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Sundance 2012: Day 1/2

Posted by Ty Burr  January 19, 2012 04:30 PM

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sundancebaby.jpgHow do you know when you've arrived in Utah? The TV in your condo unit has ads for dating services run "by Mormons for Mormons."

The tagline for Sundance 2012 is "Look Again" (it's emblazoned on the official T-shirts for sale in the fest headquarters' lobby -- appropriate. given that most people do a double-take when they see the price tag). A cynic might amend that to "Look, Again," since a quick peruse of the 117 feature films slated to screen in the next ten days reveals that such stalwart Sundance genres as Disaffected-Teen-Moperamas and Existential Dramas About Has-Been Rock Stars are generously represented. But an optimist will probably head off to see movies like "Goats" and "I Am Not a Hipster," anyway, since you really do never know what you're going to get. After ten or 11 Sundances, I'm a bruised optimist myself.

Last year was the festival's busiest in terms of sales to distributors, but most of those deals were sensibly priced and resulted in sensible release patterns -- the day of the $10 million Sundance film that goes nowhere in August may finally be a thing of the past. The focus is back on searching the tea leaves to see what these movies, y'know, say about America and the world, and the general consensus is that they say we're in an unholy pickle. But for all the prognostications of festival doom and gloom -- and Kirby Dick's "The Invisible War" (about the epidemic of rape in the US armed services) and Eugene Jarecki's "The House I Live In" (about the failures of the war on drugs) promise to powerfully deliver the bad news -- Sundance still likes to have its raucous indie fun. The best movies I see here every year are almost always the documentaries, but the most popular with audiences are shaggy farces with sexy high-concepts. Take a film like "For a Good Time, Call...," which stars Ari Graynor and Lauren Anne Miller as roomies who start a phone sex business -- if it didn't exist, this festival would have to invent it. Which, for all I know, it did.

The first day is always a half-day; just a few screenings in the evening. Tonight I'm looking forward to "The Queen of Versailles," a documentary about America's biggest McMansion and a film whose subject has already filed a lawsuit trying to stop it, and "Hello, I Must Be Going," an echt-Sundance comedy about a mid-30s schlumpette who moves back in with her parents and gets involved with a 19-year-old boy. Since the schlumpette is played by Melanie Lynskey, a gloriously neurasthenic character actress ("Win Win") who rarely gets a lead role, I'm in.

In coming days, films on my hope-to-see list include "Smashed" (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul as married alcoholics, with Octavia Spencer as their AA sponsor), "Shut Up and Play the Hits" (a documentary about James Murphy, aka LCD Soundsystem), "Young and Wild" (Catholic girl in Chile starts a sex blog), "1/2 Revolution" (Egypt's uprising as seen from the inside), "Ethel" (Rory Kennedy's documentary about her mom; apparently every Kennedy in the Western Hemisphere will be present at the red carpet screening tomorrow), and "LUV" (Philadelphia kid learning about life from his father the gangster).

There looks like possible good news from returning filmmakers as well: "Elena" is the long-awaited new movie from Andrei Zvyagintsev, whose 2004 "The Return" I still can't get out of my head, and "WRONG" is the latest cabinet of curiosities from Quentin Dupieux, the guy who gave us the killer tire of "Rubber." "Liberal Arts" is a cross-generational romance directed by TV star Josh Radnor ("How I Met Your Mother"), which sounds like indie slumming unless you know he made one of the festival's audience faves of recent years, "happythankyoumoreplease." And "Nobody Walks," a caustic fable of upscale LA domestic meltdown, is directed by Ry Russo-Young and co-written by Lena Dunham, both women coming off of fierce debuts ("You Won't Miss Me" and "Tiny Furniture," respectively).

And then there are the high-profile question marks. Will Spike Lee's "Red Hook Summer" get remotely close to "Do The Right Thing," the 25-year-old classic to which it's a sequel? Will Julie Delpy's "2 Days in New York" do the same in regard to her "2 Days in Paris"? (It co-stars Chris Rock as Delpy's boyfriend, so it already has a leg up.) Can "Bachelorette," with Kirsten Dunst and Isla Fisher, step out from under the shadow of last year's "Bridesmaids"? And can Richard Gere convince us of our fiduciary sins in "Arbitrage," directed by Nicholas Jarecki, brother of Eugene and Andrew.) (I think there's a factory turning out these boys somewhere.)

Here's the Sundance promise in a nutshell: "The First Time" is, according to the publicity, a sweet, simple, realistic tale of two teenagers (Britt Robertson and Dylan O'Brien) falling in love over the course of one night. It's written and directed by Jonathan Kasdan -- yes, Lawrence Kasdan's son and Jake Kasdan's brother; the Venn overlap of Hollywood and indie is incestuous indeed. But haven't we seen this movie many, many times before? Of course we have. And will I be sitting down in the theater hoping to experience it again for the very first time? Of course I will.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.

Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.

Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.

Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.

Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.

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