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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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