January 29, 2010 / 7:24 AM / 9 years ago

Sundance: More retreads than recharging

PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - The trouble with SundanceTwentyTen is its marketing slogans.

Actress Katie Holmes arrives for the premiere of "The Romantics" during the 2010 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah January 27, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Organizers splashed bumper-sticker slogans over every screen, program and signpost: “This Is the Renewed Rebellion.” “This Is the Recharged Fight Against the Establishment of the Expected.” “This Is Rebirth of the Battle for Brave New Ideas.”

Did anyone check with the filmmakers? At nearly every turn, they went for the expected. Brave new ideas were nowhere to be seen. Indie filmmakers today are largely not in the rebellious mood. They either mimic Hollywood or the indie films that have scored big here in the past.

Families, divorces, weddings, teen angst, middle-age malaise, middle-class guilt and female friendships — these remain the focus of filmmakers who lack the resources to take us to Pandora or wow us with visual magic.

Sundance crowds lined up for tired warhorses such as the coming-of-age movie. You could get it Texas style (“Skateland”) or New Zealand-flavored (“Boy”). At least the latter came with a Maori cast of nonprofessional kids in a remote setting.

And so it went: wedding comedies (“The Romantics”), Manhattan comic melodrama (“HappyThankYouMorePlease,” “Please Give”), immigrants in America (“The Imperialists Are Still Alive!”) and teens gone wild (“Welcome to the Rileys,” “The Runaways”).

Qualitywise, these films ran the gamut from good to so-so, but nobody was smashing any molds.

The quality has been pretty high in Sundance, just mislabeled. Those grungy, credit card-financed, 16mm films from the festival’s early days are long gone. Indie filmmakers today are mostly making lower-budget versions of Hollywood movies.

To find something really fresh, you usually have to leave American shores, and maybe travel as far as Greenland. “Nuummiouq,” the first feature from the frozen nation, was a lively gem about a young man who learns he has terminal cancer.”

But there were also too many new versions of films that have been playing in Sundance for many years. None was bad. Many were pretty enjoyable, in fact. Yet peel away a layer and you find conventional stories and traditional genres.

In one story about finding one’s identity, “The Extra Man,” starring Kevin Kline and Paul Dano, the familiar was made fresh — or at least odd — by smothering the story in outrageous caricatures and bizarre behavior.

So despite the sloganeering, it was pretty much business as usual at Sundance. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. The festival’s longtime heads, Geoffrey Gilmore and John Cooper, spent a long time building its traditions and favorite filmmakers. Now that Cooper has replaced Gilmore as the festival’s director, why should he tear things apart?

There has been some repackaging. Sections have acquired new labels, and a new one called Next is devoted to DIY films. Maybe a few bus routes changed too.

If there is a noticeable shift, it might be a lesser concentration on buzz and hype. Since dealmaking has shifted toward service deals — in which distributors come aboard in return for an upfront fee and a piece of the box office — and different distribution platforms, the festival feels a little less like a market and more like the celebration of independent cinema originally intended.

One improvement has come in the Premieres section. The celebrity quotient and red-carpet glamour has thankfully fallen away as the premiering films seem to actually belong to a festival celebrating indie filmmaking. In other words, no more “Brooklyn’s Finest,” the Sundance 2009 entry finally getting a theatrical release in March.

For many, Sundance remains a much-needed respite from Hollywood factory films. Like the snow that has fallen since everyone got to Park City last week, Sundance has had a cool, soothing effect, refreshing one’s palate for film viewing and reawakening the senses to character-driven storytelling.

Just don’t tell us we are witnessing any cinematic game-changers.

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