By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated January 28, 2011 at 05:00 AM EST
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Midway through Sundance 2011, Clerks‘ Kevin Smith (Sundance celebrity, class of 1994) had proclaimed an end to traditional marketing and distribution. Super Size Me‘s Morgan Spurlock (Sundance celebrity, class of 2004) had declared his tongue-in-cheek eagerness to sell out to corporate sponsorship. Project Nim, a documentary about the hard life of a famous chimpanzee, had moved viewers to tears; and the incandescent love story Like Crazy had sold big. In between, scores of independent filmmakers — many of them dreaming of a future bettered by financing a little less independent — told stories fresh and old.

The message of Smith’s Red State was kind of a duh: Hatemongering fundamentalist religion sucks! So does nefarious governmental law enforcement! Plus, teenage boys are horny! But this ain’t no Jay and Silent Bob comedy. It’s a crazed, comic-book-violent horror movie that takes real-life, venom-spouting Kansas pastor Fred Phelps (of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church) as its inspiration for an even crazier fictional church leader, played with bravura creepiness by Kill Bill‘s Michael Parks. The thing is pretty lazy on Smith’s part, if you ask me. But then again, with a salute of his middle finger, he’s preaching to those who applauded when he identified himself on stage as a ”fat, masturbating stoner.”

Documentarian Spurlock doesn’t go particularly deep in POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, either. Did you know that advertising and marketing are everywhere in our daily lives? It’s true! Spurlock does fashion mega-meta entertainment in his sponsored documentary about making a documentary in which he enlists corporate sponsors to help finance and market his documentary. But he never seriously answers his own question about whether he himself is okay with selling out — or, as they call it these days, buying in.

Great movie love stories are, I realize, as personal a matter of taste as love partners themselves. That said, I fell in love with the tender naturalism of Like Crazy by Drake Doremus, who went a very different route with last year’s Douchebag. This great leap forward is the sweet-sad story of passionate young romance challenged by unromantic stuff like long-distance separation and tangled red tape. Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones are golden as an American boy and a British girl who fall hard, then struggle with practicalities when visa problems separate them. I also really liked The Future, by multimedia performance artist Miranda July. July was previously at Sundance with Me and You and Everyone We Know, a personal fave. She is, to quote one of her characters, not everyone’s cup of tea, with her porcelain-fine acting style, her tendrils of whimsy, and her restless interest in incorporating Internet culture into her stories. For me, that’s exactly what’s great — and challenging — about her existential projects. Here, July and Hamish Linklater play a thirtysomething couple who actually bend time. P.S., the movie is narrated by a cat.

Dee Rees’ Pariah, a raw, vibrant first feature about the coming out of a black lesbian teen, pulses with authenticity. But other films on my itinerary dreamed big on paper only to fall flat in execution. Martha Marcy May Marlene introduces a luscious-looking Elizabeth Olsen as a young woman traumatized by her years spent in a cult, but the movie never makes her real; Azazel Jacobs’ Terri, the follow-up to his notable Sundance debut, Momma’s Man, relies too much on arbitrarily assigned character eccentricities.

Meanwhile, Sundance’s nongimmicky documentary selections remain must-sees. Two cases in point: The elegant, essentially heartbreaking Project Nim, by Man on Wire‘s James Marsh, re-creates the world of a chimp famously raised in the 1970s as a human child, taught sign language, and then mistreated for a long stretch of time when the monkeying humans who brought him up lost interest and funds. And The Interrupters, by Hoop Dreams‘ Steve James, is a riveting, close look at former Chicago gang members working to stop violence before it happens.

Finally, I laughed with delight at Jesse Peretz’s My Idiot Brother, in which Paul Rudd plays Ned, a guy so brimming with transparent goodness and honesty that he annoys the heck out of his three sophisticated sisters, who have made nice lives for themselves accommodating lies and duplicity. As Ned himself might say: Sundance — it’s all good, man.

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