Sundance, In Stitches

Dennis Harvey February 1, 2008

Going to Sundance is like being in a car accident: At the time everything seems to be going in slow-motion, then later you can hardly remember what happened.

Fortunately there is no long-term damage — unless your film earns “must-not-see” buzz. Or unless you slip on ice, kiss pavement, and get five stitches to achieve the sexy look that screams “Bar Fight.” (Yes, we have gone into autobiographical territory now.) Park City is so small it doesn’t have a hospital, just a clinic, where the gods punished my student nurse for being blabby (she spilled that Josh Hartnett had been there the day before, cryptically noting “He was sick,”) by having a needle poke through my skin and somehow spray anesthetic in her eye. “It burns!” she cried, hijacking the doctor’s attention for an hour or so. Who’d have thought the erstwhile star of “Pearl Harbor” wielded such potent karmic justice?

Which is not to say the 2008 Sundance Film Festival was all pratfalls, medical horror stories, and Josh Hartnett sightings. (I only saw his movie, “August,” which by general consensus was pretty feh.) The starrier, higher-profile films tended to underwhelm. But as usual there were plenty of less-commercially-angled surprises that kept the original Sundance idealism — cinematic art for art’s sake! truly “indie” purity! — alive.

Herewith a somewhat random list of things that were good (or at least memorably bad) about the Sundance class of ought-eight:

1. Thomas Haden Church: This underappreciated (despite the welcome belated kudos he got from “Sideways”) actor singlehandedly enlivened the mediocre dysfunctional-family dramedy of “Smart People,” stealing scenes whole from Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Ellen Page.

2. House managers telling people not to text-message during the movie: If I wanted a little light nagging my peripheral vision, I would have invited Tinkerbell.

3. Quentin Tarantino: It took a while to realize the guy sitting in front of me at “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” was, y’know, this guy. One might expect him to be an aging brat, but I must say: He was terribly garrulous and gracious to every yobbo who approached with “You don’t know me but…” Sincere celebrity niceness is always refreshing.

4.Documentaries revealing embarrassing things about their makers: The nonfiction self-portrait is often a prescription for directorial (and egotistical) indulgence. But champion bench-presser Christopher Bell’s “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” (about pro/amateur steroid use) and serial bad boyfriend Chris Weiss’ “A Complete History of My Sexual Failures” (about exactly that) were deft, hilarious, and painfully revealing.

5. Paying $5 for bottled water: I am glad Park City’s natives get to pay several months’ rent by gouging expense-account types for ten days each January. Still: High-altitude hydration shouldn’t be this punitive.

666. Canadian heavy metal from the 1980s hair band apex: All four current members of Anvil cut in front of me at a Park City java joint. Feel my wrath! But onscreen in Sacha Gervasi’s “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” Toronto’s veteran, never-quite-made-it rawk heroes are as endearing as they are Spinal Tap-ish. Highlight: An early-career clip in which a TV talkshow hostess recites lyrics to “Toe Jam” (“Down with her fishnets up with her skirt/Dig a little deeper till you hit paydirt/Toe jam!”), inciting the righteous indignation of an upstanding-housewives studio audience.

7. You gotta love “Lysistrata”-inspired German/Azerbaijani parabolic whimsies: At least when they’re from the imagination of Veit Harlan, who stormed the festival circuit in 1999 with incongruous silent-cinema delight “Tuvalu.” His new “Absurdistan” is another ingenious gizmo in which a remote mountain village forgotten by the outside world since the USSR’s collapse suffers its own civil war — between fed-up women and the menfolk who are too lazy to repair the town’s historied underground water-delivery system. It’s sweet, silly, and fantastically funny.

8. Festival volunteers: Most are aspiring filmmakers, and unlike many actual, programmed filmmakers, they are thrilled to chat you up at the freezing-cold bus stop they’ve been condemned to for four hours at a stretch.

9. Paranormal activity: Cheat alert! This was actually a Slamdance title. But Oren Peli’s micro-budged debut feature, a faux documentary about a yuppie So. Cal. couple camcording their own house-haunting, was scary as hell — particularly compared to such glossy but derivative Sundance fright machines as “The Broken.” It plays our very own Roxie Cinema as part of S.F. Indiefest Feb. 16 and 20th.

10. “Sugar”: I missed some raved-about Sundance titles, like “Baghead” from the co-directors of the wonderful “Puffy Chair” and Azazel Jacobs’ failure-to-launch tale “Momma’s Man,” which casts his own parents as keepers of an adult son who refuses to leave home. But I doubt anything could surpass the sheer joy of this sophomore feature by “Half Nelson’s” Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. It follows a tightly wound pitcher from the Dominican Republic (first-time actor Algenis Perez Soto) as he experiences the exhilaration and culture shock of being drafted into U.S. minor leagues. Incredibly, “Sugar” — which got as much critical and word-of-mouth love as anything in Park City this year — didn’t win a single Sundance award, while much-lesser titles (like manipulative doc “American Teen” and so-so Swedish “King of Ping Pong”) got multiple nods. Josh Hartnett Karmic Justice, where are you when we really need you?!?

Bonus #11: Coming home: Park City is nice, but let’s face it — San Francisco is always going to be the place you’re gladder to call Chez Moi.