Dark days and bright nights

A page from a journal at the Sundance 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. the next day. I decided to experience a little of each.

Friday / Jan. 17 I 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 issues raised in the film — what constitutes being human and civilized — are interesting, 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 over a film that will take place at Sundance. These people take films seriously.

Saturday / Jan. 18 The 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.

Matthew Ryan Hoge’s The United States of Leland follows the life of a young man (Ryan Gosling) who, for no apparent reason, has killed the autistic brother of his ex-girlfriend. It’s another heavy film, but one that looks beautiful and is made lighter by the wicked scripting of Kevin Spacey’s lines as a disgruntled novelist and the estranged father of the young killer.

Slamdance steals some of the Park City buzz with its Saturday night opening film Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (director Kenneth Bowser) on early ’70s cinema. It sells out all three screenings and follows up with a great party for the true independent filmmakers in Park City.

Sunday / Jan. 19 Sunday 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 in a condo-party thrown by an indie producer and witness my second film fight, this time between two women.

Monday / Jan. 20 One of the most talked about films this year is __Pieces of April (director Peter Hedges), a decent looking digital feature 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 hilarious help, or lack of it.

William H. Macy gives another brilliant performance as Bernie Lootz in The Cooler (director Wayne Kramer) as 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 IFC party at Ciseros in celebration of Pieces of April and other IFC films.

Tuesday / Jan. 21 Documentaries 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 ’60s 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, distributors and listening to part of a panel on the state of 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. 22 Even with a cold, I have to catch at least one film and __Bukowski: Born Into This fits well with my mixture of cold and hangover. Director John Dullaghan interviews old friends, stars like Sean Penn and publisher Jim Martin, and then lets the author have his own say as well, revealing an insecure, tender and loving man underneath his hardened poetry and sometimes caustic public presence. I spend the rest of the day watching short films from the fest on tape and from the Web in the condo.

Thursday / Jan. 23 Miramax announces at 5 a.m. they have purchased rights to Tom McCarthy’s __The Station Agent (which wins the Dramatic Audience Award) so I begin my morning with this wonderful film. Train-enthusiast Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage) is 4 feet, 5 inches tall, and he just wants to be alone. When he inherits an old train station in New Jersey, he finds himself in the company of two other loners (including Ms. Sundance Patricia Clarkson), and they find solace in being alone together.

David Gordon Green, another sophomore filmmaker whose first film, George Washington, was rejected by Sundance, wins a Special Jury Prize for Drama with his new feature All The Real Girls, which becomes the must-see movie of the festival. The film is a brilliant step forward with its mix of romance and brooding, Terrence Malick-esque cinematography. It’s a study of relationships involving a womanizer and his best friend’s virgin sister. Though not a date movie, it will be released on Valentine’s Day.

After-parties for the evening include Fuji/Technicolor’s mountaintop bash featuring palm-readers, massages (I get two), manicures and great food. Unfortunately it’s marred by those two evil words of any party — cash bar — so my group heads to a De La Soul party, just missed Sigur Ros, and finish the evening with an excellent party thrown by United Artists at Wahso, where the booze and excellent Japanese cuisine (in Utah!) is free.

Friday / Jan. 24 Philip Seymour Hoffman deserves to be recognized as the king of Sundance as he turns in another stellar performance in __Owning Mahowny. He recreates the real-life story of a bank manager in Toronto who manages to steal more than $10.5 million over two years before being caught. By then, he’s penniless, however, as he’s an out-of-control gambler who, in a flurry of flights between Toronto, Atlantic City and Las Vegas, has lost nearly three times that amount.

American Splendor wins the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Feature, and it’s my favorite film of the festival. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, American Splendor follows the life story of legendary underground comic writer Harvey Pekar whose comics by the same name (illustrated by Robert Crumb among others) earned him fame not fortune. A near flawless film combining animation, great acting by Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis and documentary footage of the real-life characters, American Splendor is a self-deconstructing picture that explores Pekar’s brilliant analysis of life’s smaller foibles.

Tonight’s closing party and awards ceremony for Slamdance feature great up-and-coming filmmakers and bands. My condo mates finish the evening watching some films-in-progress on tape from filmmakers we met this week.

Sat.-Sun. / Jan. 25-26 An 8:30 a.m. screening of Baltasar Kormakur’s __The Sea is intense for the early hour. It focuses on an Icelandic family whose father has summoned them home to determine the fate of the family fishing business. Addressing issues central to Iceland — the effects of immigration, the changing nature of the working class, the sense of community in small towns — The Sea has beautiful cinematography and harrowing performances that seemingly capture the bitter cold of the country.

Unfortunately, my remaining films are not as good and I skip out of two movies early, hook up with a distribution executive for lunch and join a small group at the condo to watch the Awards Celebration in Super Bowl style. I am pleasantly surprised to see Atlanta-native Grover Babcock win a Special Jury Prize for Documentary for A Certain Kind of Death.

The official after-party at the Silvermine is nestled in the hills of Park City and is attended by nearly all of the winning filmmakers, but after a few minutes we decide to leave for quieter quarters and talk about the films ... until 4 a.m. Having seen about 30 films in 10 days, I make the wise choice to sleep for three hours before returning home.

Brian Newman is executive director of the IMAGE Film & Video Center.

For a complete listing of Sundance Film Festival winners, go to atlanta.creativeloafing.com/flicks_2.html.__