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Flicks - Southern films shine at Sundance Film Festival

Southern filmmakers were prominently represented at this year's Sundance Film Festival, which wrapped up Jan. 30 in Park City, Utah. Southerners claimed many slots on the screening schedule, as well as the Grand Jury Prize for

Forty Shades of Blue, directed by Ira Sachs.

Sachs was raised in Memphis and returned there to shoot his understated feature about relationships strained by the weight of a larger-than-life patriarch. Aging music producer Alan (Rip Torn) lives the good life with his Russian trophy wife, Laura (Dina Korzun). He's feted at black-tie tributes, parties with musicians and sleeps around with younger women enthralled by his legendary status. When his estranged son Michael (Darren Burrows) pays a visit, he agitates the situation by bringing his father's philandering to the attention of Laura, and gains her affection in turn.

The film has a tranquil, studious air, reminiscent of a French film (think Claire Denis) set in the American South. The film's naturalism is an asset to its artfulness, but could make wide distribution nearly impossible. That's too bad, because Sachs is a talent deserving of more attention, and Korzun brings a nuance to her role that makes her character too complex to easily dismiss.

A different perspective of Memphis is apparent in the Narrative Audience Award winner and perhaps the best film of the festival, Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow. Brewer, another Memphis-born filmmaker, set and shot his film in the streets of Memphis, where DJay (Terrence Howard) has been working as a pimp for years. When he runs into an old friend from high school who is recording gospel music at a local church, DJay convinces his friend to help him record his music, which they hope to deliver to a visiting Crunk star from the 'hood (played by Ludacris) who could help them break big. The scenes of DJay recording his music form the life of this film and make Hustle & Flow the modern-day Rocky of hip-hop music. The music is infectious and two supporting actors give standout performances: DJ Qualls as a white rapper Shelby, and Taraji Henson as DJay's hooker, baby mama and an unexpected vocal bombshell.

The film uses some familiar rags-to-riches tropes, but it enthralled audiences, who talked about it for days. Brewer struggled for years to make the film, and he landed a $9 million deal with Paramount Pictures for his efforts, so expect to see it on the screen - and in the record stores - soon.

Graphic artist and music video director Mike Mills' feature debut, Thumbsucker, garnered an acting award for its young protagonist, Lou Pucci. Pucci stars as Justin Cobb, a high school student addicted to, you guessed it, thumb sucking. He tries everything to quit, and finally succeeds with Adderall, and becomes the king of the debate team before realizing he's merely transferred his addiction. Mills' film of teen angst and sexual awakening avoids familiarity with compelling character studies of Justin's family (Tilda Swinton and Vincent D'Onofrio), love interest (Kelli Garner), New Age orthodontist (Keanu Reeves) and a drug-addicted soap star (Benjamin Bratt) who befriends Justin and his mom in rehab. Thumbsucker had distributors and audiences buzzing, and will probably be released later this year.

Multimedia performance artist Miranda July offered up one of the more inventive films of the festival. In Me and You and Everyone We Know, which July wrote, directed and stars in, she plays Christine Jesperson, a lonely performance artist and cab driver for the elderly. She attempts to make sense of her life through her art, her day job and a flirtation with Richard (John Hawkes), a shoe salesman attempting to raise his two sons alone while in the throes of a midlife crisis. One son, 7-year-old Robby, is engaging in an inappropriate chat room relationship, while his 17-year-old brother Peter is being experimented on by a pair of local schoolgirls who want "practice" for future relationships.

July brings an artfulness to banality and a singular, quirky perspective to the film. She deservedly won the Sundance award for Originality of Vision.

Documentaries are always among the most powerful films at Sundance, and this year a documentary about America's obsession with a certain sexual practice was probably the timeliest film of the festival. If you think Janet's breast was a big deal, just wait until this film hits the theaters.

Inside Deep Throat by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato chronicles the history of the X-rated film Deep Throat, which captured the attention of America in 1972. The flick was made for $25,000, was banned in every city it played, and is reportedly the most profitable movie ever made.

Few remember just how shocking the film was upon its release, but Bailey and Barbato demonstrate how the movie affected American culture and sexual mores, as well as the impact it had on all those involved in its making, not least the stars of the film, Harry Reams and Linda Lovelace.

The documentary will now get a wide release, albeit with an NC-17 rating (it includes clips from the movie), and it should spark a lively debate on art, freedom of speech and censorship just as the FCC and our government become more obsessed with the culture wars.

Inside Deep Throat also proves that independent filmmakers will continue to push boundaries - artistic and otherwise - and audiences will be much richer for the experience.