LOOK! A CELEBRITY! The author, along with the American Movie guy.
Before presenting the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film to Rebecca Miller's Personal Velocity at this year's Sundance Film Festival, indie stalwart John Waters said he was glad to have seen the 17 films in competition because now he doesn't have to go to the Angelika, or any other indie theater, for at least a year. He has just seen their upcoming lineup. For better and for worse, he's right. Sundance programmers establish much of what will be seen on our nation's "art house" screens. Their choices somehow resonate with distributors' needs and wishes, which lead to deals being inked, then press coverage, and finally to product on the screens of the Fox Tower, Cinema 21, etc.

Rebecca Miller's film is worthy of the attention it has already received. Personal Velocity was my favorite American fiction film of the fest. If you note the qualifier, you'll gather that I saw a couple of foreign films that were better (Intacto from Spain, and France's Time Out which will be screened at PIFF), and that this was a particularly strong year for documentaries. But Sundance is famous for its American indies, and Miller's is the best of the bunch--based on three of her recently published short stories, and broken into three short films strung together. I was intrigued by the omniscient (male) narrator and enthralled by the performances, though I agree with those who say the second story, starring Parker Posey, was the best of the bunch, and could have been expanded into a feature-length film of its own.

Less successful, but still an award winner (for Best Director), is Gary Winick's Tadpole. The story revolves around a 15-year-old Manhattan intellectual who couldn't quite make it into a Wes Anderson film. He's madly in love with his stepmom (Sigourney Weaver), but ends up sleeping with her sexy best friend (Bebe Neuwirth) instead. Whoops. By avoiding the term "statutory rape," and by failing to mention any remotely psychological reason for his infatuation with his dad's wife, director Winick makes his film into a light comedy. Unfortunately, it disintegrates for anyone who dares look beneath its frothy surface.

What these two films share, aside from distribution deals, is the fact that both of them originated on digital video (which is just a fancy way to say video). They are part of a growing number of narrative features, shot on video, that are gaining acceptance on the festival circuit, and soon our nation's multiplexes. DV is fast becoming the format of choice for indie filmmakers, and I would join in with praise and support it if it wasn't for one thing: It still looks ugly. Con-sequently, it always looks like they sacrificed image quality for the sake of a smaller budget. Of course, that didn't stop the judges from awarding the Excellence in Cinematography Award to two DV features: Personal Velocity and the excellent documentary Blue Vinyl.

If digital = information, then digital video makes perfect sense for documentary films. The ability to leave the camera on without burning through the budget allows for the ability to capture things that otherwise might have just passed on by. But there's a bigger reason why this year's documentaries were better than the fiction films: Real people are far more complex than made-up ones. Much as I want to follow Philip Seymour Hoffman after he spirals into grief and depression after his wife's suicide in Love Liza (which won his brother Gordy the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award), I'd rather learn about the tough-as-nails nun with a history of alcohol abuse (Sister Helen), or watch Amish teens party and indulge in the sins of the world before deciding if they're going to continue in their faith (Devil's Playground).

The Documentary Grand Jury Prize winner, Daughter From Danang, could have been your standard Oprah reunion: An Amerasian girl is adopted by a strict, Southern, single mother during the Vietnam War and is raised to be 101 percent American. As an adult, she decides to find her birth mother. Though it's hard to know what she was looking for in the trip, it's easy to see that she didn't find it. This is a heartbreaking yet fascinating film. My other favorite documentary was John Walter's How to Draw a Bunny, which chronicles the life and mysterious death of artist Ray Johnson, who was sort of the Andy Kaufman of the art world. It's brilliant, and makes you want to go out and do something crazy. Fiction filmmakers should take note. As evidenced by the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, it's the documentarians who are making the most complex and adventurous movies.