This year, the most talked about film of the festival didn't walk away with the main prize.
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1 Feb 2011 - 11:39 AM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2014 - 3:00 PM

SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: The end of Sundance is never really the end: The first major film festival of the year, its breakouts will be pinballing around in festival land through the spring, many ultimately popping up on the real world's release schedule. This year was not only no exception but quite exceptional: In terms of sales this was the best Sundance ever—nearly 30 films have been picked up so far. As deals broke journalists on the ground scrambled to add films to their schedules, and as the awards were announced over the weekend, regret for having missed this or that dark horse set in.

Perhaps the biggest upset among Sundance's notoriously generous array of awards (not everyone's a winner, but it feels pretty close) was the Grand Jury Prize for a dramatic film going to Like Crazy, a film described by one of my former colleagues as “Blue Valentine lite” and by the uncharmed as just another somber-sweet indie about young people in love. I can't imagine the wonderful Anton Yelchin (who co-stars with newcomer Felicity Jones) being involved with anything even close to cloying, and clearly the jury, which included critics, filmmakers, and… Matt Groening was smitten.

The upset was not so much about Like Crazy itself but the expectations attached to Martha Marcy May Marlene (pictured), writer/director T. Sean Durkin's unsettling, elliptical story of a young woman emerging from a Manson-like cult. Despite having a title that was nearly impossible to remember, MMMM was the talk of the festival from day one, and each screening seemed to compound its chances. I couldn't wait in a press or ticket line (and I waited in many, many of them) without hearing chatter about the film and its title character, played by Elizabeth Olsen—the unlikely younger sister of the Olsen twins. Shot by rising star Jody Lee Lipes (the cinematographer behind last year's indie success story, Tiny Furniture), the film relies heavily on atmosphere and the negative space Durkin builds into his story.

A willful lack of backstory leaves Martha's reasons for running off into New York's Catskills unknown (a major complaint from other critics, it didn't bother me too much). Durkin moves back and forth between the young woman's time on a twisted commune run by the reliably creepy John Hawkes and the asylum she seeks at the swishy Connecticut home shared by her wary sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy's even warier husband (Hugh Dancy).

As far as they know Martha disappeared for two years to start a new life with a boyfriend, which in a way she did. This boyfriend, however, deflowers every young woman who stumbles onto his commune in a horrible, vaguely Mormon ritual, and works to brainwash them into total submission. Lucy is increasingly baffled by Martha's queer, traumatised behaviour, and Martha slips into what is either a state of paranoia or real danger. Durkin, who appeared after the screening I attended, said that most important outcome of developing the film at the Sundance Institute was the boost in confidence it gave him to tell the story his way. That confidence certainly comes through in the film's structure and the shaping of Olsen's magnetic performance, though to me the extent of the ellipses felt more like a cheat than an effective choice. Durkin didn't leave Sundance empty-handed: Along with a distribution deal he was awarded with a directing prize.

The competing films, of course, are the focus, but I have to admit one of the most impressive things I saw at Sundance didn't involve a screening room. A fair number of the people I knew at the festival were not there as journalists, industry players or even avid filmgoers—no matter what they said—but as fledglings of various stripes. I was skeptical about what kind of advantage an aspiring artist might gain in a festival setting; then I watched my roommate put a movie together in a matter of days. A writer who completed his first original screenplay a month ago, he came to Sundance to make things happen.

His ace in the hole was the movie star who had recently bought the rights to one of his books. The movie star was also attending, and he and his manager were considering my friend's request that he play a smaller role in his recently completed script, which he had decided to direct as well. Phone calls and emails flew around our little HQ, and meetings were hooked up—via a well-connected friend—with potential producers. Meetings and phone calls seemed to be the point—part of an elaborate mating ritual foreign and a little baffling to writers.

The insanely well-attended afterparty for the movie star's premiere was my friend's green light Rubicon: If he could get the star to commit, he knew the rest would fall into place. He and I were caught up in the tight, slow-swirling orbit that formed around the movie star the moment he walked in. I broke off but he kept moving toward the room's irresistible gravitational center. When they finally did collide, the usual shouty, swaying party conversation ensued. At some point my friend went for it, asking for a commitment even as a prominent documentary filmmaker, every proper movie star's sidekick, trapped them in her lights and began rolling.

Everyone's attached to something in Hollywood, but I think I witnessed the moment my friend got attached to Hollywood itself. A shouted YES from a movie star in a wig amid a terrifying crush of people and suddenly things were serious: the producers wanted to meet again and talk contracts; the lawyers wanted to hold out for bigger numbers; the ingénue wanted to meet for sushi and tell him about her eating disorder. It happened at Sundance. See you next year!