If my Twitter feed is any indication, approximately 97 percent of the world's population is currently crammed into a small town in the Wasatch Mountains, navigating the 2011 Sundance Film Festival with only buzz as their compass. (If film bloggers were dolphins, hype would be their echolocation.) At this very moment thousands of cinephiles and industry insiders are shuffling up and down Main Street in the hopes that they'll stumble upon the next 'Clerks' or 'Reservoir Dogs.' Sundance can be exceptionally rewarding, but it's just as often a dangerous game of chance, as at any moment Park City, Utah, can suddenly become 'Happy, Texas.'
The festival has been known to put cultural cache before quality, and some cinephiles deride Robert Redford's baby for not being quite as stringently curated as other fests of similar prestige. The lineup would sooner include a slideshow of Zoe Kazan's baby pictures than the latest Jia Zhangke film, and therein lies the silver lining of enjoying Sundance from the sidelines: Thanks to the brave souls who make the trek to Utah, the rest of us are ostensibly spared of everything but the best of the fest. So while most of the Cinematical team is currently queued up for the premiere of 'Hamlet 3,' doing their duty to bring us first word of some future classics, let's sit back and enjoy some guaranteed great moments from some of the best films that Sundance has ever shared with us.
The following is not an all-inclusive list, but the scenes included are in a particular order.
The opening night feature of the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, James Merendino's 'SLC Punk!' exemplifies what Sundance is all about: getting the best out of Matthew Lillard. It's a fun flick, one bristling with the energy of an uncle telling his nephew all the stories about the good ol' days, when a man was measured by the size of his Mohawk and the anger of his subculture. An occasionally potent portrait of disaffection, 'SLC Punk!' plays more frequently like a bunch of kids getting addicted to their own sense of cool -- it's the kind of movie wherein the inimitable Devon Sawa accidentally gets nailed by 100 hits of acid while running to The Stooges in slow-motion. In other words, it's a bona fide American treasure.
'The Tao of Steve'
Whatever happened to Donal Logue? (Spoiler alert: Logue starred on the FX show 'Terriers.' Follow-up question: Whatever happened to 'Terriers?'). Logue carries 'The Tao of Steve' on his husky, huggable shoulders, in the process providing the romantic comedy genre with one of its most charmingly wayward heroes. He's Dex (not Steve), a lazy barrel of a man who nevertheless gets all the ladies by sticking to a simple tripartite Zen credo which he lays out for you in this scene. Writer / director Jenniphr Goodman's only film is the kind of slight, gimmicky pleasantness that Sundance exists to hype beyond all comprehension, but this sequence alone is proof enough that 'The Tao of Steve' goes through the motions of its ragged shuffle with the kind of fat, flair, and fearlessness that Hollywood wouldn't dare entertain.
'Hedwig and The Angry Inch'
'Hedwig' is vintage Sundance; a raw and exuberantly messy slice of something different. A plot summary of John Cameron Mitchell's lovable debut sounds like the stuff of a Stefan sketch: It's got an East German transgendered rock singer, the Origin of Love (it's like that thing when Plato's two-faced, four-legged beings split apart), botched sex-change operations, Michael Pitt being Michael Pitt (it's like that thing where Michael Pitt is all blond and spacey?). Seriously, folks, 'Hedwig' is beautiful stuff-- a clarion call for outsider art and universal fulfillment to which you can sing along. And nowhere in the film is that recurring motif of emotional completion better expressed than in the show-stopping musical number, "The Origin of Love."
Mitchell plays it like a self-contained music video, complete with expressive and endearingly crude animation and the obligatory performance footage. This scene bottles the essence of the film, the raw emotion on display perfectly clashing with the tacky decor of the bar in which Hedwig and the Angry Inch is sledgehammering the crowd with Aristophanes.
You've gotta hand it to Kevin Smith, the man knows how to work Sundance. He made a name for himself with the micro-budgeted 'Clerks' all the way back in 1994, and 17 years later his latest film ('Red State') is the talk of the 2011 festival. Smith's films have always been dedicated to repurposing culture as content, though some might suggest that between 'Cop Out' and Twitter it's starting to seem as if he's now confusing content with culture. But at the end of the day there's always 'Clerks,' the DIY sensation that still melds hockey and necrophilia as well as any movie ever made.
This scene involves neither of those things, but it does feature a penetrating discussion on the ethics of agreeing to do construction work for Darth Vader, which is something that was sorely lacking from American cinema at the time. The dialogue epitomizes everything that makes Smith's debut such a treasure: It's charming, idiosyncratically labored, and scored by a hard rock song about Wookiees.
'Primer' (winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2004) is a compact, raw and spookily mundane bit of sci-fi, a suburban saga that was famously pulled together for $7,000 (or 0.0058% of the budget for 'How Do You Know'). Shane Carruth's film -- the tale of two latently brilliant engineers who discover that they've invented a time machine -- ultimately sacrifices its characters in a miasma of chaos and details, but if 'Primer' resolves itself as more of an impression than a genuine experience, it's an impression that's mighty hard to shake. What we've got here is a scene that perfectly captures the film's chilling modesty, as two friends darken the windows of a Texas garage and -- with nothing more than spare parts and some ominous fluorescent lighting -- begin to change the world forever.
It's kinda like a more sinister version of the Facemash scenes from 'The Social Network,' but instead of messing with college girls they're violating the space-time continuum. And no film since David Fincher's 'Se7en' has provided such a great answer to the eternal cinematic question: "What's in the box!?"
Few American icons get the biopic they deserve (just ask Amelia Earhart), but filmmakers Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman did right by graphic novelist Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti, obviously), who became Cleveland's proudest son after the guy from that sitcom ate Bob Barker. One of the best films to come out of Sundance and certainly the best film to come out of Pulcini and Berman (just ask anyone who sat through 'The Nanny Diaries'), 'American Splendor' is a delightfully honest and peripherally patriotic celebration of the rich textures inherent to quotidian life. But this scene here is first and foremost a celebration of nerds (and their revenge).
Toby -- a virtually unrecognizable Judah Friedlander -- wants to go to the movies, but Harvey has a previous engagement, so to speak. The exchange draws laughs but it doesn't trawl for them, it's too busy observing the heroic power of pop culture, and drawing the battle lines between the stories we love and the stories we live. "Wow, well you know you've got this movie and I'm getting hitched, we both had a good month, huh?" Gets me every time.
'Hoop Dreams' was initially conceived as a modest 30-minute program for PBS, but by the time it unfurled at Sundance eight years later it was three hours long and incontestably among the greatest American documentaries ever made. According to Wikipedia, Steve James' film -- an epic chronicle of two Illinois teens who view basketball as their ticket out of a marginalized life -- made more critics' top ten lists in 1994 than any other film, including 'Pulp Fiction' and 'The Shawshank Redemption.' Get busy dribbling, or get busy dying.
James' film vitalizes and venerates William Gates and Arthur Agee without ever dipping a toe into the murky waters of poverty porn -- if dubious Sundance hit 'Precious' had a diametric opposite, it would be 'Hoop Dreams.' What we've got here illustrates the pressures exerted upon these kids... even as young teenagers the fortunes of their entire family are foisted upon their shoulders.
In the future, movies will be judged solely based upon how quiet they can keep Marc Anthony, and when that time comes 'Big Night' will formally unseat 'Citizen Kane' as the "Greatest Film Ever Made." In the meantime it'll have to suffice that 'Big Night' is merely a perfect film. The story of two immigrant brothers (Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub) who pull out all the stops to save their heavenly Italian restaurant, 'Big Night' isn't just a sly and tender bit of writing or an acting showcase for the ages (has there ever been such a mellifluous chorus of fake accents?), it's also the 'Caligula' of food porn.
This mid-90s treasure resolves itself with one of cinema's most appropriately understated final shots, but to divorce that scene from its proper context would be as awful as ordering risotto with spaghetti. Instead, I offer you a short and sweet moment from the middle of the film, a silly little exchange that underscores the films eminent warmth, showcases Ian Holm's impeccable timing, and hopefully sends you reeling towards Netflix Instant where 'Big Night' is ready to order.
So 'Big Night's' finale was sacred, but Spoiler Alert: This is the last scene of 'Memento.'
Of course, the beauty of Christopher Nolan's time-twisting sophomore feature is that it defies spoiler culture by not predicating its power on surprise. Sure, it's as hypnotically thrilling as ever to piece together why Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce's memory-challenged hero) shoots Joe Pantoliano in the brain, but 'Memento' resonates because Shelby -- for all of his unique eccentricities -- is ultimately revealed to be something of an ordinary guy who's just trying to put one foot in front of the other. It's the kind of revelation that elevates a gimmick into a purpose, and it's the way that Nolan ties it all together that elevates 'Memento' from a time-twisting noir to a modern masterpiece.
'Memento' emerged from the 2001 Sundance Film Festival as a must-see, and less than two months later it was a bona fide indie sensation. In a post last summer I wrote that, "Nolan's films don't move forward so much as they spiral inward... [his films] unravel their stories by beginning at the deepest layer and then slowly winding their way back to the surface so that we can join them for the eventual plunge." 'The Prestige' remains my favorite of his films, but this scene instantly reminds me that Nolan has never led viewers to a higher precipice than he did at the end of 'Memento.'
'Me and You and Everyone We Know'
Miranda July's debut feature isn't a linear narrative so much as it's a ten-car pile-up of Scenes We Love, a series of wistful and sharply separated vignettes about the sad hilarity of communication in the Internet Age. When taken together, it often feels like a particularly precious precursor to 'The Social Network' (apparently a bunch of movies do), one in which Facebook is two slippers that can't touch, and Mark Zuckerberg is a doomed goldfish in a plastic bag.
What resonates most about this sequence is July's dangerously gentle touch -- at the risk of losing her more jaded viewers, she dotes upon that goldfish with a concern that borders upon satire. Such a coy and darling moment becomes a veritable war of attrition between cute hipster poetry and eye-rolling cynicism, but July sticks to her guns and eventually brings everything together, her masterful sense of tone ultimately pushing that sad little swimmer from metaphor to martyr. And if that sounds like flowery B.S., don't forget that the movie's centerpiece is a scene in which a young boy and a middle-aged anonymously woman instant message about sharing a log of poop between them forever.
Miranda July's second feature is called 'The Future,' and it debuts at Sundance this week.