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by Harlan Kennedy


There is no better way to arrive at a film festival. Twisting and turning on the Olympic piste, the snow a wake of flying foam, the sun-gleaming Wasatch mountains rinsing the eyes and soul, I finally pull up with a staccato swish on the plain of level whiteness at the edge of Park City, Utah. Before me and all around me, what a panorama. Even the poet Horace, who sang the wonders of tall-standing Mount Soracte "nive candidum" (white with snow), would struggle to find words for the spectacle of this old silver-mining town coated voluptuously each winter with snow and ice and jewel-like frosts.

In the early 1980s the actor turned cine-guru Robert Redford, in a weird decision that has been validated by time, decided to hold America's premier film festival in the same month that Park City hosts every damn skier (swish-swoosh!) in the nation: or at least those who can't get to Sun Valley, Idaho. Every January the town has a population explosion of megaton proportions. Gridlock reigns. Traffic seethes. Tow-away zones multiply. (As the old outlaws who once took refuge in this hamlet used to say, "You can run, but you can't park.") And on every bus or shuttle van, camera tripods fight it out for space with skis and snowboards.

Yet somehow, everyone goes about his or her business and seems to enjoy it.

This year's Sundance Film Festival was the 25th. Redford told us he felt his baby had now grown up, leaving him free at last to return to more fulltime work as an actor, director and producer. Yet Sundance without Redford, without his snowblinding grin – a deus-ex-anorak loosening his ski jacket each year at the opening press conference – is barely imaginable. In a few short hours of that opening day he gives enough photo-ops to fill a gallery, endowing the coming event with its numinous glow. Smiling with Jennifer Aniston, hugging director Nicole Holofcener (whose all-star chick flick FRIENDS WITH MONEY was the gala opening) or carefully upstaging any whippersnapper male actor trying to move in on his crown as Hollywood Adonis, he sets the mythic components in place.

Then we watch the movies.

The best thing about Sundance every year is that these are unguessable. Before the festival the tipsters insist we watch out for SUCH AND SUCH and SO AND SO. (A vaunted masterwork from an indie veteran, say, or a debut delight from a young Turk). Instead we find the early standouts are UNHEARD-OF FROM NOWHERE and WHERE ON EARTH DID THIS COME FROM. Remember RESERVOIR DOGS? A true overnight Sundance success. Its then unknown owner, one Q. Tarantino, was soon helpless to control the leash of fame which dragged him across the world to Cannes, Katmandu and beyond. (See yah...)

Always at Sundance, the best films emerge from a chrysalis of unpredictability. This year too the betting odds changed daily. But my four favourites, by the close, were THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED, THE PROPOSITION, THE NIGHT LISTENER and ALPHA DOG.

THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED is a corking documentary from Kirby Dick. As investigative journalism goes, it goes like a rocket, even if its area of exploration is hardly outer space. Dick is out to get the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). America's prime movie-rating organisation, he reveals, is operated in secrecy by an anonymous cabal in a building as visitor-friendly as Fort Knox. Its inconsistent, often exasperating (to filmmakers) classification decisions – particularly in the embattled zone between R and NC 17, where millions of dollars can be lost in forfeiting a studio's willingness to publicise adults-only releases – are taken with no accountability to anyone, except possibly its longtime boss and former Lyndon Johnson aide Jack Valenti (just recently retired).

So Dick hires a private eye to unearth names, ranks and telephone numbers; to go through one rating judge's trash (where he discovers bloodcurdling details of the more lenient way the studios are treated compared to the helpless independents); and to expose the star-chamber creepiness of the MPAA's appeals board, where unnamed final arbiters, including one Catholic and one Episcopalian priest, hear the protests of filmmakers who feel unfairly graded. It is all riveting, especially when Dick provides his final zinger. He submits his own film to the ratings board – this film – and receives, guess what, a Draconian NC 17. For being disrespectful to the MPAA? No. For including too many explicit sex shots in order to argue and substantiate his thesis. There's something wrong about the tone of the MPAA.

THE PROPOSITION is an 1850s-set Australian western scripted by a rock musician (Nick Cave), shot in colours that oscillate between dream and nightmare, and starring the oddest mixture of north/south-hemisphere actors since LA CONFIDENTIAL. That movie's Guy Pearce plays the captured Irish-Australian brigand who receives the proposition of the title from outback police chief Ray Winston. He (Pearce) must find his murderously rampaging older brother (Danny Huston) and bring him back alive, if he wants to save the life of his younger brother, sitting in the desert town's death row.

Add John Hurt as an opulently gabby bounty hunter and Emily Watson as Winstone's refined wife – laying the table for Christmas dinner even as violence swirls towards her household – and the movie would be a feast for acting cameo collectors if it were nothing more. But it is. Cave's script has a terse and mischievous eloquence. Cameraman Benoξt Delhomme's images are awesome, from sunset-crimsoned deserts to dead-tree wildernesses blanched with ruin. And director John Hillcoat, who made poetic misanthropy go a long way in GHOSTS OF THE CIVIL DEAD, makes it go even further here, bringing the ghost of Peckinpah to the other side of the world.

Robin Williams plays gay in Patrick Stettner's THE NIGHT LISTENER, but this sure isn't THE BIRDCAGE. Adapted from Armistead Maupin's novel based on an incident in his own life, Stettner's tenebrous thriller-drama sends radio jock Williams into the labryinth of a mysterious child-abuse case. Contacted by a teenage boy recovering from years of sex victimisation and by the social worker (Toni Collette) now looking after him, Williams risks his own life – and sacrifices his love life with a steady partner – to pursue his obsessive sleuthwork.

Who are these people? Do they actually exist? Is it safe to meet them? Enigma moves towards grand guignol. Reason moves towards unreason. And trust becomes another word for credulity as Stettner and his writers (including Maupin and Terry Anderson, the actual ex-boyfriend here fictionalised) ask, "What is truth? What is love? And how many people does it take to form a loving relationship – two, three, a dozen or one?" Williams has never played a straight role better. Stettner, as in THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS, makes enclosed spaces and entangled friendships seem the perfect recipe for thought-provoking spookiness.

But ALPHA DOG will surely be remembered as the Sundance movie that delivered a kidney wallop to audience expectation. Nick Cassavetes made the good UNHOOK THE STARS, the not-so-good SHE'S SO LOVELY and the downright lunatic THE NOTEBOOK. As son of John he owed us a masterwork. Here it is, though owing less to Cassavetes Sr than to older and younger film masters. This fictive re-imagining of a true crime – the kidnapping and murder of a gang-related boy which incriminated half a dozen teenage hoodlums along with ringleader Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) – has the pulse-quickening panache of a Scorsese film allied to the chromatic expressionism of Nicholas Ray.

It almost is a 1950s movie, transported to 2006. Youths party in opulent ranch-style mansions while powerless parents look on or look away. Enmities intensify as colours catch fire, screens climactically split, and a supporting cast of all-sorts stars seize their moments. (Sharon Stone, her face bagged up with prostheses, her eyes raw with grief, has a stunning scene near the end). Yet the film is never out of control. A sound structure, a sprinkling of snapped one-liners ("Do me a favour, Susan, have a period or something!") and a knowledge of when to go for the big moment visually create rhythm, strength and architecture. What Cassavetes does with the valley of windmills near Palm Springs – raised in culminating scenes to an otherworldly poetry almost science-fictional – should become as canonic as what Ray did with the Griffith Observatory in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.

ALPHA DOG proves what we knew about Sundance and have known throughout its 25 years. Whenever it seems too late to be astonished – in any given January in Park City when we have started to feel snowbound rather than spellbound – it isn't. 2006 takes its place among the best years. Give me my jacket, bring me my gloves and book me my snowboard for 2007.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.