THERE are times when the drama offstage at the Sundance Film Festival overshadows what is happening on screen, and 2006 is shaping up as one of those years.
This is the 25th anniversary of the Sundance Institute, dedicated to "encouraging individual artists to tell their stories their own way," and it should be the best of times for the institute's festival, which opens in Park City, Utah, on Thursday night with the premiere of Nicole Holofcener's "Friends With Money."
For one thing, independent submissions are through the roof: The hard-pressed selection staff looked at 3,148 features, up from last year's 2,613, as well as more than 4,300 shorts. For another, indie-style films such as "Brokeback Mountain," "Capote" and "Good Night, and Good Luck" are dominating the awards season as never before. This roaring success, however, has also brought unwanted attention and aggressive commercialization to the independent world. Through no fault of its own, Sundance has become Mardi Gras North, a celebrity magnet and party destination for people with zero interest in watching films, independent or otherwise.
Hoping to capitalize on all that buzz, publicists for all manner of pricey brands and "lifestyle clients" show up in increasing numbers to set up shop at the festival. Intuition, which insists it is "Hollywood's hottest boutique," rents space on Main Street to display its wares; the humble town lift center turns into the elite "VIP hub" known as the Village at the Lift; and even the perennial, once-casual Queer Brunch party now has a "presenting sponsor."
One way to cope with this mania for marketability and market share is to throw yourself in the opposite direction, to be as aggressively anti-commercial as possible in the festival's centerpiece event, the dramatic feature competition. Which, judging from what festival toppers told the trades when the Sundance slate was announced, is exactly what has happened.
Calling this year's event "as independent as it's ever been," festival director Geoffrey Gilmore underlined the fact that "there can be no confusion between the films we're showing and anything the studios would have even considered making." Added director of programming John Cooper: "Usually, we get our information from normal sources -- producers, sales reps and agents. But a lot of this festival's lineup will be unknown even to them."
Filling the dramatic selection with uncompromisingly unknown directors with sketchy real-world prospects certainly makes the festival happy. And some of these films, for instance "Half Nelson," starring the always compelling Ryan Gosling as an urban public school teacher, are of quality. But as an overall philosophy, whether this attitude makes the competition pure or just purely unwatchable remains at least for now an open question.
As always with Sundance, those looking for even slightly familiar names will have better luck in the slimmed-down Premieres section. Perhaps the very best of these is writer-director Holofcener's terrific opening-night film. A exquisitely calibrated hypermodern comedy of manners starring Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener and Frances McDormand as L.A. best friends, this is a quietly devastating knockout punch about love and life in the city's Westside from someone who knows the territory intimately.
Among the other strong premieres are:
* "Art School Confidential," Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes' amusingly mordant examination of what it takes to succeed in the world of fine art;
* "The Darwin Awards," Sundance vet ("Cherish") Finn Taylor's genial off-center comedy starring Joseph Fiennes and Winona Ryder as investigators looking into the stupid ways some people die;
* "Kinky Boots," an extremely pleasant British diversion about the effect a drag queen played by Chiewetel Ejiofor has on a traditional shoe factory in staid Northampton;
* "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," Jonathan Demme's masterful concert film focusing on the rock veteran's recent concert in Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.
Demme's film is only one of numerous efforts in the festival that deal with the world of popular music. These include "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man," an involving tribute -- part concert film, part biopic -- to the Canadian singer-songwriter, and " 'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris," focusing on an elusive singer's singer, the vocalist of choice for many jazz greats, and his enigmatic career.
The Paris film is in the documentary competition selection, always the destination of choice for Sundance cognoscenti. Two of the strongest documentaries this year deal with the situation in Iraq from very different points of view. "Iraq in Fragments," both poetic and reality-based, focuses on three Iraqis to show us what the country feels like on the ground. And the quietly unflinching "The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends," is a thoughtful film of how we prepare our troops to kill and what that killing does to them.
Other potent documentaries in the competition include:
* "God Grew Tired of Us," which follows three Sudanese "lost boys" as they try to adjust to life in the U.S.;
* "small town gay bar," which takes us inside gay bars in remote parts of Mississippi that function as accepting safe houses for their patrons;
* "Thin," photographer Lauren Greenfield's agonizing and unsparing look at patients at a residential center for women with serious eating disorders;
* "The Trials of Darryl Hunt," a powerful story of a miscarriage of justice that kept a black man in prison years after DNA testing cleared him of any crime;
* "Wordplay," one of the competition's more genial entrants, looking at the happy life of puzzle guru Will Shortz and his devoted following.
(The irrepressible Slamdance, which debuted "Mad Hot Ballroom" last year after Sundance turned it down, has also become a documentary mecca, accepting nine out of more than 500 films submitted. Two of the best focus on unusual aspects of Japan: "The Great Happiness Space -- Tales of an Osaka Love Thief" takes us into the unusual world of bars where women hire young male hosts for emotional support, while "Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story" tells of a young Japanese girl randomly plucked off the street by North Korean spies.)
Always attentive to improving its organization, Sundance performed a much-appreciated streamlining of its slate by combining American Spectrum and Special Screenings into the noncompetitive Spectrum section. Aside from Bent Hamer's Cannes success "Factotum," a dead-on evocation of the world of Charles Bukowski costarring Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor, some of the best of this group are also documentaries. These include "Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon," a convincing examination of how cultural divides cause problems in even the smallest of towns; "Who Needs Sleep," Haskell Wexler's uncompromising look at the movie business' inhuman working hours, and "Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner," Oscar winner Freida Lee Mock's intimate portrait of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and the sources of his creativity. Also worth looking at in the world documentary competition is "KZ," an unexpected meditation on Holocaust memory and forgetting set in the concentration camp town of Mauthausen.
All the preliminary fussing notwithstanding, the thing you can say for sure about Sundance is that handicappers have a good chance of getting it wrong.
The festival invariably ends up both better and worse than anyone anticipated. That's why we go to Sundance year after year, to see what the films have to say to us.