Sundance - The future looks bright in Utah

From global video diaries to skewed romcoms, the Sundance Film Festival has shone a light on some great new cinema, says Emma Jones

Can the trivial rhythms of life be fascinating and momentous? The answer is yes in the case of Kevin MacDonald's Life in a Day, which premiered this week at Sundance and quickly set the tone for this year's film festival.

The British Oscar winner (for his 1999 documentary about the 1972 Munich Olympics, One Day in September), best known for Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland, made a worldwide plea for people to record one day of their life – 24 July 2010 – and submit it via YouTube. Hundreds of cameras were sent out to the developing world and some of the remotest corners of Earth. As a result, MacDonald, and producers Ridley and Tony Scott, were swamped with 5000 hours of footage from 192 countries.

"We had people logging all the clips and rating them before I saw them," the director admits. "I only looked at the ones rated with four and five stars. We had another category which was six stars – that meant it was so bad it was good."

Starting at midnight, MacDonald shows his subjects going about the rituals of their day. The breaking of eggs. The brushing of teeth. The ringing of a school bell. There's comedy and pathos in mundane activities. A little boy shines shoes in South America and snarls at a grown-up for poaching his patch. Another lights a candle in the household shrine for his dead mother and then skips off to watch TV.

Does the first ever feature film made in conjunction with YouTube mean we're all film-makers now? Not necessarily. "I was relieved actually," MacDonald confesses. "People might all be able to film now, but it doesn't mean they could tell a story. It needs some kind of director's skill to do that."

Documentaries continue to dominate Sundance. In Becoming Chaz, one of the most talked-about movies of the festival, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato follow the journey of Cher's daughter, Chastity, as she transforms, through gender reassignment, into Chaz. Perhaps no greater compliment could be paid to Chaz than to call him a thoroughly nice bloke. Though her face is now incapable of showing any kinds of struggle, Cher honestly admits that it's been tough for her to accept his choices. She's not alone. As Chaz emerges from court with his new legal gender status, he's taunted by the paparazzi. "Are you off to get a beer? Are you going to a strip club now you're a man?"

Jennifer Siebel Newsom's Miss Representation, an examination of how the media portrays women, further explored this machismo. Take note Anne Hathaway: in playing Catwoman, you're not an empowered female, you're what's described in the movie as a "fighting fuck toy". The film has been getting standing ovations, although I wonder if most women watching it were primarily thinking how good Jane Fonda looked for her age. Mental attitudes have to be the first to change.

Morgan Spurlock's The Greatest Movie Ever Sold made the point that everything has its price. In it, the maverick director investigates the world of film finance and advertising by seeking out sponsors for his movie. A brand of pomegranate juice, Pom Wonderful, takes the bait, along with 14 other companies. He even tries to get BP on board.

Having sold his film to the highest corporate bidder, Spurlock cheerfully renamed it "Pom Wonderful presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" at the festival and handed out bottles of the juice at the premiere. Festival organisers were reportedly furious, not because of product placement, but because Pom Wonderful isn't an official festival sponsor. It seems there's no such thing as independent cinema, even at its self-proclaimed home.

Indeed, while Sundance continues to operate with a rage-against-the-corporate-machine ethos, the festival is now so well-established on the calendar, and so conveniently close to Hollywood, that for a week it resembles LA on skis. You can easily bump into Demi and Ashton in Park City, Utah, this two-street town, and whenever founder Robert Redford appears, there's a reverential and embarrassing hush – but many of the stars party discreetly in private homes a few miles away. Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent played in tiny venues – or are rumoured to have. Most fans were left outside in the cold, slaves to the tender mercies of specially imported bouncers.

There is plenty of fur, frozen faces that have little to do with the chill, and Harvey Weinstein, too. While there's no official market at Sundance, deals have already been done for worldwide releases of potential mainstream pleasers like Margin Call, a thriller about the 2008 financial crash, starring Kevin Spacey and Demi Moore and written by first-timer J C Chandor, son of a Merrill Lynch banker, as well as the offbeat coming-of-age tale Homework, starring Freddie Highmore. Remake rights have also been acquired for an Anglo-Indian documentary, The Bengali Detective.

The festival is an ideal place to come to find a film distributor, according to British film-maker David Mackenzie. He's reunited with Ewan McGregor, who starred in his 2003 film Young Adam, for Perfect Sense. Two lovers, played by McGregor and Eva Green, move ever closer as the world around them loses its senses.

At the forefront of a strong British presence this year was Project Nim, from Man on Wire director James Marsh. His study of Nim, a chimpanzee who spent the first five years of his life being brought up by humans, is one of the most affecting screenings here.

There's also the strange but beautiful The Nine Muses by Londoner John Akomfrah, which tells the story of post-colonial immigration to Britain in the 1950s entirely in verse. Part visual poetry, part English A Level textbook, he uses the words of Homer, T S Eliot, Milton and Emily Dickinson to document a generation's journey.

The IT Crowd's Richard Ayoade also pleased audiences with Submarine, his directorial debut and a coming-of-age tragi-comedy. It stars Paddy Considine, whose first film, Tyrannosaur, featuring an outstanding performance from Peter Mullan, is also screening. Another talked-about turn comes from Dominic Cooper, playing Saddam Hussein's stand-in in The Devil's Double.

All of them will be hoping for a little of the Sundance sparkle. If your film is a hit here, it could be the toast of Hollywood in exactly a year's time. "Fifteen films nominated for the Oscars this week premiered at Sundance," points out festival spokesperson Brook Addicott. "And three of the four nominations in the Best Documentary category were first shown here, too." Lest we forget, many of this year's British offerings got to the festival thanks to funding from the soon-to-be extinct Film Council. Next year, if Morgan Spurlock's predictions are correct, they could be brought to you courtesy of BP.

Sundance 2011: The ones to watch

Perfect Sense

Ewan McGregor is back on form in David Mackenzie's apocalyptic love story, in which Eva Green also stars. Two people find each other as those around them lose their senses one by one. You'll never complain about the smell of diesel oil again.

Life in a Day

Kevin MacDonald, along with Ridley and Tony Scott, weaves a masterful tapestry depicting humanity on a single day on Earth. From watching women pound maize in a remote African village to a young man enjoying a pint with his dad in the pub, it's life-affirming and uplifting.

Happy Happy

'The Good Life' goes awry in Norwegian director Anne Sewitsky's clever comedy about couples. An apparently perfect married pair move in next door to Kaja, whose husband doesn't seem interested in her anymore. Indiscretion turns into an inevitable and slyly enjoyable debacle.

The Future

Miranda July ('You Me and Everyone We Know') has made a wildly inventive drama about the fears that accompany relationships. 'The Future' sees 30-somethings Sophie (played by July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) trying to have one last burst of freedom before settling into grown-up responsibilities. By the way, it's narrated by a cat.

Submarine

Meet Oliver Tate, the most self-important and precocious teen since Adrian Mole started writing his diary. Richard Ayoade ('The IT Crowd') makes an impressive directing debut as Oliver vies for the love of his pyromaniac girlfriend Jordana and tries to save his mother from having an affair with their New Age neighbour.

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