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Winners’ Circus

A look back at a decade of good and bad calls by Sundance juries



We expect the Academy Awards to get it wrong. Sometimes it seems like that’s what they’re there for.

If you’re a film lover in America, you probably spend Oscar Night preparing for the worst—and getting it. Painful experience has taught us that if the Oscars are about quality, it’s only incidentally. Voters honor popularity, longevity, nobility and grandiosity. And what more should we expect from the motion picture industry’s self-congratulatory prom night? As we all remember from high school, it’s not the valedictorian who gets picked to be queen.

The Sundance Film Festival, though—that should be different. Over the course of two decades it has become synonymous with the vanguard of American independent film. It exists to promote innovative, risk-taking filmmaking—the stuff Hollywood may be too timid to tackle. But when it’s time for juries to vote for the winner of the Dramatic Feature Film competition, does the festival put its money where its mission is? Sure, Sundance has handed hardware in past years to first films by Todd Haynes and the Coen brothers, demonstrating genuine vision. On other occasions, it has demonstrated head-scratching cluelessness—In the Soup over Reservoir Dogs in 1992? Puh-leeze.

Forget all that “honor just to be nominated” crap. It’s time for one critic to look back on the last 10 years of Sundance Grand Prize winners, and decide when the juries flourished and when they flailed.


Grand Prize Winner: Public Access/ Ruby in Paradise (tie)

Score one—or two, if you want to be specific—for the jury right off the bat. Wimpy though tie votes may be, here Sundance spotted a lot of great talent on the rise. Public Access—the dark story of a mysterious stranger who turns into a small town’s television guru of choice—marked the debut of director Bryan Singer, who went on to fame with The Usual Suspects and X-Men. Victor Nuñez’s Ruby in Paradise featured Ashley Judd in her first starring role—before she turned into the poster girl for everything that’s wrong with Oprah-fied chick cinema—as a young woman trying to find independence by leaving an abusive relationship for life at a Florida resort town. Both films were memorable creations with a distinct sense of place, and textbook cases of the kind of work the festival should be championing.

Noteworthy oversights: None.


Grand Prize Winner:

What Happened Was…

Sometimes, when a jury thinks it’s honoring something dark and edgy, it’s actually just honoring something unfocused. Actor Tom Noonan—the original Francis Dolarhyde in Manhunter—made his feature directing debut in this two-character tale about legal office co-workers (Noonan and Karen Sillas) whose first date turns into raging psychodrama. Sillas’ sharp performance keeps the film grounded in uncomfortable insecurity, and Noonan’s exploration of first-date dynamics bristles with some keen observations. Then the whole thing collapses into soul-baring readings of matricide-filled fairy tales and painfully scripted confessions, over-directed by Noonan until it loses all of its pinpoint honesty.

Noteworthy oversights: Boaz Yakin’s Fresh—an urban drama about a 12-year-old drug runner (Sean Nelson)—shattered every easy expectation about what “urban drama” should mean. Overflowing with remarkable performances and perfect compositions, it was not only the best film in the Dramatic Competition but a close runner up to Schindler’s List, Three Colors: Red and Pulp Fiction as the best film of any kind that year. Running a near second: David O. Russell’s black incest comedy Spanking the Monkey.


Grand Prize Winner:

The Brothers McMullen

There are those who feel that 1995 was the year where, in TV series lingo, Sundance “jumped the shark.” A warm and fuzzy feel-good story about Irish-American siblings on Long Island, The Brothers McMullen became one of those micro-budget success stories like Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi. Unfortunately, the amusing bits of dialogue in Edward Burns’ script were generally overwhelmed either by his forgettably affable acting or his affably forgettable directing. Perhaps even more baffling than the selection of such a vanilla winner is that it was chosen by a jury that included Samuel L. Jackson and directors Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) and Whit Stillman (Metropolitan).

Noteworthy oversights: Movies about the making of movies get a well-deserved bad rap, but sometimes someone gets it just right. Living in Oblivion, Tom DiCillo’s paean to the joys and horrors of independent filmmaking, cast Steve Buscemi as a harried director dealing with a prima donna star (James LeGros in a hilariously self-absorbed swipe at Brad Pitt) and technical limitations. Not only did it include the year’s funniest comic set pieces, it sweetly captured the blissful moment when an artist realizes his “vision”—even if that vision is really a huge piece of crap.


Grand Prize Winner:

Welcome to the Dollhouse

A scathingly memorable film, Todd Solondz’s debut would have been a perfectly acceptable choice—if not for the perfect film above which it was placed (see below). Heather Matarazzo gave soul to Dawn Wiener, the tormented middle-school outcast at the center of Solondz’s hate letter to adolescent anguish. The writer/director has continued to hone his misanthropy with Happiness and Storytelling, but he got a whole lot right the first time out of the box.

Oversight: A great ending can sometimes make an average movie seem pretty good. With Big Night, the great ending made an already wonderful movie something miraculous. Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott co-directed the story of two Italian brothers—assimilated businessman Tucci and tradition-minded chef Tony Shalhoub—running a struggling restaurant on the Jersey Shore in the late 1950s. Lovingly crafted and performed, it also worked as a potent metaphor for the never-ending battle between art and commerce. Tucci and Scott served up a scrumptious work of tremendously satisfying art. And, oh, that ending.


Grand Prize Winner: Sunday

In a world where director Jonathan Nossiter didn’t try too hard for deep meaning, this might actually have been a fine choice. David Suchet stars as a mysterious man identified on the street by an actress (Lisa Harrow) as a famous film director, though we saw him wake up that morning in a homeless shelter. So who is he? An interesting question as the center of a fascinating relationship between Suchet and Harrow, only Nossiter keeps ignoring it for socially conscious asides and self-conscious visual trickery. As a love story, Sunday is often beautiful and haunting. As a film about a Serious Issue, it looks like a filmmaker’s attempt to create something to sermonize about in an acceptance speech.

Oversight: There are people who loathe Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men as misanthropic and misogynistic, and maybe the Sundance jurors were among them. Too bad they missed the point entirely in this thrilling tale of two co-workers (Matt Malloy and Aaron Eckhart) who plot to find a woman they can both seduce and abandon while on a temporary assignment. Far from a celebration of machismo, it’s an exploration of power and powerlessness that plays like a car wreck between ethics and primal fears. LaBute’s visual style cages his performers, creating a perfect combination of LaBute’s razor-sharp words and his claustrophobic images.


Grand Prize Winner: Slam

As a package, it was clearly too much for the jury to resist. Saul Williams starred as a street poet and small-time dope dealer dealing alternately with life in prison and upon his release, in a story that screamed with gritty, socially relevant urgency. Problem was, it just wasn’t very effective, from the awkward lead performances to the scattershot direction of Marc Levin, a documentarian making his first fiction feature. Memorable for a few individual scenes, it was ultimately a collection of emotional iambs—alternately gripping and meandering.

Oversight: I’ll acknowledge that my Sundance experience of Buffalo ’66—where director/star Vincent Gallo used a technical-difficulties intermission to dismiss entertainment industry lawyers and agents as “creepy crawlers”—may have made it even more memorable. But there’s no mistaking the talent in this study of a recently-paroled loser on a mission to kill the Buffalo Bills placekicker whose Super Bowl miss led to his downfall. Gallo’s visual style resulted in some of the most remarkably inventive compositions the festival had ever seen—a freeze-frame tableau of a moment of violence, a mournful spotlight tapdance for co-star Christina Ricci.


Grand Prize Winner: Three Seasons

It may have been noteworthy as American filmmaking’s physical return to Vietnam, but Three Seasons was more noteworthy for its glorious cinematography than for anything its well-meaning but stagnant narrative provided. Only one of the three stories about contemporary Vietnam—that of a cyclo driver played by Don Duong—remained engrossing throughout, and that was largely thanks to the immensely talented Duong. Yet again, a jury appeared too concerned with making a statement to seek out the finest film.

Oversights: Easy to overlook because it was so relatively slight, the gay romantic comedy trick managed to be far more enchanting than a dozen conventional boy-meets-girl stories. Director Jim Fall also made Tori Spelling look like a gifted comedienne—and if that ain’t talent, I don’t know what is. Gavin O’Connor’s Tumbleweeds eventually earned attention for Janet McTeer’s Oscar-nominated lead performance, but she had plenty of help from a solidly constructed story.


Grand Prize Winner:

You Can Count on Me/Girlfight (tie)

It took another tie for Sundance to chalk-up another no-brainer winner. Girlfight may have been the crowd-pleaser, but Kenneth Lonergan’s touching story of the contentious adult relationship between two orphaned siblings—the gifted Laura Linney and the unfairly fantastic Mark Ruffalo—made everything else look like amateur night. Lonergan also deservedly took home Best Screenplay honors, yet the playwright-turned-director didn’t get nearly enough credit for guiding the look, feel and heartbreaking performances in this tiny gem.

Oversight: None.


Grand Prize Winner: The Believer

When you’ve got the best top-to-bottom competition slate of the last decade, you’ve got to do better than this. Henry Bean’s provocative premise—a Jewish youth who becomes a committed neo-Nazi—featured a feverishly inspired performance by Ryan Gosling in the lead role. But the film grows more preposterous with every passing moment, depending on the ferocity of Gosling’s commitment to the part to keep the whole thing from falling apart.

Oversights: Oh, where to begin? Memento, the year’s best film of any kind, transcended its narrative gimmick to become a dazzling exploration of the nature of memory. In the Bedroom offered the sublime Tom Wilkinson anchoring a strong study of repressed grief. And Hedwig and the Angry Inch served up a raucously entertaining re-invention of the rock musical.


Grand Prize Winner: Personal Velocity

Our own Greg Beacham got it wonderfully, painfully right. In adapting selected tales from her own short story collection, Rebecca Miller spent so much time to make this triptych of tales about man-troubled modern women “true” that she didn’t spend enough time making it good. The middle, Parker Posey-anchored segment would have made for a wonderful stand-alone short, but even there Miller wallows in her own prose with burdensome voice-over narration that makes you wonder why she bothered turning the stories into a film in the first place.

Oversight: Though the slate as a whole was a huge come-down from 2001’s wonderful bunch, there were still deserving entries like the dark office politics comedy Secretary, which gave Maggie Gyllenhaal the year’s best female role (sorry, Julianne Moore). Love Liza, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a man who mourns his wife’s suicide by becoming a “huffer”—sharply divided critics, but Hoffman’s typically stellar performance and a fine directing touch by Todd Louiso won me over. Salt Lake City audiences, though, still have a while to wait before we get a chance to see it commercially.

By that time, maybe we’ll even know if the Sundance 2003 jury got it right.