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Sundance Film Festival: This year's must-see movies

December 2, 2009 |  1:11 pm

SundancesignStory Independent cinema may be enduring one of its rockiest periods in years, but you'd hardly know it to look at today’s announcement of Sundance competition films — as good a barometer for the state of the business as any. On paper at least, the slate is filled with high-profile directors and stars taking on some of the juicier subjects of their careers. Of course, the operative phrase is “on paper” — Sundance films have a way of raising expectations before the festival only to deflate them later. And keep in mind, at this point, pretty much only the filmmakers and festival programmers actually have seen these movies. Still, based on a host of elements (credits, scripts, etc.), here’s a quick take on 10 films — five scripted features and five documentaries — to keep your eye on. 

Feature films

“Sympathy for Delicious” — Mark Ruffalo has long been a fixture on the screen in Park City. Now he’s also a force behind the camera. The indie darling (who also stars) will be at the fest with his directorial debut, a dramatic tale of a deejay who becomes injured and subsequently enters the world of faith healers. Those who follow Ruffalo’s career will remember that this is a project he put off after his brother’s tragic death. A story like this can be very execution-dependent, but if nothing else, the film has probably the best title at this year’s festival.

“Hesher” — Natalie Portman is exactly the kind of actress one wants to see in Park City: a prodigious talent who's gone on to tent poles now returning to her indie dramatic roots. That Rainn Wilson and emerging star Joseph Gordon-Levitt round out the cast is only a nice bonus. They star in a story about a family that meets a possible shaman after suffering a tragedy, in what will be one of the most paparazzi-laden films playing in competition.

“Blue Valentine” — Four years ago, Ryan Gosling dazzled Sundance crowds with his portrayal of a drug-addled teacher in “Half Nelson.” He’s back this year with a film about a different kind of potentially difficult circumstance — a marriage — starring opposite Michelle Williams in Derek Cianfrance’s drama about relationships’ rocky roads.

“Son of Babylon” — Filmgoers are so accustomed to seeing movies about Iraq from non-Iraqi filmmakers, it will only be refreshing to see a movie from someone who comes from the region. Not much is known yet about Mohamed Al Daradji’s drama about a Kurdish grandmother and grandson looking for their son/father’s remains across the troubled Iraqi landscape, but the timeliness factor alone should make this one worth checking out.

“Holy Rollers” — Ecstasy? Hasidim? Smuggling rings? This high-concept dramatic thriller — young ultra-Orthodox Jew becomes drug smuggler — could be one of the most novel finds of the festival ... or an ambitious misfire.


“Lucky” — When he last followed around real people, Jeffrey Blitz was entertaining us with colorful portrayals of overachieving prepubescents. This time, the director of the spelling-bee gem “Spellbound” takes on subjects blessed by a different kind of gift, as he chronicles those fortunate — or unfortunate — enough to win the lottery. Something tells us that after seeing this one we’ll all think twice about praying on that Lotto ticket.

“Waiting for Superman” — He won’t have the, er, star power of Al Gore this time around, but documentary talent Davis Guggenheim — who directed environmental jeremiad “An Inconvenient Truth,” which premiered in Park City in 2005 — will again take on a tricky public-policy issue in “Waiting for Superman.” This time it’s the U.S. education system that has Guggenheim going, with a movie whose structure may be slightly Michael Moore-ish (in a good way): Guggenheim tracks everyone from students to teachers to reformers in his indictment of educational dysfunction.

“I’m Pat ______Tillman” — As President Obama prepares to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, one of the most acclaimed documentarians around takes a look at one of the most well-publicized casualty in the Central Asian conflict. Amir Bar-Lev, the filmmaker who took on art and child-rearing in the 2007 stunner “My Kid Could Paint That,” examines the death of Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals safety who enlisted in the Army and was later killed in Afghanistan. Originally categorized by the U.S. military as a hero who died in the line of battle, Tillman is slowly revealed by Bar-Lev to have been killed under far murkier friendly-fire circumstances.

“Enemies of the People” — Victim-perpetrator stories can be the most powerful of indie film tales — look at last year’s Liam Neeson IRA drama “Five Minutes of Heaven.” This year will bring a real-life story along similar lines with “Enemies of the People,” Rob Lemkin's and Theth Sambath's story of a Cambodian man whose family was killed by the Khmer Rouge and his odyssey to uncover and become friends with the people who committed the "killing fields" atrocities. It probably won’t be easy to watch, but then, important films rarely are.

“Casino Jack: The United States of Money” — As Bar-Lev offers his own exploration of events in Afghanistan, Alex Gibney, who brought another death in the region to light with the 2007 Oscar winner “Taxi to the Dark Side,” tackles a new complicated subject. The acclaimed filmmaker (he also was behind the business expose “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) returns to Sundance with the story of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the tangled web he wove. Given the subject and the filmmaker, expect a hard-hitting truth-to-power story that is as colorful as it is startling.

-- Steve Zeitchik

Photo credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times