I dont want to overstate the case for Once it is, after all, a very small story about a Dublin street musician (Glen Hansard, of the band the Frames) who meets a Czech immigrant pianist (Marketa Irglova) and discovers that they make beautiful music together. But I liked this movie right from the opening scene of Hansard standing on a corner strumming a beat-up old guitar and belting out an inspired version of Van Morrisons And the Healing Has Begun. And I especially liked how the characters are allowed to have untidy personal lives hes still hung up on an ex-girlfriend in London; she has an estranged husband and a young daughter to boot so that, in spite of their mutual attraction, they hesitate to get too deeply involved. But Once is at its best when it bursts into song, which is, happily, most of the time. Whether Hansard and Irglova (who co-wrote all of the music in the film) are improvising a duet in a music shop or heading into the recording studio with an entire busker band, the songs they create are groovy and soulful and stick in your head for days afterward. Little wonder that, at the films post-screening Q&A, there were multiple requests for a soundtrack album. Eventually, the two stars caved to audience requests for an encore and led the sold-out Egyptian Theatre crowd in a rendition of Daniel Johnstons Devil Town.
Hansard and Irglova should count themselves lucky that Dublin falls outside the territory canvassed by the huckster music-industry executives of Craig Zobels disarming debut feature, Great World of Sound. The title is the name of a fly-by-night Charlotte, North Carolina, record label, and the movie follows two of its producers white, soft-spoken Martin (Pat Healy) and black, gregarious Clarence (Kene Holliday) as they set out across America to sign new acts, preying on the hopes and dreams of small-town folks with glimmers of stardust in their eyes. Talent is negotiable: If you can pony up the cash for the recording session, youre in. Great World of Sound is screening in Sundances noncompetitive American Spectrum sidebar, which is often perceived as a refuge for also-ran titles that failed to make the competition cut. But, like Mean Creek and The Puffy Chair (among others) before it, Zobels smartly scripted, terrifically well-acted movie is another reminder that there are still discoveries to be made here.
The dramatic competition proper has yet to produce a consensus front-runner, but my own personal favorite so far is Starting Out in the Evening, the sophomore feature by director Andrew Wagner, who was in Sundance two years ago with The Talent Given Us, an oddball, semi-improvisational road movie starring members of Wagners own family as themselves. I wondered if Wagner could bring the same intimacy to bear on a conventionally scripted drama starring professional actors. As it turns out, he has, and the result is an unhurried, beautifully observed tale of aging, regret and second chances built around superb performances by Frank Langella (as an out-of-print novelist), Lauren Ambrose (as the impetuous grad student writing her thesis about his work) and Lili Taylor (as Langellas unmarried-at-40 daughter).
There is much more to come, of course, but in its first few days, Sundance 2007 has already given audiences a few things worth singing about.