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Watch the films, not the stars, fest officials say

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Snow is removed from areas around Park City to make more room for festival parking.

Snow is removed from areas around Park City to make more room for festival parking.

Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

As is the case every year, Sundance Film Festival officials are less than enthusiastic about the prospect of googly-eyed spectators flooding Park City in search of movie stars.

Or as festival director Geoff Gilmore put it, "I suppose you could go up there to look for stars, if that's what you really want to do. But those who do are going to be missing some terrific films."

Obviously, Gilmore is a bit biased in that regard, since he helps run the festival and was previously one of its chief programmers.

This year, the Sundance selection committee screened more than 2,500 features and shorts that were submitted by independent filmmakers from around the world. In all, the committee watched nearly 4,000 hours of film.

However, fewer than one-tenth of those films got into the festival. "It's unfortunate that we can't show more of them," Gilmore said, "but we have to be realistic about things. There are only so many movies you can program into one festival before it gets unwieldy."

And the films that did make the cut stood out from the rest. "That never changes," he said. "The best films always make an immediate impression. But there are others that take some time to appreciate. That's one frustration about this. Sometimes we can't give them all the time they deserve."

Gilmore is particularly enthusiastic about "Happy Endings," a multistoried comedy from writer/director Don Roos that stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Arnold, Lisa Kudrow and Laura Dern — the featured attraction of the opening-night premiere tonight in Park City's Eccles Theatre.

Roos and his cast are expected to be in attendance, as is Sundance Institute President Robert Redford, who will introduce the film and help kick off the festival's 11-day run.

According to Gilmore, "Happy Endings" is the perfect film to start things on the right note. "I can't think of another film in the festival that speaks to so many of the issues facing this country right now. On the surface it might seem like a simple comedy, but it's very subversive in the way it looks at American family values. And I'm sure our audiences are going to love it."

This marks the second year that Sundance has opened in Park City rather than Salt Lake City, which had hosted the opening night for more than two decades. However, Salt Lake City will still have its own premiere event, on Friday in Abravanel Hall, a screening of "On a Clear Day," about a depressed middle-aged man (British actor Peter Mullan) who decides to swim the English Channel.

"It's still very important to the festival to have that presence in Salt Lake City," said Gilmore, "and we've chosen what I think is another terrific film to debut there."

Mullan and his co-stars Brenda Blethyn (Oscar-nominated for "Secrets & Lies" and "Little Voice") and Billy Boyd (of the "Lord of the Rings" films), as well as director Gaby Dellal, are expected to attend.

Despite Gilmore's concerns, celebrity-watchers will be on hand, and the stars will be out in force. Among the Hollywood elite expected to be in Park City this year are Pierce Brosnan, Kevin Costner, Naomi Watts, Michael Keaton, Glenn Close, Marisa Tomei and Kevin Bacon, who directed one of the festival's premiere films, "Loverboy."

On Sunday, Bacon will also receive the 2005 Ray-Ban Visionary Award in a ceremony separate from the festival, an event that has replaced the festival's former Tribute to Independent Vision. (Festival officials say the event, which honored an actor each year, became too much of a "celebrity distraction"; it was dropped after the 2003 festival, which gave the award to Holly Hunter.)

The 2005 Sundance Film Festival runs through Jan. 30 in a variety of Park City locations, as well as sites in Salt Lake City. A full rundown of films, venues and ticket information can be found on the Sundance Institute Web site at www.sundance.org.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com