PARK CITY, Utah — When the 7,000 residents of this infamously straight-laced town welcomed nearly 50,000 filmmakers, journalists, hangers-on and wannabes, they watched in star-struck awe for the 25th consecutive January. Roads were clogged, nightclubs were packed, Utah-mandated low-alcohol beers were served two at a time and, in the midst of it all, audiences were enthralled by the movies that you'll be watching tomorrow.
Justin Timberlake, Cameron Diaz, Robert Downey Jr. and dozens more were among the stars taking advantage of the fresh powder that fell for nearly every one of the nine days of the festival. And sure enough, like the snowflakes themselves, no two movies were alike.
Sundance officially said goodbye on Saturday night with an intimate closing ceremony marked by an unprecedented consensus between the jury prizes and those voted on by audiences. "God Grew Tired of Us," a heart-wrenching film about Sudanese refugees acclimating to America, won documentary awards from both groups; "Quinceañera," an exploration of Latino youth in Los Angeles, pulled off the same feat among the dramatic prizes.
The most honored film of the festival was "Iraq in Fragments," a raw exploration of the country in turmoil, which took home direction, cinematography, and editing awards. Among the other winners, the most visible was "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," the Shia LaBeouf coming-of-age drama that won awards for its directing and its ensemble cast (featuring Downey Jr., Rosario Dawson and Eric Roberts).
To many, however, the light-refracting Sundance trophies pale in comparison to a prize that makes far more desirable carry-on luggage for the flight home: a big, fat Hollywood check. A ray of light seemed to focus on "Little Miss Sunshine" from the moment that stars Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear and Abigail Breslin (a.k.a. the next Dakota Fanning) stepped onto Main Street (see "Paris Hilton Parties, Steve Carell Plays Against Type As Sundance Buzzes Along"), and their luck continued through a mythically packed premiere to a record-setting sale to Fox Searchlight (they'll release the dark comedy this summer). With many contracts being inked in the middle of the night, bleary eyes and wide smiles marked those involved with the Matt Dillon drama "Factotum," the crossword-puzzle documentary "Wordplay," dramas "Right at Your Door," "The Night Listener" and "Man Push Cart" and, appropriately enough, Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep." On the final day of the festival, ThinkFilm landed the Ryan Gosling teacher-with-a-drug-habit flick "Half Nelson."
But don't think that you have to win an award or bring home a bank deposit to make an impression at Sundance. The out-of-competition Premieres category provided a safety net and considerable buzz for the Edward Norton/ Jessica Biel magical drama "The Illusionist" (see "Beasties And Biel Talk Music And Magic, Eve And Electra Spice Up Sundance Night"), the Timberlake/ Bruce Willis drug thriller "Alpha Dog," the Josh Hartnett/ Lucy Liu noir "Lucky Number Slevin" and the off-kilter comedy "Thank You for Smoking" (arriving in theaters in March). And no, Tom Cruise did not cut Katie Holmes' nude scene in "Smoking." According to the director, it was a mistake that will be corrected before the film's release.
Finally, there were those that were actually hurt by their Sundance visibility: Giamatti's "The Hawk Is Dying" failed to soar as audience members were seen walking out; the Winona Ryder quasi-comedy "The Darwin Awards" was panned by audiences who found it rambling (although the film still got purchased); and Terry Zwigoff's "Art School Confidential" wasn't received nearly as well as expected from the man behind critical faves "Crumb" and "Ghost World." The makers of punk rock documentary "American Hardcore" spent much of the festival tiptoeing around their exclusion of landmark acts the Dead Kennedys and the Misfits, and Wim Wenders' rambling cowboy drama "Don't Come Knocking" had theatergoers headed for the door.
As anyone who's ever lived in a cold climate knows, the beauty of freshly fallen snow is quickly replaced by the repugnancy of exhaust-colored slushy muck. Sure enough, the Sundance invasion of this small mountain town occasionally made a mess of its own. When Festival Director Geoff Gilmore took time out from the closing ceremony to criticize the invasion of swag, soirées and semi-celebrities, he sounded like a high school teacher reprimanding his students.
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If that were the case, Paris Hilton would clearly be the kid in the corner wearing the dunce cap. Although she didn't have a film to promote, Hilton managed to take over the town, dragging the media around as she threw parties, met up with friends and picked over the Fred Segal celebrity store until bodyguards were weighed down with her extra shopping bags. Joining the call of Gilmore, celebs including Rosie O'Donnell and Kevin Smith spewed vitriol and wondered when she would leave (see "Paris Hilton Baffles Kevin Smith; Matt Dillon Offends Sundance Audiences").
A similar level of annoyance could have understandably come from the year-round residents of Park City. Walking up and down the streets of this small area, one couldn't help but notice the entertaining, amusing, and often annoying conversations all around. In a Starbucks, two would-be producers loudly discussed a dream project starring William Shatner and George Kennedy; the unlikely combination of Corey Feldman and Andre 3000 crossed paths at a celebrity lounge that handed out complimentary body hair trimmers; on Main Street, a young girl exclaimed to her friend: "Oh my God! Jack Osbourne just text messaged me!" Everywhere you looked were the famous (a huge crowd circled a museum that supposedly had Jennifer Aniston inside), the transcendent (Al Gore, at a Q & A, was told by a young child that he should run for president) and the randoms (you could sit down next to Roger Ebert at a screening or Eric Roberts at a bagel shop).
When night descended on Park City, the names began to party — and some of them had even earned it. Beastie Boys, Metallica, Counting Crows and Collective Soul were among the acts that performed for the Hollywood elite, while Liz Phair, Eve, Neil Young and U2's the Edge chose to chill with them instead. In the spirit of reciprocation, actors Minnie Driver, Adrian Grenier and Patrick Fugit were among those promoting their musical ambitions with varying degrees of success.
On Friday evening, the stars of "Alpha Dog" walked on air along the red carpet, thrilled to be in a position of honor as the closing film (see "Justin Timberlake Tackles Rumors; Julia Stiles Gets Down And Dirty At Sundance"). The next evening, the theater at the Racquet Club was filled with emotion while independent filmmakers were transformed from budget-conscious nobodies into budget-conscious award winners.
Then Sunday morning arrived, and with it came one last blanket of fresh snow. The exhaust-colored muck was gone, as were the city's 50,000 temporary invaders. Residents could get a coffee without hearing references to spec scripts; the sign in the supermarket parking lot reading "Reserved For Mr. Redford" was removed. Relieved, the locals had normalcy, peace and quiet to look forward to — along with the eager assembly of plans to do it all over again next January.
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