EW critic Owen Gleiberman rounds up the movies he warmed up to after 10 days in the snow watching indie movies at the Park City, Utah, festival

EW’s best of Sundance 2008

There was no megalith of a crowd-pleaser like Little Miss Sunshine. There was no Once — the sort of tiny gem that rises up out of nowhere to enchant a community of hearts and minds. And yet, for all the absence of a defining center, there was much — so much — to see. Riding around on the shuttle buses that never quite seemed to arrive on time, I wove my way through the journalists, the publicists, the executives, the bloggers, the freeloaders, the celebrities in their fuzzy cute hats (is it just me, or is it now getting harder to tell the ordinary great-looking people from the special great-looking people?). And I thought, This has become the state of independent film — a jubilant controlled chaos, sprawling all over the map of money and taste. At the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, the lack of a center was the center.

On my first day, I saw Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, and I knew I was off to a good start. We all think we know what happened when the fabled film director skipped the country in 1978 as he was about to face sentencing for the crime of ”unlawful sexual intercourse” with a 13-year-old girl. But Marina Zenovich’s startling exposé makes you realize you don’t know the half of it. By revealing how a media feeding frenzy shaped the case, oozing into the wheels of justice, the film depicts a legal system warped by the celebrity culture it was trying to rein in. Polanski, that charming creep-genius, emerges as guilty as sin — and a victim. It’s that duality that makes Wanted and Desired a film of rare fascination and power.

On the subject of kinky outlaws, Choke, adapted from the Chuck Palahniuk novel, is a satirical-psychotic comedy of sexual addiction, and it’s a dirty-minded blast. Adapted and directed by Clark Gregg, it comes at you in rude, fast, horndog snippets, popping you right into the fantasies of its scurrilous hero, Victor (Sam Rockwell), a sleazeball who attends Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings mostly so he can pick up the inevitable tramp-of-the-week. This may be the role that clinches stardom for Rockwell, who is boyish and moonstruck, with a dazed reptilian stare; as his mother, Anjelica Huston is grandly insane. Choke is a zany, synthetic movie, but it creates a world you enter like a neurotic playground. The result is an indelibly warped cartoon of lust and despair.

A great deal of media chatter promised that this year’s festival was going to offer a relief from the ”dark” ingrown dramas of years past. This time, there would be fun movies — comedies, dammit! It turned out to be true, yet What Just Happened?, a Hollywood satire that finds Barry Levinson returning to the gently merciless, bombs-away mode of Wag the Dog, couldn’t even find a distributor. (One rumor was that it hit them too close to home.) The irony is that the crushing of art by commerce is something the movie takes blithely for granted. The hero is a powerful producer, played by Robert De Niro, but he’s little more than an errand boy, a giant cog nudging the cogs below him. The movie rambles on a bit, yet it has priceless laugh-out-loud lines, and it’s held together by De Niro, who musters a nagging warmth beneath his grumbly facade. I also laughed at, and was enchanted by, The Great Buck Howard, which gives John Malkovich the showcase he deserves. His Buck Howard, a fictionalized version of the Amazing Kreskin, is a former superstar of ”mentalism,” now a relic of the early ’70s. It’s a movie in love with kitsch, with the backwaters of showbiz, with genuine magic.

I go to Sundance looking for good films, but what I’m really out to discover is a voice. I found one when I saw Momma’s Man, a shaggy, wise, poker-faced comedy of discombobulation that reinvents — and purifies — that Sundance staple, the quirky family drama. It was written and directed by Azazel Jacobs, the son of avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs, and what Jacobs (the younger) has done is to morph his own life into fiction by casting his parents as the parents in the movie — and by shooting most of it in their ancient Manhattan loft, a cavernous hole-in-the-wall, crammed with toys, technology, and a lifetime’s worth of junk, that is one of the most spectacularly colorful and eccentric movie sets you’ve ever seen. On a business trip, schlumpy Mikey (Matt Boren) stops off to see his folks — and won’t leave. Jacobs’ style recalls early Jim Jarmusch, only more so, and Ken and Flo Jacobs are like the Nichols and May of wacked, monosyllabic New York bohemia.

NEXT PAGE: Owen Gleiberman’s view from Sundance on Ballast, Anvil!, The Wackness, Sunshine Cleaning, American Teen, and Hamlet 2

Another voice in the din was that of Lance Hammer, the writer-director of Ballast. His movie doesn’t just bring three troubled characters in the Mississippi Delta to rich, gnarled, vivid life — it presents them as enigmas who come into focus moment by moment, scene by scene, in a journey of discovery that forces us to cast off the clichés of race, poverty, and existence in the Deep South.

It’s become knee-jerk to call something ”the real-life Spinal Tap,” but there are moments when Anvil! The Story of Anvil really is. It’s a documentary about the greatest heavy-metal band you’ve never heard of — a crew of Canadian headbangers who came up during the demon-thrash wave of the early ’80s, then went nowhere. Anvil! catches up with their two lead members, who were gypped by fate, and it takes the measure of metal stardom: To be a legend in your own mind is to wear, rather than smell, the glove. So many great documentaries play at Sundance that, in fact, there’s a fascination to seeing docs that don’t work. I wasn’t alone in hoping that Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?, the latest from Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), might shed light on the location of the globe’s most wanted man. But the Michael Moore roving-boob-with-a-camera approach backfires into banality. The film should have been called The Post-9/11 World for Dummies. And Patti Smith: Dream of Life is a woozy art ramble, treating the rag-doll punk priestess’ 1970s heyday as if it were some trivial prelude to her middle age.

If you’re wondering what qualifies an era for nostalgia, here’s an easy answer: when it’s depicted with affectionate period-piece distance in a movie at Sundance. Jonathan Levine’s The Wackness is a studiously offbeat coming-of-age romance set in New York during the long-ago, faraway days of…1994. It’s about a teen drug dealer (Josh Peck) who becomes buddies with his shrink, a pothead played by Ben Kingsley with a ”New York” accent somewhere between Brooklynese and Hungarian. Kingsley has fun as this ornery guru-codger, and people had fun watching him (the movie won an audience award), even if he’s never quite a credible person.

I preferred Christine Jeffs’ Sunshine Cleaning, which makes something fresh out of something queasy. It stars Amy Adams (sweetness and light) and Emily Blunt (spicy and dark) as sisters who go into business, cleaning up homes where folks have died, leaving a trail of bodily fluids. (Yes, it’s a little gross — which is part of the fun.) The two aren’t just scrubbing away blood, they’re cleaning up wasted lives, and finding a screwy purpose in it. Another quiet winner was Sugar, the second film from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson), about a baseball player from the Dominican Republic — a pitcher (Algenis Perez Soto) with a baby face and a killer curve — who gets drafted into the American minor leagues. Boden and Fleck work with a touching integrity that, I admit, left me wishing for a hint of rah-rah vulgarity.

An addictive portrait of seniors at a high school in Indiana, American Teen shows the tropes of reality TV now invading ”serious” documentaries. A lot of folks thought it was stagy and fake, but director Nanette Burstein digs so tellingly into her subjects’ emotional lives that the film, to me, felt like a richly packed novel.

And then there was Hamlet 2. If you’re a fan of Steve Coogan, the King Leer of British comics, you won’t want to miss this broad, loony-tunes spin on Waiting for Guffman, in which Coogan turns a self-loathing high school drama teacher into a loser-geek of genius. He stages a sequel to Hamlet, and it’s a high school musical that would make John Waters proud — a demolition derby of bad taste. At Sundance 2008, that’s what independence looked like.