By Owen Gleiberman
January 21, 2009 at 12:00 PM EST

The slot on the schedule just read Sneak Preview 2, with no title attached. But by the time it was ready to begin, more or less everyone in the audience knew that they were there to see the world-premiere showing of Steven Soderbergh’s new film, Che: Everything I Left Out of Parts One and Two.

I’m kidding. But not about the Soderbergh part. He arrived on stage in a longish brown leather jacket, toying with the audience for a few minutes by pretending that he was just there to answer questions. And then, with his customary self-deprecatory acerbic twinkle, he introduced his latest film, The Girlfriend Experience, shown last night as a work-in-progress. It’s one of the director’s wee, semi-improvised, non-star-cast, shot-on-easy-to-tote-video doodles, and this one turned out to be every bit as crafty and fascinating as 2006’s Bubble.

As the film opened, we saw jagged, medium-shot images of a man and a woman on what appeared to be some sort of date, murmuring to each other in a taxi, a sleek low-lit restaurant, and a bedroom. By the time they wake up to breakfast on the terrace, we’ve pretty much decided that they’re a couple. Except that they’re not. The guy is some sort of wealthy finance dude, and the girl is a very high-end escort who provides not just sex but conversation over late-night wine, kissing and cuddling, morning-after chitchat — the illusion of intimacy. She’s played by Sasha Grey, a real-life adult-video star who turns out to be not so much a natural actress as a natural-born disaffected walking Barbie (she looks like Ashley Dupree with a touch of Demi Moore) who Soderbergh uses intentionally for her spiritual flatness. Visualized mostly in stark medium shots that have the paradoxical effect of detaching us from the characters and, at the same time, making us lean in more closely to find out who they are, The Girlfriend Experience is a playfully structured, candy-colored riff on sex and relationships in an age when money, like technology, has infused itself into everything.

We see Grey with her clients, who really do seem like people she’s dating; with her live-in boyfriend, a gym trainer who thinks that he accepts the way she earns her livelihood; with a journalist who interviews her in a restaurant and tries to tease out her hidden depths (the joke’s on him); and in meetings with assorted folks who promise to advance her career. One of them, who operates a Web site for escorts out of a scuzzy furniture store in which he posts his own personalized reviews of their services, is played by the film blogger and former Premiere critic Glenn Kenny (full disclosure: he’s a friend), who has fun playing what must surely be the snootiest sleazebag in the history of cinema.

I like the fact that Soderbergh showed up at Sundance with a movie he shot in October, replete with up-to-the-minute references to the Presidential campaign and, more tellingly, the economic meltdown. The Girlfriend Experience unfolds in filthy-expensive apartments, private jets, and luxe weekend getaways. It’s about the sort of men who got rich off the culture of leveraging that has now collapsed, and it’s about what that kind of money does to love and desire: turns it into something you want to control. The most fascinating aspect of the movie is that it’s not just Grey’s clients who want “the girlfriend experience.” Grey herself flirts with getting involved with them; she tries to barter herself into romance. Soderbergh borrows one of Jean-Luc Godard’s favorite themes — prostitution as a metaphor for capitalism — and adapts it to an America in which the line between selling out and selling yourself has never been thinner.

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It’s the job of a critic to look past the buzz — to ignore it, really — yet at a festival like this one, buzz isn’t merely PR. It’s an essential journalistic lifeline, one of the only tools you have to help sort through the massive schedule of over 100 films and figure out what might be worth seeing. I have no problem saying that good word-of-mouth will get me to a screening. It just won’t guarantee my response. Here are two very buzzed-about movies, one of which lived up to the hype, one of which — to my mind, even if it does make me a minority of one — didn’t.

From virtually the moment my plane touched down in Utah, I began to hear about Taking Chance. It’s a film that has moved people to tears, and was described to me as a singular and eloquent tribute to our soldiers in Iraq. In this elegiac international road movie (it’s based on a true story), Kevin Bacon stars as a buttoned-down Marine who, frustrated by his role as a Stateside desk jockey, volunteers to escort the remains of a 19-year-old soldier killed in Iraq back to his family in Wyoming. (The soldier’s last name is Chance.) Let me be blunt: I thought the movie was flat, pious, and incredibly mediocre. Bacon’s journey keeps getting intercut with shots of the soldier’s corpse, his watch and other personal effects being removed and cleansed of blood, his casket being filled with ice bags for the journey — all the details of death that, in the Iraq war, have been shielded from us. (Then again, it’s not as if we saw most of those details in Vietnam or World War II.) Yet since we never, for three seconds, get to know the soldier as a human being, he’s reduced to an entirely abstract symbol, and this makes the film’s use of his death didactic rather than humane. I’ve grown a little tired of seeing Kevin Bacon give buttoned-down performances. Taking Chance is a classic instance of a Sundance film that moves audiences by asking them to feel good about their own capacity for caring.

Equally buzzed about, but infinitely more genuine in its compassion (not to mention riveting to watch), is Reporter, a movie that profiles the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof as he treks around to the world’s most catastrophic trouble spots (Darfur, Rwanda, Congo), doing everything in his power to place the suffering and death of multitudes onto the international radar. Early on, the film offers a fascinating dissection of “psychic numbing” — the documented phenomenon by which people tend to feel less urgency about a disaster the more victims are actually involved. The tendency is reflected in the well-known aphorism, “The death of one person is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic.” Kristof’s drive as a journalist is to make us feel for a million by capturing their agony in the plight of one.

In Reporter, he’s a compelling figure, a cross between Mother Teresa and the James Woods character in Salvador, and what seals the intensity of his job is its danger. In Eastern Congo, where four million have died as a result of tribal civil war, Kristof goes to interview a warlord, who tries to put his spin on the situation. But then Kristof talks to one of the warlord’s young soldiers, who admits that he thinks rape is perfectly justified in war. Even as you’re reeling at the atrocity of this remark, you realize that it has created a dicey situation for Kristof: He now has explosive incriminating evidence, and must therefore get the hell out of there. When the warlord insists that he stay and have dinner, it’s literally an offer he can’t refuse. The movie goes on to make an essential point about journalism in the blogger era: A reporter like Nicholas Kristof wields more than an opinion — to do his job, he needs resources, skills, monetary backing. Reporter is a tribute to the guts, and mission, of old media.