PARK CITY, Utah - Is Sundance still relevant?
Granted, this question gets asked every January; doubt is part of the festival’s institutional DNA. Either corporate visigoths and glitzy stars have poisoned the spirit of independent film, or the movies unveiled in any given year are too small, too depressing, too uncommercial to survive outside the nest. And every year, the festival’s resident godhead, Robert Redford, reminds us that it’s all about the films and the singular visions contained therein. Every year, the visigoths buy the titles they think will turn a profit, and some of them actually do. Some of them even make a lasting dent in American pop culture.
So Sundance endures. But a quiet, uneventful Sundance, like the one that ends today, prompts longer-range thinking. Thirty-one years after the Utah/US Film festival relocated from Salt Lake City to Park City (the name was changed to the Sundance Film Festival in 1985), the landscape of moviemaking and movie-watching has undergone a wrenching transformation. Art houses and specialty theaters are under siege, and filmed entertainment - the phrase itself is out of date in a digital world - is rapidly migrating off the big screen onto a thousand tiny platforms.
It’s easier than ever to make a movie today, yet harder to get it seen by a cohesive mass audience (as opposed to the drive-bys of YouTube). Sundance has traditionally been the marketplace for the artsy and the uncompromising, the scruffy and the shocking, but it now has more competition than ever. South by Southwest, in March, has stolen much of the indie-film thunder in recent years, and there probably isn’t a mid-size American city that doesn’t have a festival of its own.
And, too, the arteries of the animal we know as “indie film’’ have been hardening of late. Too many Sundance movies are about burnt-out rock stars bonding with their neglected children, or disaffected high school boys suffering from unrequited crushes, or faux no-budget character studies of immature 30-somethings. Or all of the above. Sundance was conceived to offer an alternative to mainstream cinema, but one can be forgiven for occasionally wishing for an alternative to the alternative. The sudden death at this year’s Sundance of film executive Bingham Ray, whose October Films jump-started the modern indie boom in the 1990s, was a tragedy. It was also a hint that an era may be passing.
Each Sundance, there are one or two actresses who are anointed the Next Big Thing; this year there were none. Each Sundance, there are four or five breakout titles that you have to see if you want to return home with your head held high. This year, there was one: Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,’’ a phantasmagoric coming-of-age story set during a hurricane that’s half Katrina and half primordial myth. The confidence and invention evident in every frame of “Beasts’’ made every other movie in the festival seem vaguely infantile.
Fox Searchlight bought distribution rights to the film for an undisclosed sum, and the company has its work cut out for it: This magical-realist fable will be a tough sell even on the specialty circuit. (Although you could easily push it as “Whale Rider’’ with a side of po-boys and peyote.) By contrast, the festival’s biggest payday - $6 million, again from Fox Searchlight - went to “The Surrogate,’’ a much more conventionally minded drama starring John Hawkes as a man in an iron lung looking to lose his virginity.
Despite that plot synopsis, “The Surrogate’’ is an emotionally moving crowd-pleaser. Your grandmother could watch it, if she was an adventurous grandma. Released at the right time and properly promoted, it could even end up with end-of-the-year plaudits and awards bling. Remember “Winter’s Bone’’? That netted Hawkes an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. “The Surrogate’’ could conceivably get him nominated for best actor.
The plot falls into a familiar category: The severely disabled hero trapped in a body he can’t control and struggling to live a full life. Hawkes, who has made his bones playing violent hillbillies and creepy cult leaders, gets a welcome change of pace as a soulful nice guy, and on top of that he spends the entire movie sideways. As the surrogate Mark hires, Helen Hunt gives a physically brave performance (there aren’t many other actresses in their late 40s who’d not only go the Full Monty but be willing to tackle such sexually intimate scenes), and she underplays to powerful effect. Add in William Macy as a Catholic priest dealing with issues Pat O’Brien never faced, and you have a ready-made word-of-mouth favorite.
In other words, “The Surrogate’’ is a very good example of what Sundance now does best, from its nominally daring subject matter to the familiar Hollywood faces taking pay cuts for art. The movie’s categorizable, whereas the original idea behind Sundance was to make movies that were beyond category.
Another pleasant sub-theme of Sundance 2012 has been the elevation of familiar character actors into lead roles. There’s Hawkes in “Surrogate,’’ Melanie Lynskey in the charming but overwritten “Hello I Must Be Going,’’ and there’s the dour beauty Aubrey Plaza in “Safety Not Guaranteed,’’ playing a Seattle magazine intern getting to the bottom of a classified ad asking for time travel volunteers. (It’s based on a true story, let’s hope loosely.) The movie is small and shaggy, extremely enjoyable if your expectations are correctly tweaked, and Plaza is beyond charming in it.
The actress is probably most familiar to festivalgoers from her role on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,’’ and, generally speaking, Sundance is where ambitious TV actors go to challenge themselves and raise their pop credibility. This year saw Andy Samberg of “Saturday Night Live’’ testing his dramatic abilities (acceptable) in the divorce comedy “Celeste and Jesse Forever’’; Tim Heidecker - half of the Tim and Eric team of various Adult Swim shows - as a dead-end Williamsburg hipster in “The Comedy’’; and Josh Radnor of “How I Met Your Mother’’ writing, directing, and starring in “Liberal Arts.’’
Without question, Park City remains a place to catch up with button-pushing documentaries like “The Invisible War’’ (about rape in the military) and the much argued-about “The Imposter,’’ about a pretender who played mind-games with a family. The festival showcases such foreign language films as the resonant Brazilian road movie “Father’s Chair,’’ and it brings in the filmmakers to connect with American audiences and distributors.
But where Sundance once was the place, it’s now one of several places. And this year, especially, it seemed more than ever a conduit by which certain kinds of safely “alternative’’ movies are able to come to market. Where was the excitement - the sense of peering over the edge into something wildly new? Can it even be found on a big screen anymore? The defining image of Sundance 2012 may have been the one that was repeated in every theater at the end of every film: rows upon rows upon rows of iPhones and Droids all lighting up to get the latest and tweet it back.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.