The Sundance Film Festival, which opens Thursday, does not have an annual motto, but if it did the one this year might be “We Hear You.”
Understanding that its frigid Park City, Utah, location makes standing in the festival’s endless lines something only Sgt. Preston of the Yukon might enjoy, Sundance has come up with an electronic system this year that, at least in theory, “allows you to sign up for a wait list number from virtually anywhere.”
Also concerned about the hurt feelings of the wave of rejected filmmakers that the festival’s exclusivity makes unavoidable — the 117 features selected this year are roughly 3% of the 4,057 submitted — Sundance has inaugurated something called “Free Fall: A Day in the Life of Failure,” a day-long series of panels and workshops “designed to embrace failure as essential to risk-taking, innovation and the creative process.” I feel better already.
This feel-good spirit seems to have spread from the festival proper to the surrounding commercial hoopla that turns Park City into a kind of frozen Mardi Gras warmed up with a counterculture splash.
So the discerning Park City visitor can finagle a free meal at the Morningstar Farms Veggie Burger Bar, ogle “influencers” lining up to eat at Udi’s Gluten-Free Table, rubberneck at the annual Sundance Celebrity Charity Poker Tournament, or even participate in a “best beard of the festival” contest sponsored by the distributors of the beard-centric film “Blue Ruin.” Sign me up for that one.
Amid all this excitement, it’s easy to forget that the reason untold thousands gather in Park City is not to compare beards or avoid gluten, but to look at new films of the independent variety. Fortunately for those who do remember, there are any number of good films available to be seen.
In Sundance’s dramatic competition, three of the most involving are driven by especially potent acting by their leading performers.
“Camp X-Ray.” Written and directed by Peter Sattler, this strong film boasts intense, focused performances by Kristen Stewart as a guard in Guantanamo Bay and “A Separation’s” Payman Maadi as a prisoner with whom she forms a tenuous relationship.
“Hellion.” Josh Wiggins convincingly plays the out-of-control 13-year-old of the title, with “Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul as the father with problems of his own in writer-director Kat Candler’s family drama.
“Low Down.” Directed by Jeff Preiss and based on Amy Jo Albany’s memoir of life in on-the-skids L.A. with her father, legendary jazz pianist Joe Albany, this evocative film benefits from actors who never set a foot wrong: Elle Fanning and John Hawkes.
With entrants coming from 37 countries, Sundance is very much an international festival, and memorable films from overseas are part of the package. These include “Calvary,” writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s bleakly humorous reunion with his “The Guard” star Brendan Gleeson, and a rarity even for Sundance, a film from Ethiopia. That would be “Difret,” written and directed by Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, an Ethiopian graduate of USC’s film school who has come up with a powerful film about cultural clashes surrounding an incendiary legal case that is both dramatic and significant.
Existing outside of categories (it ended up in the New Frontier section) but a pleasure to experience is “The Better Angels,” a poetic re-imagining of the Indiana boyhood of Abraham Lincoln that boasts stunning widescreen black-and-white visuals.
Consolidating its position as one of the world’s great documentary showcases, Sundance had more excellent docs than you can shake a stick at. This year a big chunk of them are focused on compelling personalities. Some of the best of these are:
“Finding Fela.” The life of the complicated, charismatic Nigerian singer, creator of Afro beat and voice against tyranny set against the Broadway show it was turned into.
“The Green Prince.” A gripping tale of how a member of the Hamas hierarchy became a spy for Israel’s Shin Bet.
“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.” A smart, passionate doc on the computer prodigy and champion of open access whose tragic suicide and the reasons for it led to an international outcry.
“Life Itself.” A candid look at the life and times of film critic Roger Ebert, the good days and the bad.
Not feature-length but worth seeking out is “Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr.,” for including the most candid, intimate moments you’ll ever hear from the Oscar-winning actor who is the artist’s son.
The other main doc theme this year, as always, are films that cluster around society and social issues. Some of the most memorable this year include:
“The Case Against 8.” An engrossing and emotional examination of the way the case against California’s anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 was put together.
“Dinosaur 13.” The inside story of how a Tyrannosaurus rex named Sue turned the world of paleontology upside down.
“Happy Valley.” A thoughtful, surprising and devastating film that looks beneath the surface of the Jerry Sandusky Penn State child abuse scandal.
“Last Days of Vietnam.” An accomplished examination of the logistical and moral dilemmas of our exit from Vietnam.
“Marmato.” Made with exceptional artistry and detailing what happens when a major Canadian firm comes to a small Colombian town that’s been mining gold its own way for 500 years.
“The Overnighters.” A small North Dakota town becomes ground zero for the fracking gold rush. A film about hope, acceptance and the limits of the American dream that will throw you for a loop.
Finally, there are a pair of unclassifiable docs that just make you feel good for completely different reasons. “Alive Inside” shows the almost miraculous effect music has on catatonic dementia sufferers, and “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is a rollicking tale of how an independent baseball team spread joy in 1970s Portland, Ore. Enjoyment can be hard to find at Sundance, so take it where you can.