Thursday, 12 January 2012

Why I love that Sundance Film Festival

It's just a week until the Sundance Film Festival 2012 opens its doors on 19th January.  Showcasing new work from independent filmmakers from all around the world, it's always a good place to start searching for the next big thing.



Documentaries, dramas, short films and features are all given their time to shine in the many venues of the festival, held annually in Park City, Utah.  Peter Biskind's brilliant book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film details the festivals humble origins through its rise to the largest independent film festival in the USA.  Biskind's book is highly critical of Harvey Weinstein and is less than complimentary about the success of Miramax through it's distribution of indie films often picked up at the Sundance Film Festival.  But the book does highlight why Sundance is such an influential and important fixture on any movie lover's calendar.


People might be wary of the commercialisation of the independent sector and film festivals like Sundance and Cannes that are becoming more and more about selling mainstream product masquerading as quirky indies but there is no doubting the importance of this festival and others like it to young, low budget drama and documentary filmmakers.  Incredibly popular films like Saw and Four Weddings and a Funeral got a huge boost from their screenings at Sundance before becoming box-office behemoths. 


Sundance has also kick-started the careers of some of the most excting directors of our generation.  Tarantino took Reservoir Dogs in 1992 and despite not winning anything in competition and a slow-start to the box-office success of the film, there is no doubt that its popularity is indebted to its start at Sundance.  And without Tarantino, we wouldn't have the masterpiece Pulp Fiction and one of the most exciting prospects for 2012, Django Unchained.  The same year, Robert Rodriguez took his $7000 action movie El Mariachi to the festival and the praise heaped on it kicked off his career that would take in kids movies (Spy Kids), Tarantino collaborations (Sin City, Grindhouse) and sequels/remakes (Desperado) to his original DIY creation. 




Similarly, Sundance can be thanked for the career launching of indie/mainstream straddlers Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater.  Clerks and Slacker, none more cheap, independent and inspiring were screened at the festival leading to interesting and diverse careers for both filmmakers.  Smith might misfire every time he tries to go mainstream (Jersey Girl, Cop Out) but his recent Red State suggests a return to form as well as a risky move away from letting the big corporations handle distribution.  Linklater has similarly flirted with the mainstream with the successful School of Rock but is probably best loved for his indie charmers Before Sunrise and Sunset.




Among other films that have benefitted from their showcasing at Sundance are Primer, Memento, Precious, Little Miss Sunshine, the phenomenon that became The Blair Witch Project and last year's Another Earth.  And that's without even mentioning some of the great documentaries that have been given an all-important push by their prize-winning turns at the festival; Hoop Dreams, When We Were Kings, Murderball, Supersize Me and Senna among many, many others.  It really is a breeding ground for young talent who have struggled to make interesting, independent films on small budgets.  And if they happen to get picked up by rich distributors ready to spread the word of these little gems in return for profits, then so be it. 




This year Quentin Dupieux brings his surreal-looking follow-up to Rubber to the festival.  Despite being titled Wrong, I hope it gets it head-fucking right.  The First Time sounds like a sweet bit of teen romance and The Imposter looks like one of the documentaries to keep an eye out for.  But after Aussie crime drama Animal Kingdom's success, perhaps new Aussie mystery Wish You Were Here (again starring Joel Edgerton) is the film that has the biggest chance of smashing through to the mainstream.  Only time will tell.  One thing I know for certain is that I wish I was at the Sundance Film Festival to find out.


The festival kicks off next Thursday and just in case you didn't know, unfortunately I won't be there.  Anyone reading this going?  Anyone heard of any other hot tips for this year?  Anyone think indie film is being ruined by the commercialisation of film festivals like Sundance?  I'd love to hear from you.