LOS ANGELES — Every year the story is the same: Sundance satisfies and disappoints in equal measure, depending on how you look at it.
It disappoints because the spirit of this film festival is uncompromisingly messianic, determined to persuade you that each and every film it shows is a wonder of the age. Maybe, but maybe not.
That passion extends to the proliferation of awards, which in this year’s Saturday night ceremony in Park City, Utah, threatened to reach astronomical proportions. Twenty-eight were handed out that night, not to mention the previously announced Alfred P. Sloan prize for science and seven awards for shorts. It’s not like everybody wins, but it feels that way.
The inevitable reaction to all this exuberance is more often than not to shrug and feel slightly let down. Though it is unintentional, the point the festival ends up making is how great the distance is between an acceptable film and one that completely satisfies.
But on the other hand, Sundance boosterism notwithstanding, it is surely unrealistic to expect that all of the roughly 200 features and shorts put on view every year are going to be memorable. What is surprising is not only how many do succeed, but how wide a swath of the cinematic spectrum they cover.
For in an age when the studio system is narrowing its focus and ignoring the adult audience whenever possible, the range of Sundance films has gotten wider and wider. The festival may have started as a tiny wedge of the movie world, but now it’s a universe in and of itself, and one that is so attractive to so many people that the Park Record newspaper reported that the event generated nearly $71 million in economic impact in 2011.
Though there were too many of them, a look at the ways the Sundance awards were distributed points this out, with prizes going to films that had very little in common except for the fact that Park City is where they all ended up.
On the one hand you have Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a vibrant, phantasmagorical piece of work about a 6-year-old girl in a remote Louisiana bayou that is both wonderfully strange and strangely wonderful. It is also such a classic high art festival film that everyone predicted it would win the U.S. drama grand jury prize, and, for once, everyone was right.
At the other end of the spectrum is “Middle of Nowhere,” winner of the U.S. drama directing prize for Ava DuVernay. This is classic filmmaking of a completely different sort, a satisfying taste of old-school social realism that focuses on real people with recognizable emotions in its story of what happens to a wife when her husband is put behind bars.
Also notable in an old-school way, though it didn’t win anything, is “Shadow Dancer,” a drama about the troubles in Ireland directed by James Marsh, best known for the documentaries “Man on Wire” and “Project Nim.” With his eye for what makes a good story, Marsh crafted a convincing drama that generates considerable tension.
Somewhere between these two poles are a pair of charmingly quirky, offbeat prize-winners with a science fiction bent. The Frank Langella-starring “Robot and Frank” took a share of that Alfred P. Sloan prize, while “Safety Not Guaranteed” won the prestigious Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for Derek Connolly.
Sundance also found room in its heart for the festival’s unapologetic crowd-pleasers, understandable winners of the audience award in their respective divisions. The strongest examples this year are the John Hawkes-Helen Hunt “The Surrogate,” in which a man paralyzed by polio determines to lose his virginity, and the documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” about the way-unexpected twists and turns of a singer’s career.
Documentaries, especially of the muckraking variety, are another Sundance specialty. “The House I Live In,” Eugene Jarecki’s take on the war on drugs, took the U.S. grand jury prize, and it was especially satisfying to see “The Invisible War,” Kirby Dick’s gripping look at rape in the military, win the audience award in that category.
Even winning documentaries about serious subjects, as it turned out, come in a wide variety of styles. “Chasing Ice” is a true visual stunner, taking the cinematography award by following photographer James Balog as he records the disintegration of the world’s glaciers. And Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s splendidly named “The Law in These Parts,” winner of the world doc jury prize, manages to make an examination of the serious, complex subject of Israel’s legal system for the occupied territories as compellingly dramatic as one of the vintage Westerns that inspired its title.
Because they are so difficult to see elsewhere, Sundance has always extended its welcome to shorts, and one of the most memorable this year, winner of a jury prize as well as an Oscar nomination, is Lucy Walker’s unforgettable “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom,” a look at the aftermath of the 2011 Japanese disaster that emphasizes the way “beauty and terror always exist in nature.” A festival with room for a film like this has to be given the benefit of the doubt.