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.