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Bright spots at Sundance

PARK CITY, Utah -- One day at Sundance, three wonderful films:

Richard Linklater's "Waking Life" is a technical breakthrough and an amazing film, both in the same package. It charts the odyssey of a hero seeking the truth about dreams and reality, and uses an artistic approach that takes live-action footage and transforms it into breathtaking animation.

There was a standing ovation after the Tuesday night premiere here, from a savvy audience that had already been briefed about the film's technical side by articles in Wired and Res magazines. What they were perhaps not ready for was how good the film was, entirely apart from its animation wizardry.

Linklater is the Austin, Texas-based filmmaker who is fascinated by big questions and answers. His "Before Sunrise" had Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke as two strangers who meet on a train and wander around Vienna for a long night of philosophy and flirtation. His first film, "Slackers," jumped from one set of characters to another, never doubling back as it eavesdropped on conversations all over Austin.

Now here is "Waking Life," with Wiley Wiggins (or his animated avatar) arriving in town and finding himself launched, through bizarre events, into a series of conversations with people who speak profoundly but engagingly on life, death, free will, existentialism, dreams and the nature of reality (Hawke and Delpy even turn up to continue their conversation).

All the scenes were shot live-action and then transformed into shimmering, magical, seductive animation. Tommy Pallotta and Bob Sabiston, two Austin computer animation wizards, led a team of 60 artists, each one assigned to a different character, as they used Sabiston's RotoShop software to transform reality into graphic artistry.

It was not lost on the Sundance audience, which contained many indie filmmakers with more ideas than money, that this gorgeous film was made with hand-held digital cameras, and the animation was done on Macs, not expensive workstations. "Waking Life" points the way for independents to play in the same league as major Hollywood animators.

Todd Field's "In the Bedroom" is a deep, moving, perfectly observed, heartbreaking film, one of the great accomplishments unveiled at this year's festival. As it opens, we meet a couple in love (Marisa Tomei and Nick Stahl). She is a mother of two, in the process of divorcing her abusive husband. He is a college student, headed for graduate school. His parents (Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson) are worried about the age difference and the effect on their son's college plans, although in their understated Maine way, they like her as a person.

Events happen which challenge the parents in painful and fundamental ways. Field and his co-writer, Robert Festinger, do not force these events into a conventional plot, but wait, listen and exercise enormous empathy.

And Wilkinson and Spacek are transcendent in the way they humanize two difficult, stubborn, angry people. Tomei, too, gets her best serious role, with its moments of tenderness and truth, and foreboding.

Field, at 36 an accomplished actor ("Eyes Wide Shut," "Twister," "Radio Days"), here shows he is a real director not someone who felt like making a film, but one with a genuine gift and a clear vision about the story he wants to tell and the way he wants to tell it.

Tony Bui's "Three Seasons" swept the 1999 Sundance festival, winning the grand jury prize, audience award and the cinematography award. It told three interlinked stories about Vietnam and was the first U.S.-produced feature shot in that country since the war.

Now his brother, Timothy Linh Bui, is here with "Green Dragon," a story set in the relocation camp at Camp Pendleton, Calif., where thousands of displaced Vietnamese were temporarily housed in Quonset huts, until "sponsors" could be found to help them relocate in America. Strands of several stories are followed, involving the pain of separation, homesickness, political tensions and a feeling of betrayal by Vietnamese who trusted American promises.

Don Duong stars as a Vietnamese who helps run the camp with the American officer in charge (Patrick Swayze); Forest Whitaker has an affecting role as a cook who enlists a little boy in helping him paint a mural of a dragon. The movie continues the chronicle the Buis are creating about Vietnamese Americans.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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