LOS ANGELES — Sundance endures. Unlike the snows that routinely smother the mountain town of Park City, Utah, and then melt away, unlike the minor celebrities who gorge on gifting suites only to fade into oblivion, the Sundance Film Festival — now in its third decade — stubbornly remains.
Yes, surface changes will happen. This year, the underappreciated New Frontier multimedia installations have moved to a new location at the Yard, and the old Park City Racquet Club venue has morphed into something called the MARC (Municipal Athletic & Recreation Center) Theatre. And there are always new, eccentric branding opportunities — take the Bertolli Meal Soup Chalet, for instance.
Still, Sundance remains the premier U.S. destination for the kind of personal, idiosyncratic films that for want of a better term have always been called independent.
Most of the films here, having been made far outside the studio system, are in search of distributors. Typically, a few high-profile titles are snapped up by buyers ahead of the festival, but this year, by happenstance, none of the 15 films in Sundance’s premiere section, nominally the home of the festival’s highest-profile entries, have come into Park City with a distributor.
One premiere that shouldn’t have any trouble in that department is the unexpectedly delightful “Robot and Frank,” set in the future and starring an impeccable Frank Langella as an aging man living alone. His children feel he needs the help of the UGC-60L, a home care robot. Initially resistant, Frank finds the gifted robot has skills that rekindle his interest in his unusual former line of work.
Another film with a mild sci-fi element is the dramatic competition title “Safety Not Guaranteed.” It’s about what happens when a sarcastic journalist (Aubrey Plaza) investigates an earnest young man (Mark Duplass) who advertises for a partner to travel back in time with him, “safety not guaranteed.” Managing to be tart and romantic, oddball and heartfelt, this is a wistful, amusing film with something on its mind.
Another dramatic competition highlight is the latest film by the gifted writer-director So Yong Kim (“Treeless Mountain”). “For Ellen” stars a hard-edged Paul Dano in one of his best performances as a self-absorbed hipster-rocker who has to make hard choices about the young daughter he barely knows. “For Ellen” is a quiet film, never in a hurry, but Kim has such mastery of emotional and psychological mood that we are enthralled.
A trio of other films in the competition benefit from strong leading performances: Gina Rodriguez as a smart and angry young rapper in “Filly Brown”; Common as a charismatic ex-con trying to stay on the right side of the law in “LUV”; and Britt Robertson and Dylan O’Brien as irresistibly appealing high school sweethearts in Jonathan Kasdan’s “The First Time.”
Though it’s often neglected by the media, the world dramatic competition always has potent films. One of the most entertaining this year is the Australian “Wish You Were Here,” a crisply commercial psychological thriller starring Joel Edgerton about how bad things that happen on a Cambodian vacation don’t necessarily stay in Cambodia. Also worth a look is Argentina’s “The Last Elvis,” about a top Elvis impersonator (a splendid John McInery) facing a crisis in his life.
What Sundance veterans really know is that dollar-for-dollar, documentaries are the festival’s best bets. Four of the best this year benefit from exceptional access to some personalities:
“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”: A look at the remarkable life and philosophy, observed over three years, of the man called “the most powerful artist in the world” because of how he transitioned from art-world issues to broader social issues by taking on the government of China.
“Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present”: Compelling insights into the world of a drop-dead fascinating individual, the transgressive performance artist is observed as she prepares for and participates in the Museum of Modern Art show that will transform her career.
“The Queen of Versailles”: Lauren Greenfield’s candid and disturbing new film about a couple who attempted to build the largest house in America.
“The Imposter”: A truly disturbing film about how a European man managed to pass himself off as a teenage boy from San Antonio who had disappeared from his family three years earlier.
Also engaging on warmer personalities are “Ethel,” a profile of Ethel Kennedy by her youngest child, Rory, that provides a sense of what it means to be in that family, and “Love Free or Die,” a look at Episcopalian Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in Christendom.
Musical personalities include the story of “Searching for Sugar Man,” about how forgotten singer-songwriter Rodriguez became the toast of South Africa even though he was presumed dead, and “Under African Skies,” Joe Berlinger’s examination of how Paul Simon’s trip to South Africa to record “Graceland” became political dynamite.
Issue-oriented docs are also a staple at Sundance, and the best of that group is Kirby Dick’s incendiary “The Invisible War” about rape in the military. Also involving is “Big Boys Gone Bananas!*,” about how corporate giant Dole Food Co. played hardball with a vengeance when director Fredrik Gertten’s previous film, “Bananas!*” came out. And then there is the wonderfully titled “The Law in These Parts,” a detailed and nuanced look at how Israel constructed a legal system for the occupied territories and had to face the reality that “order and justice don’t always go hand in hand.”
Sundance isn’t the only film game in town in Park City this week though — there’s the concurrent Slamdance fest too. This year, two of the strangest documentaries in all of Park City are playing at Slamdance: “Buffalo Girls” introduces the bizarre world of child boxing in Thailand, while “Wild in the Streets” investigates a chaotic British sport called mass football that features a 1,000-year-old conflict that might be the oldest sports rivalry on Earth.
Back in Sundance, “Room 237” is as strange as they come. It presents the theories of obsessive moviegoers who see in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” all manner of hidden and sinister meanings. When one of these viewers says, “it’s certainly not accidental,” it’s time to head for the hills.