“Will everyone be wearing black?” a friend asked over dinner the other night when the subject arose of my imminent departure for the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. “I'm so glad I'm not going to Sundance,” confided one longtime film publicist at this week's Los Angeles Film Critics awards dinner, as if she had escaped sentencing to a leper colony. Indeed, this year, it feels like a funereal pall has descended on Park City, Utah before the curtain has even risen on January's annual powwow of independent filmmakers, distributors and deep-pocketed passholders hoping to catch a glimpse of Jennifer Aniston as she tries not to slip on the ice. When the festival does kick off tomorrow evening, with the world premiere of Oscar-winning animator Adam Elliot's debut feature, Mary and Max (featuring a clay-mated Philip Seymour Hoffman as an obese Jewish man with Asperger's syndrome), it will do so at the center of a perfect storm of indie-film bad voodoo.

From the economic crisis to the recent downsizing or shuttering of multiple indie and mini-major distributors to the threat of protests stemming from the Utah Mormon community's heavy backing of California's Proposition 8, Sundance 2009 is starting out from a defensive crouch. But most worrisome of all may be the undeniable fatigue that critics and audiences — indeed, the entire industry — seem to be feeling about American independent films in general and Sundance movies in particular. Just one title from last year's festival, the documentary Man On Wire, managed to finish in the top 25 in the recent L.A. Weekly/Village Voice poll of more than 80 prominent North American film critics, while of the 10 highest-grossing indie releases at the 2008 U.S. box office, only Patricia Riggen's Under the Same Moon was a Sundance world premiere — and it had screened at the 2007 edition of the festival.

Despite a general decline in high-ticket acquisitions, Sundance 2008 nevertheless saw its share of foolhardy overspending on sub-par, supposedly commercial movies that proved to be anything but — among them the much-ballyhooed Hamlet 2 (which stalled at just under $5 million worldwide after Focus Features paid a reported $10 million to buy it), Choke (which returned $3.6 million on Fox Searchlight's $5 million investment) and the Barry Levinson debacle What Just Happened?, whose title could be taken as a metaphor for the present state of the indie film scene. Finally released by Magnolia Pictures (a subsidiary of the film's production company, 2929 Entertainment), it grossed all of $2.6 million despite a cast that included Robert De Niro, Sean Penn and Bruce Willis.

Faring little better, the handful of artistically ambitious movies that surfaced at Sundance 2008 found it more difficult than ever to escape the festival-circuit ghetto. Lance Hammer's double prize-winning Ballast was first acquired by IFC, then re-acquired (and ultimately self-distributed) by Hammer after he balked at the terms of the deal. Aza Jacobs' Momma's Man got caught up in the collapse of stalwart indie distributor THINKFilm, was subsequently picked up by the smaller Kino International and finally trickled into a handful of art houses across the country. And, as of this writing, the excellent Japanese film Megane remains without U.S. distribution of any kind.

What direct impact — other than fewer late-night bidding wars in Harvey Weinstein's condo — all this will have on Sundance 2009 remains to be seen. Certainly, there will be no shortage of new product on display, even if the most buzzed-about attraction of the festival's first half seems sure to be a small-screen one: the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States.

As for the movies, the “Premieres” section (a.k.a. the part of Sundance where you are most likely to see something unforgivably awful featuring a name star) alone brings us the latest from Superbad director Greg Mottola (Adventureland) and Training Day's Antonie Fuqua (Brooklyn's Finest), the re-teaming of Y Tu Mamá También co-stars Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal (in Rudo Y Cursi, directed by Carlos — brother of Alfonso — Cuarón) and Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor as penitentiary cellmates turned lovers in I Love You Phillip Morris.

Among those titles vying for Sundance's coveted dramatic Grand Jury Prize are The Office star John Krasinski's adaptation of the late David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men; The Greatest, this year's obligatory drama about a family coping with the death of their teenage son; and Taking Chance, this year's obligatory drama about the Iraq War. Meanwhile, the films screening in the festival's reliably strong documentary competition promise to touch on everything from African-American “hair culture” (the Chris Rock-produced Good Hair) to the soil beneath our feet (the unambiguously titled Dirt! The Movie) to the Prada-wearing Devil herself, Anna Wintour (The September Issue).

Most timely in its intent, director Eric Daniel Metzger's Reporter purports to follow Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof as he travels to the Congo in the summer of 2007. “The crisis in journalism in real,” writes Sundance festival director Geoffrey Gilmore in the film's program note, before declaring the film “required viewing for anyone who cares about the future of ideas.” Given the way newspaper readership has been heading, that one should really pack them in.

For the next 10 days, I'll be posting here regularly, direct from Park City. But in the meantime, we begin our coverage of Sundance 2009 with two stories from this week's print edition of the Weekly that cast a glance back to happier Sundance times. One is a wide-ranging interview with Steven Soderbergh, whose debut dramatic feature, Sex Lies and Videotape, premiered at Sundance 20 years ago this week and forever altered the course of both the festival and the independent film landscape. The other is a profile of actor-writer-director Wendell B. Harris, Jr., whose own debut feature, Chameleon Street, won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize the year after Sex, Lies, from a jury that included none other than Soderbergh himself. One of the most striking indie films of the '90s, it too promised great things to come, but whereas Soderbergh has gone on to direct nearly 20 films in 20 years, Harris has made exactly none. And there you have the enduring conundrum of Sundance and American independent cinema in a nutshell.

LA Weekly