead," anyone?
FIVE FILMS TO LOOK OUT FOR AT SUNDANCE FESTIVAL
Only one of the movies from directors returning to Sundance ("Sugar") is featured among the 16 films entered in this year's dramatic competition. While it's too soon to foretell which of the rising filmmakers in the category will have a future in or out of the festival, here are five competing films that have the air of winner about them:
NORTH STARR. An aspiring rap artist flees inner-city Houston after witnessing the murder of a friend and finds a soul mate in a small redneck community. Matthew Stanton co-stars in his directorial debut.
THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH. Michael Chabon's bestselling debut novel finally comes to the screen, adapted by Rawson Marshall Thurber ("Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story"). Jon Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sienna Miller, Nick Nolte and Mena Suvari lead the cast.
THE WACKNESS. Jonathan Levine's romantic comedy, set in and around the private-school society of 1994 New York City, features Josh Peck as a wayward, pot-dealing teenager and Ben Kingsley as a psychiatrist who accepts joints in lieu of credit cards.
PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND. An academic mom and her off-center child form the pivotal dynamic of Daniel Barnz's probing drama. The singular cast includes Felicity Huffman, Ella Fanning, Campbell Scott and Sundance perennial, Patricia Clarkson.
SLEEP DEALER. Alex Rivera's inaugural film is a visually compelling science-fiction drama set in a small Oaxacan farm village in a not-too-distant future, when the borders are impassable and people can hook their nervous systems into global computer networks. Where else but Sundance?Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun