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(EDITOR’S NOTE: As is all the writing on this site, the opinions expressed within this piece belong solely to Mike S. Ryan, but I believe that Mike’s ire was borne out of his love for ambitious personal cinema and not out of any personal bitterness, which is why I’m posting it.)

We’ve seen many films this year at Sundance receiving quite a polarizing reaction. Titles like Rick Alverson’s The Comedy (which I produced), Craig Zobel’s Compliance, and the horror short film anthology V/H/S all went through aggressive Q&A’s in which some viewers felt threatened and insulted by each film’s particular depiction of offensive male behavior. Despite the fact that all three of those films are male critiques of men behaving badly, lazy viewers still decided to use the films to advance their own PC agendas by focusing on the fact that the films either show weak women or too strong women or just simply naked female breasts. The reality is that Q&A’s are not really the forum for viewers to proclaim their opinion of complicated films whose themes and intent are either carefully obscured or camouflaged, or embedded in a formally inventive structure that may at first glance seem casual or exploitative.

I, on the other hand, was deeply offended and aesthetically violated by a number of bland TV sitcom style films. Unfortunately, 2012 is the year in which corporate aesthetics and the Big Beach model of the twee-cute-soft-and-cuddly-but-a-little-bit-wacky comedy returned in an attempt to score a big sale. Once again a major studio allowed itself to be suckered into buying a bland piece of indie wannabe mush with the sitcom-like For A Good Time, Call…, which I found insulting not only in its depiction of women but also in its assumption that the indie film audience actually still wants this type of mindless TV pap. When will the distributors realize that the only way to get young people into theater seats for indie films is to push bold, distinctive, formally aggressive personal stories? I am sorry, but for me there were way too many films at this year’s Sundance that were mostly motivated by the goal of trying to reach the most amount of people possible. Maybe Sundance can start a section called “Twee Dishonest But Fun For Some Comedies.”

For those who enjoyed films in which they were challenged rather than distracted by TweeV pap, the options were for sure less available than last year. I saw most of the films in the NEXT and New Frontier sections and unfortunately I was not excited. On the other hand, this may possibly have been the best Park City at Midnight lineup ever. As always, docs were strong with several titles like The Imposter getting excited buzz. For me, I felt that The Imposter worked too hard at trying to be an old style Errol Morris investigation film, but it was less manipulative than other past docs of this ilk.

There were many strong exciting voices to be found with Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ry Russo-Young’s Nobody Walks, and the aforementioned Compliance. Beasts is a truly bold, ambitious film and I think it is fair to say that it is an American Indie Film Event. Though I felt distracted by its ignorance of the subtextual collateral damage of its hero being black, the film goes where very few to no indie films have ever dared tread (despite my problematic issues regarding race). At the end of the day, Sundance 2012 may be simply remembered as the year that brought us Beasts and the sad return of corporate aesthetics. Maybe SXSW will be able to more effectively shut out the commercially minded mush and keep focused on the formally ambitious personal film that defines true indie film for many of us who seek insight and intelligence rather than distraction and lowest common denominator entertainment.

— Mike S. Ryan

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Mike is a New York City native who hasn't left the city, despite the city having left long ago. He was lucky enough to catch the final hurrah of NYC's film rep theaters in the mid '80s by working as projectionist and co-programmer at Bleecker Street cinema. He still prefers the analog experience of light passing through celluloid, vinyl records and conversation eye-to-eye. When he's not out of town producing a film he can be found lurking in the basement of Cinema Village or yelling at the old codgers at MoMA to stop snoring. Mike has produced many award winning films including JUNEBUG, FORTY SHADES OF BLUE, PALINDROMES, OLD JOY, MEEK'S CUTOFF and recently THINK OF ME, THE COMEDY and THE TURIN HORSE.

  • Brandon Harris

    Bravo. I wouldn’t count on that last sentiment coming true however.

    January 27, 2012
  • George Rush

    You nailed it, dude.

    January 27, 2012
  • Adam Bhala Lough

    GET ‘EM MIKE. Midnight section is always where it’s at. 

    January 27, 2012
  • Smag998

    This is the culture we’ve made.  Nobody in power should get off without a whipping.   Unfortunately, it never occurs to anyone in this business that’s it not just other people who don’t know anything, that it’s an industry wide epidemic, with no exceptions, including producers disgusted by Sundance.

    January 27, 2012
  • frustratedashell

    “Maybe SXSW will be able to more effectively shut out the commercially minded mush and keep focused on the formally ambitious personal film”  So after 30 or moreyears, we still don’t yet have enough evidence that nobody makes great “personal films” without “professional” budgets?  How much more time do we need?

    January 28, 2012
  • Mike, did you see “The End of Love?”  I thought that and “Keep the Lights On” were refreshingly independent and personal.  Inspiring Sundance fare.

    January 30, 2012
  • Lazvast

    A few more you may have missed- “Simon Killer” and “The Middle of Nowhere”- personal stories, with a singular vision.

    January 30, 2012
  • Brent Morris

    I was at the Sundance showing of “The Comedy” and completely agree with you on the Q&A, so many audience members just want to jump on difficult works for the sake of being argumentative.  Great job with the film, I thought it was a truly sad commentary on the modern state of communication.

    January 31, 2012
  • David Dryer

    So, according  to the editor here, this review is publishable only because it doesn’t reflect “personal bitterness”?  Hard to know what Mike Ryan could be bitter about (as indie careers go, his looks pretty good) but it would be fascinating to hear this editor explain what the appropriate filmmaker response is to the lack of opportunities, the pre-censorship, and the dominance of the Sundance middle-brow pseudo-liberal ethos, in the making of a very expensive art form which nonetheless loses lots of money thanks to all the geniuses the medium attracts.  What, me bitter?  What could anyone possibly be bitter about?  I mean, what could better than an art form largely shaped by the tastes of Robert Redford and cohorts of like mind?

    February 1, 2012
  • Anonymous

    David, I just wanted to clarify that as the site’s editor so that people wouldn’t simply attribute Mike’s critical view of this year’s fest as him being bitter that THE COMEDY didn’t sell while out in Park City (which I am firmly convinced will happen in the very near future). That said, I may not have conveyed that clearly, or I may not have chosen my words appropriately. I likely shouldn’t have said anything at all, though I wanted to clarify for those readers who weren’t previously familiar with Mike’s writing, or who weren’t aware of his lifelong devotion to ambitious, bold personal filmmaking, that they would have no grounds to shirk off his opinion as being angry for the above reason. Clearly, based on your comment, you are not the type of reader I was addressing. As someone who is fighting the fight himself, I agree with what you are saying. But the fact also remains that Sundance is one of the few American institutions that does support independent filmmaking on a year-round basis. For every handful of their institute-supported films that skewer towards the safer side of the spectrum, there is a BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, which reflects the gloriously distinct vision of the Court 13 collective. I’m not sure if this answers your question. Sorry, if not.

    February 1, 2012
  • February 15, 2012
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