This year I went to the Sundance Film Festival for the first time. Because I was shut out of all the buzzworthy pictures (didn't get my tickets in time), I decided to see all the unhip films of the festival because they were easier to get into. As a result, I can't gloat about having seen the hottest "independent" films of 2003 months before everyone else. But I must say, I'm not impressed with Sundance's programming tastes. They tend to choose films that are self-consciously "serious" and "gritty". Nearly all of the entries in the festival had a character who had lost some close relative to some horrible fate. Or they were sexually abused or whatever. Not that I need all my films to be uplifting – far from it – but after you see 5 or 6 such films in a row, this nonstop grimness becomes kind of a joke. Nevertheless, here are the nine movies that I saw, in the order that I caught them. If any gets US theatrical distribution, I'll give it greater coverage in my Reviews section.
- Levity (US, Ed Solomon). Convicted killer (Billy Bob Thornton in a fright wig) is released from jail and tries to find forgiveness for his crime by befriending his victim's sister (Holly Hunter). Morgan Freeman and Kirsten Dunst also star, adding little to the story. Nothing risky or original in this dull redemption drama, your grandma's idea of an independent film, made entirely by established Hollywood people. 3 out of 10.
- Music for Weddings and Funerals (Norway, Unni Straume). Angst-filled writer has strained encounter with her frigid architect ex-husband, then has to deal with the other women in his life after his sudden suicide. Downbeat, to be sure, and a little pretentious at times, but elegantly shot, with plenty of thoughtfulness and some dark humor. It's rather obvious to call this Scandinavian thinkfest "Bergmanesque", but it is, and in a good way. 7 out of 10.
- AKA (UK, Duncan Roy). Teenage boy flees abusive household and hangs out with a bunch of homosexuals during the decadent disco era, while pretending to be somebody else. Shades of The Talented Mr. Ripley; however, what distinguishes this film is that the entire story plays out across three separate screens, like Woodstock. Formally impressive but not altogether satisfying, due to too many cliches in the script. 5 out of 10.
- Life Show (China, Jianqi Huo). Lonely woman runs a small restaurant (selling duck necks, mmm) in a big city and tries to cope with her dysfunctional family and her love life. The story never amounts to that much, though lead actress Tao Hong is insanely beautiful, as is the cinematography. 6 out of 10.
- Woman of Water (Japan, Hidenori Sugimori). Young woman with strange power to cause rainstorms whenever something important happens to her inherits a rural bathhouse and falls in love with a pyromaniac. I suppose there's a metaphor in there somewhere. Incredible-looking film, with lush score and scenery. Some wonderful scenes in a glacially-paced, only marginally involving storyline. 6 out of 10.
- I Love You (China, Yuan Zhang). Young couple marries too soon and can do nothing but argue and fight. A very unpleasant filmgoing experience – basically two hours of people screaming at each other in Chinese. Well-acted, and probably like some relationships you've been in, but who wants to sit through that? 2 out of 10.
- The Station Agent (US, Thomas McCarthy). Bitter dwarf inherits abandoned train depot in rural New Jersey and reluctantly befriends several sweet-natured locals. It sounds sickeningly quirky, but the film is made with love and dignity, and the cast is hugely appealing. This is what Sundance is supposed to be all about: A small film comes from out of nowhere with no stars and a fresh perspective, and wins over crowds left and right. I suspected it would win Sundance's Audience Award, and it did. 8 out of 10.
- The Real Old Testament (US, Curtis and Paul Hannum). The Book of Genesis, presented like a reality TV show. This actually played at Sundance's rival film festival Slamdance. There's a tradeoff with Slamdance films: they are invariably more "independent" than the big-budget Sundance offerings, but the production values are much shabbier. Shot on video with a game cast improvising their way through the stories, this is an irreverent and frequently hilarious satire. Still, it's just so amateurish. 5 out of 10.
- A Red Bear (Argentina, Adrian Caetano). Cop killer is released from jail and, while establishing a relationship with his young daughter, agrees to come in on "one last score" to get the money to take care of her. This restrained crime drama avoids the usual cliches of its shopworn setup. Bearlike Julio Chavez, Argentina's answer to Jean Reno, is a classic tough guy. I saw this film just a couple of hours before going home to California and I had no idea what it would be about, so it was a pleasant surprise. Great sun-drenched atmosphere and bandoneón (a South American accordion) score, too. 7 out of 10.