The Sundance Film Festival, which began Jan. 20 and ends Jan. 30, self-identifies as a "discovery festival," meaning it embraces its own legend of being a place where, over the course of a single screening, an unknown can transform into an industry-re-defining star—even as that fantasy seems increasingly out of date in a world in which video is eminently demandable and filmmakers are their own best marketers. As Kevin Smith put it during a 30-minute lecture on the evolution and inner workings of indie-film distribution following the premiere of Red State, his amateurish and largely unsatisfying extremist religion-vs.-extremist-politics parable, "I came here 17 years ago, and all I wanted to do was sell my movie, and my life changed in an evening. And now I can't think of anything fucking worse than selling my movie to someone who doesn't get it."
Smith managed to turn the premiere of his 10th film—his follow-up to the much maligned Cop Out and his first since Clerks to be produced without a distributor—into the hottest ticket of Sundance's first weekend by first refusing to book a separate screening for the press, then announcing via Twitter his intention to auction the film off to the highest bidder immediately after the closing credits. Instead, with a captive audience full of journalists and executives, he proceeded to explain at length his decision to embrace "indie film 2.0" and release Red State himself. The best part? When Smith started essentially eulogizing his first distributor, Harvey Weinstein: "Harvey was very, very good. He was a genius." The Miramax co-founder is not dead; he was in the room.
Smith was merely the highest-profile prodigal child in a weekend defined by Sundance discoveries, from both the past decade and the past century. The hot topics of conversation over the past few days have been new works by filmmakers such as Miguel Arteta, Azazel Jacobs, Miranda July, James Marsh, Jesse Peretz and Morgan Spurlock, all of whom broke out here years ago and, in grand Park City tradition, have come back to unveil new products—all too literally in the case of Spurlock's reprehensible (but crowd-pleasing!) exercise in advertainment, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.
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Of that pack, the highlight for me was July's The Future, a structurally adventurous, dryly surreal anti-romance in which a thirtysomething couple's decision to adopt a stray cat touches off desperate interventions to deal with—or delay—the inevitable. Closer in tone, theme and sensibility to July's early video art than to her 2005 Sundance breakout, Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Future sees the writer/director/actress creating space to explore imagery and ideas more akin to performance art than traditional acting within a character-based drama. Much like July's latest, Terri, an episodic portrait of the social stratification of high-school freaks directed by Jacobs (whose Momma's Man debuted at Sundance in 2008), displays the thrilling results of a filmmaker making formal advances without abandoning his unique voice.
While returning champs may have dominated the weekend, there was one potential overnight-sensation-style discovery: Bellflower, a brazen, bloody noir-mance written, directed, edited by and starring Evan Glodell. A hyper-indulgent, apocalyptic, adolescent-revenge fantasy, Bellflower is bloated and inconsistent, but it's also a gorgeously shot evisceration of the young male ego. It's exactly the kind of film Sundance should be discovering—and that will probably require the filmmaker's aggressive "indie 2.0" savvy to make it farther out into the world.
This article appeared in print as "Re-Discovery Channel: Sundance’s prodigal children return."