Complaints about how the Sundance Film Festival "isn't what it used to be" -- usually lodged by the very people whose attendance have made it that way -- have become as cliched as saying that the Academy Awards broadcast is too long, or that Bono needs to give his Messiah complex a rest. It's true, we all know it's true, so let's move on.
Still, there's admittedly some cognitive dissonance at play when an "independent" festival's biggest hit so far features such indie names as Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, and Kevin Costner in its cast. Written and directed by ER and West Wing co-creator John Wells, The Company Men explores how corporate layoffs affect a community in general and three men in particular. Rounding out the cast are Maria Bello (A History of Violence), Chris Cooper (Adaptation), and Rosemarie Dewitt (Rachel Getting Married).
The other big Sundance buzz so far is being generated by Waiting for Superman, a documentary about the U.S. education system directed by Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth fame. The flick was the first title to be sold at the festival, to Paramount, which is expected to release it this fall for Oscar consideration.
Failing to make much impact was Hesher, an overbaked drama about an extremely dysfunctional family centering on T.J. (Devin Brochu), the older woman he's attracted to (co-producer Natalie Portman), and the title character, a greasy, punky, nihilistic slacker played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. By all accounts a stereotypical Sundance cult movie wannabe, Hesher will doubtless be airing on cable for years to come. (Sharp-eyed music fans will also recognize Hesher as the name of Nickelback's first EP, for whatever that's worth.)
Howl, the Allen Ginsberg bio with James Franco as the Beat poet and Jon Hamm as his attorney, garnered mostly positive reviews, although a commercial breakthrough seems unlikely, especially given the box-office track records of such Beat-themed films as Heart Beat, Naked Lunch, The Last Time I Committed Suicide, and Neal Cassady.
Hopes are remaining high for the rock biopic The Runaways, which finds erstwhile New Moon co-stars Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning trying to segue into more adult roles; The Killer Inside Me, based on one of pulp author Jim Thompson's most twisted tales, with Casey Affleck as a murderous sheriff; and the comedy Douchebag.
Possibly slipping in under the radar is The Perfect Host, a thriller about an on-the-run criminal who inadvertently crashes a very strange dinner party. The otherwise no-name cast includes David Hyde Pierce and Helen Reddy. Yes, of "I Am Woman" fame.