By MANOHLA DARGIS
PARK CITY, Utah — The spin was hotter and the vibe somewhat warmer at the 26th annual Sundance Film Festival here, while the movies were much the same, with good and bad entries promising much and sometimes delivering. Each year the festival, which ends Sunday, takes over this ski town in northern Utah, flooding the snowy, icy streets with some 40,000 attendees. This year, though, it also has a new director in John Cooper, a low-key, long-time Sundancer who took over from another veteran, Geoffrey Gilmore.
For almost as long as it’s been in existence, the Sundance Film Festival has fended off criticism that it has gone Hollywood. It’s no surprise then that its public face, Robert Redford, who created the Sundance Institute in 1981, used Mr. Gilmore’s departure for the company that runs the Tribeca Film Festival to declare again Sundance’s independence. It’s going back to “our roots,” Mr. Redford said at a press conference.
A cynic might note that this return to independence was convenient given the economic crisis: in the last few years half the six major studios have shut down or absorbed their specialty divisions. It is, after all, easier to declare your independence from Hollywood when Hollywood has already walked out the door.
But let us not be (entirely) cynical. For all its problems, the festival remains one of the most important in the world and the foremost launching pad for American independents. The stars were still out in formation, as were the paparazzi, who gave chase to Sandra Bullock (or maybe it was Nicole Richie) one afternoon on the town’s main drag. Yet this year there was also more room for micro-budget filmmakers in a new section called Next.
The idea that Sundance needs to create a sidebar for movies made on the cheap might sound paradoxical if not ridiculous, as was noted by a filmmaker, Daniel Harris, writing on the blog for the rival Slamdance Film Festival (slamdance.com), which takes place at the same time in Park City. “To sidebar low-budget films for their lack of finance makes them look like Special Olympics kids competing in the big show,” Mr. Harris wrote, before going on to encourage filmmakers to boycott the Sundance sidebar in question. As a matter of fact, the Next section did not register as an afterthought: audiences and distributors gravitate to selections with famous names, but as the mostly full theaters show, attention and love — if not always the large deals and press — are lavished on no-name titles too.
Nothing attests to Sundance’s commitment to off-Hollywood more than its documentary selections, which year to year remain its most qualitatively consistent suit. That much was reconfirmed by “Last Train Home,” a beautifully shot, haunting and haunted large-scale portrait by Lixin Fan about an astonishing migration involving 130 million Chinese workers who each year travel by train, boat and foot to return home for New Year’s. Working in a classically unobtrusive documentary style, Mr. Fan, who was an associate producer on an earlier Sundance entry, “Up the Yangtze,” conveys the enormity of this exodus while bringing you close to a family whose fraught efforts to reunite — the parents work in a city, the children are in the country with a grandmother — are symptomatic of a deeper struggle affecting China.
Two other documentaries would make an apt if harrowing pairing: “The Tillman Story,” about the death of Pat Tillman, the National Football League star turned Army Ranger, and “Restrepo,” about an Army outpost in Afghanistan. Directed by Tim Hetherington and the journalist Sebastian Junger, who served as their own cameramen, “Restrepo” takes you deep into the trenches and almost as deep into the mind-set of a platoon that was stationed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley in 2008. The movie doesn’t push an obvious agenda. But because it establishes such an intimate view of the soldiers, it nonetheless provides plenty to consider, whether the filmmakers are trudging alongside the platoon as it tramps over eerily quiet dirt roads or frantically scrambles during a firefight where bullets and screams eventually give way to tears.
Directed by Amir Bar-Lev, “The Tillman Story” continues the push, initiated by Tillman’s family, to uncover the details surrounding his death from so-called friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004. Even a familiarity with the case — the military initially claimed that he died during a heroic charge against the Taliban, a spurious narrative embraced by reporters and President George W. Bush — does not blunt the power of the movie, which makes its arguments with talking-head interviews, news reports, home movies and redacted documents. The movie hits its political notes well, but its finest achievement is to humanize Tillman, an unassuming man who read Noam Chomsky and, aware that his death might be exploited, smuggled a document to his wife in which he clearly indicated he did not want a military funeral.
The pleasure of discovering other people is one of the great appeals of documentary, as was also touchingly evident in “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child,” from Tamra Davis. Using videos she shot of Basquiat (who died from a drug overdose in 1988) as her creative jumping-off point, Ms. Davis creates a vivid if somewhat rough-edged portrait of an artist who was also a friend. Her familiarity with Basquiat, his struggles as a black artist working in an overwhelmingly, at times hostile white world — there’s a nasty swipe here from the art critic Hilton Kramer that should make your stomach turn — and especially her sense of the downtown New York scene from which Basquiat emerged in the late 1970s give the movie a vibrant pulse.
Ms. Davis’s intimate knowledge of the art and music world of that legendary scene gives her documentary the authentic tang missing in a fiction movie about a different 1970s legend, the rock band the Runways. Directed by Floria Sigismondi, “The Runaways” traces the rough and ready days of this all-girl band, primarily through the relationship between its two star teenage attractions, Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart, very fine) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning, often just as good). While the movie opens on a suitably punk note with a close-up of a drop of menstrual blood hitting the ground, a hopeful sign of some bad-girl attitude, it soon settles into a middle-of-the-road groove turning down the volume when it should go to 11.
Another blast to the 1970s past comes from “Night Catches Us,” the strong feature debut of Tanya Hamilton. Set in Philadelphia in the summer of 1976, the movie centers on two uneasily reunited former members of the Black Panthers, Marcus (Anthony Mackie), a recently returned wanderer, and Patricia (Kerry Washington), who stayed to nurse her wounds. Unfolding in the aftermath of the black power movement but before the mainstreaming of identity politics, the movie wonderfully weds the political to the personal. Like some of the recurrently finest selections at Sundance, this one makes sensitive use of its locations, including the wooden house where Patricia lives and, in one stunning moment that encapsulates cinema’s ability to capture loveliness in a single image, sits on her front porch in a bright orange dress.
The theater wasn’t completely full for Ms. Hamilton’s first public screening, which was disappointing given that Mr. Mackie, who’s emerging as one of the finest actors working in American movies right now, and Ms. Washington, alone should have filled the house. (Mr. Mackie has been at the festival before, appearing in “Half Nelson.”) Sundance might be the premiere showcase for independent cinema, but it’s hard to encourage people to stray from the familiar.
Witness another sturdy directing debut, this one from the actor Mark Ruffalo, whose terribly titled and wanly received “Sympathy for Delicious” is a laugh-spiked drama about a disabled D.J., Dean (a terrific Christopher Thornton, who wrote the script), who wakes one day with the power to heal. Either a modern-day Jesus or a fraud, Dean embarks on a wholly original adventure that is by turns moving, funny and surreal.
Mr. Ruffalo, who plays a priest in “Sympathy for Delicious,” also shows up in “The Kids Are All Right,” from Lisa Cholodenko, the director of “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon,” who returned to Sundance with her best work yet. Pitched between drama and comedy, the movie centers on two lesbians, exquisitely played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, whose world is rocked, with equal amounts of dread and pleasure, when their children (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) contact their biological father, a sperm donor turned restaurateur (Mr. Ruffalo, as excellent as the rest of the cast). With characters who are as honest as the movie’s Los Angeles locations, Ms. Cholodenko has created a generous, nearly note-perfect portrait of a modern family that is, as its title suggests, political and insistently independent.