Robert Redford is desperate to convince you that the Sundance Film Festival – the independent film showcase bourne out of his not-for-profit Sundance Institute 21 years ago this week - has not lost its edge. The original Sundance Kid appeared at a kick-off press conference on Thursday, where he delivered platitude after platitude in a blatant attempt to shore up his baby's integrity. As the Fest hasn't held an opening day press opp in years, the very fact that the event happened is a good indication that Redford thinks he has something to prove. And boy, did he come to play: "We don't program for commerciality, we program for diversity!", went one battle cry; "We provide, you decide!" was its too-cute compliment. By the end of the afternoon, not a few members of the press corps were left wondering: when it comes to defending the Festival's street cred in the face of celeb-baiting swag bags and liberal injections of corporate cash, perhaps doth protest too much?
Which is not to say that Redford doesn't have a few good reasons to be defensive. Sundance continues to show more new works by emerging and underestablished filmmakers than any other major film festival in the world. And yet, for almost a decade, media coverage of the Fest has focused almost solely on the stars and the scene and the deals, and the corporate muscle leveraged to bring the three together. The 2005 lineup featured disappointing works by a heap of indie name brands, from Thomas Vinterberg (Dear Wendy) to Hal Hartley (The Girl From Monday), but it also served as a crucial breaking ground for some of the year's most celebrated indies, from Me and You and Everyone We Know to The Squid and the Whale, the latter a multiple Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Award nominee. Redford took pains yesterday to maintain that his team hasn't changed their programming mission since the fest began, but a cursory glance at this year's schedule gives the impression that the curation philosophy has indeed shifted in the past year. The most well-known auteurs on the 2006 schedule is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry, with Bad Santa helmer Terry Zwigoff the only close runner-up.
But what Sundance 2006 might lack in terms of behind-the-camera boldface names, it makes up for by offering big-name, above-the-title talent in spades. The opening night film, Friends with Money, stars Jennifer Aniston as an unhappy, 30-something, pot smoking maid who can't stop stalking her married ex. At Thursday's press conference, festival prorammer Geoff Gilmore answered the logical questions about his choice of opener before they could be asked. "There are a lot of issues that people will bring up to you about how [a film starring one of the most photographed women in the world] represents the independent spectrum – but the quality of this filmmaking, and the talent of [director Nicole Holofcener] ... makes it a slam dunk. It's got the qualities of storytelling that make independent filmmaking what it is."
Gilmore and Redford took plenty of time out of their busy rep-backing schedule to heap praise on Aniston's new Friends – so much so that, going into the film's first press screening two hours later, the largely-unseen film already bore the burden of living up to faintly positive buzz. Though not quite a revelation, Friends didn't exactly disappoint. Like Holofcener's previous films, Walking and Talking and Lovely and Amazing, Friends with Money is an astutely observed relationship dramady, painfully funny even as it burns. As Holofcener's anti-heroine, Olivia, Jennifer Aniston acquits herself more than admirably, especially considering the film began shooting the day after news of her seperation from Brad Pitt leaked to the press, The timing, actually, could maybe not have been better: the role requires Aniston to convince us that she's a loser. Watch for a key moment, about three quarters in, where a rival tells Olivia to "go get [her] own husband." It's not hard to imagine the real-life motivations Aniston used to fuel Olivia's profanity-laden response.