Correction Appended: February 1, 2007
Everybody, I mean everybody who's anybody in movies, or hopes to be, is in Park City, Utah, this week for the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. In this Lourdes of independent movies, hermitty young auteurs will schmooze with Hollywood's BlackBerry set. From the ferment of high art and hype art will emerge new faces, new voices and, I can almost guarantee, at least one film that will figure in next year's Oscar race--just as Little Miss Sunshine, from Sundance '06, is being touted for a Best Picture Academy Award nomination.
The kind of indie film nurtured by Sundance has become the dominant non-Hollywood movie form for smart people. They're the ones who made Little Miss Sunshine a hit, and Ryan Gosling's turn in Half Nelson a must-see. The moguls have taken note too. In terms of product and talent, Sundance has become the crucial farm system for the major studios.
Problem is, indie movies are getting as predictable as Hollywood's. Sundance movies have devolved into a genre. The style is spare and naturalistic. The theme is relationships, beginning in angst and ending in reconciliation. The focus is often on a dysfunctional family (there are no functional ones in indie movies) that strives to reconnect. Within this genre are a few subspecies: the family breakup film (The Squid and the Whale), the finding-your-family-at-school movie (Half Nelson, Brick), the gay drama (Mysterious Skin). Way too frequently, the family goes on a trip. Given the typical Sundance pace, which is leisurely to lethargic, these road movies rarely get in the passing lane.
The predictability of recent Sundance films is a pity, because the fest used to discover original movie minds. The honor roll of those who introduced their early work there includes both the big fish of indie cinema (among them Joel and Ethan Coen, Jim Jarmusch, Kevin Smith and Darren Aronofsky) and some of the mainstream's champion swimmers (including Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Bryan Singer and Christopher Nolan).
What most of these directors share is a gift for bending, sometimes gleefully mutilating, film form: taking old narratives styles like the crime movie or musical or horror film and making them fresh, vital, dangerous. The subjects could be familiar--amnesia in Nolan's Memento, obsession in Aronofsky's Pi--but when the story was told in reverse, or turned into a weird thriller, the narrative ingenuity became bracing and delicious. They were different from Hollywood--and different meant better.
You don't find as much originality in Sundance films these days, and for a simple reason. In the beginning, the festival was a home for the homeless, for a rambunctious outlaw take on filmmaking. There was no need to be cautious, since indie films were rarely hits. But as Sundance became the showcase for a form of movie gaining marketplace pull, young directors naturally made films to fit the new mold. Sundance films weren't quirky; they did quirky. Quirky became another genre.
In fact, truly imaginative movies have always been anomalies at Sundance. The program is heavy with earnest studies of emotional accommodation. This isn't a supple form, and now it's become formula--creaky and calcified through endless repetition.