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Live coverage of Sundance

January 21, 2013

Note: Today, City Paper begins a series of posts from Sundance Film Festival.  Look for further posts here and in the paper.

Ben Wheatley, director of Sightseers

During  three decades since it started, the Sundance Film Festival has emerged as the best filter system for reinvigorating the broader mainline film industry with fresh movies, aesthetics and directorial talent.  But to imagine Sundance as anything but an industry affair is to imagine that Paul Ryan is not a member of the Republican Party.  The mainline film industry is perhaps most clearly
embodied by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences–the Academy boasts a median voting age of 62 while the average age of a Sundance attendee is 35.  Within this younger set, Sundance is regarded as America’s most prestigious independent film festival.  But the fact that last year’s Grand Jury Prize winner, Beasts of the Southern Wild, has been nominated for an Oscar for best picture is a
point of pride, not a sign of a pending revolution.

That Beasts could be nominated at all is evidence of the symbiosis that has evolved between establishment Hollywood and the younger elements of the industry.  The opportunity is the result of the 2009 expansion of the best picture category from five films to 10.  This was a compromise reached (or forced upon) an aging industry by its younger, slightly more radical faction.  The modification means that mainline establishment directors and their films can continue to
dominate Oscar’s most prestigious award while also allowing smaller, foreign and off-beat films a seat at the table.

As its prestige continues to grow, Sundance has grown into something that, at times, hardly resembles a true independent festival.  Its shift toward the establishment is real and undeniable. Films showing at Sundance now boast top line actors and seasoned directors.  But just as the Academy found a way to embrace the new and guard the old, Sundance has made a genuine effort to retain and foster its edgier roots.  Series such as Park City at Midnight, Next and New Directions have partitioned off space for films that even the radical wing of Hollywood would find radical.

Two such films premiered on Sundance’s first full day.  From British director Ben Wheatley, comes Sightseers, equal parts romantic comedy, kinky serial killer road trip, and gore shocker.  With a smooth verite style, the movie follows two despicable people, in a despicable relationship, doing despicable things.  Still the film succeeds in making a profound and wonderfully human statement.  It also boasts the best smashed face in recent cinema memory and a sex scene involving
knit crotchless undies, a stolen camera and a lap dog.  In other words, go see it.

The other off-beat dish was the opening film of the Park City at Midnight series, billed as a slate of “genre-defying unruly films.”  We Are What We Are, another gem from horror director Jim Mickle, the sick mind behind 2010’s vampire apocalypse romp, Stake Land.  Mickle’s new effort follows a hill family whose extreme Christian views have led them pursue a life of kidnapping, murder, and cannibalism.  The film ladles out a healthy dose of human stew and seat jumping shocks, anchored by great performances from newcomer Julia Garner and the incomparable Michael Parks, all culminating in an ending so shocking and violent that to even hint at its details would be an injustice to future audiences.

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