Sundance, the 'festival of chaos,' comes to a close

Published January 30, 2012 10:04 am

Film • Past 11 days included screaming, a snowstorm and illness.
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Park City • Eleven days of powerful movies, glitzy parties, wall-to-wall celebrities and general weirdness came to a close Sunday, with the end of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

"It was a pretty amazing festival," said John Cooper, the festival's director, in the informal "Film Church" wrap-up session Sunday in Park City. "It was a festival of chaos for us."

The chaos included a screaming-match Q-and-A session for the controversial drama "Compliance," a pending lawsuit against the festival by the subject of the opening-night documentary "The Queen of Versailles," illnesses befalling stars Tracy Morgan, Julie Delpy and Parker Posey, and a first-weekend snowstorm that made transportation nightmarish.

The 11 days were also marked with sadness, with the death of independent-film legend Bingham Ray. Ray, the co-founder of one-time distributor October Films and a friend to many Sundance regulars, died last Monday in a Provo hospital after suffering a stroke just as the festival began.

On Sunday, filmmakers who won top prizes on Saturday night got to screen their films one last time to audiences. Meanwhile, on Main Street, crews dismantled hospitality suites and sponsor demonstration sites, as the festival's "Brigadoon"-like existence in Park City faded for another year.

The festival was a rollercoaster ride for director Benh Zeitlin, whose Louisiana coast drama, "Beasts of the Southern Wild," won the festival's Grand Jury Prize for U.S. dramatic films — and a distribution deal with Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Winning the big prize "was just like a Super Bowl party," Zeitlin said. "The festival's been so unreal for the film already."

The movie, about a 6-year-old girl (played by newcomer Quvenzhane — pronounced "kwuh-VAN-juh-nay" — Wallis) growing up tough in a scrap-built village in the Mississippi Delta, received a standing ovation at its first screening on Friday, Jan. 20. Zeitlin said he didn't know that was unusual. "We thought maybe just everybody stands up and applauds," he said.

The distribution deal for Zeitlin's movie was just one of several buys at Sundance this year. Fox Searchlight also picked up the U.S. Dramatic competition's Audience Award winner, "The Surrogate," a drama that boasts a potential Oscar nominee in John Hawkes' performance as a polio-stricken journalist/poet seeking his first sexual experience.

Magnolia Pictures topped all buyers by securing rights for five films: Lauren Greenfield's documentary "The Queen of Versailles," chronicling a rich Florida family's travails through the economic downturn; Delpy's comedy "2 Days in New York"; the infidelity drama "Nobody Walks"; the "found footage" horror anthology "V/H/S"; and the psychological drama "Compliance," which had audience members shouting at director Craig Zobel, and one another, after its first screening.

IFC Films bought three movies: The sex-and-violence drama "Simon Killer," the back-to-college romance "Liberal Arts," and the horror film "The Pact." Sony Pictures Classics picked up two films: The popular documentary "Searching for Sugar Man," about a long-forgotten Latino rock star; and "Celeste and Jesse Forever," a romantic comedy starring Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg.

Other movies that were bought at Sundance: "The Words," starring Bradley Cooper as an author who finds success with someone else's writing, to CBS Films; the sci-fi-themed comedy "Robot and Frank" to Sony; and the Richard Gere-starring financial thriller "Arbitrage" to Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions.

Documentaries were as strong as always at the festival, with many of them tackling major political and societal issues. In those films, a common thread emerged: The poisonous effect of corporate money on congressional action.

This corporate control comes up in the films "The Atomic States of America" (about the nuclear-power industry), "Escape Fire" (detailing problems in health care), "Finding North" (about hunger in America), "The House I Live In" (a chronicle of the effects of the War on Drugs) and "We're Not Broke" (which details how corporations avoid paying taxes).