"How was Sundance?" a friend emailed me when I got back from Utah. "I continue to hope that you were surprised, delighted and never bored."
Up to a point, I replied, up to a point.
For the truth about the Sundance Film Festival, which gave out dozens of awards Saturday night, is that it's inevitably a mixed bag, where excitement combines with frustration in a particularly Park City way. Those of us who return every year do so because we believe in Sundance's independent mission, and just enough small wonders appear to keep us hooked.
In terms of the dramatic films it features, Sundance remains the nonpareil launching pad for tiny films that would never reach maximum altitude otherwise. Without the heat generated by this festival, there is no way last year's Grand Jury Prize-winning "Beasts of the Southern Wild" would have gotten anywhere near four Oscar nominations this year, including one for best picture.
Similar good things may be in store for "Fruitvale," written and directed by 26-year-old USC film school grad Ryan Coogler, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and the audience award for U.S. dramatic film and will be distributed by the Weinstein Co.
Made with assurance and quiet emotion, this unexpectedly devastating drama based on the real-life 2009 shooting of an unarmed young black man at an Oakland-area Bay Area Rapid Transit station impressed everyone as the work of an exceptional filmmaker. As jury member Tom Rothman, a former top executive at Fox, put it in presenting the award Saturday night, "This will not be the last time you guys walk to a podium."
Sundance also excels at putting a spotlight on noteworthy dramas whose commercial prospects are not overwhelming. These include Randy Moore's audacious "Escape From Tomorrow," shot sub rosa at Disney World and Disneyland and presenting the theme parks as the most sinister places on Earth, and Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color," which won a special jury award for sound design for the writer-director and Johnny Marshall.
Carruth's first film since "Primer" won the Grand Jury Prize in 2004, the formidably elliptical "Upstream Color" is equal parts incomprehensible and enticing, a visionary film you'll be willing to give yourself to completely even though full understanding is out of the question.
Though it is human nature to focus on the positive stuff, the downside at Sundance is ever-present. Given how few slots the selection committee has to fill (119) and how many films apply (more than 4,000), the sameness of those chosen from year to year is disheartening.
With picks made so much to particular tastes, it almost feels as if programmers are filling specific, pre-ordained slots. Want an arty neo-Terrence Malick effort? Select "Ain't Them Bodies Saints." Looking for an unremarkable family comedy that will make a big sale? Program "The Way, Way Back." And so on.
Always in oversupply at Sundance are coming-of-age films set during the teenage years. They were so thick on the land this time it made one perversely wish for a Sundance that banned, even for a year, any films in which the protagonists hadn't graduated from college. Just saying.
As problematic as the dramatic films can be, that's how spectacular the documentaries are at Sundance, which is looking more and more like the best doc festival in the world.
It was no accident that two of the first films bought for distribution in Park City were a pair of irresistible documentaries. Nick Ryan's compulsively watchable "The Summit" (which took a doc editing award) related the tale of an expedition to K2, the second-highest peak in the world, in which 11 people died, while "Twenty Feet From Stardom," Morgan Neville's appealing look at rock 'n' roll's premier backup singers, features powerhouse vocals from the likes of Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer.
This year both the Grand Jury Prize and the audience award in U.S. documentary went to Steve Hoover's inspirational "Blood Brother," about a young American who moves to India to look after orphan children infected with HIV.
As always, the spectrum in documentary was most impressive. The range went from "Interior. Leather Bar," co-directed by Travis Mathews and James Franco, which combined involving conversations about gay sexuality with hard-core performance footage, to "Anita," Freida Mock's thoughtful, reflective look at what happened to Anita Hill after she put a human face on sexual harassment by testifying in the Clarence Thomas hearings.
Year in and year out, some of the most exciting things I see at Sundance aren't on any theatrical screen but rather part of the always-invigorating New Frontier installations at the Yard exhibition space. This year was no exception. Curated as always by Shari Frilot, 2013's installations were presented under the rubric of "The Pixilated Pavilion," an exhibition that promised to "immerse our physical bodies within moving image environments." It did that with a vengeance.
One of the most involving installations was "Eyjafjallajokull," which used a painting and artfully projected light to offer a mesmerizing re-creation of the erupting Icelandic volcano that created so much trouble with European airline schedules in 2010. You don't have to pronounce it to enjoy it.
Best of all was "Coral: Rekindling Venus," a 45-minute film created by artist Lynette Wallworth. Viewable in a purpose-built full dome that held only 10 people at a time, all lying flat on their backs, "Coral" used spectacular footage shot on Sony HD to take us deep under the ocean's surface as seals frolic and coral pulsates all around us. As close as we're going to get to feeling we're in a James Cameron submersible, "Coral" is immersive cinema at its most spectacular, and another reason to value Sundance. Even when it makes us crazy.