FORGET THE PARTIES. THE SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL IS STILL THE PLACE TO BE TO CATCH SURPRISING MOVIES THAT TAKE YOU SOMEWHERE NEW

Those days are long gone. Now the first thing I do is avoid Main Street, a furiously compacted avenue of traffic snarls, celebrity gawkers, marauding party kids who don't mind standing in freezing, roped-off lines to gain entry to overcrowded parties and corporate-sponsored way stations offering goodies to wannabe and actual movers and shakers in The Biz. This year it wasn't until my third day in Park City that I even set foot on Main Street. And I was sorry I had.

But complaining about Sundance's fall from independent grace--if there ever was such a thing--is a cliche. Truth is, except for the traffic, it's not that hard to simply ignore the hype, the hustle and the innumerable parties and devote yourself to what Sundance was supposed to be all about: watching movies. Was Paris Hilton actually in Park City? Was that Osama bin Laden seen dancing the night away with Jessica Simpson? Could be, but I wasn't paying attention.

This year, I could only stay at the festival for four days, so I had to cram as many movies in as I could. But which to choose? When there are 11 screens showing movies simultaneously, the choices can be agonizing. Do I want to see something in the dramatic competition? A premiere from a more established filmmaker? A domestic or foreign documentary? Something from the newly established world competition?

When you pick a stinker, it's particularly painful, for all you can think about is the movie you could have been watching, which three hours from now a colleague will inform you was the must-see movie of the day. Fortunately, some of the festival entries were screened in advance in Los Angeles, and a couple I'd already seen in Toronto. All in all, I managed to check out 20 of this year's offerings. Sounds like a lot, but it's less than a 10th of the total lineup. So what follows is a very tentative assessment of Sundance '05: a quick perusal of some of the best and brightest movies that will sooner or later land in a movie theatre or DVD player near you.

Among the American Indies, at the top of the list goes Rebecca Miller's "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," which stars her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, as a fiercely contrarian environmentalist, a '60s holdover who lives with his 16-year-old daughter (Camilla Belle) in an abandoned commune on an island somewhere off the East Coast. Miller (daughter of playwright Arthur) gets better with every movie.

This, her third following "Personal Velocity" and "Angela," is filled with astute observations and characters drawn with novelistic complexity. "Jack and Rose" is what the American indie cinema often promises but rarely delivers: a movie you haven't seen before, told from a point of view that owes no debt to either political correctness or genre conventions. A smart, touching and original film.

I wouldn't have guessed that the most moving film I saw at Sundance would be a documentary about a boxer. But "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story," had me fighting back tears. Those old enough to remember Griffith's glory days as a champion welterweight in the early '60s, will remember the tragedy that came to define his career. In 1962, he killed Benny "Kid" Paret in the ring, with a savage series of blows to the head that put the great Cuban fighter in a coma for 10 days. Complicating the story were the taunts of "maricon" that Paret had hurled at Griffith before the fight. There had long been rumors in the homophobic sports world that Griffith--sensitive, beautiful, a former hat designer--was gay. Griffith, who is interviewed in Dan Klores and Ron Berger's wonderful film, was haunted the rest of his life by Paret's death. There are many angles to this story (Paret's death roused the media and the politicians into an anti-boxing fury, and put an end to "Friday Night Boxing" on TV), and "Ring of Fire" tells them all well, with astute interviews with Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin, Norman Mailer, Jose Torres, Charles Kaiser, Neal Gabler, Paret's widow and son, and Griffith's beloved trainer, Gil Clancy. Why will this tale move you? I'd rather leave that for you to discover. Let's just say that the filmmakers capture an extraordinary moment when Griffith, for the first time, comes face to face with the son of the man he killed with his fists.

Two documentaries dealt with sex and its divisive role in the body politic. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's "Inside Deep Throat" (produced by Brian Grazer) looks back at the world's most profitable porn movie, the infamous 1972 "Deep Throat." Made for $25,000, it grossed $600 million, most of the lucre going to the mob, who muscled filmmaker Gerard Damiano out of the profits. A watershed cultural phenomenon, it helped usher in both the so-called "sexual revolution" and the governmental backlash against it. Funny and far ranging, though it could have probed deeper, "Inside Deep Throat" shows us what happened to stars Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems (who became the scapegoat in the legal vendetta against the movie), how the porn world was radically changed by the advent of video and how the culture wars of the early '70s have evolved into the culture wars of today. For an account of our current wars, turn to "The Education of Shelby Knox," which follows a spirited, attention-loving 15-year-old high-school crusader in Lubbock, Texas--a town where teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are soaring far above the national average--who takes up the fight for sex education in the local schools, where only abstinence is allowed to be taught. Shelby's main antagonist, the local pastor Ed Ainsworth, tours the state preaching abstinence and openly declares his hostility to the notion of "tolerance" in any form. Indeed, he proudly declares that Christianity is the least tolerant of religions, which raises the feisty Shelby's hackles. Liberal denizens of big-city America may find this trip deep into the heart of Texas both eye-opening and very depressing.

I've only seen six of the 16 films competing in the dramatic competition, so I couldn't begin to predict a winner. But there were some intriguing debut films on display. Music video director Mike Mills's accomplished "Thumbsucker," based on the Walter Kirn novel, finds a fresh and winning way to tell yet another teen coming-of-age tale. This one's about alienated, thumbsucking Justin (Lou Pucci, a real find) who undergoes an amazing transformation when put on meds. But is he cured or just speeding on drugs? The writing has real wit, the teenagers break free from Hollywood stereotypes and the cast, which includes a very funny Keanu Reeves as a philosophizing New Age orthodontist, Tilda Swinton and Vincent D'Onofrio as Justin's parents and Vince Vaughn as the high-school debate coach, help make this one of the festival's most likeable entertainments.

Much quirkier, but no less sweet, is Miranda July's singular "Me and You and Everyone We Know," a look at fractured families, the perils of urban life, precocious sexual experimentation, surreally funny chat room misunderstandings (most hilariously, between an aroused adult woman who doesn't know she's chatting with a 7-year-old boy) and one of the odder shoe salesmen you're likely to encounter. Every time I feared that July, a performance artist turned filmmaker, would lapse into preciousness, she'd surprise me with her out-of-left-field humor and off-kilter poetry. It will be fascinating to see where she goes from here. Much darker, and slicker, is the directorial debut of playwright Craig Lucas, who has adapted and rethought his play "The Dying Gaul," a story of betrayal and deception set in Hollywood. What a cast! Peter Sarsgaard, an actor who never does the expected, is a gay screenwriter who sells out his principles for a cool million and enters into an affair with the bisexual studio exec (Campbell Scott) whose wife (Patricia Clarkson) he also adores. Once again the Internet chat room plays a pivotal role in the plot, which takes some wild melodramatic turns before coming to its baroque conclusion. Acidic, intriguing, sometimes overwrought, "The Dying Gaul" is a stylish, superbly acted, and nasty piece of fun.

Two remarkable performances also dominate "Forty Shades of Blue," the atmospheric and haunting second film from Ira ("The Delta") Sachs, a director fascinated by cultural dislocations. Here, in this Memphis-set story, he observes what happens when a beautiful but lost Russian beauty, Laura (Dina Korzun) becomes the live-in girlfriend of a legendary music producer (Rip Torn) many years her senior. Sachs has a great eye for social detail: there's an Altman-like richness to the texture of his movie. But along with a great surface, Sachs adds psychological depth: at first we dismiss Laura as a shallow, venal, bored trophy mistress--which is how Torn's visiting English professor son (a miscast Darren Burrows) first sees her, before falling for her. But there are depths and complexities in Laura that this quietly observant film slowly reveals, never settling for easy, black-and-white conclusions. Korzun has a taut brittleness, like a whippet left in the cold, and Torn, gregarious and dangerous, tender and scary, is simply amazing. "Forty Shades of Blue" is a movie that seeps under your skin. It demands some patience, and rewards it amply.

"Tony Takitani," my final recommendation is a 73-minute dream of a movie from Japanese director Jun Ichikawa (it will open in New York in May, not next month, as previously reported here). Based on a story by Haruki Murakami, its hero is a deeply isolated illustrator whose loneliness--so ingrained he never perceives it as a problem--is turned upside down when he falls in love with Eiko, a beautiful but insecure woman in the grips of a strange and expensive addiction to high fashion. Narrated by an unseen voice (there's very little direct dialogue in the film), Tony's life unfolds in a series of beautifully composed tableaus, accompanied by Ryuichi Sakamoto's achingly melancholy piano score. Both literary and totally cinematic, "Tony Takitani" captures Murakami's seductive, singular style--at once precise and ephemeral, surreal and mundane, contemporary and timeless.

So after four days and just a fraction of the films playing at Sundance, I ask you, Who needs Paris Hilton when movies like these can take us to places we've never been?

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