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Getting Ready for Sundance

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Sundance 2012 begins tomorrow (Thursday 1/19/12) but, really, I feel like I've already been there a couple of days. I mean, I go in having seen a half-dozen films already, either from other festivals (Toronto or New York) or from advance screenings.

(Among the better ones: California Solo, a touching drama by writer-director Marshall Lewy that gives that marvelous actor Robert Carlyle a great character part into which he can sink his teeth.)

But if you asked me what I was most interested in seeing, I would have to shrug ignorantly. I could page through my daily schedule, but that wouldn't help because the titles have yet to make an impression on me.

I usually spend a few hours on the weekend before I leave for Sundance (or Toronto, for that matter) figuring out the schedule. I start by plowing through the dozens of emails I've received about films that are at the festival, then move on to the festival catalog and schedule themselves. I'll read the names of the director and cast, then the synopsis and running time (90 minutes or less is perfect; anything over 120 minutes -- like Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer this year -- is subject to analysis, in terms of investment of time).

I'll devote a page of the legal pad to each day, page after page on a pad. Old habits die hard; indeed, they only get more elaborate. I plot the screenings on my chart for the specific day, choosing between columns for press screenings, versus public ones to which I think I can find a ticket: title of film, theater name, running time -- and, if it's a public screening, the name and contact of the film's publicist.

So now I've got a chart which, in all likelihood, has two or three titles at many timeslots: Some may have boldly drawn parentheses around them, indicating that's my strong preference for that time on that day. Even then, I probably couldn't tell you what most of the films were, based on being told the title.

But that's the best part of any film festival: not knowing and then discovering. Seeing a movie without the slightest preconception of what you're going to see is the purest form of film-going, the place where excitement is born.

It was no trick to discover The Descendants when I was at the Toronto Film Festival last September; it had been shown a few days earlier at the Telluride festival and was the buzz of the Internet. But God Bless America, a film directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, and Butter, which quickly developed buzz of its own, were films I saw without knowing anything about them. Both of them knocked me out in a way that The Descendants, my favorite film of last year, couldn't -- because they had the element of surprise.

Of course, there are Sundance films that already are being talked about, buzzed about, built into an event before anyone has really seen them. I couldn't tell you what they were. But, once I get to Sundance Saturday night, I can offer my thoughts on the movies I'm discovering in the theaters of Park City, Utah. Stay tuned.

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