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Harlan Jacobson's Finest From Sundance

Harlan Jacobson
Susan Jacobson for WBGO

What a work of man Sundance is, namely Robert Redford. It’s his legacy, after all, far more than the Way We Were or All the President’s Men or that near-silent film he starred in, ALL IS LOST, as a sailor adrift at sea. The 33rd Sundance Film Festival wraps up this weekend.

If you stop thinking of film as art—the 7th art, in fact—which the majority of Americans don’t anyway—and think of it for a second as a product, Sundance didn’t invent the independent film. But it did find a way to make it a business.

At a time when the new Administration wants to end funding to arts series across the country—ballet, opera, symphony, dance—that are already foundering, slicing and dicing ticket subscriptions—Pick any 3! -- and packaging tea and sympathy, by any measure Sundance is the American gold standard for the partnership of a not-for-profit public platform and private venture capital.

It ain’t just that careers continue to be minted here—Steven Soderbergh’s emergence here in 89 got things rolling soon thereafter for Kevin Smith, David O. Russell, Melissa Leo, Jennifer Lawrence, Errol Morris, Kenneth Lonergan, producer Christine Vachon, and for better or worse Quentin Tarantino. Sundance became an economic jolt, every kid in America wanted to become an indie film director--that preceded sports agent—universities smelling revenues amped up film studies, theatres started serving espresso with popcorn, and Park City’s real estate and tour economy exploded.

As an American enterprise, Sundance—originally meant to be subsidized by Redford’s nearby ski resort—mints money from sponsors and ticket and pass sales and in the process has reshaped American filmmaking, its original mission. And that filmmaking has given alternative voice to corporate culture in America for 33 years. The way the Cannes Film Festival re-built the Riviera after WWII, Sundance--since the late 80s when you could still ski with “Bob” and see movies—Sundance built Park City as a glam destination. Now it’s a cram destination: too many poseurs paying too much money for bragging rights back home. The skies laid down blankets of snow this year making a gray sloppy hash out of un-ordinary people -- a woman in pink suede high heeled boots and black spanx, a guy in orange shorts and Jesus sandals with a bejeweled pony tail attached at a 90-degree angle to the side of his head, an about to be Medicare-ready distributor in a black t-shirt overhanging his belly hanging over his jeans and scuffed hightops. What were those fashion victims thinking? Like a lotta things these days, we’ll never know.

There was even a cyber attack on the Sundance boxoffice that shut down operations for a day. Was it the Russians? Or the disgruntled local Trump supporters who hate the condescending art crowd that buys $4 bottles of Smart Water? 

There were 100 new US and 24 foreign films here this year to think about, not counting the TV programming, shorts and all manner of digital what-not. Volunteers in yellow and black jackets act like bees with megaphones. People line up in huge pens as the head yellow jacket metronomes the pace and the rules. At the Marc Theatre venue, attached to the Park City health club, you wonder if you heard them say, “You will march through the showers first on your way to your hot ticket, do not be alarmed.” Not fair, I know, but a dark fantasy nonetheless as thousands of the forlorn wait to see films. On the whole, I’d say I’ve liked the film selection better this year than last, the year of the scuttled, rebellious Birth of A Nation, and the melodramatic Manchester By The Sea, now slouching towards the Oscars next month. 2017 is said to be curated to an environmental theme—opening night was An Inconvenient Sequel, as Al Gore returned in the flesh 10 years after his first film splashed down. The sequel takes the eco-pulse and finds it faster and hotter.

 Over on the fiction side of things, where I spent all of my time this year in defiance of accepted wisdom, it’s been a year of high anxiety over the way forward for the millennials and their younger sibs. Who wins the grand prize here this weekend may not matter. These are films you’ll want to see over the next year thanks to Sundance’s film market.

Dee Rees’ Mudbound, set during and just post- WWII, with breakout performances by Garrett Hedlund and Jason Clarke as white and black sons across the tracks of a Mississippi town, who find the war and the Army have changed them at tragic cost for anticipating a bi-racial America. Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$, which prowls the streets of Newark to put together North Jersey’s greatest longshot rap group, PBNJ, again with breakout performances by Danielle McDonald as the 200 pound plus Patti Dombrowski, Bridget Everett as her mom, Siddharth Dhananjay as her Pakistani sideman and producer, Mamadou Athie as her mysterious black hermit composer, and Raging Bull’s Cathy Moriarty as grandma to the future stars. Just a high energy knockout.

Princeton-grad Maggie Betts’ debut film, Novitiate, an about to be nun’s story circa 1962 and Vatican II, with emerging star Margaret Qualley as a postulant and the always superb Melissa Leo as Mother Superior of the convent, come to grief over articles of faith and intimacy. The Big Sick, Judd Apatow produced, Michael Showalter directed, this year’s rom com of the year winner, starring Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani who sidesteps his Paki-parent’s parade of arranged marriage candidates to nurse Zoe Kazan through a coma and win over her parents, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. Maybe Landline, if you liked the team of comedian Jenny Slate and director Gillian Robespierre’s previous 2014 film about female commitment issues, Obvious Child. This one is set in 1995 and is a pre-cel phone and floppy disk era comedy of NY mating manners, with Jay Duplass, John Turturro and Edie Falco. Think of it as if Woody Allen had a grand daughter and had something to say to a 40 square block of Manhattan millennials.

I didn’t much care for Luca Guadangnino’s Call Me By Your Name, based on Andre Aciman’s novel adapted by the late James Ivory and set in Lombardy as sun-dappled backdrop for a gay first affair between young androgyne Tomothee Chalamet and the worldly older young scholar Arrmie Hammer. The film was loved here for its lost love story, which I think took a back seat to the real gay male fantasy at work in the background: that one’s parents know all and bless all. I liked that, the sensational manor house and the always on-duty cook who came with it, but this is a gay Hallmark card poseur of a film. Give me Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats instead. It’s set in Brooklyn, in which Harris Dickinson, as Frankie, hangs out Marty-style with his wife-beater t-shirt crew, smokin’ weed at Coney Island and hitting inside the park home runs with at bottom nice borough girls who dress like pole dancers. All good in da hood until Frankie starts to grapple with his irrepressible homosexual urges that lead him to a gay hookup website, without the tools to grow instead of lash out. Just a first rate little indie film made with on the cheap integrity of place and purpose—the real hallmark of Sundance from days gone by.

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.