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Independent Heaven

At the recently concluded Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford's annual winter wonderland for independent cinema, the stakes were at an all-time high. Agents, producers and distributors tripped over one another and the snowdrifts filling the streets of Park City, Utah, in pursuit of the Next Big Thing. It was clear that what started years back as a funky little showcase for offbeat little movies has become North America's premier launching pad for independent films and filmmakers. Even the makers of films that don't ignite bidding wars know that at Sundance, their work will be viewed carefully by people who sign checks, hire directors and distribute movies. And the people who trudge through the snow and line up for screenings know that, just when they least expect it, something magical -- or, better still, potentially profitable -- will appear on-screen. And the movies that already have distributors are represented by press agents who know that, with literally hundreds of critics and journalists in attendance, Sundance is a great place -- the best place, really -- to gain attention for small-budget, low-concept, tough-sell movies.

So, while the January 18 to 28 exposition was obviously important for filmmakers, it also had importance for filmgoers not content to depend on the major studios for all their entertainment: what makes it at Sundance just might have a good chance of making it to a big screen in Houston. Flop at Sundance, and the route to viewers starts to look like it might only go through a video store.

That may be one reason Miramax Pictures chief Harvey Weinstein got into a public shouting match with Pandora Cinema president Jonathan Taplin in Mercado, a trendy Park City restaurant, after a rival distributor snapped up the rights to Pandora's Shine, Scott Hicks' well-received drama about Australian pianist David Helfgott's descent into madness. Weinstein thought that Miramax already had a binding commitment from Pandora; Taplin preferred the deal (and the $2.5 million) offered by Fine Line Features. "You may have two lawyers with you now," Weinstein thundered when he saw Taplin dining with a pair of entertainment attorneys, "but you'll need five when I'm through with you!" Before the harsh words could give way to raised fists, however, the Mercado management told Weinstein to leave.

Somewhat less voluble, but perhaps more rancorous, was the dispute that arose over Lee David Zlotoff's Care of the Spitfire Grill, a sentimental drama about a female ex-convict who finds friendship and acceptance in a small Maine town after her release from prison. Just two days after Shine set a Sundance record with its $2.5 million purchase, the producers of Spitfire Grill shattered that record by selling distribution rights to their film for $10 million. Thus, Spitfire Grill instantly replaced sex, lies and videotape as the official Cinderella legend of Sundance. (Assuming, of course, that a lawsuit threatened by another distributor, which claims it had first dibs on the film, doesn't kill the happily-ever-after ending.)

Documentaries, traditionally the toughest of tough sells, are especially well-served by Sundance exposure. In past years, nonfiction films as diverse as Crumb, Hoop Dreams and For All Mankind made major impressions by earning accolades at Sundance. This year, for the first time in the festival's history, a single film won both the Audience Award (tabulated from exit polls at public screenings) and the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary: Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher's Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern, a beautifully photographed and emotionally affecting account of the struggle by Jordan's father to save his Iowa farm from bank foreclosure. Before Sundance, the filmmakers were resigned to a quick TV sale; on awards night, they were already raising their sights toward theatrical release.

An even safer bet for theatrical release is Cutting Loose, an ambitious and highly entertaining documentary that offers a fresh take on a seemingly over-familiar subject -- Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The beauty of the film is how co-directors Susan Todd and Andrew Young grasped the diversity of racial, cultural and socioeconomic groups that take part in the annual celebration. Unlike many other documentaries that have concentrated almost exclusively on Fat Tuesday celebrations in the crowded streets, Cutting Loose covers everything from the stately private balls of upper-class krewes (social organizations) to the strutting solo parades by flamboyantly costumed African-Americans who comport themselves as "Indians." Better still, the filmmakers have discovered the documentary equivalent of a superstar: Gio, a vivaciously bawdy and aggressively uninhibited stripper who reveals her talents (among other things) while reigning as queen of the Krewe du Vieux parade.

Among the other outstanding documentaries were two memorable films about children. Jennifer McShane and Tricia Regan's A Leap of Faith is a powerful portrait of the brave parents and teachers who establish an integrated school for Catholic and Protestant children in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (The most outspoken opponents of the integrated school concept, a Catholic priest and a Protestant politician, are given just enough time on-camera to hang themselves with their own words.) And Melissa Hacker's My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports is a stunning account of the campaign to evacuate Jewish children to Great Britain before the outbreak of World War II. As Hacker makes painfully clear through interviews with several survivors -- including, most movingly, her own mother -- only a few thousand children could be saved. And barely a handful of them ever saw their parents again. If you have a tear left to shed, this film will wring it from you.

As for the dramatic features shown, standouts included Bandwagon, John Schultz's sharply acted and confidently directed comedy-drama about four North Carolina twentysomethings who form a band for lack of anything else to do; Sydney, Paul Thomas Anderson's engrossingly claustrophobic drama about an aging high-roller (Philip Baker Hall in the performance of a lifetime) and his younger, more impulsive protege; and The Whole Wide World, Dan Ireland's grandly old-fashioned period drama, filmed in and around Austin, about pulp-fiction writer Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, and his real-life relationship with schoolteacher Novalyne Price.

Also noteworthy were three films that showcase exceptionally fine lead performances. Randal Kleiser's It's My Party, a smart and sassy tearjerker, features Eric Roberts in a career-reviving performance as an AIDS-stricken architect who decides to throw one last bash for his friends and family before committing suicide. Ashley Judd takes even bigger chances in her extraordinary portrayal of a beautiful but self-destructive manic depressive who drives her husband (Luke Perry) from rookie cop to career criminal in John McNaughton's Normal Life. And Dennis Hopper, of all people, gives a beautifully restrained and delicately nuanced performance as a middle-aged rural school teacher who rebels against the tedium of his life by having an affair with a 17-year-old student in Bruno Barreto's Carried Away.

A few nose-burning stinkers did manage to slip into the mix. Arguably the worst of the worst at Sundance '96 was Matthew Bright's Freeway, a sophomoric and morally repellent mix of fractured fairy tale, juvenile social satire, bloody mayhem and cartoonish B movie melodrama. This is the kind of aggressively offensive junk in which the nude, bound corpse of an elderly woman is used as a sight gag. Conceivably, Freeway might have a future with faux-hip audiences at midnight screenings. But really, some movies can never be shown late enough.

Looking for Richard, a far more commendable offering, stood in a class by itself. A fascinating mixture of cinema verite, filmed theater and talking-heads commentary, this freeform examination of Shakespeare's Richard III is propelled by the vigorous intelligence and passionate curiosity of its writer, director and star, Al Pacino. Periodically, scenes from the classic play are enacted by Pacino (in the title role, of course) and a dream cast that includes Alec Baldwin, Aidan Quinn, Estelle Parsons and -- no kidding! -- Winona Ryder. More often, however, Looking for Richard is not so much a performance of Shakespeare as a meditation on Shakespeare's art, craft and relevance. Pacino seeks advice from experts (Vanessa Redgrave, Kenneth Branagh, John Gielgud and others) and academics. He quizzes strangers on the street. He even questions himself and his collaborations. Why? Because Pacino doesn't merely want to perform Shakespeare -- he wants to probe Shakespeare, to discover all his subtleties and secrets, and to promote Shakespeare, to make the classic plays accessible to a contemporary audience.

At a film festival dedicated to visionaries, mavericks and others who wade outside of the mainstream, Looking for Richard was very much in its element. Like many other Sundance features, it is the very model of a movie that cannot be easily described, and should not be lightly overlooked.

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