Must-See Films at the Sundance Festival

The Sundance Film Festival is under way in Park City, Utah. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan combs the movie lineup for the most promising offerings.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And in Park City, Utah, the drama is winding down. The Sundance Film Festival ends this weekend, and the stars and dealmakers and purveyors of swag head home, along with our intrepid film critic Kenneth Turan. Renee got him on the phone from Sundance, where he's been making the rounds.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Ken, well, you're making those rounds I guess all bundled up.

KENNETH TURAN: Yes. It's been really, really cold here. It's been below zero a couple of nights.

MONTAGNE: And of course you'll mostly have been in theaters. I gather you're averaging about four films a day.

TURAN: I am. And actually it's been a good year for films. Some years you average three or four films a day and it's just three or four occasions to tear your hair out. This year there've been overall numerous films that I've really enjoyed.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with the documentaries. What stands out?

TURAN: Well, the documentaries are always the strength of Sundance. And they're especially strong this year. One is called "Stranded," and it's about the people whose plane crashed in the Andes in 1972 and only 16 people were left alive. They survived for 72 days. And that movie named "Alive" - best-selling book named "Alive" based on their story - this is the first time now the real people tell their story. And the filmmaker, who grew up with them, he took them back to the crash site, and it's kind of amazing to hear these people talk about what they survived.

MONTAGNE: There's another documentary, "Troubled Water," also in its way a film about people who were stranded.

TURAN: Yes. This is a film about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It starts with really kind of riveting home movie footage that two residents of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward took, terrifying shots of the water rising and them fleeing for the attic of their house to stay alive. And then the rest of the film becomes how these people survived, what it was like to try and put their lives back together. It's quite a powerful story. The woman who is the focus of the film, a woman named Kim Roberts, feels so strongly about getting this message out that she came to Sundance literally nine months, two weeks pregnant, and in fact gave birth to her baby the day after the film premiered.

MONTAGNE: Wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Maybe more exciting than some of the films.

TURAN: Absolutely.

MONTAGNE: The Grand Jury Prize for feature films will be announced on Saturday night. Talk to us about what you've been seeing.

TURAN: This year I felt there were more films that when I first heard about Sundance this is the kind of film I thought would be here. There've been some really beautiful artistic American films - very spare, beautifully shot, with really involving stories. I think my favorite is a film called "Frozen River." It stars an actress named Melissa Leo, and it's set on the Canadian-New York state border. She becomes involved with a Native American woman, and they become involved in smuggling people across the border. That's a very simplistic way to talk about it. It's really an amazingly gripping film. Most of the critics here have really been taken with it.

MONTAGNE: And one other thing, people were talking about the writers strike in relation to Sundance, and some saying that actually the strike would lead studios or distributors to make deals there - because there's a lot of product - that they may not have otherwise.

TURAN: Well, in fact, that really hasn't happened. Buying and selling has only started over the last few days and it's much less than usual. I think the fact that the economy is kind of in trouble turned out to be a more powerful factor than the writers strike. And the troubled economy meant that all the distributors, all the people I talked to that were up here acquiring films, they were all nervous. They wanted to be as sure as they could possibly be that this film would make money. They weren't leaping in and throwing millions of dollars away the way they have in the past.

MONTAGNE: Well, keep warm - as always something to say at the end of our conversations about Sundance. And we'll talk to you soon.

TURAN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Kenneth Turan is film critic for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times. And he spoke with us from Park City, Utah, where the Sundance Film Festival is wrapping up.

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