My LA Weekly colleague, film editor Scott Foundas, is covering the Sundance Film Festival. Agree or disagree with what he thinks — and I expect lively comments — but just know these are his views, not mine. I’m editing his reports and reviews for space, but you can read them in their entirety on LA Weekly‘s website here and here:
For the first time in its 25-year history, the Sundance Film Festival opened Thursday night with a movie from Australia. It was also the first time for a feature length animation — one, I feel confident in saying, that is among the strangest animated films ever made. Written and directed by Adam Elliot (who won an Oscar in 2004 for his 23-minute animated short, Harvie Krumpet), Mary and Max chronicles the unusual pen-pal relationship between a shy, gloomy eight-year-old Australian girl from the Melbourne suburbs and an obese, 44-year-old Jewish man living in New York. Mary (voiced at first by newcomer Bethany Whitmore and later by Toni Collette) and Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman) meet by chance and begin 20 years of correspondence.
This sort of relationship between an older man and a pre-pubescent girl just isn’t done, just isn’t normal. Well, as it happens, nothing in Mary and Max is within even shouting distance of normal. Elliot’s claymated ensemble suggest the love children of Roald Dahl and Todd Solondz .In Elliot’s world, even the animals are outcasts as are many of the movie’s human characters.
Pixar this most certainly isn’t. In fact, where most feature-length animated films, by sheer virtue of the painstaking labor involved, aim to reach the broadest possible audience, Mary and Max — which took over a year to produce, at an average rate of five seconds of finished animation per day — is as insular and private as any live-action “personal filmmaking.” As it happens, Elliot did base the film in part on his own longtime pen-pal relationship with a New York man diagnosed (like Max) with Asperger Syndrome, the autism-like disorder that limits its sufferers’ ability to interpret nonverbal communication. This is a movie that seems to well up from a place of such pain and suffering that it’s as if Elliot had cut open some long scabbed-over wound and let it bleed anew all over the screen.
The depressive air weighs heavy, but never quite overwhelms the film, thanks to Elliot’s unfailing ability to find moments of levity amidst the pervasive despair. In spite of everything I’ve said thus far, Mary and Max is a very funny movie that manages to laugh at its eccentric characters without mocking them, reducing them to grotesques, or suggesting that they should strive to overcome their “handicaps.”
In the eight years that I’ve been covering Sundance, this is one of the only times the opening night film has not been a calamitous failure, and maybe the only time it has been a movie of serious ambition, worth talking, thinking and arguing about afterward. When I left the opening-night screening of Mary and Max, I wasn’t entirely sure if Elliot had pulled the thing off, and even 36 hours later, I think the movie runs out of ideas before it runs out of running time. Visually, it is a marvel of tinsel-and string hand-crafted design. Then there is Hoffman’s splendid performance. Max’s voice — a raspy, Yiddish-inflected huff — is so difficult to imagine issuing forth from Hoffman that if you didn’t know it was him you, well, wouldn’t know it was him. And what greater compliment can one pay a character actor than that?
When the festival kicks off at the center of a perfect storm of indie-film bad voodoo.
From the economic crisis to the recent downsizing or shuttering of multiple indie and mini-major distributors to the threat of protests stemming from the Utah Mormon community’s heavy backing of California’s Proposition 8, Sundance 2009 is starting out from a defensive crouch. But most worrisome of all may be the undeniable fatigue that critics and audiences — indeed, the entire industry — seem to be feeling about American independent films in general and Sundance movies in particular. Just one title from last year’s festival, the documentary Man On Wire, managed to finish in the top 25 in the recent LA Weekly/Village Voice poll of more than 80 prominent North American film critics, while of the 10 highest-grossing indie releases at the 2008 U.S. box office, only Patricia Riggen’s Under the Same Moon was a Sundance world premiere — and it had screened at the 2007 edition of the festival.
Despite a general decline in high-ticket acquisitions, Sundance 2008 nevertheless saw its share of foolhardy overspending on sub-par supposedly commercial movies that proved to be anything but — among them the much-ballyhooed Hamlet 2 (which stalled at just under $5 million worldwide after Focus Features paid a reported $10 million to buy it), Choke (which returned $3.6 million on Fox Searchlight’s $5 million investment) and the Barry Levinson debacle What Just Happened?, whose title could be taken as a metaphor for the present state of the indie film scene. It grossed all of $2.6 million despite a cast that included Robert De Niro, Sean Penn and Bruce Willis.
Faring little better, the handful of artistically ambitious movies that surfaced at Sundance 2008 found it more difficult than ever to escape the festival-circuit ghetto. Lance Hammer’s double prize-winning Ballast was first acquired by IFC, then re-acquired. and ultimately self-distributed after he balked at the terms of the deal. Aza Jacobs’ Momma’s Man got caught up in the collapse of stalwart indie distributor THINKFilm, was subsequently picked up by the smaller Kino International and finally trickled into a handful of art houses across the country. And, as of this writing, the excellent Japanese film Megane remains without U.S. distribution of any kind.
What direct impact — other than fewer late-night bidding wars in Harvey Weinstein’s condo — all this will have on Sundance 2009 remains to be seen. Certainly, there will be no shortage of new product on display. The “Premieres” section (a.k.a. the part of Sundance where you are most likely to see something unforgivably awful featuring a name star) alone brings us the latest from Superbad director Greg Mottola (Adventureland) and Training Day‘s Antonie Fuqua (Brooklyn’s Finest), the re-teaming of Y Tu Mamá También co-stars Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal in Rudo Y Cursi, directed by Carlos — brother of Alfonso — Cuarón, and Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor as penitentiary cellmates turned lovers in I Love You Phillip Morris.
Among those titles vying for Sundance’s coveted dramatic Grand Jury Prize are The Office star John Krasinski’s adaptation of the late David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men; The Greatest, this year’s obligatory drama about a family coping with the death of their teenage son; and Taking Chance, this year’s obligatory drama about the Iraq War. Meanwhile, the films screening in the festival’s reliably strong documentary competition promise to touch on everything from African-American “hair culture”, the Chris Rock-produced Good Hair, to the soil beneath our feet, the unambiguously titled Dirt! The Movie, to the Prada-wearing Devil herself, Anna Wintour, of The September Issue. Most timely in its intent, director Eric Daniel Metzger’s Reporter purports to follow Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof as he travels to the Congo in the summer of 2007.
For the next 10 days, I’ll be posting here regularly, direct from Park City. But in the meantime, we begin our coverage of Sundance 2009 with two stories from this week’s print edition of the Weekly that cast a glance back to happier Sundance times. One is a wide-ranging interview with Steven Soderbergh, whose Sex Lies and Videotape premiered at Sundance 20 years ago this week and forever altered the course of both the festival and the indie landscape. The other is a profile of actor-writer-director Wendell B. Harris, Jr., whose own debut feature, Chameleon Street, won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize after and also promised great things to come. But whereas Soderbergh has gone on to direct nearly 20 films in 20 years, Harris has made exactly none. And there you have the enduring conundrum of Sundance and American independent cinema in a nutshell.