As the buzz about new movies and talent moves through Park City - much faster than the traffic that paralyses the small mountain town in snow that hasn't stopped falling - one of the most talked-about films isn't an American independent, but an Australian gangster saga by a director making his first feature. Animal Kingdom, written and directed by David Michod, tells the story of a Melbourne crime family from the point of view of Joshua Cody, a teenager who is forced to live with his career-crook uncles and grandmother after his mother dies of a heroin overdose. J, as he's called, is hurled into a bloody feud between his family and members of a corrupt Melbourne police force that calls to mind film epics about Irish mobsters in Boston and crime dramas set in Hong Kong.
Critics are calling Animal Kingdom a revelation and the emergence of a major talent. Hollywood agents are calling Michod to offer him work. At the world premiere of the film in the Egyptian Theatre on Friday night, Michod said that his movie took 10 years to make because money was hard to raise. Eventually, the producer Liz Watts came on board. So did a cast that includes Guy Pearce as a detective who ends up shielding J from the worst rogue elements of the Melbourne police force; Jacki Weaver as a crime matriarch ruthless enough to order the killing of her own grandson and Ben Mendelsohn as the leading psychopath in a family of killers. James Frecheville was chosen from 500 young actors for the role of J.
Australian films don't automatically transfer to the US market. Nor do Australian stars. On Saturday afternoon, Mendelsohn and Weaver stood in front of a restaurant on the crowded Main Street as throngs - most on the lookout for celebrities - moved up and down the pavement. Two of Australia's best actors went completely unnoticed, a reminder that, even in the era of the internet, fame is a relative term.
If one celebrity was sought on the street, it was Banksy, the British artist and prankster who is the subject of a documentary that premiered at the festival on Sunday. It was announced on Thursday that the film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, would fill the Spotlight Surprise slot, but everyone in Park City seemed to know about it before then. And Banksy himself was apparently part of the operation to get the word out, painting graffiti images - his medium of choice - on the walls of buildings. Since graffiti is a crime in Park City, some of the images have already been painted over. One remained on an alley just off Main Street, and two young women who called themselves Banksy fans from Salt Lake City - who would have thought there were any? - made the trip to hold a vigil at the site and petition the officials of Park City to preserve the picture. They said their labours on Banksy's behalf hadn't landed them tickets to the premiere. Nor did they know whether the picture would stay on the wall.
With or without celebrity seekers, Sundance is a forum that brings unknowns to the screen. Such was the case with Restrepo, the writer Sebastian Junger's debut documentary. The "stars" of Restrepo are the soldiers of a US Army platoon, which Junger and the co-director Tim Hetherington filmed on small, high-definition cameras that they took to a remote base in eastern Afghanistan in 2007. None of those soldiers came to Sundance for the premiere. Many had been spared the media glare, seeing the film in New York before the festival, Junger said. Some were serving tours in Afghanistan. Some were dead.
Junger stressed that the documentary, named for a platoon member killed in action, aimed to show the war from the soldiers' perspective. "We didn't want anything in the film that was not indigenous to the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan while we were there," he said. "The only voices, the only images were of the men who were fighting there. We made no attempt to get the Afghan side of all this. It's a purely subjective, purely experiential film. We felt that it had not really been done before, and we wanted to do it."