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Sunny side up

Humor reigns, despite downturns, at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival

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The Proposition 8 backlash boycott! The collapse of media entities that cover the festival! The collapse of boutique distributors for independent films! The collapse of the average American bank account! Global warming!

Take your pick any and all of these were offered as reasons why this year, the Sundance Film Festival would be less crowded, less frantic, less everything.

Indeed, the vibe was just a bit different in Park City, Utah, in 2009. Main Street, at least during the opening weekend, included the usual throngs at club doors orbited by paparazzi orbited by passersby, all wondering if or when someone famous might emerge. Distribution deals were still made, though they were fewer and at less outlandish dollar amounts. Press screenings were noticeably less crowded throughout the festival, and even public screenings during the second half of the festival were more likely to feature empty seats. It's possible even the global warming thing was in play, as 2008's non-stop week of blizzards was replaced by glorious sunshine.

Of course, some of us had to spend those sunny days in dark theaters. There, the vibe was also a bit different from festivals past: fewer buzz-on-the-street gems, but fewer out-and-out stinkers.

Comedic twists

Humpday grabbed an early lead as the festival's most widely adored entry, and never really let it go. The high-concept, largely improvised comedy about two longtime buddies who make a drunken pact to shoot an amateur porn video of themselves having sex with each other was purely, blissfully funny. It was also remarkably wise not just in regard to male bonding, but about the foolish things we're willing to do in the name of proving something to ourselves.

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If any films managed to top Humpday in audience love, they were two for which I could muster only tempered enthusiasm. The Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire delivered a wrenching study of a Harlem teenager struggling with obesity, illiteracy, teen pregnancy, incest ... indeed, pretty much everything but scurvy. But while it featured a ferociously terrific performance by Mo'Nique as the girl's embittered mom, it wound up getting a bit lost in its many issues. And as undeniably charming as Carey Mulligan was in the 1960s-set lessons-in-love comedy An Education, it was hard to buy Alfred Molina as the sitcom-ish dad who allows his 16-year-old daughter to take weekend trips with a 30-something guy.

Maybe it was the desperate need for joy in a frightening world, but virtually all of the festival's best fiction films were comedies. The hilarious blaxploitation parody/homage Black Dynamite purchased mid-fest by Sony Pictures Classics hit a hundred different perfect notes, from the performance of its unflappable hero (Michael Jai White) to the intentionally out-of-focus and badly lit cinematography. Adventureland and 500 Days of Summer both already with 2009 release dates found big laughs in wistful explorations of young love. And In the Loop took a darkly satirical, gleefully profane look at the political maneuvering behind a "fictionalized" run-up to an American Middle-East invasion. Even documentaries like The Yes Men Fix the World the return of the merry pranksters of corporate sabotage managed to sneak punch lines into social commentary.

Real-life turns

Indeed, as has almost always seemed the case, the documentaries provided highlight after highlight. Ondi Timoner's Grand Jury Prize-winning We Live in Public provided a fascinating look at unknown Internet pioneer Josh Harris, who foresaw the Facebook/Twitter/24-hour-look-at-me online world a decade before his time. Big River Man started as a knockout biography of a 50-year-old guy swimming the length of the Amazon River, before it went as nuts as its protagonist. And No Impact Man turned the story of a New York writer's attempt to have no environmental impact for a year no electricity, no trash, no non-local food, no disposable anything into a surprisingly touching look at a family pulling together.

It's a good thing so many documentaries scored, because truly unique fiction filmmaking voices were in short supply. While the American Dramatic Competition largely provided competently told but hardly groundbreaking visions, at least the World Cinema section offered a wild adrenaline cocktail like Bronson, Nicolas Winding Refn's biography of a notoriously violent British career thug. Yet even in the middle of its bloody fistfights, there was a wild strain of humor. In a weird year for Sundance and the world I guess you had to laugh if you didn't want to cry.

scene@csindy.com

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