Because the Sundance Film Festival takes place at the start of each year, and is stocked with films that few people have seen, it's a more difficult program to navigate than the average fest. Attendees can easily find themselves blindly following the buzz—much of which is generated by publicists, not by movie buffs or Sundance officials. And when those buzz movies disappoint, the reputation of the festival as a whole sometimes takes a hit, unfairly.
Conventional wisdom holds that the 2008 edition of Sundance was a bust, and perhaps disastrously so. The relative lack of "big sale" news touched off a year of self-fulfilling doom-saying over the decline of the independent film business, while the lack of a "wow" film on the level of previous Sundance premieres Once or You Can Count On Me seemed to indicate a major lapse in taste on the part of the programmers. But given the overall weakness of 2008's movies—from January all the way to December—were the problems with Sundance '08 really the festival's fault? After all, what significant American independent movies did the programmers fail to land? Surely they would've liked a crack at Che, Wendy And Lucy and Synecdoche, New York, but those were all bound for Cannes. Neither Rachel Getting Married nor The Wrestler were ready to screen; and Surfwise and Paranoid Park had already premiered at the '07 Toronto festival. Pickings were slim.
Given those limitations, was last year's Sundance really all that bad? Looking back over the 2008 Sundance slate, it's startling how many very good movies were all-but-ignored by critics and reporters 12 months ago, only to find favor later in the year. It just proves that it can take a while before the quality of any given festival roster fully registers. So with that in mind, here's a one-year-of-hindsight take on Sundance '08:
Before the festival even began, a handful of movies were touted as having the potential to be "the next Little Miss Sunshine" (arguably Sundance's biggest success story of the '00s). One of those must-sees was Sunshine Cleaning, an offbeat family melodrama about crime-scene-cleaning sisters, from the Little Miss Sunshine producing team. But once Sunshine Cleaning actually screened, reaction was muted at best. The movie didn't sell until a month after the festival closed, and won't be released until March of this year. On the flipside, the raucous high school comedy Hamlet 2 was rapturously received, and sold for a record $10.5 million. But it later bombed in theaters, and has become yet another cautionary example of a Sundance crowd-pleaser that doesn't play so well closer to sea level. The similarly acclaimed The Wackness did okay outside Park City, and its nostalgic look at early '90s New York has a handful devoted fans—but it was hardly a smash hit. Meanwhile a handful of the hyped-up '08 Sundance documentaries were either released to pans (Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?) or shrugs (Patti Smith: Dream Of Life), or haven't yet been released in the U.S. (A Complete History Of My Sexual Failures). And Sundance's annual roll call of star-laden indies wasn't all that stellar, despite the scattered support for movies like Choke, Smart People, What Just Happened, and the still-unreleased The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh.
Sundance 2008 opened with In Bruges, a much-praised gangster comedy that went on to become something of a cult favorite, and to make a number of best-of-the-year lists. Ditto the midlife crisis melodrama The Visitor, which didn't draw a whole lot of attention at Sundance because it had already premiered at the Toronto festival in '07, but still went on to be a respectable arthouse hit. The documentary American Teen was tipped to be a sensation, but its failure to thrive is more the fault of its distributor and marketing team than the movie itself, which was praised widely both inside and outside Park City. Other documentaries that were well-received both at the festival and afterward include the geriatric musical Young @ Heart, the Hollywood exposé Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired, the Katrina doc Trouble The Water, the survivalist story Stranded: I've Come From A Plane That Crashed On The Mountains, and the frequent best-of-'08 listmaker Man On Wire. As the '08 festival played out, a lot of support developed for the earnest Amerindie dramas Ballast, Frozen River and Momma's Man, all of which found small but appreciative audiences in general release. And while Be Kind Rewind, Funny Games and Sugar divided audiences both at Sundance and beyond, all three were clearly worthy of the Sundance spotlight.
The 2008 documentary program was one of the strongest Sundance has ever assembled, yet while most of the attention went to American Teen, Young @ Heart and Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?, a number of excellent documentaries had to wait until after the festival to get their due, including the measured steroid study Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, the entertaining bio-doc Gonzo: The Life And Work Of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, the prescient why-our-economy-is-in-trouble doc I.O.U.S.A., the state-of-Southern-race-relations sketch The Order Of Myths, the well-balanced study of covert government operations Secrecy, and the effects-of-capitalism-on-rural-China meditation Up The Yangtze. Also, a number of superior and distinctive indie-pulps came and went through Sundance without drawing sufficient buzz, including the Spanish mindbender Timecrimes, the Euro-thriller Transsiberian, the mumblecore horror riff Baghead, the low-key revenge drama Red, and the lurid true-crime saga Savage Grace. All of these were generally well-reviewed at Sundance, but none ever developed a stand-in-line-for-four-hours-in-the-snow-to-get-a-ticket kind of reputation, even though they were better than some movies that did spark mini-frenzies.
One of the best documentaries at the 2008 Sundance film festival was Anvil: The Story Of Anvil, a funny, moving portrait of an over-the-hill Canadian heavy metal band, but as of now, Anvil is still on the festival circuit, and doesn't seem to be on the path to being distributed anytime soon. Other "Whatever happened to…?"s from 2008's Sundance include the solid drama Phoebe In Wonderland, with Felicity Huffman and Elle Fanning as a mother and daughter dealing with the latter's lapse into an inexplicable mania, and the slight-but-entertaining teenage noir Assassination Of A High School President. More than a few critics were excited by American Son, a sensitive slice-of-life about a small-town military family, but it too has been essentially MIA since Sundance. And though documentaries always seem to enjoy a cultural status about on the level of bound copies of doctoral dissertations, it would be a shame if An American Soldier (about military recruiters), Be Like Others (about Iranian sex-change patients) and Recycle (about the daily life of a politicized Middle Easterner) never saw the light of day again
So in the end, was Sundance '08 what A.V. Club writer Nathan Rabin would dub "a secret success?" Not exactly. Though Man On Wire and The Visitor have done very well—and In Bruges, Ballast, Frozen River, Up The Yangtze, American Teen and Bigger, Stronger, Faster* have all popped up on a number of best-of-the-year lists—the 2008 festival was still missing a defining breakout hit, like Reservoir Dogs or Crumb, that dominated discussions of the year's most significant films. Still, the festival was hardly a washout. As critics and reporters prepare to tackle the 2009 Sundance, it would be prudent for them to take another look at last year's slate, to take note of what they missed—and then ponder what they're about to miss.