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PARK CITY, Utah — Thirty years ago "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was riding high at the box office, and American independent filmmaking was still an anomalous pursuit rather than a community, a recognized passion, a mark of cool. That year Charles Burnett won prizes at the Berlin Film Festival and the US Film Festival for "Killer of Sheep" but was unable to secure an American distributor for that masterpiece. The US Festival moved from Salt Lake City to this Utah ski town and was soon taken over by the Sundance Institute, founded by Robert Redford to support independent filmmakers.
In the years since, the Sundance Film Festival, like the American independent film scene, was discovered by Hollywood, enduring good times and bad. Recently, though, as myriad movie-industry casualties can attest, the lows seemed to outnumber the highs, as several major studios either shut down or scaled back their art-house divisions, and smaller companies went up in smoke.
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The old model of distribution, which allowed a landmark American independent like Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise" (1984) to find its audience slowly, began to disappear. Filmmakers turned to the Internet not only to sell their movies directly to the audience, but also for money and support. Crisis was the name of the game, and then suddenly it wasn't.
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What happened? Put simply, filmmakers kept on making movies, if increasingly in affordable digital, and distributors, including new faces and studio veterans, found a way to put those moving pictures in front of the audience, both on the big screen and small. As it happens, viewers have developed a taste for noncorporate cinema. And despite the hard economic times they have continued to seek out movies like "Winter's Bone" and "The Kids Are All Right," two Sundance breakout titles from last year that went on to find public and critical love and recently picked up a few major Oscar nods. Times are still tough, but American independent cinema turns out to be a movement defined by stubborn true belief and survival.
It's impossible to know if the brisk sales this year were due to the new optimism or, as one distribution veteran suggested, a fear of missing out on the next "Winter's Bone." No film was as collectively adored as that 2010 favorite, but as title after title hit screens, the festival affirmed that independent cinema remains a pursuit of hearts and minds and not just a business opportunity or tabloid filler. With the crowds that sometimes gave Park City an unsettling frat house vibe now happily gone and the celebrity circus having pulled up stakes, both the streets and screens seemed newly revitalized and welcoming. Goodbye, Paris Hilton; hello, Brit Marling!
It's a sure bet that you will be reading more about Marling, a promising new talent and fashion-magazine-ready beauty who stars in and, with the director Mike Cahill, helped write "Another Earth." (She also stars in and helped write "Sound of My Voice," one of several movies here about cults.) A story about parallel alien worlds, those interpersonal as well as interplanetary, "Another Earth" centers on Rhoda (Marling), a bright young thing headed for MIT who, on the same night that a new planet called Earth 2 is discovered, plows her car into a family, killing a pregnant woman and her young child.
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Four years later Rhoda emerges from prison and reaches out to another survivor: the husband she made a widower (William Mapother as John). Out of this initially unlikely relationship, one that strains at reality even as it feels true, Cahill and his appealing leads create a lived-in, absorbing world. For all the far-out space talk — true to its name, Earth 2 turns out to be a kind of mirror to the big blue marble where Rhoda has become somewhat of an alien presence — the movie has the delicate and rough texture of real life. Even as Earth 2 hovers next to the Moon, either as threat or promise, yet more mysteries remain on Earth 1.
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There's a suggestion that the end might be nigh in "Another Earth," one of a large number of movies that, obliquely or directly, solemnly and sometimes irreverently, took on questions of faith. One such title is "Red State," a crude misfire about homophobia and religious fanaticism from Kevin Smith, that high-profile Sundance alumnus ("Clerks") turned one-man entertainment brand.
The story pivots on a trio of high-school boys who end up prisoners of an extremist religious sect that plans to eradicate homosexuality one cold body at a time. After warming up the story with his usual raunchy comedy, complete with the familiar gay-friendly jibes and sexist yuks, Smith loses his way amid a swamp of horror and action-flick cliches, all but turning the movie over to his charismatic villain (Michael Parks as the pastor).
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(The character is based on Fred Phelps Sr., the pastor of a Kansas church that stages protests at military funerals to publicize its anti-gay campaign. Not surprisingly, they brought their pickets and invective to Park City for the first screening of the movie but didn't bother to stick around for the second.)
That old-time religion and some of its newer-age alternatives were central to films as dissimilar as "Higher Ground," about a woman who, after evading a tragedy, joins a fundamentalist Christian group, and the amusingly eccentric "Septien," about a family that drives out its demons with the help of a preacher. Making the most of his conspicuously modest budget, Michael Tully, who directed "Septien" and plays the family's newly returned youngest brother, creates a plausibly human if outrageous story in which belief is an occasion for comedy and dread. Vera Farmiga, meanwhile, working on a larger canvas as both the star and director of "Higher Ground," manages to hold your attention through some awkward narrative turns with a character who loses and then finds both God and herself.
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Whenever a strong theme emerges at a festival as sprawling and diverse as Sundance, with selections from around the globe, it can be attributed to the programming (or journalists grasping for a hook). Religion has long played a part in some national cinemas, so it's no surprise that fundamentalism has a role in the likeable, earnest Iranian lesbian love story, "Circumstance."
But the number of religious-theme U.S. selections this year suggests a minor cultural shift might be under way as filmmakers take one of the most important and, certainly in our mainstream cinema, under-addressed truths in people's lives: their struggle with God and issues of belief. If nothing else, a decade after Sept. 11 and the wrenching, discordant attention on the faith of other people, some U.S. filmmakers have shifted their gaze closer to home.
This isn't to say that more traditional Sundance struggles were underrepresented, as the usual sampling of coming-of-age stories made clear. Two of the best were also my favorites in the festival: "Terri," from Azazel Jacobs, who first showed up at Sundance in 2008 with "Momma's Man"; and "Pariah," from the talented comer Dee Rees, making her fiction feature debut. With a sensitive eye and an even more perceptive heart, Jacobs brings new life to the outsider's ordeal with a story about a large, lonely high-school boy (beautifully played by Jacob Wysocki) who discovers a sense of self-worth with the help of some charming oddballs. The outcast in Rees' movie (Adepero Oduye, in a heart-melting turn) travels an even more lonesome road as a lesbian high-school student finding her way against the odds.
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This year's crop of documentaries didn't generate the noise or controversy that last year greeted "Catfish" and "Exit Through the Gift Shop" (which also snared an Oscar nomination), but there were films with voluble defenders and detractors. Audiences were left reeling by the emotional twists of "Project Nim," a shocking movie from James Marsh ("Man on Wire") about an experiment — involving a chimp, some dubious science and a heroic Grateful Dead fan — gone horribly wrong. Those lucky festivalgoers who accidentally wandered into the unannounced short "Red Shirley," by the musician Lou Reed, were delighted by the pocket-size portrait of his then 101-year-old cousin, as well as the Q-and-A session with Reed that followed the screening.
That said, though no documentary dominated, one feature did generate a great deal of chatter: "Page One: A Year Inside theNew York Times." Directed by Andrew Rossi, who shares the writing credit with Kate Novack, this unexpectedly engaging if disappointingly superficial peek inside the newspaper covers a great deal of ground, some of which — like the impact of the Internet on dead-tree journalism — should be familiar to readers of the movie's improbable star, the media columnist and culture reporter David Carr. Nicely described in the movie as "the most human of human beings," Carr, with his tough language and sense of journalistic honor, puts an irresistible, personal face on an institution that for many remains its own mysterious force.