Independent cinema may be enduring one of its rockiest periods in years, but you’d hardly know it to look at today’s announcement of Sundance competition films — as good a barometer for the state of the business as any. On paper at least, the slate is filled with high-profile directors and stars taking on some of the juicier subjects of their careers. Of course, the operative phrase is “on paper” — Sundance films have a way of raising expectations before the festival only to deflate them later. And keep in mind, at this point, pretty much only the filmmakers and festival programmers actually have seen these movies. Still, based on a host of elements (credits, scripts, etc.), here’s a quick take on 10 films — five scripted features and five documentaries — to keep your eye on. 

Feature films

“Sympathy for Delicious” — Mark Ruffalo has long been a fixture on the screen in Park City. Now he’s also a force behind the camera. The indie darling (who also stars) will be at the fest with his directorial debut, a dramatic tale of a deejay who becomes injured and subsequently enters the world of faith healers. Those who follow Ruffalo’s career will remember that this is a project he put off after his brother’s tragic death. A story like this can be very execution-dependent, but if nothing else, the film has probably the best title at this year’s festival.

“Hesher” — Natalie Portman is exactly the kind of actress one wants to see in Park City: a prodigious talent who’s gone on to tent poles now returning to her indie dramatic roots. That Rainn Wilson and emerging star Joseph Gordon-Levitt round out the cast is only a nice bonus. They star in a story about a family that meets a possible shaman after suffering a tragedy, in what will be one of the most paparazzi-laden films playing in competition.

“Blue Valentine” — Four years ago, Ryan Gosling dazzled Sundance crowds with his portrayal of a drug-addled teacher in “Half Nelson.” He’s back this year with a film about a different kind of potentially difficult circumstance — a marriage — starring opposite Michelle Williams in Derek Cianfrance’s drama about relationships’ rocky roads.

“Son of Babylon” — Filmgoers are so accustomed to seeing movies about Iraq from non-Iraqi filmmakers, it will only be refreshing to see a movie from someone who comes from the region. Not much is known yet about Mohamed Al Daradji’s drama about a Kurdish grandmother and grandson looking for their son/father’s remains across the troubled Iraqi landscape, but the timeliness factor alone should make this one worth checking out.

“Holy Rollers” — Ecstasy? Hasidim? Smuggling rings? This high-concept dramatic thriller — young ultra-Orthodox Jew becomes drug smuggler — could be one of the most novel finds of the festival … or an ambitious misfire.

— Steve Zeitchik

~ by jennylilbit on December 3, 2009.

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