'Tis the season to hit Sundance: Must-see flicks in Park City, 2011

It's the easygoing atmosphere that makes it fun. Waiting in line for the next show and riding around in the free local shuttle, you can strike up conversations with the filmmakers, actors and crew of what could be the next Blair Witch Project or Primer.


It's hard to know what you'll find. Sometimes films get huge buzz and end up duds; others come in under the radar and turn out to to be breakout hits like Napoleon Dynamite or Paranormal Activity (which premiered at the lesser-known Park CIty festival, Slamdance).


This year's lineup seems less focused on high-profile big-budget celebrity productions than in previous years I've attended, and that's likely a good thing. As usual there are "Premiere" films, that already have distribution and use Sundance merely as a platform for spreading the word. What's exciting, though, are the blank slate films that no one's seen or heard of before Park City. For most of these, there's no guarantee that they'll play at a theater near you, or even that they'll end up on DVD. They need Sundance, and Sundance needs them. Kevin Smith (with Clerks), Quentin Tarantino (with Reservoir Dogs), and Steven Soderbergh (with sex, lies and videotape) all got their starts at the Sundance film festival and helped to put it on the map as the top venue for American independent features and documentaries. The films in competition this year are almost entirely made by new directors, and while it's hard to tell from the catalog descriptions alone, there are several that have me very excited.


Another Earth is an indie sci-fi flick about a beautiful young astrophysicist whose life is changed by the discovery of a new planet, home to an alternate reality Earth.


Here is an unconventional road trip romance between an American engineer and an Armenian expatriate, that began with an experimental exhibit at the New Frontier section of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.


In Martha Marcy May Marlene, the titular character is haunted by nightmares after escaping an abusive cult.


Take Shelter focuses on a father's nightmarish visions of an upcoming disaster, that put strains on his marriage and threaten to disrupt his small Ohio town.


The documentary lineup, as usual, sounds excellent. Selections  range from broad social and environmental concerns to biographies of unique individuals and histories of social movements — including a look at the life of the puppeteer who brought Elmo to life, and an exploration of the rise and fall of perhaps the greatest hip-hop band of all time, A Tribe Called Quest.


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Sundance is increasingly becoming an important venue for foreign film. I always love this aspect of the festival, since I run a local independent film series at Eckerd College. This year I'll be sure to catch:


Abraxas, about a former Japanese punk rocker turned Buddhist priest, who now finds he can't bear to live without music.


All Your Dead Ones, a dark satire about a Mexican farmer who finds dead bodies heaped in his cornfield, and is told by local authorities to deal with it himself.


Shunji Iwai, Japanese creator of the unconventional and innovative All About Lily Chou Chou, promises to deliver a highly unconventional take on the bloodsucking mythos in Vampire.


James Marsh, whose Man on Wire won an Academy Award for best documentary, is back this year with Project Nim, about a chimpanzee raised and nurtured just like a human child.


It's an exciting lineup, and there's a lot more on my list; I'll write about the rest as I see them at the fest.  Before I go, I'll post here a few highlights from American indie film history.

It's January, which means it's time to look forward to the upcoming slate of quirky independent films from around the world that will play this year at Sundance.

Each winter, film lovers, filmmakers and industry types converge on the small mountain resort town of Park City, Utah, in hopes of sighting celebrities, making big deals, or catching an early screening of the new next big thing. Nearly every year for the past several, I've gone with a group of students from Eckerd College and we always have a great time.

I'm going this year and will write about it here, and on our class website, where my students are also going to be posting highlights from the festival.

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