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The Scene At Sundance

Dark days and bright nights mark event

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The weather was unusually warm, which was unfortunate for the skiers but perfect for navigating one's way through the multiple screenings and parties at the 17th annual Sundance Film Festival. More than 20,000 people flocked to Park City, Utah, for the 11-day event. It wasn't unusual to hear about simultaneous films, panels, parties and other shindigs taking place from 8am until, well, 8am the next morning. I decided to experience a little of each. Friday, January 17I start my screenings with The Mudge Boy by Michael Burke, and it reflects a recurrent Sundance theme -- dysfunctional families and quirky characters trying to find their way in the world. Next up is Michael Mackenzie's The Baroness and the Pig, in which a wealthy matron (Far From Heaven's Patricia Clarkson, who appeared in four Sundance films this year and won a Special Jury Prize for Dramatic Performance) takes in a girl raised by pigs and "presents" her to a dinner party. This interesting movie is marred by Theme Two of Sundance -- poor picture quality in digital features.

I spend the remainder of the evening at a few film parties, including a bash for Milk & Honey, where I witness the first of several physical fights over a film that will take place at Sundance. These people take cinema seriously.

Saturday, January 18The fight intrigues me, so I start the weekend at 8:30am with a screening of Joe Maggio's Milk & Honey, a story of the disintegration of a relationship in which a husband stops taking his medication and his wife has an affair with a man who looks like her last boyfriend.

Slamdance steals some of the Park City buzz with its Saturday night opening film, Kenneth Bowser's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, about early 70s cinema. It sells out all three screenings and follows with a great party for the true independent filmmakers in Park City.Sunday, January 19Die Mommie Die, a twisted but fun little film about an ex-pop singer, pleases the crowds; its makers then throw an after-party lacking any pretension -- a rarity for Sundance -- but I wrap up the day in a condo party thrown by an indie producer and witness my second film fight, this time between two women.

Monday, January 20One of the most talked about films this year is Peter Hedges' Pieces of April, in which an estranged daughter (Katie Holmes) invites the family to visit her for a Thanksgiving meal -- with hilarious results.

There are many parties wrapping up the night, but nearly everyone seems to be at the IFC party in celebration of Pieces of April.

Tuesday, January 21Documentaries are a large focus at Sundance, with an entire venue, the House of Docs, devoted to documentary art. Today I watch The Weather Underground, by Seth Green and Bill Siegel, telling the story of a band of radicals in the 60s who hoped to bring the war home and overthrow the government. I spend the rest of the afternoon meeting filmmakers and listening to a panel on the state of the activist documentary in today's political environment. Then it's off to the Sundance Channel party, where I witness a mob scene in the gift bag line, and for good reason -- the gift bags contain more than $500 worth of goodies. More parties abound, but I've caught the Sundance flu and head in early.

Wednesday, January 22Even with a cold, I have to catch at least one film and Bukowski: Born Into This fits well with my mixture of cold and hangover. I spend the rest of the day watching short films from the fest on tape and from the web in the condo.

Thursday, January 23North Carolina's David Gordon Green (George Washington) wins a Special Jury Prize for Drama for his second feature, All The Real Girls. The must-see movie of the festival, this study of relationships involving a womanizer and his best friend's virgin sister is a brilliant step forward, with its mix of romance and brooding, Terrence Mallick-esque cinematography.

After-parties include Fuji/Technicolor's mountaintop bash featuring palm readers, massages (I get two), manicures and great food. Unfortunately, it's marred by those two evil words of any party -- cash bar -- so my group heads to a De La Soul party and finishes the evening with an excellent shindig thrown by United Artists.

Friday, January 24American Splendor, which goes on to win the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Feature, is my favorite film of the festival. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, this near-flawless picture follows the life story of legendary underground comic writer Harvey Pekar, whose comics by the same name (illustrated by Robert Crumb, among others) earned him fame if not fortune.

Tonight's closing party and awards ceremony for Slamdance feature great up-and-coming filmmakers and bands. My condo mates finish the evening watching some films-in-progress on tape from moviemakers we met this week at the condo.

Saturday-Sunday, January 25-26An 8:30am screening of Baltasar Kornakur's The Sea is intense for the early hour; it focuses on an Icelandic family whose father has summoned them home to determine the fate of the family fishing business.

Unfortunately, my remaining films are not as good, and I skip out of two movies early, and join a small group at the condo to watch the Awards Celebration in Super Bowl style.

The official after-party at the Silvermine is nestled in the hills of Park City and is attended by nearly all of the winning filmmakers, but after a few minutes, we decide to leave for quieter quarters and talk about the films... until 4am. Having seen about 30 films in 10 days, I make the wise choice to sleep for three hours before making the long trek home.

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