Imagine an enormous magnet nestled in the heart of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. Every year its power increases, as does its ability to irresistibly attract everything in its path, from films to footwear companies. Congratulations, you’ve just imagined the Sundance Film Festival, opening for business Thursday night in plucky Park City.
Mostly, of course, it’s films that get attracted to Sundance, and though many are called, few are chosen. Exactly 4,105 features, more than half of them originating overseas, applied this time, and only 123 were selected, making the festival tougher than ever to get into.
Showing up along with the films are all manner of big-name brands, companies like Bang & Olufsen, Eddie Bauer, Whole Foods (part of something called EcoLuxe Lounge) and, yes, Merrell footwear, firms that hang out for only a few days in way-expensive Main Street rental space and hope for the best.
Given Park City’s proximity to Los Angeles, all kinds of local talent tries its best to get into the act as well. Top-notch KCRW radio hosts Jason Bentley and Anne Litt will “curate” some music programming, and the Sunset Strip Irish pub Rock & Reilly’s will offer a party venue. Even as prestigious a place as CalArts sent out a press release announcing that films by students and alumni make up no less than 43% of the animated shorts in Park City’s genial rival festival, Slamdance.
But finally it is all those Sundance films that hold our attention, and this year the dramatic and documentary offerings across all sections are notable for their diversity.
Most impressive on the dramatic side of the ledger are:
•”Brooklyn.” Taken from the Colm Tóibín novel, this persuasively emotional film features Saiorse Ronan as a young woman who faces romantic complications as she makes her way from Ireland to Brooklyn in the 1950s. Beautifully mounted, focused on character and a treat from beginning to end.
•”People, Places, Things.” A pleasantly odd romantic comedy with an offbeat sense of humor about a graphic novelist (“Flight of the Conchords’” Jemaine Clement) whipsawed by the emotional demands of single fatherhood.
•”Experimenter.” Independent stalwart Michael Almereyda examines the life and controversial work of social psychologist Stanley Milgram (an expert Peter Sarsgaard) in a way that is both self-aware and unexpected.
Other noteworthy dramas include:
•”The Bronze.” An unapologetically raunchy black comedy that stars and is co-written by “The Big Bang Theory’s” Melissa Rauch about a small-town, former bronze-medal gymnast who has turned into a manipulative monster with a nasty temper.
•”Chorus.” Restrained but intensely emotional and carefully made, this Canadian film tells the story of a long-separated couple who are thrown together after their murdered son’s body is found.
•”Umrika.” A warmly intelligent Indian film about a younger brother’s search for a sibling who left for America and then disappeared.
•”The Summer of Sangaile.” A poetic surprise from Lithuania. A haunting, hypnotically shot story about a young woman in love with flying and another teenage girl who encourages her passion.
•”I’ll See You in My Dreams.” That rarest of Sundance dramas, an involving story dealing with senior citizens and romance starring a luminous Blythe Danner.
•”Mississippi Grind.” A closely observed, melancholy tale (by Sundance vets Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden) of two gamblers, expertly played by Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn, who have a psychological effect on each other.
On the documentary side, as has become traditional with Sundance, the riches are even greater. This year some of the most compelling center on one-of-a-kind situations that seem too strange to be true. These include:
•”Finders Keepers.” The comic and catastrophic story of how a custody battle over a mummified human leg ended up changing lives.
•”The Wolfpack.” Six movie-crazed brothers, virtual prisoners in their Manhattan apartment, spend their childhood making meticulous re-creations of films like “Reservoir Dogs.” Even stranger than it sounds.
•”Meru.” An attempt to climb the Shark’s Fin of India’s Mt. Meru for the first time is recorded in heart-stopping detail by Jimmy Chin, one of the three climbers involved.
•”The Visit.” If aliens arrived on this planet, what would we ask them and how would we ask it? A spooky documenting of an event that has never happened … yet.
As effective, if not more so, is a potent group of docs that deal persuasively with larger-than-life entertainment personalities. These include:
•”Listen to Me Marlon.” Using unheard audio archives and a carefully curated collage of home movies, newsreels and TV interviews, this is a revelatory, strikingly emotional look at the complex, troubled, enormously gifted Marlon Brando.
•”What Happened, Miss Simone?” We go behind the scenes of the tumultuous, at times tragic life of the exquisite vocal stylist Nina Simone, who battled her own demons as well as the world’s injustice. Honest and heartbreaking.
•”Chuck Norris vs Communism.” The charming and unexpectedly important story of the role that bootleg tapes of Hollywood movies, including but not limited to Mr. Norris’ exemplary work, played in the downfall of communism in Romania.
•”Being Evel.” The most famous daredevil of his time is revealed as a self-created man who was as hard on the people around him as he was on himself.
•”Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang.” Screening at nearby Slamdance, this takes you to the still perplexing meeting of cage star Rodman with North Korea’s ruling elite.
As always with Sundance, films about social issues were strongly represented, with the best of these dealing with women and sexual violence and abuse. These include:
•”The Hunting Ground.” From the makers of 2012′s “The Invisible War,” a devastating indictment of the nationwide plague of violent rapes on campus.
•”Dreamcatcher.” Powerful story of a former Chicago prostitute who is determined to help those still on the streets.
•”Hot Girls Wanted.” A cinéma vérité look at the disturbing, exploitative world of amateur porn and the young women it preys on.
Other strong social issue docs cover a wide range of topics:
•”Welcome to Leith.” The unnerving record of what happens when a hard-core white supremacist attempts to take over a tiny North Dakota town.