Sundance 2011: For 10 Days, Utah Trumps Hollywood

The Beverly Hilton? Chateau Marmont? Spago? Sorry, but once the Golden Globes are handed out, Hollywood is heading to the only after-party that matters. And it happens to be in Utah.

Yes, Utah. Park City, to be specific. It's a tiny ski village about a half hour's drive from Salt Lake City that, for ten days in January, becomes the epicenter of cinema. Make no mistake, the Sundance Film Festival is a star-maker.

A pair of unknowns named Joel and Ethan Coen took the top prize at the first-annual Sundance with their debut feature, “Blood Simple,” a darkly comic Hitchcock-ian thriller about a love triangle turned deadly. Over the next few years, it was Sundance who helped launch to fame a number of directors. Movie theaters in 2010 featured films from past Sundance winners Robert Rodriguez (“El Mariachi” in 1993), Kevin Smith (“Clerks” in 1994), Todd Solondz (“Welcome to the Doll House”), John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” ) and a guy named Chris Nolan (“Memento” in 2001). Some of the more recent offerings were better (“Inception”) than others (“Cop Out”), but there’s no denying that the festival has become an integral hunting ground for talent. This year's fest will feature more than 200 filmmakers from around the world, and nearly as many parties, events and gift bags.

But like so many great things, Sundance slowly became a victim of its own success, and more and more already established filmmakers elbowed their way in. Eventually Sundance became widely criticized for being too commercial, but Redford is to be given credit for heeding the complaints. In 2009 he hired John Cooper to become the festival's new director, with a mandate to get Sundance back to its indie roots, an effort that continues this year. Park City's Main Street is still teeming with paparazzi - but you almost can't blame them when a a single block can contain a fame spectrum ranging from Michael Cera all the way down to Linda Hogan.

Eric Mendelsohn, who won Best Director for his film “3 Backyards,” offered a stern rebuke to the haters during his 2010 acceptance speech.

"You go make your own festival and then bring it here,” said Mendelsohn. “Robert Redford is singlehandedly doing work other governments do for filmmakers."

Even at its most commercial, Sundance has remained fertile ground to find emerging talent, and 2011 should be no different. In the U.S. Dramatic field are first time feature film directors Mike Cahill with, “Another Earth,” about a tragedy that strikes on the eve of a discovery that our planet has a twin; veteran actress Vera Farmiga is bringing “Higher Ground,” in which she stars as woman who begins to chafe against the tenets of her fundamentalist community; and Sean Durkin is unveiling “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” featuring the debut of Elizabeth (younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) as a young girl trying to get back to life of normalcy after being rescued from the cult that had brainwashed her.

And of course, Sundance is always a great place to catch the best documentaries, with this year’s promising line-up including “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest,” “BEING ELMO: A Puppeteer's Journey” and “Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times.”

But making it as far as Sundance, even winning major awards, is no guarantee of success. “Winter’s Bone” took home the 2010 Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, but earned a mere $6 million at the box office. The only other feature to make a serious dent in the firmament is “Blue Valentine,” which didn’t win any awards, but has the baked-in appeal of two of Hollywood’s best young actors, Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling.

Even if a future Oscar winner isn’t discovered over the next 10 days, the 2011 Sundance Film Festival will be the best place to be for hardcore movie fans, star watchers and party hoppers.

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