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Sundance Film Festival always a grand surprise

Screenings of films like John Michael McDonagh's unorthodox 'The Guard' and Morgan Spurlock's Hollywood satire 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold' showcase Sundance at its risky best.

January 29, 2011|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

Reporting from Park City, Utah — — Who would have thought a 50-ish Irish backcountry cop with a midsection as thick as his brogue and a toxic tongue would become the talk of the Sundance Film Festival this year? And yet that's exactly what "The Guard" has done, with its crime-solving, politically incorrect iconoclast — played by the brilliantly understated acting veteran Brendan Gleeson — the invention of writer-director John Michael McDonagh in his feature film debut.

Or that a hauntingly improbable sci-fi love story of parallel universes and mind-bending possibilities would make overnight sensations out of its writer-director and co-writer-star? But Mike Cahill's "Another Earth," starring co-writer Brit Marling, had heads turning and everyone talking. As did Elizabeth Olsen's performance as the cult escapee in Sean Durkin's drama of a damaged life, "Martha Marcy May Marlene."

But that's exactly what Sundance is supposed to do — toss in the fresh fish and see if they sink or swim. My guess is that last year no one came to Park City wondering if there would finally be a comedy about two lesbian moms, the kids and a sperm donor dad either. And then everyone saw "The Kids Are All Right."

It's the unexpected that you hope for, and if anything has characterized the festival this year, it's the sheer brio that has come along with it. Sundance has been filled with films that swim like salmon against the commercial tide — to the death, or a deal if they're lucky. The result has been a string of black comedies dark enough to make many squirm; sharply satiric, dramatic and critical digs at everything from faith, to death, to commercialism; fearless examinations of gender politics; and wide-ranging worldviews. Here's a mini-tour of what made my head spin at the festival:

Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock brought his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-Hollywood documentary-satire on product placement in "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold." Using irony and transparency, he takes shots at the big bucks game of product placement, all while selling off spots to his own movie. See Ralph Nader having a good time. Oh, and memo to VW, next time you say "No" to a documentary filmmaker, best not to put it in writing.

In the serious nonsense category there was the sheer fun of Paul Rudd in "My Idiot Brother," and the rich sacrilege of Greg Kinnear in "Salvation Boulevard," two of the more commercial movies here. Both actors play throwbacks of a kinder-gentler sort. Rudd is a back-to-the-land hippie with an unconditional love for all things living that wreaks havoc and plays to Rudd's facility for doing good guys exceptionally well. Kinnear is a former Deadhead saved by a mega-church ministry headed by Pierce Brosnan's Pastor Dan in the irreverent murder mystery. Both are cases of better roles that actors often find in indie films.

"Like Crazy," a bi-continental love story, has the corner on quirky in that "(500) Days of Summer" way. Which means it doesn't exactly fit into a traditional romantic-comedy niche either visually or thematically, but depends on charm, smarts and an audience's willingness to go with the flow that director Drake Doremus ("Douchebag") has created. Its stars, Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones, couldn't be more appealing as they sort through their issues, green card and otherwise.

Documentaries, in the Sundance tradition, served up a powerful mix, with "How to Die in Oregon" and "Buck" typical of the range — diametrically different in tone but equal in humanity. The former examines Oregon's death-with-dignity law from the human and humane perspective, the other is an endearing portrait of the real horse whisperer, a life lived with dignity.

There was a lot of difficult ground uncompromisingly covered by filmmakers. Actor Paddy Considine's brutal but striking writing-directing debut in "Tyrannosaur," is a hard-to-take, impossible-to-forget redemption story built on the bruised bodies of women, dogs and children. "Another Happy Day," a black-as-night comic tragedy starring Ellen Barkin and directed by Sam Levinson (Barry's son), picks through the debris of a difficult divorce years after the fact, its pain overrun with tears, its laughter cuttingly harsh.

Significant gay and transgender films emerged that reached across the aisle to all. Especially intriguing was Dee Rees' "Pariah," about a Brooklyn teen trying to reconcile her sexuality with a family in denial that is warm, incisive and surprisingly funny, and "Gun Hill Road," with Esai Morales as a recent parolee struggling with his son's transgender life with a remarkable Harmony Santana in the role.

That's just a slice of the nearly 200 films that made it into the festival, an eclectic bunch. It made for an upbeat festival even if the buying has not been as brisk as some would hope. And though a few of the performances might make it, no one narrative film seems likely to break into next year's Oscar race as Sundance standouts have this year. But then, that should never be the measure of success here; one of the great virtues of Sundance is that it takes the risks, so that Hollywood doesn't have to.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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