The just-concluded 2006 Sundance Film Festival was such a stampede that it reminded the Lost Boys of Sudan, the visiting heroes of the Grand Jury

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Refugees on Main Street

Sundance offers bigger crowds, better docs, addicts galore, and several Seattle connections, but we think it needs a new set of awards categories.

The just-concluded 2006 Sundance Film Festival was such a stampede that it reminded the Lost Boys of Sudan, the visiting heroes of the Grand Jury and Audience Award–winning documentary God Grew Tired of Us, of a refugee camp. Roughly 25,000 fled the 1992 Sudanese civil war; Sundance attracts about twice that many attendees. Now that the theaters have emptied and the temporary Starbucks (a festival sponsor) on Main Street has been struck like an empty film set, it's time to reflect on the festival's lessons. First, the Northwest news from Park City, Utah. We contributed one of the five dramatic category jurors, Bainbridge Islander Alan Rudolph, and trifecta- winning San Juan Islander James Longley, whose exquisite Iraq in Fragments won documentary awards for directing, cinematography, and editing. The other big Seattle success was in the parallel universe of the Slamdance Film Festival, where Lynn Shelton's locally made first feature, We Go Way Back, won both Grand Jury feature prizes, for Best Narrative Feature Film and Best Cinematography. Getting into Slamdance instead of Sundance may have been the break of Shelton's now-hot career. It's an important movie about what Shelton calls "the geisha years," when a woman in her 20s aims to please men and authority, at the cost of finding herself. You never see the stunning smile of Cornish B.F.A. Amber Hubert, who plays the heroine, Kate: She sleepwalks almost zombielike through life, jumped by jerks and jerked around by her mad theater director, played with daft abandon by Robert Hamilton Wright. The film gets quite lost in its last act, but the resonant first two-thirds of it puts one in mind of a distaff Northwest Garden State. There's a faint Seattle connection to the most technically accomplished film I saw at Sundance, Jonathan Demme's Neil Young: Heart of Gold. Young's assistant, Eric Johnson, used to assist Pearl Jam. Even though the film self-effacingly blends two live Nashville concerts of the old man at the peak of his mature powers, Demme told me, "It's as personal a film as I've ever made," putting it up there with Melvin & Howard, Philadelphia, Cousin Bobby, and The Agronomist. "It's very much like a dream," added Young. "'Cause everything's always right with a dream." (I'll have more of that chat in our Feb. 15, issue; the film opens here Friday, Feb. 17.) It was the big-bucks star vehicles like Friends With Money that provoked paparazzi to chase Jennifer Aniston's limo down the street, but for my money, the Seattle Weekly award for Best Film at Sundance was Son of Man, Mark Dornford-May's modern-day South African version of the Christ story, set in a tortured shantytown and brilliantly acted by the theater group Dimpho Di Kopane. It's the best-looking HD film I've ever seen, more moving than The Last Temptation of Christ, and smarter than Mel Gibson's Passion. The Slaughter of the Innocents has never seemed more realistic, and the lifelike saga is full of graceful touches—a fan glimpsed behind Mary's head becomes a well-earned halo. Like Shelton's film, and past Sundance triumph Tarnation, it shows how valuable stage experience can be in indie film. That's just what's lacking in TV Junkie, the self-filmed self- destructive life story of Rick Kirkham, the George Plimpton–like participatory journalist of TV's Inside Edition who cracked up on crack. Kirkham always talks like a shallow talking head with no dramatic sense, but there is a creepy fascination to see him stalk his own family with a camera until his wife calls the cops—repeatedly. It's less interesting to watch him drone into the camera while consuming cocaine and feeling bad about himself. Sundance has a jones for addiction stories. Besides Kirkham and Sherrybaby's more hopeful junkie (sensitively played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), we get the reformable alcoholic sexaholic Ashley Judd in Joey Lauren Adams' Come Early Morning (a clumsier Junebug, but winsome, and with Scott Wilson playing a stone-faced dad kind of like the one he plays in Junebug); Scott Wilson as a pothead loser dad in the rape melodrama The Open Window; Aniston as a pothead loser housecleaner in Friends With Money; and, most impressively, Ryan Gosling as a crack-smoking high-school teacher and girls' basketball coach in Ryan Fleck's Half Nelson. What distinguishes Gosling's role is that he's not just an addict, a walking Social Problem. He's an individual, a subversive leftist who genuinely inspires his otherwise bored students. As his best student, an at-risk but at present clean 13-year-old, Shareeka Epps wins the SW award for best new talent at Sundance with a grave, thoughtful, precise performance by an actor who had zero previous experience. Let's roll out a few more SW awards: Weirdest Writer/Director: Hands down, the prize goes to Michel Gondry. The Science of Sleep makes his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind look cautiously conventional. Gael García Bernal plays a young, remarkably childish man who has trouble keeping his dream life and his real life straight. Sometimes, he lives like Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, hosting a TV show that exists strictly within his teeming skull. In the real world, he falls in love with his neighbor (Charlotte Gainsbourg at her sweetest), but he can't for the life of him remember whether or not he slipped that mortifying note under her door in a dream. Frequently, he and she and his madcap co-workers take off on thrilling adventures in a cheesy dreamscape replete with cardboard boats, cars, and roller coasters, and other materials and gizmos and settings too diversely fantastic to enumerate. It all makes a crazy kind of sense, corresponding intelligibly to the boy's real dilemmas. Even if you've followed Gondry's roller-coaster career, you haven't seen anything like this. Noblest Lost Cause: Legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler and his co- director, rising star Lisa Leeman, go on a milder Michael Moore–style crusade in their documentary Who Needs Sleep, demanding a maximum 14-hour workday for moviemakers. Wexler himself nearly died in a car crash after a long day's shoot, and others have died from fatigue—42,000 a year in all industries, he testifies. Wexler is so revered he gets interviews from insiders who would run from Moore, and he's right—but there's no way Hollywood is going to pay the extra money that would eliminate the deadly fatigue problem. Looks like we're going to have to live (and die) with it: The day after the screening, The New York Times reported a plane crash the FAA attributed to fatigue. Most Painfully Ironic Film: The Darwin Awards, by Finn Taylor, which beats his dismal 2002 Sundance entry, Cherish, but is a sad, stitched-together series of skits about the dumb accident victims satirized by the best-selling book by that name. (The idea is, foolish people do humanity a Darwinist favor by eliminating themselves from the gene pool.) First irony: Chris Penn, who died at 40 of unknown causes during the early days of Sundance, plays a guy whose midlife crisis at 40 makes him go ice fishing with dynamite and his dog, a retriever. Second irony: Shoplifting suspect Winona Ryder plays an insurance person investigating a man crushed by a vending machine. "Greedy bastard didn't want to pay," she says. Not retail, anyway—why does that sound familiar? The only thing missing is a cameo by Jack Abramoff. Best Real-Life Overheard Dialogue Uttered at Sundance: "My acting-school classmate was friends with Katie, but she's not permitted to talk to her anymore—Katie's getting $5 million a year. Scarlett got the same offer, but she turned it down. He asked lots of young actresses—he was worried because Brad's audience was skewing younger." tappelo@seattleweekly.com

 
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