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The Sundance Film Festival: A snowy crystal ball into...so much

January 21, 2010 | 12:35 am

No event on the movie calendar has been more often used as a barometer of the cinematic climate than the Sundance Film Festival; over the years (and sometime in the same year), the annual Utah gathering has been invoked to show the strength and weakness of U.S. filmmaking, of U.S. film buying and of U.S. filmgoing, among other areas.

Sund This year promises even more temperature-reading than usual, in part because of the festival's new leadership (John Cooper and Trevor Groth have stepped into lead programming roles after Geoff Gilmore departed) and because of an indie film-world that now seems to exist, like the U.S. economy, in a state of semi-flux.

All these points and more are being noted by observers around the entertainment-journalism world, as well as here at the Los Angeles Times. In his preview piece, critic Kenneth Turan makes the point that Sundance's is a festival slate hardly as explicitly commercial as the "has the festival sold out" camp would have you believe.

Big Picture's Patrick Goldstein examines Pablo Escobar's story finally making it to a film festival that doesn't appear on "Entourage." And Calendar's Word of Mouth offers a piece with John Horn and yours truly about distributors combing the post-midnight screenings for the next "Paranormal Activity."

We'll be handicapping the films and their distribution prospects -- and generally blogging all things Sundance -- in this space over the coming days, for both those sitting right in the middle of and far away from the snowy precincts of Park City.

In the meantime, a couple of other points come to mind as film industry types prepare to descend on the mountains of Utah. For all the hand-wringing about the indie world, fully three movies that premiered at the festival last year became viable economic betts, if not cultural phenomena -- "Precious," "An Education" and "(500) Days of Summer." Others, like "Big Fan," "Humpday" and "The Cove," were gems that will only gain supporters over time.

This year also brings the festival back to its roots, at least in some ways, as both the star-driven and the dramatic make a comeback. The films that fit into both categories are numerous: the John Wells-directed "The Company Men"; the Natalie Portman vehicle "Hesher" (see Mark Olsen's story here); Mark Ruffalo's directorial debut, "Sympathy for Delicious"; the Philip Seymour Hoffman directorial debut "Jack Goes Boating"; the Ryan Gosling-Michelle Williams romantic drama "Blue Valentine," the Annette Bening and Julianne Moore child-parent drama "The Kids Are All Right" and the James Gandolfini-Kristen Stewart drama "Welcome to the Rileys,"

Of course the most hyped movies don't always make the biggest Sundance splash. Which is why it's usually worth keeping an eye on as many of the potential hidden gems, including a screwball Danish-Korean comedy called "The Red Chapel," an intimate drama (inaptly) named "Douchebag" and an offbeat dramedy titled "The Extra Man," which comes from the filmmaking team behind the cult breakout "American Splendor" and is based on a book from the oddball  Jonathan Ames to boot.

To make matters richer, and schedules more complicated, a veritable all-star line-up of documentary filmmakers in Jeffrey Blitz, Dan Klores, Amir Bar-Lev and Davis Guggenheim -- each of whom has had landmark film at Sundance in the past -- come back with new work.

Of course, by the time the festival is over, it may be that many of the movies highlighted here will have come and gone quietly, while others will loudly have taken their place. That will show the independent film world's strength, weakness and everything in-between.

--Steven Zeitchik

Photo: A cowboy on Main Street, Park City, Utah. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times


 
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