By Owen Gleiberman
Updated January 24, 2009 at 12:00 PM EST

For me, the Sundance Film Festival, with its agreeably repetitive daily routine of screening/shuttle bus/screening/eat a muffin/shuttle bus/screening/party/blog/sleep for five hours/do it all over again, is like some snowbound movie-nut conventioneers’ version of Groundhog Day. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t approach the final weekend with a twinge of relief—no more muffins, please! Or overly buzzed-about movies!—yet Sundance remains an expansive and gratifying event, a chance to rub elbows with a variety of industry folks (journalists, filmmakers, specialty-division executives) and, when the deals happen, to catch a wee glimpse of how the movie business actually works. As the festival draws to a close with tonight’s awards ceremony, here are a few random thoughts on my experience of Sundance 2009.

The Mood: With thinner crowds, less swag, and a general air of economic anxiety blanketing the world of independent film, the festival was quieter this year, and—it must be said—a good touch more serene and inviting. The vibe took me back to my very first Sundance, in 1995, when the pre-Internet, pre-cell phone era made the movies themselves seem that much more front and center. This year, by week’s end, the Park City streets were so uncluttered that at times they looked ready for tumbleweeds. There were also fewer of those trust-fund-hipster parties where you look around a room full of down-vested twentysomethings and think, “Who are these people?”

Why It Still Matters: In the festival’s 25th year, its mission remains as strong—and underestimated—as ever: not just giving birth to individual films, but giving rise to the vast, unpredictable careers that those movies then launch. There are dozens of examples. I was, for instance, on the festival’s Dramatic Jury in 1998, the year that Darren Aronofsky won the Best Director prize for Pi, his black-and-white numerological head-trip thriller. It was a scrappily auspicious debut, but the real point is that if there’d been no Sundance (and no distribution deal for Pi), it’s quite possible that Aronfosky would have ended up in Hollywood doing rewrites of Kevin James comedies. He might never have gotten his big break and made Requiem For a Dream and, later on, The Wrestler. A similar scenario is true of Kelly Reichardt, whose debut feature, River of Grass, showed at Sundance in 1994, as did Old Joy (the movie that really put her on the map) in 2006, enabling her to make Wendy and Lucy. You see how it works? It’s the whole Soderbergh Cinderella scenario, played out over and over again. This year, I’d say to look out for the future trajectories of Lee Daniels (Push), Robert Siegel (Big Fan), and veteran documentary-producer-turned-director R.J. Cutler (The September Issue).

Final Letdown: Is it just me, or does no one know how to end movies anymore? The shock-cut-to-black, which was given currency in our era by Boogie Nights and has since become a stylistic tic, now seems to happen at the most sloppy, random times, as if filmmakers, stuck for a resolution, thought that suddenly blacking out the screen in the middle of a scene could make any moment appear profound and “final.” Sorry, but not if it leaves the audience going, “Huh?”

You’ve Got Male: Why doesn’t the indie world, after all these years, cough up more in the way of gay romantic comedies? Or, like, any of them? Just asking. But seriously, if a movie like When Harry Met Larry ever emerged from Sundance and crossed over, it could end up doing the work of 14 Milks.

Favorite Celebrity Moments: Seeing Mike Tyson receive the audience’s love after a screening of Tyson—he’s as fascinating and charmingly humbled a survivor as Mickey Rourke—and being introduced to Patton Oswalt, a terrific dude who forgave me (after duly mocking me) for panning his performance in Ratatouille.

Fight Club: The endlessly reported upon and nattered about fisticuffs between Variety film critic John Anderson and producer’s rep Jeff Dowd—full disclosure: I know and like both of these gentlemen— was as good as gossip gets. To me, though, it also had a telling dimension within the current Critic Wars. Dowd, who was representing the environmental documentary Dirt! The Movie, got punched by Anderson, who didn’t care for the film, after Dowd got in Anderson’s face and insisted that he reconsider the movie in light of the real-world impact its message would have on an audience. I won’t defend the punch, but what strikes me about Dowd’s argument is that it’s the politically correct, Sundance-friendly version of what studio executives now say about their most commercial products: that a movie should always be reviewed through the lens of its fans. Wrong! A critic should watch a movie through his own eyes, and no one else’s. And he should fight off—at least, with words—anyone who tries to get in the way. That’s independence.

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Apart from that kerfuffle, the environmental docs programmed this year—movies like Dirt! and Crude—failed to create much of a stir. But one of them lingers. Robert Stone’s Earth Days, the festival’s closing-night film, was a rapturous and enlightening testament to what the environmental movement has meant in America, and to why it now means more than ever. Stone, the director of Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst and the revelatory conspiracy-theory dissection Oswald’s Ghost, is an elegant no-frills nonfiction virtuoso who sees “objective” history for the psychological spectacle it is.

In Earth Days, he interviews many of the founders of the environmental movement, a tremendously engaged group of men and women who take us back to a time before the desire to conserve the planet carried leftist associations. Stone salutes the landmark that was Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s 1962 bestseller about the effects of chemical industry on nature, but his most galvanizing insight is the way that the first disseminated photograph of earth from outer space revolutionized people’s feelings about the planet’s smallness, majesty, and vulnerability. The movie documents how in the ’70s, “ecology” and anti-pollution activism blossomed into a mainstream Congressional issue, only to be demagogued in the Reagan era, reduced for the next three decades to a tree hugger-vs.-drill baby drill! debate. With the ascension of President Obama, that moment may finally have passed, and Earth Days couldn’t be more perfectly timed. It’s about truths that are no longer so inconvenient.