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Sundance starts to heat up

Posted 7:21pm on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011

You don’t usually travel from Dallas-Fort Worth to Utah in the dead of winter in hopes of finding warmer temperatures. But as a cold front swept through North Texas on Thursday morning, I was happy to be headed to Park City, home of the Sundance Film Festival, where the skies are thus far bright blue and the forecast calls for only a smattering of snow over the weekend.

That’s bad news for those who travel here to ski. But for those of us trying to navigate the madly gridlocked streets during the festival’s famous overpopulated opening weekend, it’s a hopeful sign indeed.

For many years, Sundance kicked off with a gala, celebrity-studded screening, but beginning last year, the festival has opted to start off by screening a half dozen films on opening night in venues all across town. Among the titles that will have their premiere on Thursday evening is Sing Your Song, a documentary about Harry Belafonte, and Pariah, one of sixteen titles competing in the prestigious dramatic competition. (Winter’s Bone was the winner last year.) The first movie on my dance card is Project Nim, a documentary about chimpanzees from James Marsh, whose Man on Wire premiered here a few years back and went on to win the Oscar.

For now, though, it’s a bit of calm before the chaos: The streets aren’t yet jammed with traffic; you can still find a seat on the shuttle buses. And you’re only just starting to hear the murmurings of buzz, those bits of overheard conversations in which people try to guess which films will emerge from the festival as the biggest sensations.

To that end, let me add a little bit of buzz myself: Of the handful of Sundance films I previewed prior to the festival, one of them already looks to be a contender for my ten best of 2011 list. I’m talking about In a Better World, the absorbing, astute melodrama from Denmark that just won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. (It’s expected to be one of the final five in the same category when Oscar nominations are announced on Tuesday; an American commercial release is set for later this spring.)

The story follows a European doctor in Africa, struggling to provide medical care to communities beset with violence, and his young son back home in Denmark struggling with violence inflicted upon him by bullies. Director Susanne Bier (whose film Brothers was remade in the United States starring Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal) manages to craft a completely entertaining melodrama that’s also an intelligent study of how men deal with violence. If it’s a sign of the quality of what’s to come, we’re in for a terrific festival.

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