Buzz, like swine flu is something you can pick up at a party

Image from THE OATH, the story of Salim Hamdan

That ephemeral Sundance commodity known as buzz used to be something you picked up at parties, on shuttles, waiting in line at screenings — now it’s quantified before the festival even begins, with films ranked on the Sundance site according to page views (and, once the screenings actually get under way, star ratings). Based on the track records of the parties involved (and on totally unscientific early word of mouth), here are the four movies — one from each of the competitive sections — I have the highest hopes for:

THE OATH (Documentary Competition): The story of Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s driver, who was captured in Afghanistan and imprisoned at Guantanamo and whose case led to the Supreme Court decision Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, has been extensively covered in the news media. But Laura Poitras connects his tale to that of his brother-in-law, a Yemeni cab driver who worked as a bin Laden bodyguard, constructing instead a behind-the-headlines family portrait. This is the second in a planned trilogy on post-9/11 America from Poitras, whose previous film, the Oscar-nominated MY COUNTRY, MY COUNTRY, was one of the most essential Iraq-war docs.

Image from BLUE VALENTINE starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling

BLUE VALENTINE (Dramatic Competition): Twelve years ago Derek Cianfrance was at Sundance with a well-received (but ultimately little-seen) first feature called BROTHER TIED. He’s back now with the story of a troubled marriage — and here’s a big selling point — starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, two bold, gifted actors who have elevated every movie they’ve been in.

SECRETS OF THE TRIBE (World Documentary Competition): Brazil’s Jose Padilha won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 2008 with his fiction debut, ELITE SQUAD, but his forte lies in documentaries, like BUS 174 (Sundance ’03) and last year’s GARAPA. This time he considers the still controversial work of American anthropologists among an Amazonian tribe in the 1960s, revisiting ethical debates about exploitation that extend beyond academia and apply to much of nonfiction filmmaking itself.

FOUR LIONS (World Dramatic Competition): One of Britain’s most confrontational satirists (and a previous collaborator of IN THE LOOP’s Armando Iannuci), Chris Morris makes his feature directing debut with a comedy about …. suicide bombers. A jihadi farce is surely not for all tastes, but Morris, who wrote a Guardian op-ed calling out Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens for their Islambophobia, has the nerve and the intelligence to go far beyond shock-jock provocation.