Sundance Film Festival: Duh, Hot Girls Make Difficult Films More Marketable

In Mike Cahill's Another Earth--a multiple prize-winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival and one of two titles co-written by and starring the festival's biggest break-out, Brit Marling--both hope and anxiety follow the discovery of Earth 2, a planet on which each resident of our globe has a doppelgänger living a parallel life.

The atmosphere at this year's festival sometimes felt like its own alternate universe, inspiring similarly mixed feelings. Though economic disaster is still a fresh memory in the real world, up in Park City, studios and their subsidiaries threw big money at small movies with a velocity not seen in half a decade. A cause for celebration? Sure. But the thing about bubbles is that they burst.

With a number of Sundance 2010 alumni nominated for Academy Awards last

week (Blue Valentine, The Kids Are All Right, Winter's Bone), buyers may

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have wanted to hitch their wagons to the next

arthouse-hit-turned-Oscar-nominee--or, at least, snap up the next

Jennifer Lawrence. Ingenue Fever seemed to motivate the acquisition of a

number of long, slow, serious films with high-art aspirations,

evidently made for very little money, and all built around the siren

call of a gorgeous, previously unknown starlet.


British actress Felicity Jones's heartbreaking turn almost redeems

Like Crazy, the slight, trite romance that unexpectedly won the Dramatic

Grand Jury prize and was acquired by Paramount. Mary-Kate and Ashley

Olsen's little sister, Elizabeth, starred in Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy

May Marlene, a nonlinear thriller about a traumatized, voluptuous

escapee from a Manson-esque sex cult. It was picked up by Fox

Searchlight, which also bought Another Earth, one of two Sundance films

in which the lithe and sultry Marling plays a morally slippery criminal

aiming to redeem herself through love.

The boom-time mania on the ground was matched by a different kind of

collective madness on screen. Cults and other spiritual rebellions were a

big theme this year--not only in Martha and the Lost-like Sound but

also in Vera Farmiga's crowd-pleasing women's picture Higher Ground,

Kevin Smith's scattered genre-fuck Red State, and Miranda July's

spacey-comic The Future, which, like Jeff Nichols's humorless Take

Shelter, turns the angst of frustrated 35-year-olds into fodder for

surrealism.


While the dramatic sections were dominated by one kind of

bait-and-switch (hot girls making difficult films more marketable),

Sundance dangled a different kind of carrot to lure visitors to this

year's New Frontiers section, which showcases non-traditional film and

video work. The marquee attraction was James Franco's Three's Company:

The Drama, a video-installation deconstruction of the '70s sex-com

narrated by the ac-tor/Oscar host/pansexual tease. Franco may contain

multitudes, but as is the case with most of his prolific crea-tive

output, TC:TD is most interesting for merely existing on the same résumé

as both Howl and General Hospital.


In terms of more traditional nonfiction programming, highlights

included James Marsh's intimate exposé Project Nim and Page One, Andrew Rossi's fly-on-the-wall 

portrait of the New York Times media desk.


But no film at Sundance explored the tension between old and new media,

fixed history and the uncertain future wired life is hurtling toward as

powerfully as Braden King's highly experimental romance HERE. Will (Ben

Foster) is an American cartographer contracted to gather ground data for

satellite maps in rural Armenia; he meets native Armenian photographer

Gadarine (Lubna Azabal) by chance when she returns from travels abroad.

As King alternates between naturalistic but sensual snapshots of their

ensuing road trip and non-narrative, pure-cinematic montages, HERE

encompasses themes of distance and intimacy and the moral gradi-ents of

recording fact and creating art/fiction. The couple's common obsession

with the lonely road brings them together (as does their physical

chemistry), but it doesn't change who they are or their complicated

engagement with both the romantic nature of travel and its darker

side--namely, conquest.


This vital, gorgeous, cerebral, and deeply passionate film was the only

great thing I saw at Sundance that remains without a U.S. distributor as

of press time--proving, perhaps, that sex can only sell so much.

-- Karina Longworth

See scenes from HERE and interview with King and the cast:


 


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