In some respects, the 30th annual Sundance Film Festival offers a snapshot of the ways in which the independent film scene has dramatically shifted over the past three decades, said fest director John Cooper, from an ever-widening talent pool to an increasingly sophisticated range of technologies available to filmmakers and distributors. In particular, the slate of 117 features (96 of them world premieres) set to unspool Jan. 16-26 in Park City, Utah, culled from a healthy 12,218 submissions, showcase the form at a new level of maturity -- more diverse and welcoming to new filmmakers than ever, but also more exacting in terms of quality.
"Independent film in general has been absorbed and embraced as a vital part of the cultural landscape," Cooper said. "It's no longer an outsider sport. It really is part of an American art form."
Unveiling the 56 films in the festival's dramatic and documentary competition slates, as well as the 11 titles in the low-budget Next lineup, Cooper and Groth noted the unusual number of films that play with and sometimes transcend the trappings of genre. Some of the American dramatic entries, like Jim Mickle's "Cold in July" and Norwegian-born helmer Mona Fastvold's "The Sleepwalker," make use of intense thriller elements. Carter Smith's "Jamie Marks Is Dead," about a ghost with unfinished business, incorporates conventions that viewers will recognize from zombie movies. The World Cinema dramatic competition even includes a full-blown musical, "God Help the Girl," directed by Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch.
Comedies, too, feature prominently in the lineup, particularly those dealing with taboo subjects, from Madeleine Olnek's "The Foxy Merkins" and Desiree Akhavan's "Appropriate Behavior," both in Next, to German helmer David Wnendt's sexually explicit "Wetlands," receiving its North American premiere in the World Cinema dramatic competition. In particular there are several prominent comediennes in starring roles, including Kristen Wiig (appearing with fellow "SNL" alum Bill Hader in "The Skeleton Twins"), Lena Dunham ("Happy Christmas"), Jenny Slate ("Obvious Child"), Aubrey Plaza ("Life After Beth") and Amy Sedaris ("Ping Pong Summer").
One of the fest's more unusual trends is the number of veteran actors in substantial roles, Cooper said, singling out Sam Shepard and Glenn Close for their performances in "Cold in July" and "Low Down," respectively, as well as Susan Sarandon in "Ping Pong Summer."
PHOTOS: Sundance Film Festival 2014 Competition and Next Lineups
As usual, press and industry attention will focus heavily on the U.S. dramatic competition, which last year yielded such well-received titles as "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," "Concussion," "Fruitvale Station," "Kill Your Darlings," "The Spectacular Now" and "Upstream Color," many of which are now drawing awards buzz via the Independent Spirit Awards and the Gotham Awards. Two of the higher-profile entries in this year's lineup are "God's Pocket," the feature directing debut of "Mad Men" thesp-helmer John Slattery, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman; and "Happy Christmas," which stars Anna Kendrick and was directed by the ever-prolific Joe Swanberg (who made his Sundance debut with the 2011 Spotlight entry "Uncle Kent").
On the nonfiction side, Cooper noted a curious strain of optimism in the characteristically issue-heavy documentary field. American doc entries like "E-Team," Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman's film about human-rights workers, and "Fed Up," a look at child obesity and food-industry malpractice, are notable for their solution-oriented approaches.
The increasingly popular Next sidebar, devoted to low-budget, cutting-edge cinema, has steadily expanded since its first appearance at Sundance 2010. Among the 11 films set to screen (up from last year's 10) are "Land Ho!," an Iceland-set road movie directed by Aaron Katz ("Cold Weather") and Martha Stephens; "Listen Up Philip," the latest from "The Color Wheel" helmer Alex Ross Perry; and "War Story," a drama starring Catherine Keener and Ben Kingsley from director Mark Jackson (whose debut, "Without," played at Slamdance in 2011).
In keeping with recent tradition, the festival will forego a single opening-night film and kick off with screenings of four competition titles: Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash" (U.S. dramatic), Todd Miller's "Dinosaur 13" (U.S. documentary), Hong Khaou's "Lilting" (World Cinema dramatic) and Nadav Schirman's "The Green Prince" (World Cinema documentary). A shorts program will also screen on day one.
The Sundance Film Festival will announce its Spotlight, Park City at Midnight and New Frontier titles Thursday, along with a brand-new Sundance Kids slate devoted to children's programming. The Premieres and Documentary Premieres lineups will be unveiled Monday.
The full lineup:
U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION
The 16 films in this section are world premieres and, unless otherwise noted, are from the U.S.
"Camp X-Ray" -- Directed and written by Peter Sattler. A young female guard at Guantanamo Bay forms an unlikely friendship with one of the detainees. Cast: Kristen Stewart, Payman Maadi, Lane Garrison, J.J. Soria, John Carroll Lynch.
"Cold in July" -- Directed by Jim Mickle, written by Nick Damici. A small-town Texas man kills a home intruder, only to see his life violently unravel in Mickle's follow-up to "We Are What We Are." Cast: Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard, Vinessa Shaw, Nick Damici, Wyatt Russell.
"Dear White People" -- Directed and written by Justin Simien. A tongue-in-cheek look at racial identity at an Ivy League university, where a riot breaks out over an "African-American-themed" party thrown by white students. Cast: Tyler Williams, Tessa Thompson, Teyonah Parris, Brandon Bell.
"Fishing Without Nets" (U.S.-Somalia-Kenya) -- Directed by Cutter Hodierne, written by Hodierne, John Hibey and David Burkman. This story of pirates in Somalia is told from the perspective of a struggling young local fisherman. Cast: Abdikani Muktar, Abdi Siad, Abduwwhali Faarah, Abdikhadir Hassan, Reda Kateb, Idil Ibrahim.
"God's Pocket" -- Directed John Slattery, written by Slattery, Alex Metcalf. The story of a man trying to conceal the truth about the construction "accident" that killed his stepson. Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, Christina Hendricks, John Turturro.
"Happy Christmas" -- Directed and written by Joe Swanberg. A young woman breaks up with her boyfriend and then moves in with her older brother, his wife, and their 2-year-old son. Cast: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Lena Dunham, Swanberg.
"Hellion" -- Directed and written by Kat Candler. A 13-year-old delinquent must get his act together, along with his emotionally absent dad, in order to bring back his little brother, who's been taken away by child protective services. Cast: Aaron Paul, Juliette Lewis, Josh Wiggins, Deke Garner, Jonny Mars, Walt Roberts.
"Infinitely Polar Bear" -- Directed and written by Maya Forbes. A manic-depressive father tries to win back his wife by taking full responsibility of their two young daughters. Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Imogene Wolodarsky, Ashley Aufderheide.
"Jamie Marks Is Dead" -- Directed and written by Carter Smith. A ghost visits his former classmate, hoping to find the love and friendship he never experienced in life. Cast: Cameron Monaghan, Noah Silver, Morgan Saylor, Judy Greer, Madisen Beaty, Liv Tyler.
"Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" -- Directed by David Zellner, written by David and Nathan Zellner. A lonely Japanese woman abandons her structured life in Tokyo to seek a satchel of money rumoredly hidden in the Minnesota wilderness. Cast: Rinko Kikuchi.
"Life After Beth" -- Directed and written by Jeff Baena. A man is devastated by his girlfriend's unexpected death, but receives a second chance at love when she mysteriously returns. Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Dave DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser.
"Low Down" -- Directed by Jeff Preiss, written by Amy Albany and Topper Lilien. This adaptation of Albany's memoir explores her journey to adulthood while being raised by her troubled father, bebop pianist Joe Albany. Cast: John Hawkes, Elle Fanning, Glenn Close, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, Flea.
"The Skeleton Twins" -- Directed by Craig Johnson, written by Johnson and Mark Heyman. An estranged brother and sister coincidentally cheat death on the same day, prompting a reunion. Cast: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Joanna Gleason.
"The Sleepwalker" (U.S.-Norway) -- Directed by Mona Fastvold, written by Fastvold, Brady Corbet. A young couple see their lives violently interrupted when unexpected guests arrive at their secluded estate. Cast: Gitte Witt, Christopher Abbott, Corbet, Stephanie Ellis.
"Song One" -- Directed and written by Kate Barker-Froyland. When an accident leaves her brother comatose, a woman sets out to retrace his life as an aspiring musician, leading to an unexpected relationship against the backdrop of Brooklyn's music scene. Cast: Anne Hathaway, Johnny Flynn, Mary Steenburgen, Ben Rosenfield.
"Whiplash" -- Directed and written by Damien Chazelle. A talented young drummer pursues perfection at any cost in Chazelle's follow-up to "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench." Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons.
U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
The 16 films in this section are world premieres and, unless otherwise noted, are from the U.S.
"Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory" -- Directed by Michael Rossato-Bennett. A man discovers that songs embedded deep in memory can ease the pain of Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
"All the Beautiful Things" -- Directed by John Harkrider. An account of a close friendship between two men, tested by betrayal when one of them is falsely accused of rape.
Sundance Unveils 2014 Competition, Next Lineups
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