Have Sundance Movies Lost Their Danger?

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The feelings some of us have about the Sundance Film Festival border on the religious. I don’t mean that we’re a cult; I mean that the force that Sundance represents is a religion worth believing in. By the end of the 1980s, the action/comedy/horror/fantasy grind of Hollywood cinema had become bloated and exhausting. The independent film movement didn’t just reinvigorate American movies. It saved them. When I started going to Sundance in the ’90s, I always felt, despite the winter landscape, that I was going to be reveling in a vast garden of cinema. Each year, I wanted to know: What extraordinary film flowers are going to pop up that will then be spread throughout the land? I’ll arrive with that same question when Sundance 2024 commences this week on Jan. 18.

For years, I wrote about Sundance with a missionary zeal that I knew, on occasion, might come off as corny, but I didn’t mind. I knew that the power of Sundance hadn’t been overstated; each year, it was giving us films and filmmakers who were changing the lifeblood of movies. When “Down and Dirty Pictures,” Peter Biskind’s indie-film sequel to “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” was published in 2004, the book argued that the independent-film movement was entering its sunset era just as the ’70s glory days of the New American Cinema had come to an end. But as much as I dug the book (and Peter is a friend), I didn’t agree with that final thesis. There were too many game-changing movies still coming out of Sundance.

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But now, I think, one has a right to wonder. When it comes to Sundance, I have not lost my religion. I realize that many of the challenges the festival is now facing hinge on the technological and cultural disruptions that have upended Hollywood itself. The rise of streaming. The gut-shot wound taken by theatrical during the pandemic. The threat posed to cinema’s cultural primacy by the age of peak TV (thought that threat itself could now take a hit as quality television à la “The Sopranos” becomes harder to produce).

Nevertheless, when you’re talking about Sundance, there’s one metric that, in my view, is hard to compromise on. For the festival to maintain peak relevance, two things have to happen: 1) It needs to keep giving us movies of singular quality; 2) Those movies need to get out there, into the culture, and be successful. They need to be seen. That’s what the independent film revolution that was jump-started at Sundance in 1989 by “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” was about. There had been great American independent films before. But now they were going to be on the radar in a whole new way.

It’s worth noting that “Sex, Lies,” as a movie, had several precedents during the ’80s. I think there were two key films that pointed to the insurrectionary new spirit of independent cinema and its new crossover potential. The first was “Blood Simple” (1984). It wasn’t just the first film by the Coen brothers. It was arguably the first American independent film to leave a certain social earnestness behind and revel in sex, scheming, murder, betrayal. The same thing was true, in a different way, of “Blue Velvet,” David Lynch’s game-changing masterpiece of 1986. It was every inch a Lynch film, but it was also a kind of mad film noir, steeped in the voyeurism and suspense of studio-system filmmaking. It was a Hitchcock movie on drugs.

These films set the table for “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” and by the time that Steven Soderbergh’s film — which told you every enticing thing you needed to know about it in the title — came along, the outlines of the new American independent cinema were clear. These films would excite audiences and be talked about and seen in a new way because of a quality they shared. What they had, in a word, was danger.

That’s a lesson that Hollywood had understood from its earliest days — from, in fact, the final moment of “The Great Train Robbery,” the silent Western made in 1903, when one of the outlaws points his gun directly at the audience and fires. (Early viewers screamed, thinking they were literally being shot.) The lesson was: Danger sells.

And danger, make no mistake, has long been the secret weapon of Sundance. I’m not saying that every one of the festival’s best films possesses this quality. But I’m saying that enough of them do. For decades, that was central to the excitement of Sundance: that you would go off to this festival in a snowy idyllic former mining town, watching movies made in a spirit of purity and idealism, yet the cutting edge of that experience is that many of the greatest and most defining of those movies sought to amaze you with the fearless and, at times, forbidden things they would tap into.

Do those movies still exist at Sundance? Yes, but I would say with increasing rarity. To the point that I often wonder: Is the primal quality of danger still valued by the Sundance programmers the way it once was? I can’t know which movies they’ve decided not to program. But I do know this: The cinema that shuns danger is at risk of falling into irrelevance. We would never have had the foreign-film revolution of the ’50s and ’60s — a stunning crossover phenomenon, given how “art films” were often discussed as marginalia for eggheads — had it not been driven by currents of underground mystery and erotic curiosity. And Sundance, in its way, carried on that legacy. What follows is a representative roster of some of the Sundance films of the last 35 years that I think were made memorable by their quality of danger.

“Poison” (1991). In 1987, Todd Haynes made the 43-minute Barbie-doll psychodrama “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” one of the greatest movies ever made (yes, I said that). “Poison,” his first feature, isn’t nearly as good, yet it’s a shocking triptych of queer consciousness, in which Haynes muscles the stories and sensibility of Jean Genet into a shape nervy enough to give even jaded contemporary audiences a catharsis of transgression.

“Reservoir Dogs” (1992). What can you say? If “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” planted the newly rechristened Sundance Film Festival on the map, Quentin Tarantino’s first feature saw that bet and raised the ante. It redefined independent film — as something that could be as virtuosic, as cussedly talky, and as soulfully violent as a Scorsese fever dream. But even Scorsese never tried anything like the “Stuck in the Middle With You” ear-sever torture scene, which had the chutzpah to turn sadism into a new kind of dark pop joy.

“Party Girl” (1995). Who said that danger couldn’t be fun? Parker Posey became the instant It Girl of the ’90s after starring in Daisy von Scherler Mayer’s beguiling comedy about a New York night-world addict who’s like Edie Sedgwick minus the fame. Best line: when Posey’s Mary, at her most desperate, asks her nightclub drug connection for “a mind-altering substance, preferably one that will make my unborn children grow gills.”

“Crumb” (1995). It’s one of the greatest documentaries ever made, yet the quality that defined Terry Zwigoff’s intimate portrait of the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb was its challenge to the world of what was then called political correctness. The critic Robert Hughes, in the film, compares Crumb to Breugel, yet the panels that R. Crumb drew smashed every conceivable taboo. “Crumb” is about how he got that way, and about why his art of trippy liberation remains as essential as it is outlaw.

I Shot Andy Warhol (1996). In her astoundingly audacious first feature, Mary Harron chose as her heroine someone who would be almost anyone else’s villain: Valerie Solanas, the possessed feminist firebrand wackjob who tried to assassinate Andy Warhol (and nearly succeeded). The brilliance of the movie is its fantastic and fearless ambivalence: Lili Taylor, dressed like a downtown version of one of the Bowery Boys, plays Valerie as a lumpen loser who believes so fervently in her manifesto of patriarchal injustice that she’s at once psycho and visionary.

“Welcome to the Dollhouse” (1996). Todd Solondz, in the movie that put him on the map, dives into the maelstrom of middle school, and what made this unlike any other portrait of a 12-year-old is that Solondz, in telling the story of Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo), turns the matter-of-fact cruelty of early adolescence into a new kind of punk suburban confessional comedy. The film serves up edge without attitude — because the most authentically bold thing about it is that Dawn is too sincere to put on airs.

“High Art” (1998). In Lisa Cholodenko’s first feature, Ally Sheedy plays a character modeled on the photographer Nan Goldin, and the film ushers you into her heroin-den lifestyle with a murky you-are-there frankness at once sordid and romantic. The film felt like it was throwing off the shackles of earnestness that had marked many groundbreaking queer love stories. It did that most spectacularly in Patricia Clarkson’s performance as a former Fassbinder actress who’s like Garbo on smack.

“The Blair Witch Project” (1999). It did nothing less than restore the quality of dread to horror movies. I saw it at the first Sundance showing (the last night of the festival), and the audience was blown away. Yet when the movie became a huge sensation later that year, half the people who saw it hated it. Maybe, though, that was just another manifestation of its boldness. A film that made the supernatural so real couldn’t connect with those who wanted it to stay unreal.

“Chuck & Buck” (2000). Long before Mike White became the most buzzed-about TV creator since David Chase, he wrote and starred in the extraordinarily personal and brilliant oddball tale of a 27-year-old man-child named Buck, who stalks his former grade-school pal, Chuck (Chris Weitz), but only because he longs to return to the garden of childhood (which, in this case, included some not-so-childlike things). As staged by director Miguel Arteta, the film mingles innocence and perversity, illness and normality in a way that becomes weirdly and fearlessly transcendent.

“Memento” (2000). Christopher Nolan tells the story of a tattooed renegade (Guy Pearce) who can’t remember how he got that way, and he tells the entire story backward. The daring of “Memento” is that it uses this gimcrack of an idea to plug the audience into every moment with supreme existential peril.

“In the Bedroom” (2001). If you loved “Tár” and have never seen Todd Field’s first feature, by all means do; it’s the work of someone who, it was already obvious, is a born filmmaker. Sissy Spacek and the late Tom Wilkinson are extraordinary as a middle-aged couple in small-town Maine whose son (Nick Stahl) is murdered by his older girlfriend’s ex-husband. If you ever wanted to see a revenge thriller staged with the merciless humanity of a Henry James story, this is it.

“Secretary” (2002). Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the title assistant, who is drawn into a formalized sadomasochistic relationship with her boss (James Spader). But is she just playacting? Or is this a true romance? Gyllenhaal’s puckishly playful performance keeps us guessing in a movie that has the temerity to turn toxic office politics into a transgressive fairy tale.

“Thirteen” (2003). Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), the hungry teen hellion at the center of Catherine Hardwicke’s film, is 13 years old, and that means she was born around the time “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” was being released. She’s been raised in a culture of extreme license, and Hardwicke, without being puritanical about it, is one of the only filmmakers to catch the ruthless, unhinged quality of what the legacy of the 1960s did to growing up. Sex, lies, drugs, piercings, and malignant narcissism: “Thirteen” shows you, from the inside out, what a teenager looks like when the world keeps teaching her that the ultimate cool thing is to live without limits.

“Capturing the Friedmans” (2003). Andrew Jarecki’s mind-bending documentary is about a Great Neck, Long Island, computer-class teacher named Arnold Friedman and his adult son, Jesse, who became the targets of a child-sex-abuse investigation. Is it a witch hunt, or are they predators? Jarecki treats the question of their guilt or innocence as a psychodramatic family puzzle that haunts you long after the movie ends. The film’s daring resides in how it turns inquiry into a form of anti-judgment.

“Saw” (2004). It’s almost hard to wrap your hacksaw around the notion that the blockbuster torture-porn franchise started out as a “little movie” at Sundance. Icky, contrived, and purged of most human dimension? Most assuredly. Yet few would deny its lethal lure.

“Precious” (2009). It tells the story of a Black teenager in Harlem, Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), who is mute with despair at the agonies she’ll allow no one to see. What lends the film its quality of authentic peril is its portrait of what made Precious that way: a home life of the most scalding hell, portrayed with an operatic intensity that turns the audience’s relationship with this ultimate “outsider” into one of desperate empathy.

“Blue Valentine” (2010). At first we think we’re seeing the love story of an adorable young woman (Michelle Williams) and the charming goofball (Ryan Gosling) who woos her. But his flakiness is a red flag, and Derek Cianfrance’s movie dares to go where most love stories don’t — to a place of tangible breakdown.

“Whiplash” (2014). Damien Chazelle’s first feature is like a music-appreciation class made with the charged volatility of a thriller, and with a great villain at its center. That would be Terence Fletcher, the New York specialty-school jazz instructor played with whiplash timing by J. K. Simmons, who torments Miles Teller’s young drumming student like a drill sergeant crossed with a bebop Mephistopheles.

“Manchester by the Sea” (2016). On paper, it sounds almost drab: the story of a young New England man, played with affectless power by Casey Affleck, who is drowning in a mysterious tragedy. Yet the beauty of Kenneth Lonergan’s film is the way it teases out that reality from a web of everyday choices, so that an accident becomes a form of fate as willed by the gods. The danger of “Manchester by the Sea” is that it dares us to look at our lives with that same pitiless gaze.

“Get Out” (2017). Jordan Peele’s epochal first feature is a racial nightmare that turns what we used to call “liberal” white people into the butt of their own hypocrisy. The film’s catharsis is that it wipes away your pieties, taking us to a sunken place of paranoid fear and truth.

Over the last six or seven years, have there been Sundance movies that exuded this kind of danger? Back in 2020, there were actually two of them: “Promising Young Woman,” a movie that feels like an underground exposé of what “nice guys” do at frat parties, and one that dances on the high wire of heartbroken revenge (I think it’s Carey Mulligan’s greatest performance); and “Zola,” Janicza Bravo’s head-spinning tale of two sex workers on an odyssey into the abyss. So no, one can’t say that danger has completely vanished from the Sundance landscape. Yet in the four years since then, it’s become more and more scarce. There is a kind of moralism in the air now, a current that makes dangerous movies more dangerous to think about. One of the clichés you always hear these days when people are talking about a subversive film from 20 or 30 years ago is, “That movie could never come out today.” A question I would frame as a challenge to up-and-coming film directors, and to the Sundance programmers, is: Really, why not?

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