Sundance Film Fest 2007: Evaluating the Dramatic Competition

Ranking the 16 Entries in the Series

Park City, Utah-The 2007 edition of the Sundance Film Festival, still the major center for new American indies in the U.S., made up for last year, one of the weakest as far as the dramatic competition is concerned.

This is my seventeenth consecutive Sundance. I first attended the festival as a film critic for Variety, then as chief critic for Screen International, then as juror for the 2003 dramatic competition, and since then as a critic for my website, www.EmanuelLevy.Com.

The following reports are based on the viewing of all the dramatic features that premiered in the competition series. In these series of articles, I wish to examine the Dramatic Competition from various perspectives, artistic, critical, sociological, and even commercial.

Over the past 23 years (ever since Redford took the U.S. Film Festival under his wings and renamed it Sundance), I have been collecting definitions from colleagues, filmmakers, distributors, and publicists of what makes for a successful festival. The following concepts are mostly based on artistic, thematic, and filmic criteria. Six definitions (or dimensions) of what makes a particular edition of a festival interesting have come out of this informal survey.

1. Discoveries, or new voices.
2. Artistic quality.
3. Originality in vision, theme, and style.
4. Theatrical showcase: Number of films that have received theatrical distribution.
5. Critical reception by film reviewers.
6. Commercial appeal in box-office terms.

How do these criteria apply to the 2007 Dramatic Competition It's obviously premature to discuss dimensions 4, 5, and 6.


Of the 16 films in competition, I could detect rather quickly two major discoveries: Mitchell Lichtenstein's feature debut, “Teeth,” and Andrew Wagner's sophomore effort, “Starting Out in the Evening.” I will describe “Teeth” below in the section on Originality.

As for Wagner, he has made a finely observed, splendidly acted intimate drama, set in the literary world of New York. The sharply written movie is elevated considerably by Frank Langella's towering performance (See below). The film suffers from a vague title that perhaps could be changed.

Artistic Quality

Overall, both narratively and technically, the 2007 competition was strong, not as strong as that of 2005, but superior to lastyear's. I could not help but notice how technically accomplished most of the features were, many of which by first-time directors. This year, the areas showing vast improvement were sound, score and music, elements that were interesting even in features that were not.

A combination of factors, such as the state of technology, or the filmmakers training and experience, may account for the fact that most films looked and sounded goodmuch better than the average indie a decade or even five years ago.

As for artistic quality, the 16 entries fall into five categories. Here is my evaluation, based on initial response. I have reviewed at length the strengths and weaknesses of each film elsewhere (See Review section).

Excellent (A or A-): 1

“Starting Out in the Evening,” by Andrew Wagner (second feature)

Strong (B+): 2

“Joshua,” by George Ratliff
“Teeth,” by Mitchell Lichtenstein (debut)

Good (B): 5

“Four Sheets to the Wind,” by Sterlin Harjo (debut)
“Grace Is Gone, by James G. Strouse (debut)
“Padre Nuestro,” by Christopher Zalla (debut)
“The Pool,” by Chris Smith (sixth film)
“Snow Angels,” by David Gordon Green (fourth film)

Mediocre (B- or C+): 6

“Adrift in Manhattan,” by Alfredo de Villa (second feature)
“Broken English,” by Zoe Cassavetes (debut)
“The Good Life,” by Steve Berra (debut)
“Never Forever,” by Gina Kim (debut)
“On the Road With Judas,” by JJ Lask (debut)
“Rocket Science,” by Jeffrey Blitz (debut)

Weak (below C): 2

“Hounddog,” by Deborah Kempmeier (second film)
“Weapons,” by Adam Bhala Lough (debut)

There was nothing this year like Miranda July's “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” or “Junebug,” both in 2005, or “Half Nelson” last year. Nonetheless, half (8 out of the 16) competition films were by my estimation strong, which makes for a pretty good lineup in any given year.

Moreover, only 2 of the 16 films were really weak. Structurally messy, “Hounddog” is Kempmeier's misconceived Southern gothic about child abuse starring Dakota Fanning. “Weapons,” which gets my vote as the very worst film in competition (what was it doing there in the first place) is a violent youth saga that rehashes some familiar themes, but poorly so.

Original Vision:

The most original film in competition was Mitchell Lichtensetin's “Teeth,” a provocative feature inspired by the “vagina Dentate” mythology, which has served as a source of anxiety for men and as a weapon of empowerment for women. Part horror, part feminist fable, part erotic high-school yarn, “Teeth” defies easy categorization and yet fulfills expectations on any of those levels. I can't wait to see and write again about “Teeth” when it's released theatrically later in the year (See my detailed review).

A decade ago, JJ Lask's “On the Road with Judas,” a metaphysical film about the fine, ambivalent and complex line between creators and their creations, would have been novel and impressive. However, in today's movie context, the feature borrows too much from the works of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”), Michel Gondry (“Science of Sleep”), and most recently, Marc Forster (“Stranger Than Fiction”).

Political Relevance

I have mixed feelings about “Grace Is Gone,” one of the few films in competition to reflect directly the impact of the Iraq War on the home front. Considering that the always-good John Cusack is the star, the film is artistically under-whelming, a possible result of the schematic writing, narrow characterization, and mediocre direction; it's a feature debut and it feels that way.

Yet “Grace Is Gone” is a likable movie it won the Audience Award) that benefits from its timely subject-a patriotic father who doesn't know how to tell his two young daughters that their mother had died in the Iraq War-and gender reversal as in most American movies, it's the men who fight and the women who are left behind to take care of the family.

Genre Cinema

About half of the entries in competition were variations of genre films, which means that most critics (including myself) made inevitable comparisons with other, often better samplers of those formats.

The coming-of-age tale prevailed in a number of films, such as Jeffrey Blitz's “Rocket Science,” a feature that could be described as “Coming-of- Age with a Stutter,” or “Rushmore Meets Election Meets Garden State Meets Napoleon Dynamite.”

Zoe Cassavetes, daughter of the renowned director John Cassavetes and the actress Gena Rowlands, also made a generic feature, a variation on the romantic serio comedy. Her debut could be described as “Two Girls in Paris,” a la “Three Coins in the Fountain” (which was set in Rome) or “Summertime” (set in Venice), because it centers on a repressed single woman (Parker Posey) and an unhappily married woman (Drea De Mateo) going to Paris to find themselves–and Posey's lost French lover.

As always, there were good and bad variations of genre films. As noted above, “Weapons” is an example of a bad (even unnecessary) one.

Superlative Acting

The best male performance in the competition series was rendered by Frank Langella in “Starting Out in the Evening.” Better known as a stage actor, Langella has made a few films (such as last year, George Clooney's “Good Night, and Good Luck,” in which he also excelled). But in this picture, Langella gives a towering performance that's bound to be remembered at year's end for kudos considerations. Langella plays a reclusive, aging, out of print novelist, whose life changes radically upon meeting a young Brown University graduate student, who writes a thesis about his work.

The lovely Vera Farmiga (currently seen in Scorsese's “The Departed”) deserves special mention for rendering two good performances in competition: as the annoyed mother in the elegant thriller “Joshua,” and as the distraught wife of a rich, sterile Korean-American, who out of desperation to bear children gets involved with an illegal Korean immigrant.

Note: A former grad student helped me to review and write this report.

Please read Part Two of these series of articles, which discusses the 2007 Dramatic Competition in terms of themes, trends, and styles.