Assesing the fest

Sundance: much in middle, no heights hit

PARK CITY, Utah – The lineup of films at the Sundance Film Festival certainly lived up to the promise of diversity predicted at the outset by Sundance topper Robert Redford and fest director Geoff Gilmore. Beyond that, the quality of entries in the competition and premiere categories was varied, perhaps more solid in the middle range than last year, but lacking one or two defining films at the top with which to brand the ’97 fest.

Among critics and vet festgoers, the competition titles that have stirred the most talk are Neil LaBute’s “In the Company of Men,” a provocative, disturbing exploration of emotional manipulation by two damaged businessmen; “All Over Me,” Alex Sichel’s highly sensitive and nuanced drama of best girlfriends discovering their sexuality and splitting apart in Gotham’s Hell’s Kitchen; Jonathan Nossiter’s “Sunday,” an unexpected and deeply felt look at a brief encounter between a middle-aged man and woman; and Mark Waters’ “The House of Yes,” a bizarre Northern Gothic tale of a deranged family highlighted by a splendid star turn by Parker Posey.

Other pics in the dramatic competition sparking some favorable comment were Tim Blake Nelson’s well-crafted “Eye of God”; Mark Pellington’s tart, 1950s Midwest memoir “Going All the Way”; Morgan J. Freeman’s talented, if contrived, look at New York street teens, “Hurricane”; Theodore Witcher’s slick and sexy “Love Jones”; Bart Freundlich’s handsomely mounted look at troubled family life, “The Myth of Fingerprints”; and Jill Sprecher’s visually striking, dramatically uneven serio-comedy about office temps, “Clockwatchers.”

Some of the competition documentaries that have audiences positively buzzing are Mark Jonathan Harris’ epic about the Holocaust’s aftermath, “The Long Way Home”; Kirby Dick’s very tough-to-watch but affecting “Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist”; Arthur Dong’s disturbing portrait of homophobic violence, “Licensed to Kill”; and Macky Alston’s exploration of long-buried ancestral roots in “Family Name.”

The expansive American Spectrum sidebar uncovered a few winners, notably Finn Taylor’s “Dream With the Fishes,” Tony Vitale’s “Kiss Me, Guido,” Michael Oblowitz’s “This World, Then the Fireworks,” John O’Hagan’s “Wonderland” and Miguel Arteta’s “Star Maps.”

Many of the bigger, more established names surfaced in the Premieres section. Among those creating a stir were Richard Linklater’s “SubUrbia”; Errol Morris’ far-reaching “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control”; Victor Nunez’s deeply felt family drama “Ulee’s Gold,” featuring the best performance of Peter Fonda’s career; David Lynch’s endlessly mysterious “Lost Highway”; and Gregg Araki’s wildly flamboyant, and uneven, “Nowhere.”

First-time directors and films about teenagers and twentysomethings were everywhere, ad nauseam in the view of some observers. Dysfunctional families and young people trying to define themselves emerged as the two favorite subjects of the new American films. The star of the festival was indisputably Parker Posey, excellent in “SubUrbia” and “Clockwatchers” but truly remarkable in “The House of Yes.” Still, she was more than given a run for the fest’s best performance honors by Stacy Edwards in “In the Company of Men.”

Finally, after several years of complaints about how Sundance was growing too big and getting away from its homey roots, there can no longer be any pretense that the festival is anything other than a powerhouse industry event comparable to Cannes and Toronto. Nearly everyone here is on a breakneck, round-the-clock schedule, especially with regular screenings starting at 9 a.m. and going well after midnight. Every picture has publicists in attendance. Cell phones and four-wheel drives are the norm and not the exception. And the presence of international media, in addition to the intensive U.S. press presence, is now formidable, with film crews dashing about to prepare daily TV dispatches.

Like the world’s other major festivals, Sundance is now a circus spawned by success, and there is no turning back.

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