There have been independent films for as long as there have been studios, but it’s easy to see why many of us chart the rise of indie cinema to the early 1990s. For decades, movies made without the oversight of studio executives often sought distribution by attracting attention at film festivals, where audiences and critics turned something otherwise doomed to obscurity into a cause célèbre. After the success of Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape, however, which won a very surprising Palme d’Or at Cannes and had a more than healthy theatrical run, audiences began looking beyond the mainstream. With popular cinema of the time being taken over by action franchises and concept comedies, it comes as no surprise that even Quentin Tarantino, whose movies at their best can never be accused of avoiding familiar Hollywood genres, felt like a breath of fresh air.
The Sundance Film Festival gained ground over a decade earlier, becoming the North American locus for providing cinemagoers with the original and unsung perspectives almost as soon as it began. Created in 1978 as the “Utah/US Film Festival” and co-founded by Robert Redford’s Wildwood Films, the festival preceded the creation of the Sundance Institute a year later, a film lab meant to help clear the path for the next generation of Spielbergs, Coppolas and Scorseses. It used the festival and its assortment of prizes as a way to enter new works by new artists into the public consciousness.
What had been, by comparison, a friendly film gathering that rarely grabbed studio attention became, as the millennium was approaching, a hotbed of competitive bidding for the next sleeper hit. The Criterion Channel locates the beginning of this revolution at the 1992 festival, where a number of directors debuted acclaimed projects before going on to greater fame: Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs, Allison Anders with Gas Food Lodging, Joe Berlinger with Brother’s Keeper. Ironically, the one who is least known of them all, Alexandre Rockwell, walked away with the Grand Jury Prize for In the Soup.
In the coming years, mainstream success and increased budget sizes would await winners of the top jury prizes at this festival, not the least among them The Brothers McMullen, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Girlfight, You Can Count on Me, American Splendor, Frozen River, Precious, Winter’s Bone, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Whiplash, Minari, and last year’s CODA, which appears like many before it to be heading for a few Oscar nominations.
For the thirtieth anniversary of this landmark occasion, Criterion celebrates a number of films that represent the cross-section of voices, perspectives, and film styles that screened that year. Some of the selections feel dated: witness how many collage-style works of self-aware artistic irony are in this collection, and some pretty high profile selections (Tarantino, Zebrahead, Johnny Suede) aren’t available here. What’s most interesting to note is that, while today’s industry grapples with meeting the public demand for more diverse representation behind and in front of the camera, the films that played at Sundance was doing a pretty good job of closing in on these expectations three decades ago. (And, actually, so was the film selection at festivals in general.) Which then begs the question, what’s the issue between what screens at a festival and what gets into your local shopping mall cinema? Is it the industry, or is it you the viewer and how you buy your tickets?
While you do your own grappling with the subject, and look forward to the highlights of Sundance 2022, take a look at That Shelf’s summation of the films in Criterion’s Sundance 92 collection.
Reviews are by Bil Antoniou except where noted.
Brother’s Keeper (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky)
The death of an elderly dairy farmer in a small upstate New York farming community causes a nationwide stir when it is suspected that one of his brothers smothered him in his sleep. The Wards aren’t extremely popular in Munnsville, their house makes Grey Gardens look like the Ritz Carlton and they exist as if from another century, they are barely literate and, in murder suspect Delbert’s case, his competence is in question. The case becomes a duel of outsiders versus the solidarity of the locals when the town decides to rally around the Wards even after learning some pretty outrageous details about the case, taking Delbert’s side and helping him with his legal defense rather than let one of their own be held to scrutiny by strangers. A fascinating tale of a stranger-than-fiction group of characters, this unforgettable documentary launched the careers of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who went on to make the Paradise Lost trilogy about the West Memphis Three.
Winner – Audience Award: Documentary
Color Adjustment (Marlon Riggs)
Riggs compiles a fascinating collection of clips stretching from the early days of television in the 1950s to the, at the time, latest accomplishments of The Cosby Show, examining the evolving presentation of African Americans in the medium. Beginning with the “cautious optimism” of the post-war years that saw citizens hoping to achieve the freedoms they fought for in foreign lands, Riggs’ on-screen commentary and interview subjects (ranging from cultural critics to producers and actors) describe the downsides of the popularity of shows like Amos ‘n’ Andy (for promoting offensive stereotypes) and Julia (for scrubbing Black characters up to make them safe for white audiences) before evaluating the success of Cosby and its effect on the real world. Keeping a timeline of civil rights and economic realities alongside the development of the artform leads Riggs to conclude that a medium that has only existed for a few decades can’t do much, even at its most influential, to affect significant change in a country that has held a negative attitude on race for hundreds of years. Not a comforting film for anyone having discussions about diversity and representation online today, but Riggs is not here to comfort anyone, and it only adds to the film’s impressive rigour.
The Hours and Times (Christopher Munch)
Rachel Ho: This film imagines what happened between John Lennon (Ian Hart) and The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein (David Angus) on a trip that the two actually took in 1963 before Beatlemania would change their lives forever. Shot almost entirely in one location, it is made of pure dialogue between Epstein and Lennon who discuss life, love, and their desires. Director Christopher Münch has since claimed the film to be a bit of an experiment and its success being a surprise, and, unwittingly, it has become a beautiful reminder of the burgeoning indie film scene of the early ‘90s. It’s a shame that The Hours and Times seems to have been lost to time, though, hopefully it finds a second life in this Criterion collection.
Co-winner – Special Jury Prize: Artistic Excellence
In the Soup (Alexandre Rockwell)
Rachel Ho: A quirky comedy and an homage to aspiring filmmakers everywhere. Steve Buscemi is Adolfo Rollo, a struggling artist in NYC who places an ad in the paper offering to sell his 500-page screenplay to the highest bidder. Joe (a really tremendous Seymour Cassell), a gangster-type high roller, answers the ad, and alongside giving his own notes to Adolfo, hands down life lessons, too. Although it brought Rockwell the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1992, this film was never destined for box office greatness. The black and white film grade, as beautiful as it is and typical of indie fare of the time, has been a tough sell in the modern era, and the humour is just weird enough that it requires a particular sensibility. Ironically, what made it forgettable in 1992 is also why it encapsulates an era in film and what makes it still beloved today.
Winner – Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic
Winner – Special Jury Prize-Performance (Seymour Cassel)
The Inland Sea (Lucille Carra)
Donald Richie’s 1971 book about his exploration of the southern end of his adopted home country is put on film by Carra, who goes on her own search for a more traditional, quieter pace of life in Japan using Richie’s narration on the soundtrack. We meet a monk who loves Frank Sinatra, visit temples, bars and cafes, get to know the populace of a number of the islands that make up the titular geographical area, but mostly we get to indulge in the almost spiritual quality of the images. Long takes of mountains and vast bodies of water pop up between closeups of faces or long shots of bodies in motion, the effect is powerful and deeply enlightening.
Intimate Stranger (Alan Berliner)
The film only takes up an hour but its effect is profound, and what sounds like a very personal subject, the life of Berliner’s businessman grandfather, becomes an investigation of the unknowable mysteries of a human life. Joe Cassuto was raised in Egypt and did well in the cotton business before coming to America with his family, finding it difficult to acclimate to the aggressive spirit required to do well in American commerce. Having always traded with the Japanese, he took that country on as a second home but left his wife and children in New York, flying back and forth and becoming something of a myth in his children’s eyes. Now after his untimely passing in a hit-and-run car accident, Cassuto is examined by his relatives in voice-over as they give conflicting opinions about who he was, what spurred on the more eccentric aspects of his personality and what legacy he leaves behind. The variety of answers, accompanied by a fascinating kaleidoscope of pictures expertly edited by Berliner, makes the viewer wonder if it really is ever possible to know another person.
My Crasy Life (Jean-Pierre Gorin)
Marko Djurdjic: Seamlessly blending ethnography, documentary, and scripted sequences (fictionalized fantasies, or faithful re-enactments?), Jean-Pierre Gorin’s My Crasy Life is a rhythmic, kaleidoscope portrait of gang life in early 1990s’ Los Angeles. Following a tight-knit group of Samoan gang members (the Sons of Samoa), Gorin’s self-referential essay film is clearly indebted to Penelope Spheeris‘s sub-cultural masterpiece, The Decline of Western Civilization (1981). This is most evident in a forward-facing interview segment where the various Sons of Samoa reveal to you “IBM motherfuckers” what certain slang words and police codes mean. The film features its fair share of horrific images and stories, yet it is only shocking if you’ve never paid attention, or worse, if you don’t care. These disturbing scenes are juxtaposed by sincere moments of camaraderie, loyalty, and love between the men. Although unbridled masculinity reigns supreme, there are instances of tenderness and vulnerability that will astound you. (A scene where a group of gang members discuss their desire to return home to where their ancestors and families are from is particularly proud, celebratory, and beautiful). Although My Crasy Life is an excellent film, it is clearly not for everyone, and its hybridity and rawness may alienate less-discerning palettes. Nevertheless, if you embrace its approach, it offers a humanistic, multifaceted look at an inaccessible, rarely filmed subculture. A staggering, horribly underappreciated work.
Co-winner – Special Jury Prize: Artistic Excellence
The Waterdance (Neal Jimenez, Michael Steinberg)
This male counterpart to John Sayles’s Passion Fish is based on writer and co-director Jimenez’s own experiences with his early days as a paraplegic following a car accident. Eric Stoltz is learning to cope with these new changes to his life in a rehab hospital where his roommates William Forsythe and Wesley Snipes are both up to no good and are suffering their own manic traumas about their conditions, in one case entertaining the promises of a cash settlement from an ambulance chasing lawyer, in the other falling into a self-destructive alcoholic spiral. Helen Hunt is wonderful as Stoltz’s girlfriend who is herself doing her best to help him see the sunny side of things, but eventually they both realize (after some of the sexiest scenes of intimacy in any movie of the period) that it is his own journey towards acceptance, which Stoltz performs with his usual natural, charming grace, that he needs to focus on. The late, great Elizabeth Pena appears as his doctor and Grace Zabriskie is wonderful as Forsythe’s mother.
Winner – Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award
Winner – Audience Award-Dramatic
Delicatessen (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro)
Colin Biggs: Before Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro were corrupted by the Alien franchise, they made this noteworthy yet bizarre black comedy. It takes place in a small French town where food is scarce, and fat butcher Clapet rules over the citizenry. Louison (Dominique Pinon) shows up to work as a maintenance man in the building, after his predecessors have been promptly carved up and fed to the other residents. A macabre affair indeed, yet there is a cartoonish delight in the anarchy that springs from the co-directors. A meet-cute that flourishes into a full-on romance enabled by cannibalism. Check. An underground movement of vegetarians who want to liberate a circus clown? Check. Add a visual hue that resembles food poisoning, and you finally have the gist of Delicatessen. Yes, society is falling apart, but that’s no reason not to laugh.
Finding Christa (Camille Billops, James Hatch)
Billops makes the brave choice to film a very painful and personal experience, reconnecting with the little girl that she gave up for adoption twenty years earlier. As a young single mother, Billops had tried to take care of her daughter herself but found the challenges too great and believed she was doing young Christa a great deal of good by leaving her at a children’s home. This many years later, having been raised by a loving adoptive mother who has encouraged her to learn about her roots, Christa comes in search of her birth mother and their reunion results in this bracing, sometimes creative and other times raw and honest look at the places that life can take us.
Co-Winner: Grand Jury Prize co-winner-Documentary
Gas Food Lodging (Allison Anders)
Marko Djurdjic: “Women are lonely in the 90s, it’s our new phase. I’ll live, I’ve been lonelier.”Allison Anders’ solo directorial debut follows the tumultuous, small town lives of Nora and her two teenage daughters, Shade and Trudi (played by Fairuza Balk and Ione Skye, respectively). Filmed in the deserts, trailer parks, and truck stops of New Mexico, the cinematography captures the grandeur of the charred landscape while remaining unobtrusive and respectful of the performances, emotions, and relationships developed by Anders and her cast. Perfectly imperfect in the best—and messiest—of ways, Gas Food Lodging deals with a long and often heavy set of topics: sex and sexuality, abuse, race, love, class, cinema, family, and tumbleweeds. Although its scope outweighs its runtime, causing the film to lose sight of some its messages and themes, this approach formally symbolizes the cacophony of the teenage experience: it is everything and nothing all at the same time. Gas Food Lodging isn’t simply about angst, it’s about generational trauma, and that’s what sets it apart from the multitude of flippant teen films released in the 1990s.
Incident at Oglala (Michael Apted)
The recently-departed Apted made this documentary after learning about Leonard Peltier during his research for his 1992 film Thunderheart. Peltier was one of three suspects put on trial for the murder of two FBI agents who opened fire at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1976. It was later claimed that they were chasing a robbery suspect before they were shot dead. Apted investigates the quality of life at Pine Ridge, considered the poorest indigenous reservation in the country, one that was already suffering an epidemic of violence after Wounded Knee not long before the shootout. Interviews with friends and family of the accused, as well as members of both sides of the legal trial that took place before Peltier was sentence to life in prison, result in staggering, eye-opening realities that you won’t soon forget.
Light Sleeper (Paul Schrader)
Marko Djurdjic: Paul Schrader’s drama follows John LeTour (Willem Dafoe), an insomniac drug dealer serving a very upscale NYC clientele. After his supplier/queenpin Ann (a fiery Susan Sarandon) announces her retirement, a desperate John experiences a midlife crisis of sorts as he contemplates his bleak future. Schrader’s usual salaciousness gives way to a shadowy, neo-noirish ambience that’s both understated and cool. Tender, sombre, and tense, it is one of Schrader’s most nuanced (and, thus, most un-Schrader-like) films, even if his favourite themes—loneliness, sleaze, love and desire, estrangement, the past and one’s inability to escape it—are ever-present. The film has more in common with the fractured existentialism of First Reformed than the nihilism of Taxi Driver, thanks in large part to Dafoe’s restrained performance, a side which we rarely see in his more eccentric roles. Ultimately, it isn’t a film about a drug dealer; it’s about the politics of drugs, where 1980s’ excess is subverted (re: annihilated) in favour of post-Reagan disillusionment, necessitated by America’s unchecked consumption and consumerism, its misguided grand narratives, and its penchant for overindulgence.
The Living End (Gregg Araki)
One of the best films of the New Queer Cinema being celebrated at Sundance that year, Araki’s classic is a gay Thelma & Louise that enjoys a healthy balance of righteous anger and intelligent nihilism. Shot on grainy stock that only adds to its sexy quality, it’s about a young man who learns that he is HIV positive and, in his despair, runs away from his life in the big city and hits the road for nowhere in particular. Along the way, he picks up another young man in a similar circumstance and they cause plenty of trouble in their travels, while privately enjoying a relationship that starts out physical and goes deeper with time and experience. Araki gets everything right from the political needling of America’s failures in dealing with the AIDS crisis to his own visual indulgences.
Shoot for the Contents (Trinh T. Minh-Ha)
Trinh T. Minh-Ha’s experimental essay film examines China’s history, politics, art, and culture as an outsider through a tapestry of images, music, and interviews. Shoot for the Contents isn’t an easy watch — not because the content is difficult to get through (on the contrary, the material Minh-Ha focuses on is particularly interesting three decades on), but because it requires your full attention, a tapestry of many seemingly random moments of Chinese history and culture that fit together. Rather contradictory in feeling, it does have an underlying rhythm to it, but one that Minh-Ha purposely ignores. That being said, while the way the film is put together is entirely unique, the artistic expression of Minh-Ha doesn’t take away from its subject. In 1991, China was still relatively a mystery to the West, and this film offers a lot of interesting information about the then sleeping lion and how it was perceived.
Winner – Best Cinematography-Documentary
Swoon (Tom Kalin)
Kalin’s breakout feature film was celebrated for being far more honest about the sexual relationship between Leopold and Loeb than previous versions of the story had been, although it could be argued that Hitchcock put plenty of sex into the atmosphere and subtext of his 1948 thriller Rope. Two University of Chicago students start out seeking thrills and end up committing murder. Kalin presents their activities through a kaleidoscope of storytelling methods including on-screen narration, intentionally anachronistic characters, and clever montages shot expertly in gritty black and white by Ellen Kuras. Kalin never sympathizes with these men’s crimes but he has plenty to say about the injustices they suffer for living in the closet, and that a society that treated their commitment to each other as illegitimate may in part be responsible for them not choosing a better path.
Winner – Best Cinematography: Dramatic
Where Are We? Our Trip Through America (Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman)
Epstein and Friedman had just won an Oscar for Common Threads when they decided to make a film project out of a road trip across America. As two San Francisco residents who only knew the country’s coasts, their exploration of Middle America is a voyage of discovery, spending almost three weeks stopping in small towns in Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Nevada, stopping and asking people about their lives, their hopes, their fears and their dreams. You get the kind of caricature of what we now think of as Trump’s America from a few people (like the gentleman in the barbershop who is mad at the liberal reporters who want to take away his guns) but even he is as generous and welcoming as many of the optimistic individuals who are happy to share their stories and who react positively to the directors. Epstein and Friedman never patronize or provoke their subjects, they seem to genuinely want to know how people feel about life in their country even in cases where they are interviewing people diametrically opposed to them, and the result is something that makes one wistful for the days before we all believed that there was more success to be gleaned from picking fights. The documentary is inconclusive and deeply felt.
ONLY FOR THE CURIOUS
A Brief History of Time (Errol Morris)
Marko Djurdjic: Errol Morris’s co-winner of the Grand Jury Prize serves as both a documentary about theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, and a visual representation of Hawking’s 1988 book of the same name. Morris, a master of both editing and cinematography, uses photos to historicize and contextualize the story. He employs his ubiquitous inserts and re-enactments to give even minor scenes from Hawking’s life gravitas: an oscillating ventilator appears as a menacing reminder of the limitations of the body, while a cup repairing itself in reverse becomes cosmic, an awe-inspiring depiction of time (perhaps, cinema?) itself. Morris humanizes Hawking’s brilliance and makes it approachable, even relatable. Although the theories and ideas presented are astonishing, the film’s cheeky tone understands, and finds humour in, the absurdity of the universe, of existence, of Everything. (Phillip Glass’s thrilling—trilling—score certainly helps to lighten the mood.) A Brief History of Time is a film made for both 2am screenings and university classrooms, for bedroom philosophers and “intellectuals.” It reminds us that we all think, and thus, we all conceptualize and imagine and create, in our minds, the universe around us, and this makes us all brilliant. If you don’t believe me, just wait until the revelatory last line. The universality of chills.
Co-Winner – Grand Jury Prize: Documentary
Danzón (Maria Novaro, 1991)
Rachel Ho: Julia (Maira Rojo) dances the danzón every week with Carmelo, a man she knows purely only on the dance floor. When Carmelo stops showing up to the dance hall, Julia unravels and becomes irrationally fixated on finding him, even though she barely knows him. Danzón is a popular form of dance in Mexico that’s rigidly sensual, there’s a closeness and intimacy to the movements, but the precision and formality of each step is important. Legendary director Maria Novaro’s film perfectly mirrors its namesake dance. There is great intimacy and warmth, as well as a clinical manner in which the film is constructed. The film is deceptively simple in its premise of a woman going on a journey in search of a man, but in actuality is in search of self-discovery and happiness. A film that may feel a bit outdated today, Julia’s search for clarity and purpose are evergreen.
Edward II (Derek Jarman)
Jarman’s adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s uncompromising play earned plaudits at Venice before coming to Sundance and taking its place among the queer-themed films being celebrated that year. He preserves Marlowe’s late-16th century verse while updating the sets and costumes to more or less the present-day, placing the tale of the titular king’s affection for his beloved Piers Gaveston within the atmosphere of Britain’s conservative response to the AIDS epidemic. Edward infuriates his court by trying to give Gaveston a legitimate position despite his low birth, inspiring the jealousy of his lonely wife Isabella (Tilda Swinton, who won a unanimous Best Actress prize at Venice) to team up with his ambitious nephew Mortimer (Nigel Terry) to usurp him. Jarman downplays the undertones of Marlowe’s suggestions that Edward’s inability to wield power wisely was just as responsible for his downfall as his peers’ intolerance for his unnatural friendship for Gaveston, and makes smart connections between his historically-based characters and their symbolic modern counterparts (the “chorus of nobility” are all dressed like Thatcher’s cabinet). Most dazzling is the array of future triple-Oscar winner Sandy Powell’s costumes, which take centre stage on the bare and unpleasant sets and provide the only excitement in a mode of storytelling that is far too humourless. Gravely ill and only a few years away from his death, Jarman is dead set on sending a message. As a result, his film, while promoting the right of queer people to exist and condemning those who would let them disappear as if they deserved to, forgets to include the joy with which those lives are lived. It doesn’t help that Steven Waddington and Andrew Tiernan give off no heat as actors or lovers in the leads, while the supporting cast easily outshines them, particularly Swinton’s uncanny ability to present such commanding stillness on camera.
Night on Earth (Jim Jarmusch)
Jarmusch follows five cab drivers around the world as they endure long nights at the wheel. The first, set in Los Angeles, is heavily favoured in the film’s promotional materials thanks to its starring Gena Rowlands as a Hollywood agent being driven by a tough-talking Winona Ryder in her beat-up old station wagon. Giancarlo Esposito stars in the New York segment, driving for the clueless Czech cab driver (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who doesn’t know the city at all. Isaach De Bankole plays a Parisian driver who has an enchanting encounter with a blind passenger (Beatrice Dalle), Roberto Benigni makes a confession to the priest in the back seat in Rome, and Kaurismaki regular Matti Pelonpaa picks up three drunks and gives them his own tale of woe in Helsinki. Jarmusch switches tones and styles in each segment without feeling like he’s switching channels. He bathes everything in Frederick Elmes’ gorgeous cinematography and elicits performances from his charming characters that make the experience feel light instead of flimsy.
Poison Ivy (Katt Shea)
Every Sundance festival has indie exploitation flicks aspiring to mainstream-level distribution, and 1992’s trashiest option was definitely this steamy potboiler. It didn’t fill theatres, but it was a big enough hit on home video to spawn a number of sequels and a decade of bad Lethal Lolita ripoffs. Sara Gilbert, then at the height of her fame on Roseanne, plays a teenager who is wowed by her school’s resident bad girl (Drew Barrymore). She befriends her and invites her into her cold, unhappy home where the girl, nicknamed “Ivy”, takes over Gilbert’s mother’s wardrobe and seduces her easy target of a father (Tom Skerritt). Unapologetically indulgent almost to the point of campiness, this curiosity is most notable for bringing Barrymore back to feature film prominence after her own bad girl behaviour landed her in rehab at the ripe old age of 13. She’s terrific at making us understand the lonely vulnerability behind the character’s naked ambition, although director Shea doesn’t do enough with it and relegates her to a bland villainous stereotype at the end.
Some Divine Wind (Roddy Bogawa)
The context is that the main character, Ben, is the child of survivors of war, an American fighter pilot father and Japanese mother. Their marriage is torn apart by the husband’s guilt over having bombed his wife’s city and, directly or not, feeling responsible for her family’s deaths. What we see, though, is a collage of images that follow Ben’s life in San Diego as he reckons with his family’s past, an exploration of the anti-Japanese racism that followed the war, and his present struggle to understand his identity, narrated by his girlfriend who is trying to make sense of it all. It’s well meaning and thoughtful, but the execution is dull and nothing pulls you in emotionally. This one’s really tough to get through with your eyes open.
The Tune (Bill Plympton)
A feature-length film from a director better known for his animated shorts, this one is about a struggling songwriter who owes his music producer boss a new song and is in love with the big man’s secretary. Stuck on a new composition, he drifts off to a fantasy world called Flooby Nooby where a variety of whimsical sequences attempt to inspire him with songs in a range of musical genres, before returning him to earth and his lady love. Drawn in the roughly hewn but smoothly-transitioning stream-of-consciousness style typical of the director, this is a highly creative, superbly skilled work that can’t overcome its shallow content, the aesthetics are on point but that won’t prevent most of the audience from being bored.