Now in theaters: a slimmed-down Sundance Film Festival

[15 January 2009]

By John Anderson

Newsday (MCT)

With “Wall-E” poised for a best picture nod, and greater Hollywood rotating like a sunflower toward the warm profitability of the cartoon, what does it mean that the Sundance Film Festival has booked its first-ever animated opening-night film?

It means that the 25-year-old festival (depending on how you count) continues to be one of the most important U.S. film events of the year and, as such, has film fans poring over its schedule like rabbinical students scouring the Talmud.

Despite ups, downs and an expected drop in attendance in Park City, Utah (likely because of economics rather than any rumored boycott over Mormon support of the Proposition 8 gay-marriage ban), Sundance continues to nurture head honcho Robert Redford’s baby - independent cinema. To that end, the festival kicks off Thursday with “Mary and Max,” an Australian Claymation feature about the friendship between two unlikely pen pals (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette). “M and M” continues a long Sundance tradition: open with a foreign film that won’t infuriate Utah’s ultraconservatives, and for the next 10 days, go culturally hog wild.

A sure-to-be-outrageous entry is “We Live in Public,” a documentary by Ondi (“Dig!”) Timoner and a study of dot-comer Josh Harris’ experiment in Internet living. As Timoner shows us, Harris and a group of confederates - and, later, just his girlfriend - lived in an artificial society where everything they did was video-streamed onto the Web.

Less audacious, we presume, is Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland,” starring Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg. “It’s based on the summer of ‘84,” writer-director Mottola said when he was starting the project, “when my parents still lived in Dix Hills (N.Y.) and I worked at the amusement park in Farmingdale. It may be shot in Pittsburgh, because Long Island is too expensive.” In fact, it was shot in Pittsburgh.

As usual, Sundance will provide a wide enough range of products not to let itself get nailed down. “Reporter” is Eric Daniel Metzgar’s nonfiction account of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s travels in the Congo, and a study of foreign correspondency in general; “Tyson” is director James Toback’s portrait of the troubled boxer. Comedian Bobcat Goldthwait directs Robin Williams in “World’s Greatest Dad,”

Chris Rock studies the meaning of “Good Hair” and Lone Scherfig (“Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself”) steers a script by Nick (“About a Boy”) Hornby through the coming-of-age drama “An Education.” Denmark’s gleefully transgressive Nicolas Winding Refn (the “Pusher” trilogy) goes inside the big house with “Bronson.”

And what’s sure to be among the most extraordinary films of the year, “Myanmar VJ,” builds on the work of guerrilla cameramen in Myanmar, risking their lives to capture the protest by monks in Rangoon, and the subsequent crackdown by the country’s junta.

So, as usual, Sundance will be a little this, a little that, with thousands of tourists rubbernecking on Main Street, straining for a glimpse of combustible celebrity. Don’t tell them, but it’s a lot more interesting - and warmer - in the theaters.

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