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Sundance Diary: The Best of the Fest

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Another Sundance Film Festival is over, and all that remain are the memories of a few great movies, plenty of mediocre, meandering dramas that tested one’s backside and glimpses of swag-hunting stars tramping up and down Park City, Utah’s Main Street.

The 10-day indie film fest ended on Sunday with the handing out of more than 20 prizes to various movies. Historically, winning a trophy at Sundance is no predictor of box office success. Plenty of winners are never heard from again. (If you actually care which films won, click here.)

Most critics – count me in – regarded this year’s festival as no great shakes. Of the 125 feature films screened, many of the best already had distribution deals, and the few unattached ones that blew audiences away were quickly snapped up.

What has become ever clearer with each passing year is that stars are a must if a movie expects to draw attention. And many are happy to take a fraction of their regular salary to appear in an indie because the roles available to them are quirkier, showier and often more challenging than those in mainstream fare.

This is particularly true for women. Whereas Hollywood studios have pretty much abandoned films with leading roles for women other than romantic comedies (hello, Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock), at Sundance any number of talented actresses showed their chops this year. Of particular note:

Brenda Blethyn rips up the screen as a raunchy comic in Clubland, an Australian drama.

Molly Shannon showcases her dramatic as well as comic skills in Year of the Dog, a dark comedy about a woman who becomes unhinged when her beloved dog dies.

Laura Linney gives a lovely, touching performance as a woman who, along with her brother (Philip Seymour Hoffman), suddenly has to assume responsibility for the care of their ailing, elderly father in The Savages.

All three films are likely to open in theaters later this year.

Other Sundance trends this year:

• The use of numbers in titles, which proved most confusing. How to tell the difference between Girl 27 (a documentary) and Chapter 27 (a drama starring Jared Leto as Mark David Chapman, who assassinated John Lennon)? And then there was Three Comrades (a documentary), Four Sheets to the Wind (a comedy drama about Native Americans) and Chicago 10 (a documentary about ’60s radicals).

• Actors turning producer to help get films made. John Cusack helped shepherd Grace is Gone, in which he stars. Ditto for Robin Wright Penn with Hounddog, the disappointingly swampy southern gothic tale that caused pre-Festival controversy for the scene in which Dakota Fanning‘s character is raped. And Jamie Foxx and Queen Latifah are both listed as producers on Life Support, a film about a woman (Latifah) working with an AIDS outreach group, which is slated to be shown on HBO soon.