Welcome to the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Circumvent the Writers' Strike. But seriously folks: As Park City, Utah's famed independent-film trading post opens for seasonal business (January 17-27) amidst a WGA intifada that calls to mind the title of one of last year's Sundance prizewinners — No End in Sight — the conventional wisdom is that it's going to be a seller's market, with Hollywood distributors seeking out new product like squirrels stockpiling nuts for the long, cold winter. That's good news for the scrappy young filmmakers who come to Sundance hoping for a meal ticket (to perhaps start paying back their investors and deferred-salary cast and crew), as well as for the increasing number of reporters who seem unable to view the festival in anything other than business terms — the ones for whom a film's artistic merit is directly proportional to the number of zeroes it earns on a check bearing Harvey Weinstein's signature.
As for which of Sundance's more than 100 new feature films — most of them world or North American premieres — will generate the lion's share of ohmigod, it's the next Sex, Lies and Videotape/Reservoir Dogs/Little Miss Sunshine chatter over the next ten days, it's anybody's guess. It's a safe bet, though, that buyers will cast their eyes with particular scrutiny on the festival's glitzy Premieres section, where one can find slightly bigger-budget, more overtly commercial offerings than in the more prestigious competition sections. It's here that such buzz-worthy titles of recent Sundance vintage as Little Miss Sunshine, The Illusionist and the soon-to-be-released Son of Rambow emerged, and where this year one can find the likes of The Escapist, starring Brian Cox as a prison lifer masterminding a great escape; Smart People, with Dennis Quaid as a widowed literature professor falling in love with a former student (played by Sarah Jessica Parker); and What Just Happened?, an adaptation of veteran producer Art Linson's comic, on-the-job memoir that one hopes will find director Barry Levinson back in acerbic, Wag the Dog mode.
Elsewhere, two underrated American auteurs — Mark Pellington (Arlington Road, The Mothman Prophecies) and Brad Anderson (Session 9, The Machinist) — return to the festival with new work: Pellington's Henry Poole Is Here comes advertised as a semi-autobiographical tale of a man (Luke Wilson) fleeing from his own life after receiving unwelcome news at a routine medical checkup, while Anderson's Transsiberian promises Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer as tourists entangled with Russian cops, mobsters and other unsavory elements apt to pry upon naïve Americans traveling abroad. And of course, it wouldn't be Sundance without at least one big A-lister trolling for indie cred (hence Tom Hanks, playing the father of real-life son Colin in the has-been magician comedy The Great Buck Howard) and at least one debut film by an actor-turned-director (Michael Keaton's The Merry Gentleman, which also stars Keaton as a not-so-merry suicidal hit man).
On paper, offing oneself seems to be something of a Sundance motif this year: Over in the dramatic competition, writer-director Geoff Haley's The Last Word purports to be about a writer (Wes Bentley) who makes a living composing other peoples' suicide notes, and New Zealand director Christine Jeffs's Sunshine Cleaning stars two deft comediennes, Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, as sisters who mop up the blood and body parts at crime scenes and — yep — suicides. On a not especially lighter note, Downloading Nancy gives us Rufus Sewell as a man whose wife (Maria Bello) runs off with a stranger (Jason Patric) she's met on the internet, while in Frozen River it's a husband who goes missing after gambling away his family's savings, leaving his wife (Melissa Leo) and two sons to fend for themselves. Perhaps the most anticipated competition title, however, is Sugar, the sophomore feature by Half Nelson creators Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, starring newcomer Algenis Perez Soto as a Dominican baseball prospect trying to make it in the U.S. minor leagues.
As any Sundance vet knows, it's the festival's documentary competition that almost always proves the most rewarding, and this year's looks to be chock-a-block with movies devoted to the various ways in which Americans are hastening their own destruction and that of the planet, including (but not limited to) performance-enhancing drugs (Bigger, Stronger, Faster*), oil consumption (Fields of Fuel) and national debt (I.O.U.S.A.). In what is sure to be one of Sundance's more controversial offerings, filmmaker Marina Zenovich makes a case for a miscarriage of justice in Roman Polanski's in-absentia underage-rape conviction in Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. And in a stunt that surely has Michael Moore kicking himself, Super Size Me provocateur Morgan Spurlock goes searching for the world's most wanted and desired terrorist in Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? Whether or not Spurlock found what he was looking for is something we'll have to wait until the film's January 21st premiere to find out. If he did, it should make for one hell of a Q&A.
Check back here for more from Scott Foundas and Robert Wilonsky as they spend the next two weeks braving Park City's sub-freezing winter for the love of cinema.