Welcome to The A.V. Club’s coverage of Sundance 2009! This year we have two reporters on the ground: myself, who will be attempting to pack as many screenings as I can into a day, even if that means bailing on something that’s merely okay in order to get to something that might be better; and Nathan, who will be seeing whatever movies he can squeeze in between crashing parties and stalking celebs. My plan is to be the Tim Crouse to Nathan’s Hunter S. Thompson. (That is, if Tim Crouse had a Twitter account… for the Twitter-inclined, you can get my instant impressions of what I’m seeing here.)
The first day of Sundance is traditionally sparse—there’s only one screening, which I’ve covered below—but if you need more to chew over, I’ve got a couple of links for you to follow. First, check out Karina Longworth’s report for SpoutBlog on why a lot of respected film journalists are skipping Sundance in year. (In short: a lot of them don’t have jobs anymore, and Sundance is awfully expensive given the sometimes dicey quality of the films.) Second, for a taste of Sundance on your very own computer, head over to iTunes, where 10 Sundance shorts are available to download, gratis.
Frankly, unlike some of my homebody fellow critics, I’m excited about this year’s line-up. In the coming days I can look forward to Spike Lee’s film of Stew’s Tony-winning musical Passing Strange; Tom DiCillo’s documentary about The Doors; a Patton Oswalt vehicle written and directed by The Wrestler screenwriter Rob Siegel; Greg Mottola’s follow-up to Superbad (this time from his own screenplay); a new documentary from the prolific (and uniformly teriffic) Doug Pray; and midnight fare featuring retro blaxploitation and Lil’ Wayne. Already that’s about twice as many movies I was keen to see at the ’08 fest, and there are even more worthy-looking films that I won’t even bother to describe, since their appeal may be less immediate. Will this be the opening salvo of a rebound year for quality cinema? Watch this space for further details.
And now, tonight’s lone film:
Mary & Max
Director: Adam Elliot (92 min.)
Voice Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette, Barry Humphries, Eric Bana
Headline: Lonely Australian girl and New York Aspie become pen pals
Indie type: Animated grotesquerie
Report: In the opening seconds of Mary & Max, the narrator describes the young heroine as having a birthmark on the forehead “the color of poo,” which pretty much sets the movie’s scatological tone. Animator Adam Elliot’s characters are misshapen, farting lumps, frequently shat upon and even more frequently humiliated. As young Mary grows into adulthood—with a distant father, an alcoholic mother, a gay husband, and a near-constant stream of mockery from her peers—Elliot seems to relish coming up with new ways to make her miserable. Max, on the other hand, has every bit as pathetic a life, but he’s not miserable, because he has Asperger’s, and emotions like sadness are alien to him. (He’s more anxious and unnerved.) Mary & Max’s claymation design is frequently stunning, and whenever Hoffman as Max talks about his life, the movie delivers one of the truest and most moving explanations of life through an Aspie’s eyes that I’ve ever seen. I could watch the Max parts of this movie all day. But I never thought of Mary as anything other than one in a long line of suffering indie-film saints, created for our black comic amusement. Plus, frankly, I grew weary of all the shitting. In the end, to borrow a word from Max, this movie left me “confuzzled.”
Last year, I stayed in a conveniently located condo that had crappy wi-fi and a busted sofa bed. This year, I’m staying in a nice hotel with great wi-fi—even though I got kicked off the network at one point for opening too many tabs in my browser—and nice amenities like a free breakfast, a heated indoor pool, a 24-hour convenience store with cheap beer, and fresh-baked cookies in the afternoon. It’s cheaper than last year’s accommodations too. The downside? It’s about a 40-minute bus ride (or 10-minute cab ride) from where the action is. So there’s trade-offs.