The Sundance Film Festival is like Los Angeles (in fact, for 10 days Park City, Utah, really is LA, plus snow). Each year you think it can't possibly get any more congested and shallow, yet it does. This is largely the fault of umpteen opportunists (people who set up celebrity gifting lounges! Paris Hilton!) who show up to exploit the enormous and indiscriminate media spotlight.
But the festival must also share blame, its original "purity" having given way to a marketplace and red-carpet zone often barely distinguishable from the entertainment mainstream. This year found such personalities representing indie cred as U2, Robert De Niro, and Mary-Kate Olsen. Media attention invariably goes to the most high-profile films for which folks like Josh Hartnett and Tom Hanks suffer pay cuts for art's sake which almost invariably disappoint. Ultimately unwanted and unloved this year were such big-noise entries as The Deal (William H. Macy, Meg Ryan, and LL Cool J ... together at last!) and What Just Happened? (De Niro, Bruce Willis, Sean Penn), both soft satires of that kwazy industry.
There was the ongoing curse of the Sundance selection that plays like a moderately quirky cable flick, this time encompassing The Last Word (Winona Ryder and Wes Bentley), Smart People (Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker), The Year of Getting to Know Us (Jimmy Fallon and Lucy Liu), and so forth. There were literary adaptations (of Chuck Palahniuk's Choke and Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh), each easier to take if you hadn't read the book; sophomore slumps (Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock's Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?, aptly described in the Sundance catalog as "a Happy Meal of a documentary"); and the usual cases of festival acquisition fever likely to look less all that in the sobering light of theatrical release. Principal examples: American Teen, a heatedly bid on doc that smells as manipulated as an MTV reality show (in fact some MTV staff told me so), and Hamlet 2, which is Waiting for Guffman plus Dead Poets Society minus about 45 percent of the laughs that description would lead you to expect. Fifty-five percent ain't bad, but is it worth Focus Feature's $10 million?
Of course, there were plenty of good movies at Sundance. Nonfiction cinema is usually where the most quality is concentrated, this year being no exception. There was an astute appreciation of Hunter S. Thompson (Gonzo) and one of Derek Jarman. Anvil! The Story of Anvil paid fond tribute to a Spinal Tapish Canadian '80s metal band that refuses to quit even though it probably ought to. On the "my movie, my self" tip, Christopher Bell's Bigger, Stronger, Faster was a funny, surprisingly sympathetic look at steroid use, while Londoner Chris Waitt's A Complete History of My Sexual Failures made autohumiliation hilarious.
On the fiction front, there was less to get excited about The Wackness was yet another teen-angst exercise, albeit a good one, with Ben Kingsley cast more or less as Dennis Hopper. Tuvalu director Veit Helmer's Absurdistan is definitely the German Azerbaijani Lysistrata whimsy of the year. But only one film at the festival knocked my socks way off: Half Nelson makers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's Sugar, about a Dominican Republic pitcher's culture shock when drafted into the United States minor leagues. I don't even like baseball but this movie is the rare kind so enjoyably right that after a while you find yourself grinning like a fool from sheer pleasure.