The Sundance Film Festival has attracted its share of naysayers, most of whom argue that it has become too celebrity-obsessed, or that its movies have no resonance beyond the festival, or that the festival has excluded important emerging filmmakers in recent years.
Yeah, sure, guilty as charged -- no cultural event of this scale is perfect. But that doesn't mean it is not the most exciting, important and relevant film festival in the United States: A number of last year's premieres, including Winter's Bone, The Kids Are All Right, Waiting for Superman and Restrepo are all in the hunt for Oscar nominations. And an invitation to a young filmmaker still has the power to transform a complete unknown into a serious Hollywood player.
This year, North Texas will be represented by David Lowery, whose Fort Worth-shot 2008 St. Nick caused a stir at the 2008 South by Southwest Film Festival. This year, he graduates to Sundance, albeit in the shorts program, with a 15-minute film called Pioneer. (He's presently at work on his second feature, so don't be surprised to see him back at Sundance in 2012.)
The other Texas filmmaker of note at Sundance will be Austin-based Jeff Nichols. His first feature, Shotgun Stories, was a tense, gripping family drama. This new one, screening in the prestigious dramatic competition, stars Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) as a man who becomes obsessed with building a storm shelter in his backyard.
The fun of Sundance is making your way through the crowded, snowy streets of Park City, wandering into makeshift movie theaters and trying to chase that elusive buzz. To that end, here are five more titles for which I'm most excited -- though, if experience is any evidence, the best movies will likely come out of left field.
1. Silent House: Few films galvanized the festival in the last decade as much as Open Water, the chilling scuba-divers-in-shark-infested-waters thriller, which first screened at a midnight show in 2004. This year, the directing team of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau return with a new thriller, this one set in a haunted summer house. It is expected to inspire a major bidding war among distributors.
2. Reagan: Biographical documentaries came sometimes be a snooze, but this portrait of the late president is already one of the festival's toughest-to-secure tickets. The director is Eugene Jarecki, who won the documentary competition here a few years ago for Why We Fight.
3. Red State: Kevin Smith -- whose career was launched when Clerks screened here in 1994 -- has made so many groan-inducing efforts (um, Cop Out?) in recent years that it seems unwise to get excited about his new film. But this comedy about three teenagers facing off against the religious right sounds as if it has echoes of Smith's finest film, Dogma.
4. Salvation Boulevard : One more Texas director, albeit one who is based in New York, George Ratliff made the excellent 2001 documentary Hell House -- about a Dallas-area Christian haunted house -- before turning to fictional horror with 2007's Joshua. This movie, starring Pierce Brosnan as a Joel Osteen-like pastor, marks his first venture into satire.
5. The Details: I was a big fan of Jacob Aaron Estes' teen bullying drama Mean Creek (2004). This follow-up, a dark comedy about a couple (Tobey Maguire and Elizabeth Banks) whose marriage is strained when raccoons invade his family's back yard, is long overdue.
I'll be attending the festival through Tuesday evening. Go to dfw.com/movies and follow all the action.