Sundance competition films: juicy, mopey, risky, arty?

The 2010 Sundance Film Festival won’t kick off for a few weeks, but the press is already dusting off its snow boots and readying for action. (“Should the Bagger rent a car in Sundance, or are the shuttles where all the good gossip is?” wonders The New York Times’ Melena Ryzik, the new Carpetbagger blogger and a festival first-timer. One reader suggests a Norwegian kicksled.)

Los Angeles Times blogger Steve Zeitchik is enthusiastic about this year’s lineup. “Independent cinema may be enduring one of its rockiest periods in years, but you’d hardly know it to look at today’s announcement of Sundance competition films — as good a barometer for the state of the business as any,” he wrote on Dec. 2. “On paper at least, the slate is filled with high-profile directors and stars taking on some of the juicier subjects of their careers.” (See all the films in competition here.)

The Hollywood Reporter‘s Jay A. Fernandez, however, is bracing for bleakness, calling the selections far more “mirthless” than last year’s offerings. “One could say it has gone from ‘You gotta give ‘em hope’ to ‘You gotta give ‘em mope,’” he gripes, pointing to such heavy topics as “assassinations, political corruption, war carnage, crumbling educational system and Khmer Rouge revelations.”

But one man’s grim is another man’s arty. The New York Times’ Brooke Barnes notes that, under the festival’s new director, John Cooper, Sundance “is trying to tilt risky,” selecting films for competition that “reflect no particular current in independent cinema except one: the artier the better.” (Underscoring the emphasis on filmmaking over buzz, the festival is forgoing traditional opening-night hoopla this year and launching with competition films — one dramatic and one documentary, along with a program of shorts — the very first night, Jan. 21.)

“A lot of our films are hard to describe, and that’s very attractive,” Cooper tells USA Today. “We put marketability on the sidelines for a while and said, ‘Let’s just go for films that were highly original and pushed the envelope.’”

Nevertheless, the box-office triumph of PRECIOUS, a critical darling that debuted at Sundance last year, has industry types heading out to Park City, Utah, with hope in their hearts. That movie’s success “is good for us all,” indie film veteran Steven Raphael tells Variety. “Professionally, I’m excited. Good, exciting films are out there to be discovered.”