Sundance 2011: The six biggest stories of this year’s festival


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As the last publicists, filmmakers and reporters made their way out of Park City, Utah, on Sunday and turned the land back over to its rightful owners (snowboarders and ski bums), we decided to take a look back at the 11 days just passed at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Six storylines had risen to the top. (Well, a few others did too, but six has a nice ring to it.) Here they are, in no particular order:

The cultists. This may well be remembered as the year cults and their leaders became a Sundance fixture. Two highly buzzed-about, if very different, films put a cult front-and-center: Sean Durkin’s flashback-happy ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ cast Elizabeth Olsen as a woman who seeks to escape the psychological clutches of a charismatic but murderous leader, while Zal Batmanglij’s ‘Lost'-like ‘Sound of My Voice,’ about a cult figure (Brit Marling) who may or may not be from the future, provided some of the most well-received storytelling of the festival. Both movies will have a cultural impact beyond Park City -- ‘MMMM’ will get a major release from Fox Searchlight, and the second could well end up as a television pilot and subsequent series, according to the movie’s representatives.


Rebirthing. It may not be the most talked-about current-events documentary to come out of the festival (that honor probably belongs to Morgan Spurlock’s ‘The Greatest Movie Ever Sold’). But when the festival fades into history, time could well show that the 9/11 movie ‘Rebirth’ -- which will be a part of the national 9/11 museum and will likely get theatrical and television distribution too -- as the Sundance product with the longest reach. First-time filmmaker Jim Whitaker spent nearly a decade dealing with the messy emotional business of people who lived through, and with, the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. His movie looks to be a factor for even longer than that.

Tickle Me Emo. At Sundance 2010, ‘Blue Valentine’ took the pining and emotional shoe-gazing pretty deep; this year’s ‘Like Crazy’ takes its story of lovers divided by an ocean a level deeper. Whether or not Drake Doremus’ drama becomes a hit when it’s released by Paramount this year, it already seems bound to usher in a new round of sensitivity in independent-film circles. And much like ‘An Education’ did for Carey Mulligan at the festival two years ago, ‘Like Crazy,’ which won two major prizes from the jury, heralds the arrival of a young British actress (in this case, the vulnerable, young Felicity Jones).

The actress bounty. In addition to Jones, the festival broke out two new actresses who will book big gigs and may well end up in award conversations down the road: the aforementioned Olsen and Marling. Each actually starred in two Sundance movies that could make a box-office dent (Olsen in the thriller ‘Silent House,’ which will come out from Lionsgate, and Marling in the sci-fi drama ‘Another Earth,’ which will come out from Fox Searchlight). Last year, the actress discovery was essentially a group of one: Jennifer Lawrence of ‘Winter’s Bone.’ This year, it’s a Jones-Olsen-Marling hat trick.

Nim’s Island and the Land of OWN. We’ve known for years how strong Sundance is in the documentary category (Kenneth Turan runs down some of the notable ones at this year’s festival). James Marsh’s ‘Project Nim’ was one of the standouts about a group of scientists trying to play god with a chimp (the movie will air on HBO and get a big theatrical release from the company that released ‘Winter’s Bone’). Spurlock’s ‘Greatest Movie Ever Sold’ will get a similarly big theatrical push. And Sundance documentaries will be at the fore even further with Oprah Winfrey’s new network, OWN, which has purchased a slew of docs that played the festival, including the warmly regarded Chastity Bono sex-change film ‘Becoming Chaz.’

Hoisted sales. It may seem like little more than executives congratulating themselves for sales jobs well done, but beneath the blizzard of numbers and business proclamations is a very real consequence for filmgoers. Sometimes festivals are about seeing a movie once; those unable to catch it at the fest are unlikely to see it. Not this year. Nearly two dozen movies got distribution deals and will be available for viewing on some platform, many in real theaters. That’s in addition to the group of films that came in with distribution deals in place. Get ready for Sundance all year round. -- Steven Zeitchik