Brits reign at Sundance

Anthony Hopkins floundered, but the UK did well at the influential independent film festival.
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The Independent Culture

It didn't take long for the e-mail to arrive. Shortly after the Oscar nominations were announced on Tuesday, the backslapping started with a well-timed press release. "It is refreshing that the Academy is recognising both the quality of the storytelling and the talent of the actors in independent films that originally premiered at the Sundance Film Festival," said festival director Geoffrey Gilmore. Four movies featured at last year's festival are up for awards, including the breakout hit Little Miss Sunshine, which has been nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture. You might say it was a much needed injection of life for this year's Sundance, which - during it's first half at least - was feeling as barren as the mountain tops in the surrounding Park City.

Pleasingly, the biggest story of Sundance 07 has been British, when Son of Rambow sold to Paramount for a whopping $8m (£4m). Directed by Garth Jennings and produced by Nick Goldsmith - who previously adapted The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - it's a far superior work, not least because Jennings wrote this himself and evidently feels entirely comfortable with the material at hand. Featuring a cast of unknowns, this 1980s-set story of the friendship between two schoolboys, bonded by their love of the original Rambo film First Blood, taps into the current nostalgia for the era without playing for cheap retro-laughs.

Prior to this, James Strouse's Grace is Gone was dubbed as this year's hot ticket. Certainly, it cheered up Harvey Weinstein - the former Miramax mogul's firm The Weinstein Company fought off stiff competition from rivals to secure the worldwide rights for $4m - even if it left the rest of us rather glum. Starring John Cusack as the patriotic father of two daughters whose wife dies fighting in the Iraq war, the film is a tender piece that will doubtless surprise many of the actor's fans. Complete with comb-over, this is not the sharp-tongued Cusack of The Grifters or High Fidelity as he offers the sort of brave performance Oscar voters love to embrace. Listen hard and you can hear Weinstein beating the drum for next year's Academy Awards.

As for the most over-hyped film, it simply has to be Hounddog. The press screening I attended was packed to the rafters, no doubt full of hacks lured by the whiff of controversy. Starring Dakota Fanning - the little moppet that helped Tom Cruise save us all in War of the Worlds - as the Elvis-loving hick Lewellen, the pre-screening furore was all about a rape that the 12 year-old Fanning's character is subjected to. As it turns out, this is one of the more restrained moments in this southern Gothic melodrama from writer-director Deborah Kempmeier. The usually reliable David Morse, who plays Lewellen's father - struck by a bolt of lightening and turned literally into a simpleton - will most certainly want to forget this shambles.

This year has also seen the lunatics take over the asylum. Not content with simply being given armfuls of free swag after a hard day on the red carpet, some of the most high-profile movies at this year's festival have been directed by those better known for their work in front of the camera. Of note were Canadian actress Sarah Polley's Away from Her, a wrenching story about Alzheimer's starring Julie Christie, as well as Steve Buscemi's Interview, in which he and Sienna Miller play journalist and actress respectively in this smart two-hander. Justin Theroux's Dedication, a love story about a children's book author who gets inspired by an old porno for his latest creation, was also an assured work - though hardly what one might expect from a regular David Lynch collaborator.

Talking of which, Anthony Hopkins must have staged his own Lynch retrospective before he made Slipstream, a film in contention for biggest howler of Sundance. The last time he directed was in 1996, delivering the stately and sure-footed Uncle Vanya reworking, August. But this story of a screenwriter named Felix Bonhoeffer (played by Hopkins), who suffers a mind-bending meltdown, is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Based around the making of a B-movie in the Nevada desert that goes disastrously wrong after the lead star (Christian Slater) collapses from heat exhaustion and dies, the film is, frankly, a baffling collision of fiction and reality. When Michael Clarke Duncan, who plays a bartender-turned-actor, asks a befuddled Hopkins, "Are you on drugs?" it's tempting to agree.

Co-starring Hopkins' wife Stella Arroyave, who also produced the movie, so the story goes, the actor - suffering from writer's block - was unable to complete the script until his spouse told him his dinner was ready. All very cosy, but was there any need to turn this moment of domestic bliss into a scene in the film? No wonder one character asks of Felix, "Did he write this garbage?" At least a remarkably over-the-top John Turturro, playing a film producer who "even experiences road rage in the bathroom", looked like he was having a ball, which is more than can be said for anyone unfortunate enough to catch the finished product.

Hopkins is not the only one to show us the dark heart of Hollywood. Another highly anticipated film set in the entertainment industry is John August's directorial debut The Nines - and, like Slipstream, it ties itself up in metaphysical knots. August has built up an impressive career as a screenwriter, on films like Tim Burton's Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but judging by this, he was desperate to escape the confines of conventional Hollywood. Like Hopkins, August sets out to experiment, telling three interconnected short stories with the same actors (Ryan Reynolds and Hope Davis) playing different characters in each.

Unleashing his wrath, August shows plenty of contempt for the system and its products - notably in the middle tale, when Reynolds plays a creator of a TV pilot forced to compromise in order to get his show picked up. Actors are also in for it, as seen when Reynolds plays a buff bozo famed for his role in a CSI-style cop show who is put under house arrest after he crashes his car while high on crack. But by the final tale, as Reynolds returns as a video-game designer, it seems it's August who has been imbibing, as he attempts to present a muddled treatise on the creator's responsibility towards his characters.

At least Antonio Banderas has managed to keep his more self-indulgent urges in check for Summer Rain. A coming of age story set in southern Spain in the late 1970s, this sensual and dreamy evocation of troubled youth is a far more competent film than his previous effort as director, 1999's Crazy in Alabama. No doubt, it helps that's he directing in his native tongue and without wife Melanie Griffith acting in the lead. Following the lives of three young men, the central figure is Miguelito (Alberto Amarilla), a would-be poet in the tradition of Dante who even has his own Beatrice, a local ballet dancer named Luli. The result rather washes over you but it seems all those years Banderas spent acting for Pedro Almodóvar haven't gone to waste.

Inevitably, the most poignant presentation was Adrienne Shelly's Waitress. The one-time muse of Hal Hartley, having starred in Trust and The Unbelievable Truth, Shelly was murdered on 1 November last year in her Greenwich Village office. Initially thought to be suicide, after her body was found hanging from a shower rod, a 19-year-old construction worker named Diego Pillco was later charged with her murder, accused of staging the scene after an altercation with the actress-turned-film-maker. Her death has led her husband Andrew Ostroy to set up a foundation in her name to help women interested in making the transition from acting to directing.

But it will be a shame if Shelly's work was overshadowed by the circumstances surrounding her death. The film stars Keri Russell as Jenna, a southern waitress working at a pie shop, baking the stock and titling them after whatever is happening in her life. Stuck in a loveless marriage to a brute of a husband, things take a turn when she discovers she's pregnant - causing her to create the aptly named pie, "I Don't Want Earl's Baby". A film that deals with the fear of impending motherhood, it's to Shelly's credit that the film never gets too maudlin - and that for her final role, she took the supporting part of Jenna's colleague and friend, Dawn, leaving Russell to shine.

If this is the year when actors really took over Sundance, thank heavens for a festival veteran delivering the most unashamedly hedonistic movie here. His seventh film to grace Park City, Gregg Araki's Smiley Face is undeniably his most accessible work yet - and a much-needed tonic after its moody predecessor, Mysterious Skin. Starring Anna Faris as a pot-head who endures a nightmare day after eating her roommate's stash of hash cup-cakes, it's got cult classic written all over it. Still, any thoughts that this time next year, it'll be up for Best Picture should swiftly disappear in a puff of bong smoke.