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Sundance holds great promise

PARK CITY, Utah--I have just spent an hour with the 2003 program for the Sundance Film Festival, and I am churning with eagerness to get at these films. On the basis of track records, this could be the strongest Sundance in some time--and remember, last year's festival kicked off an extraordinary year for indie films.

Sundance is the only American film festival that's a must (if you include Canada, there's also Toronto). For 10 days in the snows of Park City, the movie crowd breaks in its new goose-down parkas and trudges through the drifts to screenings all over town. The excitement of seeing a great new film is equaled only by the thrill of having your car towed by the town's fanatic traffic Gestapo.

More than 1,000 films are submitted to Sundance every year, and about 10 percent get chosen by a staff that starts viewing submissions in the autumn. This year's reality was summarized with admirable frankness by Geoff Gilmore, the festival director, who told the Hollywood Reporter: "A couple of years ago, we saw an enormous amount of crap get produced and there was a lot of money out there to produce it. A lot of the films we have at the festival this year are the result of the creative passion and tenacity and perseverance that you have to have to get a film made these days, and the films reflect that."

Yes. There are no longer dot.coms webcasting from Main Street, but the indie filmmakers will still be working the sidewalks with the Sundance trademark, a postcard begging you to attend their screening. I hurl myself into this maelstrom with a certain glee, clicking off three, four or even five or (once) six films a day. I get dinner invitations, which inspire a hollow laugh. To have dinner at Sundance is to miss one or even two movies, and the true festivalgoer exists on sandwiches and brownies sold by the Friends of the Library.

The festival opened Thursday night in Salt Lake City with the world premiere of Ed Solomon's "Levity," a film with an intriguing cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Morgan Freeman, Holly Hunter and Kirsten Dunst. The film involves a prisoner released after 22 years, who returns to a community center in his old neighborhood and to the same issues that put him behind bars. For Hunter, the opening night will be followed on Tuesday by the Tribute to Independent Vision Award, an honor given every year to a heroic indie spirit.

After Thursday night, everybody moves up the hill to the ski town of Park City. It is an irony that Sundance first became popular because Hollywood types could use it as an excuse to write off their ski vacations; these days they are way too busy to ski.

The Park City opening night films included Keith Gordon's "The Singing Detective," with Robert Downey Jr. in the title role, and Dan Algrant's "People I Know," starring Al Pacino as a New York press agent. The Downey film is based on the legendary BBC television series by Dennis Potter, who reinvented it in this screenplay written as he was dying. The Pacino movie is said to be inspired by the legendary and beloved Bobby Zarem, a New York publicist who sends out a blizzard of hand-written notes, breathlessly FedExed. I am one of the people Zarem knows, but then of course he knows everyone. When I ran into him in Elaine's in December he cautioned me that the film contains "a lot of fiction." That could also be said (although I did not say it) about his notes.

To summarize the week ahead would involve us here in a long list of titles, stars and directors, and as I have seen none of these films, I'd be shooting in the dark. But of course that's what you do at Sundance. You circle the films by interesting directors, because they act as brand names. Then, while you're standing in line, you begin to absorb the Buzz. You hear about a little film you must not miss, and before long you find yourself at "Memento" or "Better Luck Tomorrow" or "The Blair Witch Project" (yes, there was a time at Sundance when even that was a little film no one had heard of).

The indie distributors troll the screenings, looking for films to purchase. So heated is the competition that one year Miramax's Harvey Weinstein was actually in a shoving match over a film. The film-spotters are paranoid, because of the big ones that got away. After all, Miramax and everyone else except for tiny Artisan passed on "Blair Witch," and everyone except for Lions Gate passed on "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." Both films grossed north of $200 million.

Now let me suggest some of the potential treasures this year. Neil LaBute, whose career began with "In the Company of Men" at Sundance, is back with "The Shape of Things," starring Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz in a story of college kids searching for meaning. Gael Garcia Bernal, the hot Mexican star of "Amores Perros" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien," is in Matthew Parkhill's "dot the i," a love triangle. Claire Danes and Joaquin Phoenix are in "It's All About Love," a futuristic fantasy by Dogma pioneer Thomas Vinterberg.

Sundance discovery Edward Burns ("The Brothers McMullen") and Dustin Hoffman are in James Foley's con-man story "Confidence." Troy Garity, son of Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, stars in Frank Pierson's "Soldier's Girl," about a young Army trainee who falls in love with a transgendered dancer. The Polish twins, Mark and Michael ("Twin Falls, Idaho") are here with "Northfork," starring James Woods, Nick Nolte and Daryl Hannah in the story of holdouts against a government relocation. Bob Dylan and "Seinfeld's" Larry Charles are collaborators on "Masked and Anonymous," a futuristic satire starring Jeff Bridges and Penelope Cruz.

Danny Glover and Whoopi Goldberg star in Ernest Dickerson's "Good Fences," about a pioneering middle-class black couple in 1970s suburbia. The inimitable Philip Seymour Hoffman and Minnie Driver are in Richard Kwietniowski's "Owning Mahowny," the story of a bank manger who is a compulsive gambler. Campbell Scott is all over the map, starring in three films, including Alan Rudolph's "The Secret Lives of Dentists," based on the Jane Smiley novel about jealous rage.

That's only a sample of the major premieres. There are equally intriguing titles in the sidebar sections, including the dramatic and documentary competitions and the World Cinema showcase. And on the closing weekend, Oliver Stone's "Commandante," based on 30 hours of the director's conversations with Fidel Castro. I'll be filing more or less daily reports from the festival, which annually reminds us that the movies an be original and challenging, once you break free of the mainstream lockstep.

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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