If, at the end of the day (make that 10 days), any consensus had emerged about the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, it was that this was one of the coldest and snowiest years on record; that Park City was more overrun than ever with corporate sponsors and aspiring industry players less interested in seeing movies than in being seen themselves; and that when it came to the actual movies, this year’s crop wasn’t as good as last year’s (which almost certainly wasn’t as good as that of the year before). All of those observations — which seemed to be shared by critics, industry folk and even a couple of festival staffers speaking under condition of anonymity — have their basis in fact, but for those of us who see Sundance primarily as an annual opportunity to hold a mirror up to the nose of American independent cinema to see if it’s still breathing, this year’s edition was not without its vital signs. Provided, that is, one knew where to look.

Case in point: Kelly Reichardt’s exquisite, achingly beautiful Old Joy, after having first been considered for a slot in the official competition, found itself relegated to the festival’s Frontier sidebar, which is commonly reserved for works of the avant-garde variety. (This is where Tarnation screened two years ago.) Starring Daniel London and musician Will Oldham as two longtime friends who embark on a weekend camping trip in the Oregon wilderness, this was the best narrative film I saw at Sundance this year — a haunting, melancholy contemplation of male friendship and the irretrievability of the past. For one man, a pregnant wife patiently awaits his return; the other is about to be evicted from his home and has little idea of where he’ll go — or where he can go — next. Reichardt, who made a stunning feature debut 12 years ago with the Florida-set neo-noir River of Grass, allows the story to unfold according to its own sedate, woodsy rhythms, drawing excellent performances from London and Oldham and showing a Zen-like attention to the subtlest variations in landscape and in human emotion.

In a pre-Sundance interview, Sundance festival director Geoff Gilmore told The Hollywood Reporter that he personally regretted the decision to move Old Joy from the competition to the Frontier, but that still doesn’t explain why it happened. Evidently, sparse dialogue and a slower-than-Bruckheimer tempo are considered “experimental” nowadays.

Many of the qualities that graced Reichardt’s film could also be seen to strong effect in So Yong Kim’s In Between Days, which somehow did manage to sneak into the competition, where it even ended up winning a Special Jury Prize for “independent vision.” The story of Aimie (Jiseon Kim), a teenage Korean girl newly immigrated to Canada, In Between Days seems, true to its title, to be constructed entirely of the ineffable and intangible, of those moments out of time that most movies treat as throwaways, but which are perfectly suited to So’s tender portrait of lives in transit. Aimie drops out of a class and uses the refunded money to buy a bracelet for Tran (Taegu Andy Kang), the boy friend she wishes were her boyfriend; against painterly post-card images of Canadian winter, she narrates letters to her absent father; and sometimes, she just trudges through the freshly fallen snow, enjoying the crunching sound it makes beneath her boots. For years, I’ve wondered what kind of movie the Chinese director Jia Zhangke might make if he followed his ever-migrating rural Chinese characters into the great Asian-American diaspora, and more than once while watching In Between Days, I felt I was seeing the answer. But So — who also co-wrote the film with her filmmaker husband, Bradley Rust Gray — is unmistakably a gifted filmmaker in her own right, with a rare appreciation for the poetic possibilities of digital video. And in her screen debut, the 21-year-old Kim proves a remarkable screen presence, her face like a river whose course, once determined, immediately shifts.

Naturally, Sundance 2006 was not without its wasted moments, including just about every one I spent watching selections from the festival’s Premieres section (reserved for larger-budget films, or those by more-established directors). That was where one could find what may have been this year’s most buzzed-about title, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Little Miss Sunshine, a dysfunctional-family comedy that many regarded as a laugh riot, but which I (and at least a dozen other critics at the press screening I attended) saw as a vile, hateful and stupendously unfunny work of comic desperation, with a third-act climax that borders on child pornography. And then there was Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, a period romantic thriller not half as tricky as it thinks it is, about a master magician whose love for the fiancée of the Austrian crown prince causes him to be fingered as a government subversive. Discussing the film afterward with a colleague, I discovered that it had kept us both pinned to the edge of our seats — him wondering what was going to happen next, me wondering how stars Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti could have possibly thought this piece of junk was a good career move. Little Miss Sunshine and The Illusionist were nevertheless among Sundance’s hottest tickets, and it may be that the continued presence of such films — independent of financing, but hardly of vision — is something of a necessary evil in Park City, where many now come to enjoy high-ticket parties and rub elbows with movie stars. But it was in Old Joy and In Between Days that I glimpsed the true spirit of Sundance. Long may it live.

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