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Crowd pleasers, fresh faces at Sundance

Steve Carell scored and Melinda Page Hamilton won new fans
/ Source: The Associated Press

The latest edition of the Sundance Film Festival was generally lackluster, with audiences buzzing about a few movies but finding much of the lineup uninspired.

Yet there were good films and standout performances to be seen during the 11-day showcase for independent film, which ends Sunday. Here are some highlights:

Crowd pleasersThe road-trip comedy “Little Miss Sunshine” had audiences in stitches with its story of a deranged, dysfunctional family determined to get its darling daughter to her regional beauty pageant no matter the obstacles.

Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell and Alan Arkin lead the cast in directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ hilarious tale about winning, losing and that nether state in between where most of us must learn to live.

The documentary “Wordplay” elevated the crossword puzzle from solitary pastime to nail-biting competitive sport. Director Patrick Creadon focuses on New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz, who also oversees an annual crossword tournament with a lovable assortment of contenders.

“Wordplay” also features interviews with such devotes of the Times crossword as Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, the Indigo Girls, filmmaker Ken Burns and Major League pitcher Mike Mussina.

Wider audiences should get a chance to see “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Wordplay” soon. Both films were snapped up by theatrical distributors at Sundance.

Fresh facesSundance bills itself as a place of discovery, and even when a movie is uneven, it can produce a breakthrough role for an unknown.

Melinda Page Hamilton, who bears a resemblance to both Renee Zellweger and Elisha Cuthbert, offers a daring mix of comedy and pathos in Bob Goldthwait’s twisted romance “Stay,” about a woman whose youthful indiscretion with a, well, lover from another species comes back to haunt her.

It’s a far from perfect movie, but “Stay” has moments of wicked hilarity, in great part because Hamilton plays the perversities of writer-director Goldthwait’s tale with utter commitment.

Posthumous starCharacter actor Chris Penn, who appears in the black comedy “The Darwin Awards” for only a few minutes, received as big a hand from Sundance crowds as stars Winona Ryder and Joseph Fiennes when his credit appeared at the film’s end.

A day earlier, Penn was found dead in his apartment in Santa Monica, Calif., turning the world premiere of “The Darwin Awards” into an impromptu memorial for the actor, the younger brother of Sean Penn. A fan outside the premiere carried a sign in Penn’s memory, director Finn Taylor offered fond recollections, and Ryder — who had known Penn since she was 15 — gushed about his talent to the audience after the screening.

As for his performance, Penn brings genuine hilarity to a fleeting role as a numskull who uses dynamite to blow a hole in a frozen lake for ice-fishing, only to have his dog run and fetch the burning explosive.

Solid gold musicLess than a year ago, Neil Young’s future was uncertain after he was diagnosed with a potentially fatal brain aneurysm. The musician who has conquered genre after genre returned to his country-rock roots with 10 songs of reflection, hope and humility on the album “Prairie Wind,” which he debuted in a two-night concert stand at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme (“The Silence of the Lambs”) filmed the shows and crafted the splendid concert film “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” which premiered at Sundance in advance of its Feb. 10 theatrical debut.

Along with the new tunes, Young joins a stage full of old friends, including Emmylou Harris, on killer versions of such classics as “Old Man,” “Harvest Moon” and “Heart of Gold.”

Sundance stalwartsPaul Giamatti and Ryan Gosling, both stars of past Sundance films that won the festival’s top dramatic prize, returned with new entries in the dramatic competition.

Giamatti (“American Splendor”) offers a ferocious performance in the service of a rather unsatisfying film, director Julian Goldberger’s “The Hawk Is Dying.” The film casts Giamatti as a car-upholsterer whose devotion to training a majestic bird of prey turns to dangerous obsession after a family tragedy.

Gosling (“The Believer”) delivers a tremendous, low-key performance in director Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson,” with excellent support by Anthony Mackie and newcomer Shareeka Epps.

The thoroughly engrossing “Half Nelson” features Gosling as a passionate inner-city teacher with a drug problem who finds himself both mentor of and mentored by one of his students and players (Epps).

Celebrity Veep Al Gore joined the independents at Sundance with the premiere of “An Inconvenient Truth,” a documentary on the former vice president’s global-warming campaign that presents a disturbing portrait of a planet on the brink.

Director Davis Guggenheim presents Gore conducting the engaging slideshow he does for live audiences to convince people that immediate action is needed to prevent global catastrophe from greenhouse gases causing Earth’s atmosphere to heat up.

Gore turned heads at film parties and received adoring applause at screenings, yet he was visibly uncomfortable when asked how he liked being a star of Sundance.

“I am not going to accept that label,” Gore told The Associated Press.

But director Guggenheim noted how Gore overshadowed the entertainment celebrities at Sundance.

“Going to these parties, and Al arrives, it’s like a rock star coming in,” Guggenheim said. “All the actors and directors who are here with their movies, the sea just parts.”