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Reading the Sundance Film Festival slate always makes me feel like a fortune teller.
There's always a lot of guesswork in figuring out based on scouring the web and reading what the Sundance programmers have written in two-line synopses which movies are going to be the ones we are all talking about after the festival is over.
And a lot of the guessing turns out to be dead wrong.
Last year at this time, the consensus among movie writers is that Kristen Stewart would be the darling of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The "Twilight" star had two films in the festival: "The Runaways," in which she played rocker Joan Jett in her early days; and "Welcome to the Rileys," in which she played a stripper who is befriended by a businessman (James Gandolfini) mourning his dead daughter.
Then the festival started, and people saw the movies, and the hype fizzled. ("The Runaways" was a so-so biography, and "Welcome to the Rileys" didn't set the world on fire in fact, it's yet to open in some markets, including Salt Lake City.)
Meanwhile, festivalgoers got a look at Debra Granik's Ozark mystery drama "Winter's Bone," which came in under the radar of the hype machine. It went on to win the Grand Jury Prize, and is being talked about as an Oscar contender for Jennifer Lawrence's star-making performance as a teen determined to find the truth about her missing daddy.
The moral to this story: Don't trust anyone who tells you they can look at the slate for the 2011 Sundance Film Festival (which was announced last week) and tell you which films are going to be the big news after the festival is over.
Not that I'm not going to take a whack at it. Here are some observations and early recommendations about what's coming to Park City in January:
Trust the Documentary Premieres section • At long last, established documentary filmmakers don't have to fight it out in the U.S. Documentary competition. The new Documentary Premieres section has some familiar faces, such as "Hoop Dreams" director Steve James and "Super Size Me's" Morgan Spurlock, and their new stuff should be intriguing.
Cue the phony outrage • One of the Documentary Premieres that sounds particularly interesting is Eugene Jarecki's "Reagan," a portrait of our 40th president as man, actor, politician and larger-than-life icon. Jarecki is an incisive and balanced filmmaker (he won the Grand Jury Prize in 2005 for "Why We Fight," a nuanced look at modern war policy), but you just know that having a Reagan doc at Sundance is going to end up plastered on Glenn Beck's blackboard one way or another.
Who's Miss Sundance? • In past years, female actors have distinguished themselves by appearing in multiple Sundance titles in the same year. (Lili Taylor once had four, and so did Patricia Clarkson.) So far, there are several actresses who have two films in the festival, including Elizabeth Banks, Kate Bosworth and Alia Shawkat (from "Arrested Development"). But the one overachiever might be the relatively unknown Brit Marling, who not only acts in both "Another Earth" (in the U.S. Dramatic competition) and "sound of my voice" (in the Next program), but has co-written both films, as well.
Overachiever after midnight • Another actor to watch, and one who will be hard to miss, is Robert Longstreet. I hadn't heard of him before, either, but he's in four movies at Sundance this year three of them ("The Oregonian," "Septien" and "The Catechism Cataclysm") in the Park City at Midnight program, and the fourth, "Take Shelter," in the U.S. Dramatic competition.
Those are just the first impressions from the Sundance slate. There are still many tea leaves to be read between now and January.
Sean P. Means writes the Culture Vulture in daily blog form, at blogs.sltrib.com/vulture