Trend-spotting at Sundance Film Festival 2010

Image from HOWL

Journalists at film festivals invariably find themselves with the task of connecting the dots among dozens of disparate movies — looking for the big picture, whether in the form of a new fad or a larger cultural moment (e.g., last year’s elusive search, during a Sundance that coincided with a historic inauguration, for the quintessential Obama movie). Expect lots of trend-spotting once Sundance 2010 kicks off on Thursday night, and expect these three topics to get plenty of play:

1) Political relevance. Among the dramas, THE IMPERIALISTS ARE STILL ALIVE! unfolds in a queasy post-9/11 New York and THE DRY LAND concerns the post-traumatic stress of an Iraq-war veteran. But of course, it’s the documentaries that bring the reality checks, taking on Washington lobbying (CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY), environmental horrors (GASLAND), and abortion politics (12TH & DELAWARE). The biggest waves could well come from accounts of our overseas conflicts: a pair of promising Afghanistan docs, RESTREPO and I’M PAT ___ TILLMAN, and THE OATH, a topical look at two brothers-in-law who worked for Al Qaeda in Yemen.

2) Actor-turned-directors. In the spirit of John Cassavetes, the patron saint of American indie film, many established actors have taken the plunge into filmmaking over the years. This Sundance brings a deluge. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s JACK GOES BOATING and Mark Ruffalo’s SYMPATHY FOR DELICIOUS are the highest-profile of the directorial debuts by actors, but there’s also Adrian Grenier’s TEENAGE PAPARAZZO, a riff on celebrity culture from the Entourage star; Diego Luna’s oddball family drama ABEL; and HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE, an ensemble romantic comedy from How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor. On the artier end of the spectrum, there’s HOWL star (and MFA candidate) James Franco’s short film HERBERT WHITE and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s crowd-sourcing multimedia experiment

3) The new frugality. All the talk in indie-film circles these days (and it does, for now, seem to be more talk than action) is of alternative models: self-distribution, hybrid distribution, or some brave, new, as-yet-uninvented substitute for the outmoded methods of getting movies to audiences. Agressive bidding wars are increasingly rare, if not entirely a thing of the past, and to acknowledge current economic realities, the festival this year unveils a new section called “Next,” devoted to risk-taking low-budget work. (It even has its own symbol, <=> — “less than equals greater than,” apparently an homage to the scatological emoticon from Miranda July’s ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW.) “Next” could be a hunting ground for bargain-minded distributors. And one of the films in the section, Linas Phillips’ road movie BASS ACKWARDS, has already gotten attention for its novel distribution plan: it will be released on February 1, immediately after the festival.