Picks from the Sundance Film Festival

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Renee Montagne talks to film critic Kenneth Turan at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Turan calls it an up-and-down year, with some strong commercial film entries. One pick: Little Miss Sunshine, a bleak comedy about a dysfunctional family that showed out of competition.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

The movers and shakers of the film world have gathered in Park City, Utah for the annual extravaganza that is the Sundance Film Festival. And as we do every year, we've got Kenneth Turan on the line. He is, of course, film reviewer for Morning Edition and the Los Angeles Times. So, there's always the buzz and the marketing surrounding this particular film festival, and what about this year?

KENNETH TURAN: Well, this year, it's been, it's been an up and down year, this year, I think. It's, there've been strong commercial films. A few films have sold for large sums of money, but there's some of it, you know, everyone hasn't been as excited about everything across the board. But what everyone's talking about is how crowded it's become and every year, people say, it can't get more crowded in Park City, and the next year, it gets more crowded.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk, then, about the films, and starting with the dramatic films, what did you find to be the most promising?

TURAN: well, the film that I liked the best, and I think, that everyone really enjoyed the most, is a film that wasn't in competition. It's a film that's in the premiere section, called Little Miss Sunshine. It's kind of a, I don't know, a bleak comedy about a dysfunctional family. It stars Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear, and Alan Arkin. And it just made people laugh. There's another good dramatic film that I really like, the South African film. It's called the Son of God. It is the story of the passion updated to a township of contemporary South Africa. And it's got some music to it, and it's very involving, very, kind of, provocative in a good way. And that was a pleasant surprise.

MONTAGNE: And how about the documentaries? In the past, you've said that that category is consistently the best at the festival?

TURAN: Well, you know, just like it always gets more crowded, every year, at Sundance, you can count on the documentaries being the best films in the festival, and that's true this year as well. In the premiere section was a film called Neil Young: Heart of God, a Neil Young concert film, directed by Jonathan Demme, which was really moving and emotional. There were two documentaries on Iraq, covering very different areas. And there was another documentary that really was actually my complete favorite of the festival, which was totally unexpected for me.

MONTAGNE: Which was?

TURAN: It's a German film, it's called Into Great Silence, and it's an almost three hour film, it's almost a transformative experience to watch this film and to see such a quiet, contemplative film, in the midst of the chaos of Sundance was just really the biggest treat I could've imagined.

MONTAGNE: It gets one wondering, though, what is happening in the film world, that documentaries are often stronger than the dramas?

TURAN: Well, the documentaries have been helped a lot by the fact, by the use of digital cameras, the fact that they can be made very cheaply now. If you have a good idea, you know, it's just like, it's kind of easier to do a newspaper story than to write a novel. If you have a good idea for a non-fiction film, you can now do it, you don't have to go out and raise money, you can just buy a little camera and do it yourself.

MONTAGNE: Well, finally, Ken, the award ceremony is tomorrow night, big night, what are your predictions?

TURAN: well, it's hard to say, you know, I mean, what happens with awards is that they are presented by a jury. It's not like the Academy Awards, which basically are the same group of people giving the awards every year, and so, they get a track record that's predictable. Every year, you have a new jury at Sundance, and there's no telling what they'll do. One of the things that, though, that I found is that, often, they treat the grand jury prize as kind of a mission of mercy.

They want to give it to a worthy film. They don't, necessarily, want to give it to the best film in competition, because they figure the best film in competition doesn't need any help, and they're going to help a smaller film that they feel good about. So, my prediction is, whatever people think the best film in the festival is, it's not going to get the grand jury prize.

MONTAGNE: Ken, thanks very much.

TURAN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Kenneth Turan is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and Morning Edition, and he was speaking to us from Park City, Utah, at the Sundance Film Festival.

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