- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2009

BEYOND HOLLYWOOD Column

Independent-film fans know what January means - the annual Sundance Film Festival. If you can’t make it to Park City, Utah, from Jan. 15 through 25 for the country’s biggest celebration of indie film, have no fear. Television’s Sundance Channel is offering plenty of goodies for the film buff who’s stuck at home.

The network, which is still under the creative direction of festival co-founder Robert Redford, has something every day, in fact, and is billing January as “31 Days of Sundance.” Every evening at 10, the channel will air a feature film and a short that played at Sundance festivals in years past, mostly from the most recent few years. Given the usually high quality of films at the event, that’s a lot of great cinema. Many of the films are American television premieres, too.

“Friends With Money,” for example, which airs Jan. 9, might be considered the thinking woman’s chick flick. Not that this movie is just for women. Nicole Holofcener’s film, which opened the 2006 festival, is a sharp look, as the title says, at friendship and money. Jennifer Aniston puts in some of her best work as a broke single woman working as a maid who can’t help but resent her better-off friends. They’re played to perfection by Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack, and though they all seem to have it made, the film reveals that money certainly doesn’t buy happiness.

Even better is the Jan. 17 film, “Starting Out in the Evening,” which played the 2007 festival. Frank Langella likely will get an Oscar nod this year for “Frost/Nixon,” but he should have gotten one last year for his starring turn in this deeply felt meditation on art and life.

Mr. Langella plays a novelist who used to be mentioned in the same breath as Saul Bellow but whose works are falling out of print. His work and his life get a jolt of energy when he meets a sexy and ambitious grad student (Lauren Ambrose of “Six Feet Under”) who wants to write her thesis on him. Such a plot could have turned melodramatic, but not in the capable hands of director Andrew Wagner and screenwriter Fred Parnes, who adapted Brian Morton’s novel. It’s intelligent and moving.

Sundance also shows documentaries, and they’re well-represented in January’s playlist. “War Dance,” which received an Oscar nomination last year for best documentary, airs Jan. 18 and follows refugee children from war-torn Uganda as they become the first in the northern war zone to make it to the finals of the country’s music and dance competition. “Crazy Love,” another 2007 festival selection, which is playing Jan. 10, documents the bizarre love story of Burt Pugach and Linda Riss, who were married after Mr. Pugach spent time in prison for hiring men to throw lye in Miss Riss’ face. The attack blinded and scarred her.

There’s a different feature film each night in January, but the accompanying shorts play more than once. That gives you a few chances to catch Oscar-nominated works, including two that made it on the shortlist last year. “The Substitute” got a nod for best live-action short; the Italian film about a new substitute teacher is a very amusing quick hit of comedy. “Madame Tutli-Putli” was nominated for best animated short, and though the Canadian film’s comedy factor isn’t nearly as high, its charmingly quirky visuals more than make up for it.

Of course, the real excitement is in the festival itself, and the Sundance Channel will have plenty of updates. There will be festival features every day of the event, including interviews with filmmakers and critics. At the network’s Web site, you can see short films from past festivals, daily photo galleries covering premieres and Park City’s laid-back scene, and two original Web series.

“Breakfast” is a comedy following two independent filmmakers in New York City trying to shoot a Word War II epic (a genre not usually mentioned in the same breath as “independent”) while “Cassidy Loves Moby” is, the network says, an “only-at-Sundance romance starring recording artist Moby.” One blogger will try to see all 120 festival films in just those 10 days. (I don’t see how that’s possible, but I wish the to-be-named writer the best of luck.)

More information is available at https://sundancechannel.com/festival.

Calling all filmmakers

Perhaps the reports from Sundance will have you feeling a little envious - or inspired. Good. Two local film festivals are accepting submissions for their 2009 events.

Silverdocs, the country’s leading documentary festival, is accepting films for its June festival. There are three deadlines, each with increasing entry fees - Jan. 9, Feb. 13 and March 6. Anyone who has attended the festival, presented by the American Film Institute and the Discovery Channel, knows a broad range of films are presented. So no matter the topic, as long as your film is nonfiction and recently completed, it’s eligible. More information can be found at silverdocs.com.

The DC Shorts Film Festival also is accepting submissions. The fest shows films from around the world, but it has a soft spot for those made by local directors and writers. If your film is chosen, you can discuss it with the audience after the screening. The best news for budding filmmakers is that DC Shorts gives feedback to every entrant, so even if your film isn’t chosen, your entry fee has gotten you something. DC Shorts also has varying deadlines: Feb. 15, April 15 and May 1. More information is at dcshorts.com.

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