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Get the early buzz on Sundance films

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Christina Ricci, Dominique Swain, ...
Pumpkin: Eric lee

Combine dark, personal cinema, jaded film execs, and insanely wealthy skiiers wondering why their favorite vacation spot is infested by unshaven types, and you have the Sundance Film Festival, which lasts from Jan. 10-20 in Park City, Utah. This year will bring the usual combination of heady documentaries, digital dramas paid for by long-saved waiter salaries, and star-powered vehicles that blur the line between ”indie” and ”studio” flick (Nicole Kidman plays a mail-order bride in ”Birthday Girl”).

Which will turn out to be gems and which will be overhyped dreck? That’s the usual mystery, but there’s an even bigger mystery this year: Will the shaky economy affect the studios’ shopping? Every year filmmakers arrive praying for the phone call from Miramax or Artisan that marks the difference between nabbing a wider audience (and reclaiming your credit line) and having your film vanish into the giant, unexplored swamp of unscreened indies. Forecasts are mixed as to the state of the market: Some say distributors are hungry for cheap product, while others believe they have no money to spare. But commerce aside, the festival will include the usual high-profile films and events that everyone is looking forward to seeing (if not necessarily paying for). Here’s this year’s top crop:

”Gerry” Remember when Gus Van Sant had indie cred and wasn’t the populist with a damaged-mentor fetish (”Finding Forrester,” ”Good Will Hunting”)? Well, this year he’s returning with the improvised digital flick ”Gerry,” with Matt Damon and Casey Affleck. It’s bound to have grumpy film aesthetes applauding with glee…though few may go see it in the theater. Well, at least the snobs will forgive Van Sant for ”Psycho.”

The Robin Williams Penance Tour After escalating his sappy quotient to dangerous levels throughout the ’90s, Robin Williams must have finally realized that the very sight of his moony-eyed innocent expression is enough to stop audiences from ever smiling again. Therefore, he’s inaugurating a new, less kinder, less gentler image by facing the fickle Sundance crowd with his dark morality tale, ”One Hour Photo.” He plays a lonely photo developer who becomes dangerously obsessed with one customer’s family. You can expect him to kick off a self-deprecating (and self-serving) publicity tour where he’ll mock his past happy roles. But, frankly, he shouldn’t be forgiven until he promises to burn all existing copies of ”Patch Adams.”

”The Kid Stays in the Picture” Based on supersmooth 1970s Paramount exec Robert Evans’ autobiography, this documentary will trace the life of the producer (”The Godfather,” ”Chinatown”) who is the source of every sunglass-wearing, ”hey, baby”-spouting, dandified movie slickster cliché you’ve ever seen. Those attending the fest are delirious at the prospect of seeing Mr. Old School parading the New School streets of Park City. Extra points if you catch him wearing a garish fur coat!

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