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At Sundance, the big draws are Patti Smith, U2, Roman Polanski, Osama bin Laden

At this year's film festival, nonfiction films outshine the usual angst-ridden, quirky indies.

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But only two of the politically themed Sundance documentaries from last year – "Sicko" and "No End in Sight" – grossed over a million dollars, so this year, from a buyer's perspective, the bloom is off the rose. (Officially this is known as "market skepticism.") But the rose still smells sweet.

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The best documentary I saw at Sundance this year was Marina Zenovich's Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, an examination of the 1977 case in which the director of "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown" was convicted of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor and subsequently fled the country to avoid possible jail time. Zenovich has a regrettable penchant for using clips from Polanski's films as a way to explore his psyche, but, drawing on a startling array of archival footage as well as current interviews with the lawyers and the victim – though not Polanski – she lays bare a sordid tragedy of almost Dostoevskian dimensions. (The film was picked up for domestic distribution by HBO.)

Cult rocker Patti Smith showed up for the marvelous documentary about her life – Steven Sebring's Patti Smith: Dream of Life, a lyrical, nonlinear, mostly black-and-white collage that bears a passing resemblance to the Chet Baker doc "Let's Get Lost." In person, as well as on camera, Smith comes off like a cross between Baudelaire and Ophelia, but her trademark monotone, low and insinuating, was nowhere to be heard during the audience Q-and-A; She had an almost schoolgirlish twitter. Smith is an artist of stark dualities: she's fierce and impassive, ravaged and maidenly. I wedged my way into a hush-hush concert she gave in the dungeons of the Sundance House on Main Street, and she delivered a full hour of sonic blast.

Bono had been in Park City, too, where the soon-to-be-released, eye-popping concert film U2 3D was shown. Rumors that he would give a concert proved false. (He apparently wanted to give an outdoor rooftop show; presumably all that jumping around would have kept him warm.) Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was too hero-worshippy by half, but James Marsh's Man on Wire was a marvel. It's about 24-year-old Philip Petit's daredevil 1974 wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and it's an elegy to both crackpot heroism and the WTC (although Marsh is smart enough to keep 9/11 out of the mix).

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