Losing It at Sundance

The Amerindie film fest continues to inspire madness and money--and occasionally, art.

Like any courageous movie, Girls Town will require special attention to find its audience. Luckily, it managed to win the Filmmakers Trophy, and it has the support of the peerless Lili Taylor--who, besides turning in another riveting performance as one of the three girls, says she intends to follow the film around the country and discuss its messages with high-school kids. Taylor certainly deserved her status as the belle of the Sundance ball based on her roles in Girls Town and the flawed but captivating Valerie Solanas bio-pic I Shot Andy Warhol: She's one of the few actors around whose progressive sensibility is traceable across all her films, and who remains committed to daring cinema at a time when it would no doubt pay better to do otherwise. For me, the cost of Sundance this year was the burden of sitting through some poor and mediocre films in order to find a handful of good ones, a couple of great ones, and Girls Town, the kind of movie that comes once a year, if that. And it was well worth it.

FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS

The Whole Wide World. This rich, beautifully directed, and blatantly old-fashioned love story feels like a cross between Splendor in the Grass and Days of Heaven. Set in the Texas farmlands of the mid-'30s, it tells of the tumultuous relationship between Robert E. Howard (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Novalyne Price (Renee Zellweger). He's the volatile pulp writer famous for Conan the Barbarian and a self-described "morose, ungainly misfit among men"; she's a feisty schoolteacher who believes in stories about ordinary folks; both are completely honest with each other, to their benefit and otherwise. The movie's '30s-era period detail is note-perfect, although the tragedy of this story is modern if not archetypal. Both times I saw it, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

American Job. Much funnier than Clerks, this droll piece of realist fiction follows an ordinary guy through a succession of seemingly banal service jobs. Besides giving screen time to an undervalued populace, Milwaukee auteur Chris Smith dares to withhold judgment on his deadpan hero, which requires viewers to make up their own minds. Is the hourly wage worker to be pitied or exalted? What would it mean if he's working for us and not getting a thing out of it?

The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera. B-movie master Sam Fuller finally gets the props he deserves in this affectionate doc narrated and co-produced by Tim Robbins. Scorsese, Jarmusch, and Tarantino turn up as well, to salute the man who directly inspired them by inventing the paperback movie; and Fuller, at the youthful age of 83, is just as crotchety and endearing as he ever was. The Independent Film Channel plans

to air this hour-long love letter to movie buffs sometime in June.

Walking and Talking. This female buddy movie directed by newcomer Nicole Holofcener is rather too precious and mainstream-minded, although its insight into the dynamics of female relationships and the abundant laziness of guys is still plenty rare. Courtney Cox and Jennifer Aniston will be jealous that this isn't their vehicle.

When We Were Kings. This documentary portrait of the most brutal and compelling boxing match ever--the 1974 fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman--is no mere sports highlights reel, but an astonishing collection of archival footage: candid interviews with the two tough-guys, play-by-play commentary by none other than Norman Mailer, and concert footage of James Brown and B.B. King, who went along with the fighters to Africa for a cross-cultural roadshow of unprecedented significance. Among the film's many nostalgic elements is its reminder of how much more possible it was then for celebrities to talk in political terms about race without fearing for their livelihoods.

Girls Town. To call this the female version of Kids is probably accurate, but not nearly respectful enough to its ambition and achievement. Shot in grainy 16mm and characterized by verite-style long takes, it examines a group of high school senior girls (one of whom is played by the great Lili Taylor) after their sudden decision to empower themselves in the wake of their friend's suicide. Unlike Sundance's other, more popular girl stories, this film cares deeply about its heroines, burrows into their lives, looks for solutions to restore their self-esteem, and stays real. October Films, fast becoming the coolest indie distributor on the block, bought the movie after its first screening and is planning a June release.

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