The Sundance Film Festival, which sets up shop in Park City, Utah, on Thursday, is more than a festival, it's a delicate balancing act. This is an institution that walks the line between two competing notions of what a celebration of cinema should be, straddling as best it can a gap that is especially evident this year.
What Sundance is eternally caught between is the Scylla and Charybdis of commerce and art. Its proximity to Hollywood and its success at premiering audience-friendly independent films (for instance, last year's "An Education" and "Precious") have led to perennial charges that the festival is not pure enough, not devoted enough to the strictures of high art that it was supposedly created to enforce and encourage.
You can easily see why Sundance worries. There is a big-business aspect to a festival that last year had 40,000 visitors and an economic impact for the state of Utah of $92.1 million. Not to mention the cachet of being held in a party town that, filling a need no one previously knew existed, recently opened what's been called "the nation's first ski-in, ski-out distillery."
But to anyone who actually goes to Sundance and sees the films, those charges don't make a lot of sense. Year in and year out, the festival -- especially the dramatic competition section -- is overloaded with undeniably non-commercial (and not necessarily artistic) films that don't have a prayer of getting a theatrical release. But the accusation of worshiping Mammon is such a feared one that this year's program guide fairly shouts on the cover, "This Is Your Guide to Cinematic Rebellion."
And John Cooper, the festival's new director, has not only said all the right things about not being "swayed by the marketability of a film," but he also has done away with the tradition of an official opening night film. He also has launched two new sections, one directed at art and the other, recognizing the Sundance inevitable, toward popularity.
The section called NEXT is devoted to films made with very little money that are meant to epitomize "creative risk-taking."
Spotlight, on the other hand, repurposed and renamed from the old Spectrum, will among other things show films that have proved popular at other festivals. Here can be found Jacques Audiard's knockout "A Prophet," the most universally admired film at Cannes, as well as the Italian "I Am Love," a rich family drama that is both a sensual celebration of bourgeois pleasures and a showcase for Tilda Swinton.
As always at Sundance, it's the documentaries that are the most consistently rewarding films on view, and some of the best come from veteran doc filmmakers whose work will be familiar to fans of the genre.
In the documentary competition section, one of the strongest entries is "12th and Delaware," co-directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, who earlier did "Jesus Camp" and "The Boys of Baraka." Set on a particular corner in Fort Pierce, Fla., it casts a heart-rending light on the abortion divide by looking inside both an abortion clinic and the anti-abortion center that sits directly across the street.
In the world documentary section, one of the best is the new work by Brazil's José Padilha, who did the excellent "Bus 174." His complex, shattering "Secrets of the Tribe" examines the effects that waves of cultural anthropologists have had on the Yanomami Indians of the Amazon basin, a society that had been totally isolated from nominal civilization.
Barely more than an hour in length and made for ESPN's "30 for 30" series, Dan Klores' "Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks," the story of the clash of NBA civilizations in the 1994 and 1995 playoffs, is minute for minute likely the most engaging, irresistible film in the festival. Another real-life situation well-told is "Smash His Camera," Leon Gast's film about photographer and celebrity antagonist Ron Galella.
Documentary veteran Lucy Walker ("Blindsight," "Devil's Playground") has not one but two excellent docs in the festival. "Countdown to Zero" is a chilling be-very-afraid examination of the threat that rogue nuclear weapons pose for the world, while "Waste Land" is a surprisingly heartening look at how an unexpected dose of fine art and personal respect changes the lives of people who recycle trash in Brazil's enormous Jardim Gramacho landfill.
A surprising number of the best Sundance documentaries have to do with armed conflict zones in southern and central Asia. These include:
"The Tillman Story": Even if you know the story of how the U.S. government tried to spin the friendly fire death of this NFL star-turned-Army Ranger, you will be disturbed and saddened by this gripping film, which explores Pat Tillman's iconoclastic personality and his family's tenacity in rooting out the truth.
"The Oath": Two brothers-in-law go to work for Osama bin Laden; one ends up in Guantanamo, the other as a taxi driver in Yemen. An intricate, human story, subtly directed by Laura Poitras, which offers a rare glimpse into the mind of a committed, articulate jihadist.
"Bhutto": The history not just of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto but also of her star-crossed family and the Pakistan their lives revolved around. Lively, thorough and involving.
"Restrepo": An up-close-and-personal look at the 15 months one Army platoon spent in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, one of the deadliest places on Earth. An examination of men at war that puts us in the middle of the tedium, the chaos, the danger of being in a combat zone.
Also well worth mentioning is the singular "Space Tourists," an elegantly shot, almost surreal look at elements and offshoots of the Russian space program, including how $20 million got an American businesswoman shot into space.
Not in Sundance at all but playing at the rival Slamdance Film Festival is "Mamachas del Ring," a bittersweet excursion to the world of Carmen Rosa, a feisty Aymara Indian pro wrestler from Bolivia who enters the ring in full skirts and petticoats but finds that her toughest battles are against society and her husband.
On the dramatic side of things at Sundance, one of the most affecting movies is the pitch-perfect "Please Give," a character-driven story about relationships in Manhattan that beautifully demonstrates writer-director Nicole Holofcener's great gift for making incisive films that illustrate the way we live now.
In the actual dramatic competition, several films are worth noting, starting with "The Dry Land," which stars Ryan O'Nan. Its not unfamiliar story of an Iraq veteran's difficulty readjusting to civilian life is elevated by writer-director Ryan Piers Williams' gift for working with actors to create credible characters.
Also involving are "Howl," which features a strong performance by James Franco as poet Allen Ginsberg; the decidedly offbeat "Douchebag" (hands down the festival's most off-putting title), director Drake Doremus' follow-up to "Spooner," which underlines his gift for detailing the lives of the socially maladroit; and the lively "Holy Rollers," a kind of "Hasids Gone Wild" that details how Jesse Eisenberg's pious Orthodox youth becomes a drug smuggler and gets in over his head in a world of hot clubs and hotter women. Gevalt!
Foreign dramas are always a strong area for Sundance, and one of the most potent this year is "Animal Kingdom," the accomplished first feature by Australian writer-director David Michod. A brooding, intensely macho, almost operatic crime story that pits a young man against his trio of criminal uncles, this primal tale manages to feel both artistic and commercial. Which makes it kind of the perfect film for this eternally conflicted festival.