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Buzz proves to be honest guide

PARK CITY, Utah--Now the buzz has taken over, and I am seeing mostly good, sometimes great, films. You open the Sundance catalog on the first day of the festival and choose your films for the first weekend, and after that you go where the buzz sends you, because audiences are always honest.

The best rule of Sundance: Ignore the hype, believe the buzz.

With "American Splendor," the buzz started even before Sundance, and with reason. This one is plain brilliant. It tells the story of Harvey Pekar, whom you may vaguely remember as David Letterman's most obstreperous guest in the 1980s. He works as a file clerk and writes comic books based on his own boring life and suspicious personality, which are illustrated by the great R. Crumb and become classics. He even finds a bride, as dubious about life as he is.

The film does something I have never seen before and does it with perfect effect. It combines fictional scenes starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar with documentary scenes starring Pekar himself. His wife, Joyce, is portrayed both by Hope Davis and by herself, and the story unfolds not only as fiction and fact but also as animation and voice-over narration. We even see the actual Letterman segments. Sounds like a gimmick, but the result, in this film by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, is a funny, quirky biopic of astonishing originality.

Another masterpiece: "Northfork," by the Polish brothers; Michael directed, Mark produced, they co-wrote, and the result is a visionary epic set in Montana in the 1950s, where a town is about to be buried forever beneath the waters of a dam. The movie is a haunting parable, in which angels visit the town, one of its little boys becomes an angel, and six men with black overcoats, black fedoras and black autos go on their grim rounds, evicting the residents who refuse to leave. (One local has built an ark around his house.)

This is a ghostly, evocative movie that works with visuals, oblique dialogue and sad symbolism to evoke a mood--in this case, a great sadness about the town that will soon haunt the bottom of a lake. Nick Nolte stars as a preacher who stays behind with the dying boy, Daryl Hannah is an androgynous angel, James Woods is one of the eviction agents going implacably on his rounds. After "Twin Falls, Idaho," here's more evidence that the Polish twins are the real thing.

There was no movie at Sundance I enjoyed more, in a pure movie way, than Gurinder Chadha's "Bend It Like Beckham." It stars the lithe, athletic, joyous Parminder Nagra as Jess, the daughter of a traditional Indian family living in London. Her parents want her to go to college and marry a nice boy, preferably Sikh. She wants to play professional women's soccer and has troubling romantic feelings about the young Irish man who coaches the team. Indian family life is seen in exuberant richness (yes, there is a wedding and lots of dancing), in a movie that shamelessly combines melodrama, romance, comedy and sports. Pure exuberant fun.

One of the great performances this year is by Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Owning Mahowny." He plays a Toronto bank clerk, engaged to a teller played by Minnie Driver; in his secret life he is a compulsive gambler. We watch in horrified fascination as a $1,300 debt grows to $10.2 million, as he steals money from the bank to try to gamble his way out of debt. John Hurt plays the professional but quirky Atlantic City casino manager who watches, fascinated, as this strange, nebbishy man arrives with larger and larger piles of cash; there is a sequence involving a winning streak that's among the most gripping gambling scenes ever filmed.

"That does it," said the woman in front of me after "Thirteen" (2003) was over. "I'm not having kids." This is one of the buzz champs of Sundance, the story of a 13-year-old teenager (Evan Rachel Wood) who is hurtled into a life of shoplifting, smoking, drinking, piercing, drugs and older boys under the influence of her new friend (Nikki Reed). Her mother (Holly Hunter), a recovering alcoholic and addict, is sincere and loving but doesn't understand how quickly her daughter's life is changing.

The most astonishing thing about the movie: It was co-written by the director, Catherine Hardwicke, with Nikki Reed herself. They met when Hardwicke started dating the girl's father. Nikki was troubled, and the older woman suggested she write something about her life, little suspecting that this harrowing story would emerge. Reed, who proves herself not only a writer but an actor of remarkable power and energy, is now 14.

"Capturing the Friedmans" is a documentary about a Great Neck, Long Island, family that is devastated in the 1980s when both the father and one of his three sons are charged with sexually molesting minors. What is remarkable is that another son obsessively videotaped the whole experience at the time. His camera is so omnipresent his family forgets it, as we watch family fights, strategy sessions with lawyers, everyday life and the last nights of freedom for the two men. The trials were among the first to be televised, so the film uses that footage, too--and yet, knowing so much, even being inside the family, we can't decide if the teenage son is guilty.

"Rhythm of the Saints" is about another troubled family, and this time the occult arts come into play. The rising star Daniella Alonso stars as a lively teenage beauty from Washington Heights, whose mother (Sarita Choudhury) works nights--giving her boyfriend an opportunity to molest the daughter. The girl and her friends consult practitioners of the voodoo arts of Haiti to cast a spell on the molester, in a plot that turns out to be a lot more complicated than that. There are touching performances from Choudhury and Alonso, who look remarkably like mother and daughter.

Another movie Sundance audiences love is "The Station Agent," starring Peter Dinklage as a dwarf railroad buff who inherits an old train station in the wilds of New Jersey. Moving in, he meets a nearby divorcee (Patricia Clarkson) and a goofy, lonely guy who runs a hot dog wagon (Bobby Cannavale). Dinklage plays a silent loner, the hot dog man is compulsively nosy, and the divorcee is a sweetheart who carries a deep sadness. Dinklage provides a rare movie portrait of a little person seen seriously and with perception.

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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