Here's a question: What film festival, set in a small but prosperous ski town, is about to screen more than 100 feature films and play host to two members of the Weather Underground, a Thai prince, Francis Ford Coppola and cult hero/cartoonist Harvey Pekar?
It has to be Sundance, and not just because of the skiing.
In the two decades-plus of its existence, the Sundance Film Festival, which opens Thursday night with "Levity," Ed Solomon's expertly crafted parable of forgiveness and redemption, has become the global destination of choice for films that may not have anything in common except that they don't necessarily fit anywhere else.
The more Sundance has provided a home for the huddled masses yearning to be screened, the more the masses have pounded on its door, especially in this age of kids-try-this-at-home digital filmmaking. There were a record 2,012 submissions for this year's 16 dramatic and 16 documentary competition spaces. Competition for the 90 shorts slots was equally intense: 3,345 entrants came in, way up from 2,100 of just a year ago.
Even Sundance's longtime Park City rival Slamdance has felt the rush. Returning to its traditional Main Street haunts after an ill-advised foray to an abandoned mine last year, Slamdance had 2,800 submissions for its 16 feature slots. That event opens Saturday night with "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," an excellent and energetic documentary based on Peter Biskind's bestseller about Hollywood in the 1960s and '70s.
Determined to cope with this unrelenting deluge of features and the audience that comes to look at them, Sundance is constantly fine-tuning its systems. This year, the festival has not only thought up some new ticket packages (including the Adrenaline Pass for screenings before 10 a.m. and after 10 p.m.), it has also transformed its ugly duckling Holiday Village triplex into a presumably swan-like group of four complete with stadium seating.
Sundance is also trying, via some almost poetic program copy, to turn one of its more chilling experiences, the wait-list ticket line, into something of an adventure: "Imagine -- you're standing in line with as many as 100 other people all anxious to see the same film. It's cold. Someone goes for coffee. The idea spreads. You talk to people from all over the world. The energy builds. Then they let you in! You'll have your own stories to tell." You heard it first here.
Sundance has also repeatedly come up with fresh categories for its ever-increasing number of films. New this year is the World Documentary group, nine films coming from countries ranging from Denmark ("The Purified," an intimate look at the Dogma 95 movement) to China and Brazil. One of the best of the group, and probably one of the best docs in the festival, is "Balseros," a compelling Spanish film about Cuban boat people that, like a multinational "Hoop Dreams," follows its subjects for seven years, from their raft-building days in Havana to the stranger-than-fiction outcome of their stories in the United States.
Even with all these sections, some films still fall into the catchall "Special Screenings" rubric. Here can be found "Legend of Suriyothai," considered the most ambitious Thai film ever made (70 horses! 80 elephants!), directed by Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol and executive-produced by Coppola, who helped cut its three-hour, five-minute Thai length to a more manageable two hours, 22 minutes.
Some things about Sundance will always remain the same, starting with its decision to benignly ghettoize films with recognizable (to indie audiences, at least) names into the Premieres section. Among the anticipated films debuting here are "Owning Mahowny," with Philip Seymour Hoffman starring as a compulsive gambler under the direction of "Love and Death on Long Island's" Richard Kwietniowski; Frank Pierson's based-on-fact Showtime drama "Soldier's Girl"; and "Masked and Anonymous," directed by TV's Larry Charles, with Bob Dylan in a key part.
The dramatic competition is, as usual, occupied by films that are largely unknown quantities. Some of those exciting advance interest are "All the Real Girls," written and directed by "George Washington's" David Gordon Green; "American Splendor," based on the life and work of cartoonist Pekar; and "The United States of Leland," with actor Ryan Gosling returning to the festival where he's triumphed in both of the last two years, with "The Believer" and "The Slaughter Rule." Not in competition but still perhaps worthy of note is "Detective Fiction," being promoted as "the first Minnesota-made film to be featured in the prestigious showcase for independent film."
The documentary competition, as always, looks to be especially tasty. Probably more by accident than by design, a significant number of these films deal in different ways with what happened in the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s.
From a strictly biographical point of view there is "Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin" and "Bukowski: Born Into This." Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer's "Rustin" is a potent and persuasive piece of historical rediscovery. It restores Bayard Rustin, the fearless pacifist and unequaled organizer behind 1963's March on Washington, to the pivotal position in civil rights history he lost when he was marginalized because of his open homosexuality.
As for Bukowski, though he was active as a poet and provocateur for many decades, his international fame began to take off in the 1970s. John Dullaghan's comprehensive film takes a close look at this avatar of rage against the machine, both through talking to admirers like Bono and Barbet Schroeder and with selections from numerous interviews with the man.
A pair of involving films look at the recent past through the lens of group biography. Robb Moss' "The Same River Twice" intercuts original 16-millimeter footage of an often-unclothed 1978 group boat trip down the Colorado River with contemporary footage showing where five of those people are today. And the affecting "The Boys of 2nd Street Park," inexplicably not in the competition, details the same time period and more through the recollections of a group of candid and voluble Brooklyn childhood friends.
Taking an explicitly political point of view is "The Weather Underground," directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel. It uses news report footage and current interviews with several members of the group (two of whom, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, will be at the festival), to offer a thoughtful, incisive examination of how and why this militant radical faction blossomed and died.
Finally, it's not only Slamdance's "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" that examines filmmaking in the '70s; Sundance has the reflective, articulate "A Decade Under the Influence," co-directed by Richard LaGravenese and the late Ted Demme, covering the same period. The two films complement each other nicely, making us realize how much today's American independent movement in general and this festival in particular owe to what's come before.