2003 Sundance Film Festival

This year's edition of the Sundance Film Festival felt tropical compared to the arctic cold that clamped down on New York City during late January. Park City, Utah, was more than comfortable, with sunny skies and above-40 temperatures.

But warm weather aside, this year's Festival generated plenty of heat. While last year's Sundance was unofficially known as the year the crowds stayed home, this year the pendulum swung the other way with a vengeance. Right before I left New York, an industry friend who'd witnessed first-hand the madness of Sundance at its peak in years past tried to warn me as about my upcoming trip. He likened the experience to a "massive crack hit of Hollywood."

He was right. By all accounts, this year marked a return to the excesses of years past. The stars were out in force. Main Street was jammed with onlookers hoping to catch glimpses of Hollywood royalty like Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman (both of whom attended). Starwatchers intent on observing the Tinseltown couples du jour could choose from either Ben and J. Lo or Tom and Penelope. Ben Affleck was presumably in town to help launch the sophomore season of his fledgling HBO series, Project Greenlight, while Penelope Cruz was there to promote the much-discussed film Masked and Anonymous, in which she co-stars with music legend Bob Dylan.

Speaking of music, it's clear from this year's Festival that Sundance has not only become a showcase for American film -- of both the Hollywood and the Indiewood varieties -- but it's also a magnet for rap stars, rock stars and the music industry honchos who kiss up to them. For proof of this, you had to look no further than the fact that even pop tart Britney Spears made a valiant attempt to get in on the action. She and her entourage were a fixture on the Park City party circuit during the Festival's first weekend, hopping from venue to venue, and, unbelievably, even being turned away from some!

Now that Sundance is synonymous with Hollywood glitz and glamour, sightings of Robert Redford -- who founded the Festival nearly 20 years ago to create a showcase for independent filmmaking -- have become rarer and rarer. Then again, Redford's reclusiveness might also have to do with the less-than-warm receptions he's received from the Park City hoi polloi during recent public appearances. This year, as he was preparing to deliver some remarks on opening night from the balcony of a Park City restaurant, some bonehead locals, miffed at the hustle-and-bustle the Festival has brought to their otherwise tranquil town, decided to do their best to get rid of him. They hurled ice-filled cups, snowballs and other debris in Redford's direction.

At any rate, here are the highlights of my stay at the Festival: On my first night out there, I shook off my jet lag and headed over to a watering hole called Cisero's, where the producers of Prey For Rock and Roll were staging a blow-out bash. Their movie is about a band of rock 'n' roll chicks trying to get their big break in the dog-eat-dog L.A. music scene. Cisero's is the kind of place that most of us too-cool-for-school New Yorkers wouldn't be caught dead in: the joint looks exactly like the sort of dive you remember from your college days. It's the kind of place where beer is served in blue plastic cups and you're likely to slip on someone's pee on the floor or get stuck by someone's ill-thrown dart as you make your way to the john. But that didn't prevent the likes of hot babes such as Gina Gershon and Drea De Matteo (who both star in the film), and indie film luminaries like director Darren Aronofsky and Lisa Cholodenko (whose film Laurel Canyon was in the American Spectrum section of the Festival), from having a great time. Gershon took the stage and rocked-out with her band at around midnight. Her totally bitchin' performance was followed by a set from Slash and several of the shaggy guitarist's former bandmates in Guns ?n' Roses. How that's for a college bar?

I staggered out of the Prey For Rock and Roll party and meandered down Main Street until I reached a two-level complex known for reasons unbeknownst to me as the Chrysler Million Dollar Lodge. The Chrysler part makes sense -- I recall seeing some sort of Chrysler car parked inside the Lodge and there was tons of paraphernalia emblazoned with the Chrysler logo scattered throughout the place, so clearly the company was sponsoring whatever events were going on inside. But I didn't see any million dollars lying around. The festivities inside the Million Dollar Lodge were in honor of the movie Spun, a festival selection that I unfortunately didn't get a chance to see. Apparently, it has something to do with speed freaks and is directed by music video auteur Jonas Akerlund. It also features Brittany Murphy as a stripper. I'm sold. Note to self: See this movie when it comes out.

There wasn't any stripping at the party, but there was plenty of spinning. New York DJ Stretch Armstrong got the crowd dancing with his usual medley of rock and hip-hop. I began to feel like I was back in the city on a Monday night at the Tribeca Grand, but my brief time-and-space warp was interrupted when I saw an old acquaintance who is a Hollywood agent. He explained that the party was being co-hosted by the Gersh Agency, his company. I chatted with my agent buddy for a few moments and surveyed the room. The Gersh connection helped explain the presence of young Hollywood stars like Rachel Leigh Cook, Anna Paquin and Rosario Dawson.

Unlike the Spun party, one shindig that did feature stripping, and plenty of it, was the monster bash for Killer Films' Party Monster, held at the Shop. As you probably already know, Party Monster is the highly-anticipated cinematic retelling of the rise and fall of New York club kid Michael Alig.

The night started demurely enough, with partygoers simply content to chat and drink at the bar, but things soon got heated. Hunky waiters circulated the main dance area, doling out doughnuts and bite-sized sandwiches. The whole doughnut idea was inspired, I guess, by Michael Alig's predilection for serving up bacchanalian happenings at unexpected venues like doughnut shops and fast food joints.

Unlike many of the week's other offerings, the Party Monster party was populated less by Hollywood execs and more by club kids, drag queens, transvestites and go-go dancers. That night the Shop was probably the closest thing Park City has even seen to the Limelight. And I'm talking about the original, old school Limelight, not the blandly watered down version known as Estate that made a brief appearance on the New York club scene this past winter.

As the party progressed, things got really crazy when some guy got up on a makeshift stage that was set up in the center of the room and started to boogie with a drag queen who was already getting her groove on. In the blink of an eye, the drag queen actually pulled down the poor kid's pants, and, next thing you know, he was totally fricking naked on stage! Perhaps in tribute to Michael Alig and the club kid's partners in crime, the naked guy kept workin' it for the crowd. They absolutely lapped it up. he Party Monster party boasted a surprise appearance by the original club kid himself, James St. James, whose book Disco Bloodbath inspired the movie, as well as Alig's real-life DJ muse DJ Keoki. The film's stars, Macaulay Culkin (who plays Alig) and Seth Green (who plays St. James) showed up later in the evening. Also present were Kieran Culkin (Macaulay's brother), Chloe Sevigny (who plays Gitsie in the movie) and Mila Kunis from That '70s Show (who, as far as I can tell, plays nobody in the movie but probably went anyway because her television co-star Wilmer Valderrama plays Keoki in the movie). At the party, I even got a chance to chat with one of the film's co-directors, Fenton Bailey. When I asked him about the current sad state of nightlife in New York, the charming and gracious director, ever upbeat, expressed optimism. "These things are cyclical," he said. "Don't you worry. Nightlife in New York will be back." We can only hope.

My last night of party-going at the Festival was more in line with the traditional Sundance mold of celeb-studded affairs with heavy industry presence. At the United Artists party at the restaurant Wahso on Main Street, a mob scene was brewing outside, as freezing, would-be guests demanded immediate entry to the swank affair. Inside, I got a chance to chat with Matt Dillon, whose directorial debut City of Ghosts was premiering at the Festival the next day. For someone who was a first-timer at Sundance, the modest and charming Matt seemed cool as a cucumber. Although swarmed by well-wishers and a bevy of leggy blonde hotties who someone later told me were "the Hawaiian Tropic girls" (whatever that means), Matt didn't seem fazed by it all. Way to go, Matt, for keepin' it real!

The United Artists party also doubled as an impromptu celebration for the biggest sale, deal-wise, of the Festival, as earlier in the day UA had nabbed the rights to Pieces of April, a digital feature directed by Peter Hedges (screenwriter of What's Eating Gilbert Grape). Everybody involved with the film seemed ready to par-tay, especially its producer Alexis Alexanian, who, perhaps giddy over the $3.5 million price tag her film sold for, dragged me onto the dance floor as the DJ played Eminem. Also in attendance were Maggie Gyllenhaal, Javier Bardem, Patricia Clarkson, Natascha McElhone, Fran Drescher and Denis Leary.

All in all, Sundance proved to be a tremendously fun time. But what about movies, you ask? Here's my list of the top films I saw during my time at the Festival.

The Cooler, directed by Wayne Kramer. It's a nearly pitch-perfect tale, set in Vegas, about a guy (William H. Macy) who's so down-on-his-luck that he's been hired by a casino for his ability to "cool down" any hot gamblers who come his way. Although this sharp-witted film's got style to burn, what lingers after it's all said and done is the soulful, heartfelt relationship between Macy's character and a past-her-prime cocktail waitress, beautifully played by Maria Bello. Watching these two broken-hearts buck the odds as they learn to find true love in each other's embrace is magical.

Pieces of April, directed by Peter Hedges. In this brilliantly conceived and executed digital feature, writer-director Peter Hedges cooks up a recipe from hell for a Lower East Side tenement-dwelling hipster, April, played by Katie Holmes as she attempts to prepare a Thanksgiving feast for her family who's arriving from out-of-town. The film pulls off the remarkable feat of being both laugh-out-loud hilarious, as we get to watch Murphy's Law take hold over every aspect of April's culinary endeavors, and heartbreakingly poignant, as we come to realize the emotional import of what might well be April's last meal with her estranged and terminally ill mother (Patricia Clarkson).

The Station Agent, directed by Tom McCarthy. Absolutely adored by the audiences who were lucky enough to see this gem of a film, The Station Agent centers around a dwarf, Fin (Peter Dinklage), who wants to live a low-key existence in an out-of-the-way Jersey town where he can spend his time pursuing his own true love: watching trains. As luck would have it, though, two other loners he encounters, a divorcee (Patricia Clarkson) who recently lost her son, and an ice cream vendor (Bobby Canavale) who just won't give up trying to be his friend, slowly force Fin out of his isolation. Simple yet moving, this life-affirming film eschews cheap and gimmicky sentimentality, giving us instead small, priceless moments that mark the growing bonds of true friendship among three unforgettable characters.

Party Monster, directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. A bold, vibrant, and unsparing look at the trajectory of New York club kid Michael Alig's fortunes, the film chronicles Alig's rise, as he transforms himself from a doe-eyed Midwestern kid into the ringleader of New York's nightlife circus, and his eventual fall, as his non-stop, hyperkinetic lifestyle of drugs and partying pushes him over the edge and leads him to commit a senseless killing. Any insights into Alig's troubled psyche aside, the film is best appreciated as a glammed-up, visually stunning, techno-driven, club-culture opera, populated by a cast of larger-than-life characters (including Dylan McDermott as Peter Gatien and Seth Green as James St. James) that epitomized New York nightlife in the late 80s and early 90s. Miscellaneous Observations on the Festival:

Belle of the Ball: What Parker Posey and Christina Ricci were in years past, Patricia Clarkson was at this year's Sundance Festival. Appearing in a whopping four titles at the fest, Pieces of April, The Station Agent, The Baroness and the Pig and All the Real Girls, Patricia picked her roles well. Audiences universally loved her performances, and, to top it all off, the Sundance powers-that-be awarded her its Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Performances on the closing night.

Whackest Party at Sundance: Without a doubt, the Ecko-inspired De La Soul/Talib Kweli show on Thursday night. How corny was this party? Thanks to the short-sightedness of the folks running the door at Harry O's, what would have otherwise been a good hip-hop show was actually populated by an audience of rednecks and Eurotrash. It was just plain unbearable, so I hightailed it over to the United Artists party at Wahso instead.

Funniest Line I Heard During the Festival: Beck, during his gig at the HBO party, chided the crowd of industry folk who wouldn't shut up by saying, "I think I'll wait 'till you've finished up with your conversations before I start my next song." Coolest Item of Swag at the Festival: For those not in the know, "swag" means party favors and gifts, doled out at events, premieres and after-parties. For this year, what was the "hottest" thing a Sundance fest-goer could lay his or her hands on? A $500 iPod, perhaps? Nope. A year-long membership to Crunch? Not by a long shot. A bag full of Lancome cosmetics? Guess again. This year, hands down, the item that all the cool kids wanted was none other than a pack of hearty Station Agent beef jerky. Who could blame them? The stuff is off the hook! My package of beef jerky stayed fresh all Fest-long. It even survived the four-hour flight back from Salt Lake to JFK, and still was moist and chewy. Mmm, delicious!

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