Is Sundance Over the Hill?

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"'Two guys in a car meet a girl on the road and by the end of the film they've surprised themselves.' That's a Sundance film," says TIME film critic Richard Schickel, only half-jokingly. You know you're no longer a young, upstart event when your name has become critical shorthand. "To me a 'Sundance' film is sort of a sober independent taking itself very seriously," says Schickel. "Of course, sometimes things come out that are quite wonderful." In past years that list has included "Betty Blue," "Sex, Lies and Videotape," "Reservoir Dogs" and last year's "Gods and Monsters." This year Park City, Utah, once again buried under several feet of snow, will see more movies and more viewers -- some 12,000 of them -- than ever.

While the Sundance festival remains a crucial marketplace for smaller filmmakers to have their movies seen by distributors, the 10 days of fun, film and après-ski has become something of an industry cliché. "It's brilliantly scheduled, since January is a bummer month for the business," says Schickel, who, as in past years, will remain in Los Angeles for the duration. "There's a pressure that's now placed on this event, everyone racing around trying to pick up titles for next year's release. And all that frantic buzz! The worst aspects of Hollywood are collected up there, as in an appendix, inflamed and waiting to burst," he says, quick to add that "that's true of most festivals, not just Sundance." This year the buzz is swarming around Robert Altman's "Cookie's Fortune," starring Glenn Close, which opens the festival Thursday evening, as well as Allison Anders' new feature, "Sugar Town," in which former Duran Duran member John Taylor portrays a washed-up rock star. No word yet on whether any of the entries involves two guys in a car and girl on the road.