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Sundance #1: Indie bread & butter

PARK CITY, Utah -- The Sundance Film Festival officially started Thursday night with the premiere of "Friends With Money," which stars Jennifer Aniston, who attracts so many photographers, you would think she was One-Hour Photo.

For the visiting movie critic, however, the festival started the night before. I drove up from Salt Lake City in a snowstorm, dragged my luggage through the snow across a parking lot to the wrong building, dragged it back to the car again and dragged it through more snow to the right building. Those little wheelies are no damn good in the snow.

Then at midnight, I set out to purchase the items necessary for life in a rented ski condo. They are:

1. Instant coffee2. Whole wheat bread3. Peanut butter4. Strawberry jam

I went to the 7-Eleven store around the corner from my condo. I walked up and down the aisles, finding more than 200 varieties of candy, an entire aisle of chips, vast coolers full of pop and beer, and a shelf of magazines that all had Jennifer Aniston or supercharged trucks on their covers.

"Instant coffee?" I asked the guy behind the counter. He walked up and down the candy aisle and told me, "No instant coffee."

"Whole wheat bread?"

He did not have to look.

"No bread."

"No whole wheat?"

"No bread."

"You don't sell any bread in this store?"

"We have doughnuts," he said helpfully.

This story is actually two parables.

Parable 1: I do not attend Sundance expecting glamor. I will not eat a restaurant meal for the next seven days, will see vegetables only on the screen, will attend four movies on a slow day, will stand in the freezing dark for a shuttle bus to nowhere and will make friends with the folks at the snack counters whose oatmeal cookies, microwave burritos and bottled water sustain life.

Parable 2: For the average moviegoer, the local multiplex is like 7-Eleven. Lots of candy and pop, but no coffee or bread. Sundance supplies the coffee and bread: Movies to wake you up, and others to feed your soul. This is the festival that gives hope for the future, introduces talents, celebrates the offbeat and the experimental, exists on the cutting edge. Sundance in a sense created a market for that kind of film; the big studios certainly weren't interested in them 20 years ago, but now they all have "classics divisions" devoted to marketing indie and foreign films.

It began with the Sundance story everybody tells, about how Steven Soderbergh's "sex, lies, and videotape" created a sensation at Sundance 1989, was picked up by Miramax, essentially put Miramax on the map and created the situation at Sundance 1990 where every distributor in America was prowling the screenings looking for the next Soderbergh.

There have been a lot of next Soderberghs. There will be more this year. Soderbergh himself has gone on to big commercial hits such sa "Ocean's Eleven," but he still has the Sundance spirit. Next week, he opens "Bubble," a great film shot with first-time actors on a tiny budget. In a distribution strategy that has exhibitors angry, it will play on cable the same day it opens in theaters and will come out four days later on DVD. This experiment with simultaneous release may be the salvation of little indie films, which have trouble making themselves seen behind the walls of $30 million ad campaigns.

And now take Jennifer Aniston. Yes, she is a big star. Big because, to paraphrase Stuart Smalley, doggone it, people like her. She makes commercial movies like "Rumor Has It," about what if "The Graduate" was a real story and she might be about to sleep with the "real" Benjamin, who also slept with her mother and grandmother. A nice movie.

But Aniston, like Soderbergh, is also interested in independent films. Her "Friends With Money" is the new film by Nicole Holofcener, the director of the wonderful "Lovely and Amazing" (2001), which might have been the best film you didn't see that year. I showed it at my Overlooked Film Festival, which tells you something right there.

Sometimes actors are like brand names; you see a few of them together in the same movie, and you sense it might be good. "Friends With Money" also stars Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack and Catherine Keener. If that doesn't make your heart leap up, you've been missing some good movies.

As I write this, I haven't seen "Friends With Money" or anything else here, except for a few I saw earlier, like Wim Wenders' "Don't Come Knocking," which was at Cannes. There are premieres by Nick Cassavetes, Terry Zwigoff, Jonathan Demme, Michael Gondry. Yes, I'm eager to see them. But I have never heard of the directors in the official competition, and that's where the new Soderbergh or Holofcener will be found.

We all plunge in. At 2:30 p.m. Friday, perhaps as you read this, I will be seeing "Somebodies," a film written and directed by a college student from Georgia named Hadji. I know the producer, Nate Kohn, who was Hadji's film professor at the University of Georgia. He read the script and liked it so much, he found the backing to make it. Its budget was -- don't even ask. In a way, the film comes from nowhere. Now it is one of 16 titles in the official dramatic competition. Next year, Jennifer Aniston may be working with Hadji. Now that's what I'm talking about.

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