Wednesday 20 March 2019

Irish films Brooklyn and Glassland set to shine at Sundance, film's hippest festival

Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan in 'Brooklyn'
Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan in 'Brooklyn'
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

The Sundance Film Festival gets underway in Utah today, with two new Irish films in competition. Brooklyn is John Crowley's eagerly anticipated period drama based on Colm Toibin's award-winning novel, and stars Saoirse Ronan as a young woman from small-town 1950s Ireland who moves to New York and falls in love. And Grassland is the work of one of Ireland's most exciting new talents, Gerard Barrett: it stars Jack Reynor as a Dublin taxi driver who gets mixed up with some human traffickers while trying to save his mother (Toni Collette) from drug addiction.

If either of those films are a hit at Sundance, chances are they'll go on to even bigger things, because over the years the festival has become a formidable launching pad for actors, directors and their movies. Steven Soderbergh became a Hollywood player virtually overnight after his debut feature, Sex, Lies and Videotape won the Audience Award at Sundance in 1989.

Reservoir Dogs was also premiered at the festival, and Quentin Tarantino's film was partly funded by the Sundance Institute. And Damien Chazelle's current Oscar contender Whiplash won both the audience and jury prizes at the Sundance Festival last year.

Sundance remains perhaps the hippest film festival on the planet, and the best place to score a distribution deal with one of the big studios. In 2011, 45 of the films shown at Sundance were picked up by distributors: even more impressively, nine films shown there in 2010 earned 15 Oscar nominations. But there's been trouble in those Utah hills of late, with some claiming the festival has become too commercial, including Sundance's big cheese himself, Robert Redford.

The festival is named after the character Redford played in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but contrary to popular belief he didn't actually found it. It began, under the somewhat duller name of the U.S. Film Festival, in Salt Lake City back in 1978. Its creators were local cinema enthusiasts who saw it a vehicle for attracting more filmmakers to their state, and Redford, a Utah resident, was invited to be honorary chairman.

Initially the festival was primarily retrospective in nature, and involved the re-showing and preservation of great American classics such as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Sweet Smell of Success. But as Robert Redford gradually started to become more actively involved, a different vision for the event emerged.

His involvement had begun to attract interest in Hollywood, and things really took off after Redford's friend the late Sydney Pollack suggested they move the festival to the ski resort of Park City in order to make it seem unique. Pollack had a point: after all, where else could you ski the slopes in the morning and attend a world movie premiere in the afternoon?

The name change came in 1985 when Redford's Sundance Institute took over the running of the festival and began to target it at American independent cinema. Sundance began offering creative and financial support to emerging filmmakers, and soon became synonymous with quirky and offbeat indie comedies and dramas. The 1990s and early 2000s was the festival's heyday, and virtually every winter some gem or other was unveiled at the Park City resort.

Films like Thank You for Smoking, Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State, Spanking the Monkey, Clerks, The Brothers McMullen and Little Miss Sunshine might never have seen the light of day without Sundance, and modern-day masters like Darren Aranofsky, David O. Russell and Paul Thomas Anderson all got their starts there. Anderson, who would go on to direct films such as Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, was mentored on the Sundance Feature Film Program.

It's hard to over-estimate the festival's impact on American cinema, both independent and mainstream, but in the mid-2000s things started to go wrong. In ways Sundance became a victim of its own success: unworthy films started getting bought up speculatively at vastly inflated prices by Hollywood studios, and big-name filmmakers began using the Sundance brand to lend credibility to their work.

Even Joel Schumacher started muscling in on the party: his gimmicky crime thriller Twelve premiered at Sundance in 2010 before crashing and burning at the box office.

Park City was overrun each January with red carpet nonsense and tacky LA-style after-show parties, and for a time Sundance seemed in real danger of losing its relevance. In 2010 Redford himself admitted that Hollywood usurpers had "kind of engulfed what we did - you end up with parties and celebrities and Paris Hilton and that's not us."

But in the aftermath of the economic crash, Sundance has bounced back and returned to the kind of core values championed by Robert Redford. In the last few years, films made by first-timers with tiny budgets have tended to dominate, together with worthy documentaries examining social problems and global warming, the latter one of Redford's favourite hobby horses. And Sundance has done all that while continuing to discover award-winning gems like Precious and Where the Wild Things Are.

It's still the largest independent film festival in the world and, thanks in part to Mr Redford, by far the most famous.

Irish Independent

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