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Critic's Notebook: Whatever Sundance is, it has fine documentaries

There are many ways to look at this year's Sundance Film Festival, but one reliable trend is great true stories told on screen. Here are some to watch.

January 16, 2013|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Peter Mayhew, technical director of the Egyptian Theatre, shovels snow off the marquee before the start of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Peter Mayhew, technical director of the Egyptian Theatre, shovels snow… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

The 2013 edition of the Sundance Film Festival opens Thursday night, but if you think a consensus has formed about the nature of this year's event, you would be wrong.

While the Hollywood Reporter said the main story is a lineup "heavy on big names from the film and television worlds," Daily Variety provocatively insisted "Sex Drives 'Dance: Park City slate stocked with frisky fare."

This paper has noted that in the competition, fully half of the narrative features were made by women, while the New York Times claimed that the Utah festival, "known for championing dark and inscrutable films, has unveiled an unusually accessible — and sellable — competition lineup."

PHOTOS: Sundance Film Festival 2013 - Dramas in competition

For Sundance veterans, this lack of consensus is the consensus, and is in fact business as usual for a festival that has made itself into the one-stop shopping destination for all shapes and sizes of independent-minded features and documentaries. Cynics insist that Sundance has been contaminated by success and commercialism (and an independent study said last year's 10-day event brought $80 million to Utah). But no one can doubt the bar for filmmakers remains exceedingly high: This year's 119 feature-length films were selected from more than 4,000 submissions.

The festival has attempted to level the playing field by placing the films with the most recognizable names in its out-of-competition Premieres section. This is where "Breathe In," the excellent new film by Drake Doremus starring Guy Pearce, Felicity Jones and Amy Ryan, finds itself.

Doremus, who won the grand jury prize two years ago with "Like Crazy," returns with a haunting, delicate film about what happens to a marriage when a high school exchange student arrives for a visit. The subject may sound familiar, yet the treatment is anything but.

SUNDANCE: Full coverage

Also in the Premieres section is another return, that of director David Gordon Green, who comes back to his independent roots after some major studio adventures and misadventures like "Pineapple Express" and "Your Highness." His "Prince Avalanche" is a deadpan pleasure starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as non-buddy buddies trapped together for a summer, painting lines on deserted stretches of Texas highway.

Completely different in sensibility is "Circles," a taut Serbian film in the world dramatic competition. It carefully leads us through several interlocking stories that circle around the aftermath of a terrible event that shattered lives during the collapse of Yugoslavia.

One of the standouts in the dramatic competition is Ryan Coogler's based-on-fact "Fruitvale," where intimate camera work and fine acting draw us surprisingly deeply into the final hours of a young man whose life ended at an Oakland BART station on the last day of 2008.

Similarly low-key, effective and grounded in reality is "Blue Caprice," which works off of the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., area.

PHOTOS: Sundance 2013 - Premieres

As always with Sundance, the documentaries are the most reliable choice festivalgoers can make. The best of these include:

"After Tiller." An unexpectedly emotional examination of the moral steadfastness of the four American physicians who continue to provide late-term abortions after the murder of Dr. George Tiller.

"Gideon's Army." Profiles of some beleaguered but passionate public defenders in the South, including one man who tattoos, on his back, the names of the clients whose cases he's lost.

"God Loves Uganda." An exposé of how evangelical fundamentalists are using Christianity to demonize homosexuality in this African country.

"Google and the World Brain." A whip-smart examination of the pros and cons of Google's desire to digitize every book on Earth.

"Inequality for All." Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich is a supremely entertaining economic guide as he lets us know why having the 400 richest Americans earn more than the entire bottom half of the economy is a greater problem than you may think.

"The World According to Dick Cheney." Veteran documentarian R.J. Cutler details how Cheney became "the most powerful vice president in history," and extensively interviews a man singularly free of self-doubt who believes it is more important to be successful than loved.

PHOTOS: Films looking to sell at Sundance

Several of this year's top Sundance docs connect to narrative dramas already in theaters. "Manhunt" puts on camera some of the determined but often ignored women whose work as CIA analysts inspired "Zero Dark Thirty," and the gripping and revelatory "Blackfish" uncovers the reasons behind orca attacks like the one in the Marion Cotillard drama "Rust and Bone."

Saved for last are some of my personal favorites:

Alex Gibney's thoughtful, incisive "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks."

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