Sundance Film Festival's worst offences

As the stars descend on Park City, Utah for the annual Sundance Film Festival, we take a look at some of the worst cinema tropes proliferated by Sundance movies over the years

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 20 Jan 2016
  • Garden State

When it comes to Sundance Film Festival, there’s a lot cinema fans should be thankful for. Taking place every January since 1984 in the small mountain resort town of Park City in Utah, it’s become a fertile hunting ground for mint-fresh indie talent. Think of an American filmmaker to have emerged since the festival’s launch and they probably popped their movie cherry at Sundance. The Coen brothers were one of the festival’s first big winners with Blood Simple in 1985, and Steven Soderberg’s debut sex, lies and videotape was a smash there in 1989.

Todd Haynes, Lisa Cholodenko and Gregg Araki made waves with a new wave of queer cinema at Sundance in the early 90s around the same time that Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs made its splash at the festival. David O Russell was a winner here (for debut Spanking the Monkey, in 1994), so too Todd Solondz (for Welcome to the Dollhouse in 1996), and it’s where the two Andersons (Wes and PT) made their debuts. The names go on: Kelly Reichardt, Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, Steve James, Darren Aronofsky; they all got their break at Sundance. It feeds American cinema.

Not everything Sundance has given us has been nourishing, however. Many of cinemas most dubious recent trends have their origins in Park City. Even worse is that young filmmakers, seeing the power of the festival as a career launchpad, got canny to its programmers tastes and began aping a Sundance style, delivering insincere dramas that simply ticked off the festival’s favourite tropes. After decades of invention, a homogeny has started to form around the films playing Park City; the term 'typical Sundance film' has become a badge of dishounor. Don’t get us wrong, it’s still the best place to discover the next big indie crossover hit, but there are plenty of toads among those princes.

Below we’ve assembled a lineup of Sundance's worst crimes to cinema.

Found footage horror

Perhaps the biggest Sundance success so far is 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. This micro budget tale about three film students trekking through the woods to investigate a legend about a witch, and who subsequently get lost and go collectively insane over the course of the weekend, became a box office phenomenon, making $248m from its meagre $60,000 budget. While the story itself was the kind of ghosts-in-the-woods drivel we’d seen a million times before, the form it took, suggesting we were watching amateurish 'found footage' belonging to the three young protagonists, gave it an irresistible hook.

This wasn’t the first found footage horror (Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, from 1980, probably has that honour) but it was the most influential. It took a while for the camcorder revolution to follow in its wake, however. Cloverfield was the next big found footage success, roughly a decade later, but since then there’s been a tsunami of imitators. There’s Paranormal Activity and its five sequels, each one less scary than the last. But these films look like masterpieces compared to titles like The Last Exorcism; As Above, So Below; and The Poughkeepsie Tapes. There are the odd bright spot ([REC], some segments of the V/H/S franchise) but in general the found footage horror cannon is lamentable. Even horror maestro Ti West, who made Jonestown-inspired shocker The Sacrament in the found footage style, struggle to breathe life into this once subversive device. Fatigue has set in and the limited form offers no new surprises; any edge the found footage horror had with The Blair Witch Project has long-dulled.

Actors turned directors

Blame festival founder Robert Redford. When the Sundance kid won best director for the very ordinary Ordinary People in 1980 over master filmmakers like David Lynch, Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese, it set a precedent in Hollywood for movie stars moving behind the camera. The likes of Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson would followed Redford’s career trajectory, winning best director Oscars, for Dances with Wolves and Braveheart respectively.

Sundance has always been happy to open its arms to an ambitious actor with a passion project they’ve directed. Sometimes these are wonderful (see Sarah Polley’s Away from Her) but more often than not they prove mediocre (Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon, from 2013, for example, was as shallow as its porn-obsessed title character). The posterboy for these vanity projects has become poor old Zach Braff. The Scrubs actor's debut as director, Garden State (2004), was full of quirky characters, mushy emotions, and glib attitudes towards depression. It was, of course, a Sundance hit, but its contrived wackiness hasn’t held up well. When Braff tried to pull off the same tricks ten years later with his equally narcissistic Wish I Was Here, the film was justly savaged by critics and ignored by the public.

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Manic pixie dream girls

Coined by critic Nathan Rabin to describe the proliferation of female characters who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures,” Sundance programmers, clearly suckers for this movie cliche, helped proliferate the genre with the likes of Almost Famous (2000) and the aforementioned Garden State (Kate Hudson and Natalie Portman being those films’ respective MPDGs).

Perhaps the most egregious example of this trope was 2009 Sundance hit (500) Days of Summer, where the title character (played by Zooey Deschanel) is crowbarred into this painfully cute film to help convince the main protagonist (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a chronic romantic and chronic underachiever, that he should follow his dream of being an architect – the go-to career for romantic leads (see Sleepless in Seattle). And like the changing of the seasons, our hero finds a new love interest once Summer's no longer any use to him.

Torture porn

On 19 January 2004, Saw, a low budget horror film from an Australian director and writing team (James Wan and Leigh Whannell) screened at Park City. It was a dumb but fun horror which revolved around a serial killer named Jigsaw who subjects his victims to brutal mechanical traps they must escape from or die. Few escaped. Audience loved this nasty little shocker and it went on to gross $103 million. As a result, we couldn’t escape the Saw franchise, with six sequels following in as many years.

Torture porn was born. Each successive Saw film upped the gore factor but worse was still to come from the likes of Rob Zombie (The Devil's Rejects, 2005) and Greg McLean (Wolf Creek, 2005), who took this sub-genre to new sadistic levels. The worst offender was Eli Roth, whose witless and misogynistic Hostel films are the nadir of the subgenre.

Gore on the big screen was nothing new. Filmmakers, from Stanley Kubrick to Dario Argento to Wes Craven to Takashi Miike, have always explored violence in their movies, but most of the time with a point to make, be it satirical, political or purely aesthetic. What made the torture porn trend truly reprehensible was that the violence was pointless; all those filmmakers were interested in was how much they could make the audience squirm.

Poverty porn

Sundance prize-givers love films that rub its affluent audiences’ faces in the misery of poor people’s lives. In the festival’s 2009 laureate Precious, Sundance was transfix by the suffering of an overweight black teen who has all imaginable forms of abuse piled on to her, which are captured with melodramatic relish by director Lee Daniels, whose lack of taste knows no bounds. Of course, being too restrained can also be a problem. In another Sundance prize-winner, the earnestly naturalistic hillbilly drama Winter’s Bone, the trials of its young female protagonist (played by Jennifer Lawrence), from squirrel skinning to fishing a blood relative's corpse out of a lake, was depicted with squeamish tastefulness. Rare British Sundance hit Tyrannosaur, meanwhile, took the Park City audience on a tour of the council estates of northern England for an overblown tale of redemption that reaches for profundity but finds only bleakness.

The worst offender of this poverty rubbernecking, though, is Beasts of the Southern Wild, the big winner at Sundance 2012. Benh Zeitlin’s film was original and imaginative, but also sickly sentimental. By reimagining Hurricane Katrina as a twee child’s fairytale, shooting all the flooding and famine with pop-inspirational soundtrack and the aesthetic of a music video, it was exactly the wrong response to one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in America's history.

Sundance 2016 runs from 21-31 Jan at Park City, Utah