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Romero: Sundance films provide positive, artistic contrast to blockbuster studio movies

Hipster heartthrob Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a muscle-shirt-wearing, pornography-addicted Jersey boy. Scarlett Johansson as his rom-com-obsessed dream girl. Switch to James Franco, sweaty and surrounded by gyrating men.

Since this definitely isn’t your usual commercial fare, there’s only one appropriate explanation: it must be time for the Sundance Film Festival.

These aren’t the movies you’ll stumble upon at 4 a.m. when you accidently find yourself on the Independent Film Channel. Sundance movies can sometimes feel out of touch and beyond America’s comfort zone. But they help keep Hollywood sane and running smoothly.

The Utah-based film festival offers Hollywood’s biggest names the chance to do something for themselves. Million-dollar lawyers do pro bono work. Physicians take time to help out Doctors Without Borders. Actors make an appearance at Sundance.

Though they may not be saving lives or helping out the less fortunate, it helps Hollywood heavyweights get in touch with their craft. At some point, actors stop being actors and become celebrities. Their relationships, fashion faux pas and out-of-context quotes start to outshine their actual work.

For a thespian who actually enjoys character development and strong story-telling, it must be a hard pill to swallow.

“I just love to act. It’s my favorite thing to do in the world, and what keeps it interesting to me is the creative challenge,” Gordon-Levitt said.

Like many actors, he’s gone back and forth from blockbuster studio movies, like 2009’s “G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra” and 2012’s “Looper” with Bruce Willis, to small indie films like current Sundance entry “Don Jon’s Addiction,” which sold for $4 million.

The story of a porn-addicted, modern-day New Jersey Don Juan isn’t going to come out of an Los Angeles studio. Instead, Gordon-Levitt wrote, directed and starred in the movie himself.

Gordon-Levitt gets the fulfillment of his extremely risky indie, while Steven Spielberg hooked him for the projected 2013 Academy Award winner ,“Lincoln.”

Fellow Sundance director-actor-heartthrob James Franco went with an even edgier choice. His Sundance entry, “Interior. Leather Bar,” was inspired by the 1980 film “Cruising,” which explores male heterosexual anxiety when faced with homosexual sex and culture.

Yes, James, we get it — you’re really into queer theory. Though he’s delved into the topic before in biopics like “Milk” or “Howl,” Franco is able to express his own ideas through “Interior.”

But he’ll do a complete 180-degree turn in March, appearing as the titular character of “Oz: The Great And Powerful.”

Unfortunately, the cultural resonance of Sundance fare, like the 1992 cult hit “Reservoir Dogs” or the 2004 comedy “Napoleon Dynamite,” has slowly fizzled. The last big Sundance sensation was “Precious” in 2009.

The 2012 Sundance hit “Beasts of the Southern Wild” created buzz within the industry. And luckily, this year Fox Searchlight bought Steve Carell’s Sundance comedy, “The Way, Way Back,” for $9.75 million.

Hopefully, Sundance continues to be a strong independent outlet in cinema. If it is wasn’t for Sundance, where else would we be able to see James Franco getting his grove on in a strip club?

Ariana Romero is a junior magazine journalism and political science major. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at akromero@syr.edu or followed on Twitter at @ArianaRomero17. 

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