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Sundance: Glitz gets low profile as festival goes back to basics

Documentaries were the winners this year with films about Pat Tillman, cane toads, and a cautionary tale about Facebook called ‘Catfish.'

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And then there is the ever-present roster of good performances in so-so movies. Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine” has two of our finest young actors, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, battling it out as a dysfunctional married couple. The chronology of their tribulations is deliberately jumbled, for that arty effect. “Howl,” the dramatic feature directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, which opened the festival, pivots on the famous Allen Ginsberg poem and stars James Franco, surprisingly well cast, as the young poet. A chunk of the movie is taken up with Ginsberg’s coffeehouse recitation of “Howl,” but the filmmakers wreck these sequences by inserting animated imaginings over Ginsberg’s words – which hold up quite well all on their own, thank you very much.

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Floria Sigismondi’s “The Runaways,” about the short-lived ’70s girl band, has the usual faults of most movies about the drug-rock scene – it makes depravity seem boring – but it proves that (a) Dakota Fanning, as lead singer Cherie Currie, can act, and (b) Kristen Stewart, as Joan Jett (who also performed at Sundance) can be hard-edged as well as “Twilight”-soft.

As for the so-self-indulgent-it-makes-your-teeth-ache “Hesher,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a stoner loner who insinuates himself into a dysfunctional – what else? – family, it validates my strong suspicion that somewhere out there a computer program exists for concocting Sundance movies. Bad Sundance movies. (I’m suspicious, by the way, of the rousing applause that emanated from one corner of the theater after the “Hesher” screening. Filmmakers and distributors are not above packing the house with partisan cheerers.)

Even good Sundance movies often have a difficult time being seen once the festival ends. Buzz fades; distributors move on. Perhaps the best piece of “rebellion” to emerge from this year’s festival was something called Sundance Selects, in which, on the day of their première, three features from the lineup were made available on-demand through a branded platform of cable and satellite systems reaching 40 million homes throughout America. Also, eight films traveled to eight arthouse theaters in major cities around the country for a one-night showing on Jan. 28, which included a Q-and-A session with the filmmakers.

The thinking behind all this is clear: At a time when quality independent movies are increasingly homeless, and the coverage of these films increasingly pared back in the mainstream press, film festivals have to take a more activist position.

This is the kind of rebellion I can subscribe to. When I rave about a movie, I want to know that people can see it.