x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Sundance: challenging moments and breakout performances

With all the attention from Hollywood and the international press, Sundance has become a place to launch films.

Sundance gives out more prizes than a school sports day, reinforcing the festival's conviction that every independent filmmaker is a winner. Yet this week's awards and the close of a successful festival do merit some reflection. In choosing Restrepo, a tactile account of US soldiers stationed on a hilltop in Afghanistan by the first-timers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, the documentary jurors challenged the market wisdom of recent years and honoured a war movie set in the Middle East.

Recent films on US wars in the region, including the much-praised The Hurt Locker, have struggled at the box office despite awards. Also, in rewarding Restrepo's positive depiction of the US soldiers - no stars here, it's a documentary - Sundance and its jurors took a far more favourable view of the US military than would have been imaginable at the festival five years ago. (Lest anyone think that the Sundance pendulum has swung in the military's direction, The Pat Tillman Story, by Amir Bar-Lev, also at the festival, implicates the military and the highest ranks of the US government in the cover-up of the Afghanistan friendly-fire death of Tillman, the former American football star who was the best-known enlisted man in the US Army.)

Both Restrepo and Tillman are evidence of a trend, straddling as they do the line between filmmaking and journalism. Given the shrinking of mainstream newspapers in the US, we can expect that border to fade in the coming years. Winter's Bone, which won the festival's prize for a dramatic feature, points away from the marketplace in another direction. It is adapted from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, the king of rural noir mysteries and its relentlessly stark and violent look at a teenage girl's search for her criminal father who skipped bail after putting their house up as collateral is remarkable in its ethnographic precision. The director Debra Granik looks at the uncomfortable underbelly of backwoods America. It's as dark as a horror movie, yet the she seems to be aiming at something more literary.

Jennifer Lawrence, a capable young actress, doesn't lighten the mood in her deadpan performance of a daughter on a dangerous mission. She prepared for such a character in the equally grim The Burning Plain, written and directed by Mexico's Guillermo Arriaga, in which she played a teenager who kills her mother and her mother's partner. Even if Winter's Bone won't make Lawrence rich, it's likely to make her desirable among Hollywood agents.

If Sundance was created to break apart the monopolistic influence of Hollywood, the prizes awarded in Park City, Utah, to films made outside the US reflect the influence of Sundance beyond American cinema. The documentary prize winner The Red Chapel, a Danish film about a two-man satirical theatre troupe is a first-person spoof in which the filmmaker and performers shoot their encounter with North Korea. Morgan Spurlock's Super-Size Me (2004) and Where In the World Is Osama Bin Laden? (2008) paved the way for this one in style, irreverence and rock-bottom budget.

Animal Kingdom, by David Michod, is another kind of Sundance staple. A remarkable feature debut (after some impressive short films), the crime-family drama set in the tawdry corners of Melbourne is already on a scale beyond independent cinema. For Michod, whether he intended it or not, Sundance has been a stepping stone to Hollywood, as it has for talented emerging directors since the 1980s. With all the attention from Hollywood and everywhere else, Sundance has become a place to launch movies. That's reason enough for a group of Canadian films to have been there, even though the Toronto International Film Festival is a much larger event. Small films that might have been in the shadows at TIFF were seeking attention in Park City. Some got it.

One was Splice, a darkly realistic techno-horror film with Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley as two scientists who find some surprises when their gene-splicing gambit creates a human/animal hybrid. Polley's character, unethically, provides her own DNA for the experiment, producing a new twist on cloning. Also from Canada, in Sundance's Midnight programme with Splice, was the raucous Tucker & Dale vs Evil, in which two hillbillies face off against an SUV-load of college students on holiday. The splatter farce exploits every rural stereotype that the prize-winning Winter's Bone addresses with deep sobriety.

A prize for breakout performance went to the Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany for her role as the frustrated daughter of a disgraced professional athlete in Grown Up Movie Star, a coming-of-age story directed by Adriana Maggs - sharing emotional territory with Winter's Bone. In documentaries, The Shock Doctrine, co-directed by Michael Winterbottom, is based on Naomi Klein's book about extreme US economic policies applied to other countries. It was at Sundance aspiring to be the next Inconvenient Truth.

Yet while Al Gore pointed to an emerging crisis, The Shock Doctrine had already been overtaken by inconvenience, in the form of an even worse financial crisis. Yet there was good news for Winterbottom. His shockingly violent The Killer Inside Me also premiered at Sundance and was considered by some to be undistributable. Sceptics were proven wrong when the film was acquired for the US market by IFC Films.