No breakout, plenty of originality at Sundance

Competition rife with pics from promising filmmakers

More Sundance coverage

PARK CITY -- Celebrating its somewhat artificially created 25th anniversary, the Sundance Film Festival began each screening this year with a series of interviews with Robert Redford, Sundance organizers and famous alums that have been fun to watch.

One thing you notice is that many interviewees tend to remember a particular year in terms of its breakout film. So 1989 was the year of "sex, lies, and videotape," 1995 was "The Brothers McMullen" and, while no one said it, I remember 2003 for "American Splendor."

Unless something extraordinary happens in the final two days, no one is going to associate a single title with 2009.

What festgoers encountered this year along with unusually mild weather were, in my opinion, an encouragingly large number of films that were solid entertainments and introduced talented filmmakers whose works -- like those of Steven Soderbergh -- should continue to delight and provoke for years to come.

I say "in my opinion" because not all my colleagues agree. Perhaps I caught a break in my personal screening schedule.

What I liked about the dramatic competition features I did see was how thoroughly professional they were. Not slick, mind you, just the work of people unprepared to make excuses for shoddy photography, editing, acting, you name it.

Cherien Dabis' "Amreeka" and Cruz Angeles' "Don't Let Me Drown" make remarkable companion pieces, not necessarily because of any thematic connection -- though one could argue that the struggles of Palestinian immigrants in the Midwest and Latino immigrants in New York in the post-9/11 world are linked -- but rather because both emerged from the Sundance Labs that take place 20-some miles from Park City.

That mentoring process certainly has elevated the game in the dramatic competition. The complexities in each story and the depth of the characters given to actors of widely varying experience show that some smart, professional people helped these relative newcomers. This is not to take anything away from the makers' talent: They simply benefited from these consultations and workshops.

Max Mayer's "Adam," about a fumbling romance between a young man with Asperger syndrome and a "normal" woman, avoids disease-of-the-week cliches while focusing on a man fighting against his own brain, even trying to retrain that brain, so he stands a chance at a human connection.

Among other strong entries in competition, my Reporter colleagues cite "Toe to Toe," "Arlen Faber" and "Sin Nombre."

In other areas, the opening-night film, Adam Elliot's "Mary and Max," featured extraordinary clay animation, the second such film in recent months coming out of Australia, following the little-seen "$9.99."

Premieres were the usual mixed bag.

Carlos Cuaron's "Rudo y Cursi," purchased even before the festival began, was a big hit, and many are enthusiastic about Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's "I Love You Phillip Morris." Pete Travis brilliantly deceives you into thinking his talky political film "Endgame" actually is a thriller.

Congratulations to everyone involved with Antoine Fuqua's "Brooklyn's Finest" on the first sale at Sundance this year. The film does have an audience, but it's hard to imagine any cop movie filled with more cliches, not to mention an ending that brought snorts and laughs. Forget what you heard about the film playing well here: Walkouts were constant, and that polite applause at the end is Sundance's equivalent of Cannes' catcalls and whistles.

More than a few films in the festival, including Soderbergh's "sneak preview" of "The Girlfriend Experience," featured fractured narratives. My colleague James Greenberg has an interesting take on this, which I will repeat here.

Despite what Redford says, Greenberg insists, there is such a thing as a "Sundance movie," and many directors are trying to figure out what that is. He cites Marc Webb's "500 Days of Summer" as a "perfectly pleasant and enjoyable film looking for that 'Juno' formula with quirkiness built in.

"That film and (Jay DiPietro's) 'Peter and Vandy' are at heart love stories that try to be something more by scrambling the time frame and chopping up the narrative. It works, but it's kind of a gimmick; you can almost see the calculation behind it. Whereas a film like (Lone Scherfig's) 'An Education' isn't trying to be anything -- it knows what it is, and it's original."

There was a lot of originality at Sundance 2009, and perhaps for that it will be remembered.