PARK CITY, Utah — It was a blast from the indie past to watch Richard Linklater soak in the applause of the Sundance Film Festival audience on Sunday after the premiere of his transporting new movie, “Boyhood.” Mr. Linklater’s first official Sundance appearance was in 1991, with “Slacker,” one of the emblematic titles of the American independent scene of that period. Since then, he has repeatedly returned to this festival, which, like Mr. Linklater, has pushed boundaries, experimented with form and transcended setbacks. When he was called to the stage by John Cooper, the festival’s director, it felt as if Sundance was both mining its history and looking ahead to a new age.
At once sublimely simple and mysterious, “Boyhood” tracks a sweet Texas boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), over the course of 12 years, beginning when he’s 6 and living with his divorced mother (Patricia Arquette), and his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter). Instead of using different actors to play Mason as he grows up, Mr. Linklater worked with Mr. Coltrane and the rest of the cast, which includes Ethan Hawke as Mason’s father, a few days for each of those 12 years to capture the transformation from wide-eyed child to lanky adolescent. Over the film’s 160 minutes, Mason matures before your eyes, as does Mr. Coltrane, who as he shoots up like a sapling and sprouts facial hair, helps turn a fascinating experiment into a profound viewing experience.
In a sense, Mason’s on-screen evolution mirrors that of Mr. Linklater, another child of Texas who has grown up in front of moviegoers, becoming along the way an exemplar of American independent cinema. He has had more than a handful films at Sundance — it originally rejected “Slacker” — which has helped burnish his reputation as a quintessential independent despite his on-and-off adventures with the big studios. The kind of artistic trajectory he’s enjoyed, Mr. Linklater said after the “Boyhood” premiere, is hard to imagine these days given how rapidly movies slip in and out of theaters before moving to on-demand. Another difference: When he first hit, if a movie wasn’t picked up for distribution, it often faded away; with on-demand, bad movies can live forever.
Sundance hit the big 30 this year, a relatively young age for such a powerhouse event. (By comparison, Cannes celebrates its 67th anniversary this year.) Even after the 2008 economic crisis, attendance has continued to inch up: An estimated 45,947 people were here last year, compared with the 40,291 who flooded in in 2009. The crowds turned out again this year for a festival that, under Mr. Cooper, who took over as director in 2003, has managed the delicate task of shaking off criticism that it had gone Hollywood, while keeping the event Hollywood friendly. This is a place where, waiting in line for a movie, you can overhear the likes of Philip I. Kent, the chairman of Turner Broadcasting System, tell Jeff Zucker, the chairman of CNN worldwide, that he had turned off “American Hustle” after 20 minutes.
Presumably both stuck it out for the movie we were there to see, “Life Itself,” a documentary directed by Steve James based on Roger Ebert’s memoir that CNN Films has picked up for television. Mr. James began shooting the movie in the final months before Mr. Ebert’s death in April 2013. Brutally intimate — it includes graphic images of Mr. Ebert, who lost much of his jaw to cancer, receiving medical treatment — the documentary plaits the personal with the professional through archival material and interviews, including with my colleague A. O. Scott. Curiously, the story of Mr. Ebert’s work in television ends rather abruptly with the death of his longtime co-host, Gene Siskel. I don’t remember hearing the name of Richard Roeper, who served as Mr. Ebert’s co-host for nearly a decade afterward.
Among the other celebrity-oriented documentaries this year was Brian Knappenberger’s “Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz,” the computer-programming savant turned high-profile hacktivist who committed suicide in 2013 while facing a federal trial on charges of hacking into a network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Filled with interviews, many of them ardent testimonials about Mr. Swartz’s brilliance, the movie is appealing primarily as a personal portrait. But the frustratingly, at times breathlessly hagiographic narration and reductive analysis — it draws a parallel between Mr. Swartz’s activism and that of Egyptians who overthrew their government — ends up flattening a complex story about the promise of freedom and its reality.
More successful as both a work of cinema and political activism is “We Come as Friends”, the most recent title from the documentarian Hubert Sauper, who directed the 2004 masterwork “Darwin’s Nightmare.” The new movie finds Mr. Sauper traveling across South Sudan just as the newly formed nation declares its independence, splitting Sudan in two. Going high and low, Mr. Sauper crisscrosses the country in a tiny plane, regularly coming down to earth to speak with citizens as well as the outside parties — Chinese oilmen, the United Nations, American missionaries and business types — that are staking varying claims on the nation. Mr. Sauper missteps in his interstitial use of American jazz, which is too historically freighted, but otherwise scores with a surreal, moving, infuriating and persuasive argument that in South Sudan there’s nothing “post” about colonialism.
Among this year’s fiction film highlights were “Whiplash” and “Land Ho!,” two joyous entertainments that will be headed to theaters courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, “Whiplash” tells the vaguely autobiographical tale of a jazz student, Andrew (the rising indie star Miles Teller), who longs to become the next Buddy Rich and nearly drums himself over the edge trying. A syncopated story of a young striver, the movie tracks Andrew after he’s been selected to play in a school band led by a sadistic musician (J. K. Simmons, bald and fanged), a teacher so cruel, he evokes every big-screen drill sergeant who’s ever told a recruit to drop and give him 20, 80, 100. The movie was soon christened “Full Metal Juilliard,” but it’s deeper and richer than its nickname suggests.
“Land Ho!,” written and directed by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz, is a delightfully funny road movie about two longtime friends, a garrulous American, Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson), and his rather more reserved former brother-in-law, an Australian, Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), who embark on a road trip through Iceland. By turns playful and wistful, the movie is anchored by its irresistible lead performances, with Mr. Eenhoorn, who played the title character in the indie gem “Martin Bonner,” a perfect low-key foil for the outsize Mr. Nelson, the breakout star of this year’s festival. The filmmakers adroitly skirt both the cute and the condescending — the default registers of too many movies about geezers — to offer a dual portrait of gloriously alive men who just happen to be old.
The acerbically funny “Listen Up Philip” counts as a great leap forward for Alex Ross Perry after his generously received second feature, “The Color Wheel.” Narrated by an anonymous man off screen (Eric Bogosian), a kind of authorial presence who bores into the characters’ thoughts and feelings, Mr. Perry’s latest is at once a riff on a Philip Roth novel and a sly gloss on some of the criticisms of the same. Its dyspeptic lead character, Philip Lewis Friedman (a very good Jason Schwartzman), is a 30-something New York writer who’s being rapidly devoured by his narcissism. On the eve of the publication of his second novel, he effects a scorched-earth policy — sometimes appallingly funny, sometimes just dreadful — toward almost everyone in his life.
The movie nimbly hopscotches from one character to another, including Philip’s increasingly alienated girlfriend, Ashley Kane (a strong Elisabeth Moss), and an older, reclusive writer, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce, delivering a master class in monstrous egomania), who with a bombardment of hilarious put-downs, becomes Philip’s mentor. Although the typeface used for the movie’s title self-consciously mimics the exaggerated one used for the original cover of “Portnoy’s Complaint” (among others), Mr. Perry’s story takes some of its cues from the fictional relationship between Mr. Roth’s famous alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, and E. I. Lonoff, a literary recluse first featured in Mr. Roth’s “The Ghost Writer” who has been long-viewed as a stand-in for Bernard Malamud. Mr. Perry’s work with the actors is assured and at times dazzling, even if he occasionally shakes the camera too much.
There were other fine selections, including “Frank,” a forlorn, off-center comedy about a young musician (Domhnall Gleeson), who joins a band led by the title character (Michael Fassbender), a sensitive eccentric who wears a large artificial head fixed in an expression suggestive of childlike awe every moment of the day and night. It sounds unbearably twee, but the Irish-born director Lenny Abrahamson excavates real feeling from this setup, as does Mr. Fassbender, whose delicate, fluttering hands and strangulated voice incrementally turn a ridiculous cartoon into a figure of pathos. However imperfect, this is the kind of work, both homegrown and imported, which makes Sundance more than just another stop on the festival circuit, and instead an essential one.Correction: January 28, 2014
A critic’s notebook article on Friday about the Sundance Film Festival referred incorrectly in some instances to the director whose film “Listen Up Philip” was shown at the festival. The director, Alex Ross Perry, is Mr. Perry, not Mr. Ross. The article also misstated the year Aaron Swartz, the subject of a documentary shown at the festival, committed suicide. It was 2013, not 2012. A version of this article appears in print on January 24, 2014, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Mirror, Mirror: Sundance Hits 30. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe