Women helmers, thesps highlight Sundance

Women helmers, thesps highlight Sundance

PARK CITY, Utah — Sundance 2000 has been hyped from the beginning as the Year of the Women due to the presence of more than two dozen entries by female directors. So the good news is that not only were women much in evidence numerically, but also that they really delivered. Several of the best films in various categories of the festival were by women; otherwise, women proved they could be just as mainstream, slick, commercial and superficial as male directors have been for years.

As the fest enters its final weekend, there is little question that the most popular and invigorating film in the dramatic competition has been Karyn Kusama’s “Girlfight,” a tart and gritty portrait of a girl from the New York projects who will stop at nothing to become a boxer. Exceptionally accomplished with young, inexperienced actors and in its vigorous evocation of a familiar milieu, the film starts off in “Fat City” territory of low-end gyms and going-nowhere fighters and heads gingerly into the “Rocky” underdog arena.

Fortunately, however, Kusama succeeds in keeping it real by mostly resisting the lure of easy sentimentality; looking at things from a gender perspective, it’s hard to think of a female director who has covered this particular waterfront before, or has done so with such confidence.

Probably the second most popular film in the competition has been Jenniphr Goodman’s “The Tao of Steve,” an engaging comedy about a conspicuously successful fat Lothario. Although it was written, with the help of the director and her sister, by the man who inspired the central character, it was probably helpful artistically that his story was told by a woman, given that the film’s point of view is one of bemused amazement, even admiration.

The picture is also entirely accessible without being pandering or manipulative in a commercial way, which is where the virtue of independence comes into play, both in theory and, in this case, in practice.

Four other films in the dramatic competition were directed by women: Lisa Krueger’s moderately good “Committed,” in which Heather Graham shows some hitherto unseen acting chops as a young woman who tests the limits of her devotion to her errant husband; Maggie Greenwald’s reasonably well received “Songcatcher,” with Janet McTeer as a turn-of-the-century musicologist who makes interesting discoveries in Appalachia; Stacy Cochran’s “Drop Back Ten,” which was universally seen as a big retreat from her fine first film, “My New Gun”; and Zeinabu irene Davis’ “Compensation,” which I haven’t yet seen.

Aside from “Girlfight,” the other best new dramatic feature for me has been “You Can Count on Me,” which, although written and directed by a male playwright, Kenneth Lonergan, is exceptionally attentive to and insightful about its central female character, a small-town single mother outstandingly portrayed by Laura Linney.

Women have also stepped up in the fest’s high-profile Premieres section. Two films shown on the first two nights could scarcely have been more different: Gurinder Chadha’s “What’s Cooking?,” about the way four different ethnic families in L.A. celebrate Thanksgiving, proved an innocuous, middlebrow crowd-pleaser, while Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” was anything but; inventively designed and clearly satirical, this adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ widely reviled novel features a brave and adventurous lead performance by Christian Bale, but reaches a point of vastly diminishing returns long before its strenuously ambiguous climactic reel, resulting in a who-needs-it response.

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Love and Basketball” hits some of the same notes as “Girlfight,” as it details what it takes for a young woman to make a place for herself in the world of basketball while also trying to maintain a romance with a man in the same field.

The approach to heartfelt self-expression here is far more melodramatic, glossy and predictable, however; the director needs to put more snap into her storytelling but, on the basis of this debut, there is no doubt that Prince-Bythewood has a solidly commercial career ahead of her.

Same can be said of Valerie Breiman, whose romantic comedy “Love & Sex” is so broadly mainstream in sensibility that it qualifies as an independent only on an economic technicality. Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” doesn’t cut it for me, although it does have its partisans. And, again, although it was written and directed by a man, Rodrigo Garcia’s “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her” is one of the most female-centric films at Sundance, an ensemble piece with memorable performances by Holly Hunter, Cameron Diaz, Calista Flockhart and Glenn Close, just for starters.

Women historically have been better represented in the documentary field than they have been in features; this year, fully half of the 16 docs are directed, or co-directed, by women.

And then it so happens that the best film from any source I’ve seen at Sundance has a female director: Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail” (Good Work), a stunningly shot (by another woman, Agnes Godard), dramatically oblique look at a small group of French Legionnaires in Africa, has a mesmerizing balletic quality and a philosophical dimension that firmly puts in perspective all the industry wannabeism and limited life perspectives of most of the filmmakers here, male or female. In the context of Sundance, the film serves as a useful reminder that the cinema can be about things other than designer murders, “making it” and overcoming neuroses to establish relationships.

All in all, it was good to see women making “men’s” films, men making “women’s” films, and people of all persuasions making pictures that were more interesting than not. It was a pretty good Sundance.

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