What set the Sundance mood this year? -- Piquant stories, such as ''Genghis Blues,'' ''P. Tinto's Miracle,'' and ''Twin Falls, Idaho'' spiced up the screen

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated February 12, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

The motto of kitchens serving visitors to this year’s Sundance Film Festival appeared to be ”Too many ingredients are never enough.” Swordfish was lubricated with jalapeno orange cream sauce. Green salads were tarted up with blue cheese and pine nuts. Committing to the prewrapped roast beef sandwich for sale in the lobby of the town’s largest theater, where the competition films were shown, meant dealing with the cream cheese, romaine lettuce, and onions that came along for the ride.

I’m pushing the trend of Garnish Overload as a metaphor for this year’s festival because Sundance is all about critics identifying trends, even if it means making them up. One truism going around, for instance, was that documentaries are big. Nuh-uh. It’s not the docus that got bigger (or, certainly, any bigger than they’ve been for years on public television’s reliable Frontline, P.O.V., or American Masters); it’s the dramas that got small, whether presented at Sundance as Premieres, in the Dramatic Competition, or in the noncompetitive American Spectrum and Park City at Midnight sections. Maybe, after the accretion of so many fragile projects by young filmmakers about coming of age, coming out, coming undone, and coming to terms, nonfiction films just offer more meat.

To slice the sandwich imagery even thinner, consider Judy Berlin and Genghis Blues as cream cheese versus roast beef. The first, a raffish feature-film debut in stylish black and white by writer-director Eric Mendelsohn about one David Gold (Aaron Harnick), a mopey 30-year-old Lost Boy sitting out his existential crisis in his parents’ suburban Long Island split-level, goes down easy with a peppering of charm and a Proustian jus of self-derision. The performances are deft and economical, particularly by Bob Dishy (as Lost Boy’s father, a school principal), Barbara Barrie (as a schoolteacher), and Edie Falco (as the title character, David’s high school classmate, ditching L.I. for L.A. armed with laudable optimism and no talent). For added flavor, Long Island is thrown into darkness because of a solar eclipse.

Metaphor noted. Filmmaker contacted for future deals. But how much juicier and more filling is Genghis Blues, Roko and Adrian Belic’s bear hug of a documentary about the improbable journey of Paul Pena — a blind San Francisco bluesman who taught himself the arcane art of throat singing practiced by musicians in isolated Tuva, between Siberia and Mongolia: Pena made it to Tuva and entered the triennial throat-singing contest in 1995. He won the Tuvan audience favorite award. And he further honored his hosts by teaching himself their language. Genghis Blues makes up in soul what it lacks in production values; it’s a heartfelt film about people who don’t mope on Long Island.

Not that moping by people with good reason to mope is, in itself, a bad thing. The young brother and sister hanging around a Greyhound bus station in Getting to Know You, for instance, put sadness to lovely use in Lisanne Skyler’s sensitive assemblage based on Joyce Carol Oates stories, a pleasing tapestry cowritten with her sister, Tristine Skyler. The director has a painterly eye for bold, geometric composition (she favors great blocks of vivid color for her backgrounds — each frame, blown up and nicely matted, would look great on a living room wall). She also had the smarts to give Heather Matarazzo her first big-time role since the teenager’s fearless novice turn in Welcome to the Dollhouse — and the actress blooms. In actor Frank Whaley’s promising directorial debut, Joe the King, meanwhile, a resourceful, pugnacious boy (Noah Fleiss) scrounges to get by while his drunken father (Val Kilmer, fat and seedy in the name of indie art) slaps and mocks him. Best quality: the refreshing absence of tremulous urchin moments a gooier director might require.