By Lisa Schwarzbaum
January 26, 2012 at 06:12 PM EST

For party animals, star gazers, hungry movie-acquisition teams, and Twitter fiends, diving in at the halfway mark of Sundance has definite drawbacks: The celebrity-circus caravan has left Park City, and that starting-gate itch, both for acquisitions types and critic types, to be first to weigh in on hot titles has been scratched. Fine with me! I arrived in Park City on Tuesday afternoon to already thinning crowds, and with pretty reliable input (not necessarily from Twitter fiends!) into hits, misses, and curiosities. The downside: I missed a sighting of Richard Gere. The upside: I missed a public harangue by Spike Lee.

The Film Festival director wasn’t being hyperbolic when he introduced filmmaker James Marsh to an appreciative audience earlier this week as “Sundance royalty.” After last year’s documentary triumph Project Nim and his 2008 beaut Man on a Wire, Marsh is someone Festival goers reasonably want to follow anywhere. Switching from nonfiction to drama, Marsh doesn’t disappoint this year with Shadow Dancer, a  gripping, slow-building cat-and-mouse political thriller pitting British undercover intelligence agents against Irish Republican Army operatives in 1993 when the bloody Troubles in Northern Ireland were at a critical juncture. Comparison with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy isn’t exactly accurate, but it’s a usefully easy way to describe Marsh’s expertly controlled, underplayed, complicated storytelling involving secrets, moles, human inconsistency, and serious political consequence. Andrea Riseborough, so extraordinary as Wallis Simpson in Madonna’s folly W.E. (and previously extraordinary in Brighton Rock and Made in Dagenham) continues to dazzle as Collette, a single mother in Northern Ireland from an IRA activist family hardened by intimate experience with political violence; Clive Owen is perfectly complicated as the British MI5 agent working hard to turn her into a mole. Like Tinker Tailor, Marsh’s Shadow Dancer requires viewer concentration and a willingness to tolerate early confusion for a richer payoff. And like Tinker Tailor, the reward is worth the work.

Smashed, about a young married couple bound by shared drunkenness, follows in the long cinema-of-addiction dramatic tradition of Days of Wine and Roses and Clean and Sober. But what’s new about this affecting, unsensationalized portrait of addiction, recovery, codependence, setbacks, one-day-at-a-time progress, and their effects on relationships, is the low-keyed energy of the storytelling. This is a drunk’s tale by and for a generation with a high tolerance for humor in the midst of dead seriousness, and a low tolerance both for soapiness and bulls—; it’s also a project shaped by television and Internet sensibilities, with a cast of likable, TV-seasoned actors including Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, and Mary Kay Place.  In an empathetic performance of appealing transparency, former horror-movie scream queen Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Kate, an elementary school teacher who teaches little kids by day and parties hard with her wasted man-boy husband, Charlie (Paul), by night. Their bond of mutual effed-upness is ruptured when Kate seeks 12-step help, encouraged by a clear-eyed colleague (Offerman) who, in his past,  hit bottom himself.  (The Help’s great Octavia Spencer plays Kate’s down-to-earth sponsor.) Even at crisis points—when Kate wakes up in a heap on a river bank, or when a lie she tells at school to cover her alcoholism has serious consequences—director and co-writer James Ponsoldt sustains a tone of everydayness that enhances the movie’s quiet punch.

Where Smashed is a conservatively constructed drama about character, the actions of believable people, and an outcome of serious consequence, Nobody Walks is a dreamy, scattershot drama about unbelievable people and outcomes of no consequence at all—except for the round-robin sexual and emotional upheaval that rocks every member of an artsy, privileged L.A. family, precipitated by the arrival of a New York stranger. A resolutely secular variation of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s more spiritual 1968 Italian film Teorema, Ry Russo-Young’s follow-up to her fine 2009 Sundance entry You Won’t Miss Me suggests that a 23-year-old gamine artist (an odd casting fit for Juno’s delightful Olivia Thirlby) can wreak domestic havoc while rocking a pixie haircut. Thirlby’s Martine arrives at the home of Peter (John Krasinski), a movie sound designer, and his psychotherapist wife, Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt), for help in completing her arty video installation about bugs. Soon everyone on the premises of Peter and Julie’s design-perfect Silver Lake house is tripped up by out-of-bound lusts: Peter and Martine, Julie and a seductive movie-star patient (Justin Kirk), Julie’s 16-year-old daughter (Treme’s India Ennenga) for Peter’s assistant (Rhys Wakefield), Peter’s assistant for Martine, and la la la. It’s no coincidence that Martine’s film puts bugs under a microscope: Russo-Young (working from a screenplay she co-wrote with Tiny Furniture’s Lena Dunham, soon to launch her HBO series Girls) also puts her specimens under a magnifying lens, trying to figure out the ways of this strange species of affluent Angelenus erectus. I don’t believe any of the players and, speaking of ants, their problems don’t amount to a hill of beans. But the movie’s sound design is itself striking, and Thirlby is a study in twentysomething sexual quicksilver.

For Sundance veterans like myself, a pall of sadness has clouded the festival since news of the death of Bingham Ray this past Monday, at the age of 57, following a series of strokes. Ray was a charismatic driving force in the 1990s flowering of independent film, a passionate advocate who, with more behind-the-scenes muscle than, say, Harvey Weinstein’s in-front-of-the-scenes showmanship, was every bit as important in the Sundance-centered movie world, introducing viewers to the wonders of Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, and Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, among many other titles. Ray was a gregarious, outspoken, wonderfully forthcoming man who truly enjoyed schmoozing with critics. I, like so many of my colleagues, have Bingham Stories to tell. And I, like so many, am bereft at our loss.