As you read this, I'm in midair en route to the Sundance Film Festival, which always gets the year in movies off to a sudden and clattering start, just as we're all semi-recovered from the holidays. This year at least I'll spare you my traditional whining about the deep-freeze weather -- at the moment, the weekend forecast for Utah's Wasatch Range is for sunny skies and temps in the mid-40s. That's a hell of a lot nicer than it'll be back home in New York.
Sundance kicks off on Thursday night with the premiere of an Australian claymation film called "Mary and Max" (featuring the voices of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette), and if that sounds like an odd opening-night selection, well, I suspect we're in for an odd festival. For obvious reasons, this year's celebrity quotient should be dimmer, the "gifting lounges" of Main Street should be fewer and tamer, and you'll be reading few if any stories about late-night bidding wars breaking out over previously unknown films.
I have to confess to some ambivalence about all this. Of course Sundance had gotten pretty ridiculous in the early 2000s, and repeated examples have proved that dazzling elite audiences in the rarefied air of Park City means exactly nothing to actual paying moviegoers. (Last year's highest-priced acquisition? "Hamlet 2." The year before? "Son of Rambow.") It was gratifying to see the festival come back to basics in 2008, when most of the better films were frankly uncommercial and many of the packaged wannabe-indie hits (e.g., "What Just Happened," "The Deal," "The Year of Getting to Know Us") fell completely flat.
This year's lineup actually looks terrific, at least on paper, and by recent Sundance standards, not especially downbeat. (Maybe now that civilization as we know it really has gone down the tubes, there's less reason to worry.) Head programmer Geoff Gilmore and his staff have assembled a healthy roster of Indiewood name-brand premieres and intriguing new dramas, along with the expected lineup of excellent documentaries. I've said this before, but over the last three or four years, with the Wall Street-funded indie boom gradually fading and now totally gone, Sundance has become an outstanding festival for documentary premieres, and a hit-and-miss, overstuffed event when it comes to narrative features.
Still, when Sundance was at its apogee, something else rode shotgun with the free facial tonics and Zunes and sunglasses given away on Main Street, with every random sighting of Eli Manning or Eliza Dushku. That other thing was the sense that Park City was a place where the Zeitgeist, corrupt and faux-profound as it might be, was being created. Now it's just the first and most important American film festival of the year, rather than an all-consuming, all-media event held in extremely cold weather. Even the cold, it appears, has been downsized for 2009.
I'll check in Friday with my first report from Sundance. What follows is the usual personal guesstimation of what looks most exciting and newsworthy on this year's Park City agenda, which may or may not bear any relationship to what I think after I actually see them. (I have seen two films mentioned herein, "The Cove" and "Burma VJ.") Sadly, I did not make room on this list for the zombie film "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead," which premieres in the bratty kid-sister fest Slamdance (whose function, never clear to begin with, is now truly puzzling). I'm merely following the arbitrary and exception-riddled "Snakes on a Plane" rule, which dictates that any movie with a truly ingenious title is disproportionately likely to suck rocks.
So here are 10 dramas and 10 documentaries, drawn willy-nilly from both the Premieres section, which showcases semi-major films likely to find wide release, and the various Sundance competitions, which generally spotlight lesser-known pics seeking distribution. See you on the sun-kissed slopes!
"Brief Interviews With Hideous Men" In one of those cases of eerie good-bad timing, writer-director-actor John Krasinski's adaptation of an especially dark David Foster Wallace short story reaches the marketplace a few months after the author's suicide. You may know Krasinski as Jim Halpert on TV's "The Office," but advance word here is that he's crafted an ingenious dark comedy. Julianne Nicholson stars as the jilted anthropologist who convinces male members of the species to come clean about their dark secrets; co-stars include Krasinski, Bobby Cannavale and Ben Shenkman.
"Brooklyn's Finest" The last time Ethan Hawke and director Antoine Fuqua got together, the result was 2001's "Training Day," one of the great hard-boiled cop movies of recent American vintage. So why not an encore? Both have bumbled around the industry not quite fulfilling their potential in recent years, and a gritty police drama in the Borough of Kings might be just the ticket. Hawke, Richard Gere and Don Cheadle star; the veteran supporting cast includes Wesley Snipes and Ellen Barkin.
"Cold Souls" It's another of those movies with a name actor playing himself! This time, we're someplace in the near future and struggling theater actor Paul Giamatti (uh, Paul Giamatti) has his soul frozen -- only to see it stolen and sold to a soap-opera actress in Russia. I really have no idea what to think. Directing debut from Sophie Barthes co-stars Dina Korzun, David Strathairn, Emily Watson and Lauren Ambrose.
"Humpday" High-concept dude-humor movies finally scale the Berlin Wall of homo-ness! Well, OK, let's face it, they all do that, but some are more sub-rosa than others. (And then there's always "Chuck and Buck.") Writer-director Lynn Shelton -- a chick, naturally -- is the brains behind this one, which stars Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard as one-time college buds, both hetero, who end up daring each other to make a porn film. As in, them making it together. Without other participants. I hear it's both hilarious and squirm-inducing. Has "indie sleeper hit" written all over it.
"I Love You Phillip Morris" One of the most-buzzed big-name premieres at Park City, this farce from "Bad Santa" writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa stars Jim Carrey as a married Texas cop turned outrageous gay con man, who meets the love of his life (Ewan McGregor) while in prison. That's right, ladies and germs -- this movie features Carrey and McGregor, complete with tasteful clothes and silly haircuts, snogging like maniacs.
"The Informers" Ready for a Bret Easton Ellis vision of L.A. decadence in the early '80s? You know you are. Nothing on this year's list has quite the hype factor of this adaptation of Ellis' novel, directed by Gregor Jordan and starring Billy Bob Thornton, Kim Basinger, the suddenly hot Mickey Rourke and the inevitable Winona Ryder as its ensemble of rock stars, newscasters, Wilshire Boulevard doormen and associated degenerates.
"Rudo y Cursi" Mexican superstars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna have their first big-screen reunion since "Y Tu Mamá También" in this comedy from Carlos Cuarón (brother of Alfonso Cuarón, who produces). They play a pair of low-wattage banana-ranch workers whose dream of soccer stardom and attendant riches comes true in unlikely fashion after they're discovered by a talent scout.
"Sin Nombre" This teen-gang thriller set in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands marks the feature debut of young American writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga, who's been the film world's Next Big Thing for what seems like half a decade. What's the hype about? Purportedly this noir-inflected drama, shot entirely in Spanish with nonprofessional actors from Central America, is a prodigious blend of style and storytelling, complete with an epic freight-train action sequence.
"Spread" Let's not oversell this; I'll just give you the ingredients. Ashton Kutcher as a Hollywood gigolo, Anne Heche as his affluent middle-aged client, and an underappreciated British director (David Mackenzie of "Asylum" and "Mister Foe") with a tremendous sense of style. That should do it, right? We're good on this one? Hot damn.
"Spring Breakdown" If you want the perhaps-overcooked-high-concept comedy of the fest, try this one on. Amy Poehler, Parker Posey and Rachel Dratch as a trio of pushin'-middle-age homebodies who don their wet T-shirts, down some Jell-O shots and join the spring-break revelry on South Padre Island, Texas. Does director and co-writer Ryan Shiraki's latest sound like "Old School" for gals? Yes, it does. But I don't mean that in a bad way.
"Art & Copy" Come to think of it, it's amazing that nobody's made a major documentary about the advertising business before. Are some phenomena just so powerful and ubiquitous we stop thinking about them? Now acclaimed doc-maker Doug Pray goes inside the ever-revolutionary world of post-'60s advertising, profiling such legendary figures as Doug Wieden ("Just do it"), Hal Riney ("It's morning in America") and Cliff Freeman ("Where's the beef?") and inquiring where the boundaries lie between art, salesmanship and brainwashing.
"Big River Man" This Crazy Human Tricks doc focuses on Slovenian-born long-distance swimmer Martin Strel, an overweight wine-guzzler in his 50s who swims the entire length of major rivers -- the Mississippi, the Danube, the Yangtze -- in his worldwide anti-pollution crusade. Director John Maringouin follows Strel's quixotic effort to swim all 3,375 miles of the Amazon while battling piranhas and crocodiles, floating raw sewage and his own deteriorating mental and physical condition.
"Burma VJ" An exciting look inside one of the world's last closed nations, "Burma VJ" follows the inspiring and ultimately agonizing adventures of a band of guerrilla reporters known as the Democratic Voice of Burma as they brought the world footage of a 2007 uprising led by Buddhist monks and students against that nation's military dictatorship. Danish director Anders Ostergaard compiles DVB's shaky hand-held footage into a narrative with the rhythm of drama and the undeniable adrenaline-pulse of reality.
"The Cove" In the years since training TV's Flipper (actually two different female dolphins), Ric O'Barry has become the globe's leading activist against dolphin captivity. "The Cove" captures O'Barry's extraordinary "Ocean's Eleven"-style raid on a secluded cove in the small Japanese coastal city of Taiji, where hundreds of dolphins are captured and sold every year -- and thousands more are gratuitously slaughtered. Louie Psihoyos' elegiac and enraging film connects the impotence of international bureaucracy, the bizarre cultural nationalism of Japan, the poisoning and decimation of the world's oceans, and the evidence that we are cruelly mistreating an intelligent and self-aware fellow species.
"Good Hair" The film's title comes from a question posed by comedian Chris Rock's daughter: "Daddy, why don't I have good hair?" With director Jeff Stilson, co-writer Rock leads a tour through the history and cultural significance of black hair -- with stops to interview Ice-T, Kerry Washington, Maya Angelou, the Rev. Al Sharpton and others -- in search of a way to answer his little girl's question.
"The Queen and I" Filmmaker Nahid Persson Sarvestani is an Iranian exile who has lived in Sweden since her teen years, when she was driven out of Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran as a young Marxist revolutionary. Farah Pahlavi is exiled from Iran for other reasons -- better known as Queen (or Empress) Farah, she was married to the deposed Shah, perhaps the one figure Persson Sarvestani loathed more than Khomeini. In the self-conscious tradition of so much recent documentary, "The Queen and I" follows the fascinating story of Persson Sarvestani's quest to make a film about Farah, and the unlikely friendship that develops between the two.
"Reporter" Anyone who has followed the peripatetic career of New York Times reporter and columnist Nicholas D. Kristof knows that he has his blind spots, but Kristof remains a journalist of unparalleled skill and commitment, who almost single-handedly focused at least a little American attention on the humanitarian and political disaster of Darfur. Eric Daniel Metzgar's doc follows Kristof to the Congo in 2007, and also engages in a debate about the future and meaning of old-school journalism in a world that claims to no longer need it.
"The September Issue" You-are-there documentarian R.J. Cutler ("The War Room," etc.) takes us inside the creation of Vogue's annual and enormous September issue, which possesses quasi-biblical status in the fashion world. Granted full access to editorial meetings, photo shoots and Fashion Week events by Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Cutler spent nine months at Vogue, documenting a monumental process that more closely resembles a political campaign or a sports team's season than the publication of a single magazine.
"Thriller in Manila" Can there ever be enough Muhammad Ali documentaries? Maybe not, especially since John Dower's doc actually tells the story of the legendary October 1975 Ali-Frazier fight in the Philippines from the point of view of Joe Frazier, the former champ turned demonized opponent. Along with unpacking the final bout in one of boxing's most famous rivalries, Dower apparently argues that Ali's taunting of Frazier was especially vicious and tainted by unpleasant racial coding.
"Wounded Knee" OK, the world might not much notice this one, but you and I will. Latest doc from the always-terrific Stanley Nelson ("Jonestown") uses archives of rarely seen file footage and contemporary interviews to recount the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., by American Indian activists in 1973. A half-forgotten and little-understood event with complicated resonance both in the Native American world and the larger society, Wounded Knee should prove a perfect subject for Nelson's rigorous, insightful and profoundly moral mode of inquiry.