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Review: Sluggish Sundance has few standouts

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  • Critic Tom Charity's Sundance highlights: "Ballast" and "Bigger, Stronger, Faster"
  • On the other hand, Charity says to avoid "What Just Happened?"
  • Festival hasn't had any breakout smashes this year
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By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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PARK CITY, Utah (CNN) -- "Film Takes Place" was the obligatory meaningless slogan for this year's Sundance Film Festival. In the logo, the word "place" was artfully wrapped in the center of what looked like a lollipop -- or was it a stop sign?

The place in question would be Park City, the small Utah ski town that has played host to what may be America's premier film festival for more than a quarter of a century.

Why the so-called independent sector has settled in this cold, snowy place with middling screening facilities -- rather than, say, Palm Springs, California -- has more to do with circumstance than masochism.

But for all the grumbling, the sometimes grotesque contradictions between showcasing low-budget work and high-end sponsors' swag -- and let's not forget the routinely uninspiring movies -- Sundance continues to grow and prosper.

This year the word on the street was that the writers strike would fuel a buying spree as distributors looked to shore up supply (and more simply, because studio executives had nothing better to do). With a couple of days to go, that shopping splurge hasn't materialized, and with the exception of "Hamlet 2" -- a comedy starring Steve Coogan that sold to Focus Features for $10 million -- the handful of deals that have been announced have been relatively modest in scale. Folks, there is a recession on.

Anyone looking for the next "Little Miss Sunshine" or "Juno" would have their work cut out for them. Christopher Bell's whip-smart, funny and refreshingly honest "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" was the only documentary I saw with breakout commercial prospects (though Chris Waitt's confessional "A Complete History of My Sexual Failures" cries out for a Judd Apatow-sponsored remake).

Even Morgan Spurlock's "Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?" met with a collective yawn as the "Super Size Me" provocateur succumbed to trite "people are people" homilies in his quixotic pursuit of world peace. Video Watch Spurlock talk about "Osama" »

Probably the best of the quirky coming-of-age comedies that seem to have become the default mode for so many young American moviemakers was Jonathan Levine's second film, "The Wackness," in which Josh Peck trades marijuana for consultations with Ben Kingsley's entertainingly unorthodox psychiatrist. Levine puts a new twist on first love and adolescent alienation, but the film's central romance between the boy and shrink is both unacknowledged and unbelievable.

Kingsley also popped up (this time with an Eastern European accent) in Brad Anderson's "Transsiberian," a well-crafted riff on classic train thrillers such as "Murder on the Orient Express" and "The Lady Vanishes." Emily Mortimer gives a striking performance as the wife of a good man who loses her moral compass on the long journey between Beijing and Moscow. (Woody Harrelson is the spouse, a Christian aid worker.) Anderson's movie ultimately goes off the rails, but for two-thirds of its running time, it's a compelling and provocative ride.

The two standouts in the dramatic competition took a markedly different approach, stripping away hand-me-down generic elements to immerse us in direct experience.

In "Sugar," the "Half Nelson" team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck simply follow the fortunes of a young Dominican Republic baseball hopeful (Algenis Perez Soto) as he visits the States to try out for the fictional Kansas City Knights. This is an unusual sports movie that focuses on the progress of the player but pays virtually no attention to the team. For Sugar, his form is the be-all and end-all -- if he fails to make the cut, it's back to a life of poverty and struggle. Unless, of course, there's a third way.

"Ballast" is even more pared down. Set in the Mississippi Delta, Lance Hammer's subtle, rigorous debut examines the impact of a storekeeper's suicide on his twin brother, estranged wife and son (all played by nonprofessionals). Shot in winter, in the handheld, naturalistic style of European filmmakers such as Ken Loach and the Dardenne brothers, "Ballast" is a tone poem that resonates with sadness, isolation and despair but ultimately reaches out toward a note of hope and compassion.

In these films, at any rate, place really does make a difference -- and not just as a tourist background, as in Martin McDonagh's flip, slick, Tarantino-esque festival opener, "In Bruges." In "Ballast" and "Sugar," situation determines who these people are, how they interact and what it is that enables them to endure. It's just these insights into other people and other places that continue to make Sundance worth the trip. Video Watch Colin Farrell make an unfortunate slip »

Some of these films may make their way to a theater near you, so here are five Sundance films to look out for:

1. "Ballast"
Spare, subtle, evocative tone poem set in the desolation of the Mississippi Delta in midwinter.

2. "Bigger, Stronger, Faster"
Are steroids really a cheaters' drug, or are they as American as Rocky Balboa? Dedicated gym rat Chris Bell weighs the evidence.

3. "Sugar"
A Dominican with a mean spike curve gets his shot at living the dream in the latest from the "Half Nelson" team.

4. "Savage Grace"
Julianne Moore gives a richly nuanced performance as a well-married social climber who unconsciously begets her own undoing.

5. "Megane (Glasses)"
Sweet relief: a contemplative comedy from Japan about the bliss of nothingness.

And here are three to avoid:

1. "What Just Happened?"
Barry Levinson's insider Hollywood satire, based on producer Art Linson's book, is a lame, limp and indulgent exercise in self-serving cynicism.

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2. "Incendiary"
A misfire from "Bridget Jones's Diary" director Sharon Maguire, mixing terror fears with chick-lit romance.

3. "Henry Poole Is Here"
In which Luke Wilson struggles to accept the miracle in his own backyard. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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