Film festival runs Jan. 20-30 in Park City, Utah

Looking to avoid a sophomore slump after a well-received first year at the helm, Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper said the event’s 2011 lineup reflects the “very healthy” state of independent cinema and is the product of one of the most competitive selection processes in recent memory.

“It speaks to the perseverance and strength of the artists’ community,” Cooper said, noting that the 115 features selected for the fest — set to unspool Jan. 20-30 in Park City, Utah — were culled from a suprisstrong 3,812 submissions, up from this year’s 3,724. “You’re always waiting for it to taper off. If it had, I would’ve been really scared,” he said.

Submissions aren’t the only thing on an upswing. For the first time in years, the festival has five presenting sponsors — Chase Sapphire, Entertainment Weekly, HP, Acura and Sundance Channel — instead of the usual four, a significant boon at a time when festivals continue to struggle to hold onto corporate backing. Ticket packages and passes have sold out even faster than usual, Cooper said.

All this, of course, creates enormous pressure for Sundance to live up to the high artistic quality and robust sales activity that marked this year’s edition. As if to underline industry expectations, Wednesday’s announcement of 58 new films in competition arrived amid a surge of kudos momentum for such Sundance 2010 hits as “Winter’s Bone,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “Blue Valentine,” “Waiting for Superman” and “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”

Cooper said he intended to keep the bar high, adding that fest director Robert Redford is “pretty relentless about not letting us rest on our laurels.” Apart from a few adjustments — notably, the introduction of the Documentary Premieres section, which will be unveiled today with the rest of the festival’s noncompetitive slate — he and director of programming Trevor Groth are largely following through on the extensive changes they made to the program a year ago.

“What we changed were the right things,” Cooper said, alluding especially to the decision to screen more than one film on opening night. Having slated two curtain-raisers earlier this year, he and Groth have opted to shake things up further by kicking off the 2011 fest with four features — one from each competitive section (dramatic, documentary, World Cinema dramatic and World Cinema documentary) — and a shorts program.

Decision stems from Cooper’s philosophy that “we might as well get ‘em going”; it’s also in line with the festival’s intention to distance itself from red-carpet events and give more weight to its international programming. To that end, the programming team scoured more corners of the globe than usual in its hunt for films, with stronger emphasis on Australia and Asia (two World Cinema dramatic selections, “Abraxas” and “Vampire,” hail from Japan).

While the dramatic competition is dominated by new filmmakers, a few Sundance vets are in the mix as well. Just a year after his “Douchebag” premiered in competition, helmer Drake Doremus will return with “Like Crazy,” starring “Winter’s Bone” thesp Jennifer Lawrence and Anton Yelchin. Elsewhere, two Park City alums cracked the competition for the first time: Mike Cahill, whose “King of California” bowed in Premieres in 2007, will bring his speculative drama “Another Earth,” and Azazel Jacobs, helmer of 2008′s Spectrum entry “Momma’s Man,” competes with “Terri,” with Jacob Wysocki and John C. Reilly.

Noting the predominance of “fiercely independent stories” in the program, Groth singled out a particular thematic trend he and Cooper noticed among many of the films selected: a willingness to grapple with issues of faith and religion. Two U.S. dramatic entries navigating this touchy terrain are “Higher Ground,” the helming debut of actress Vera Farmiga, who also stars; and Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” “I don’t know what it means; I haven’t talked to any filmmakers about it this year. It’s this thing that’s permeated their consciousness,” Cooper said. “I hope somebody picks up on it during the festival.”

2011 SUNDANCE COMPETITION LINEUP:

DRAMATIC COMPETITION

The 16 films in this section are world premieres and, unless otherwise noted, are from the U.S.

  • “Another Earth” – Directed by Mike Cahill, written by Cahill and Brit Marling.A tragedy alters the lives of two strangers on the eve of the discovery of a duplicate Earth. Stars William Mapother, Marling, Jordan Baker, Robin Lord Taylor, Flint Beverage.

  • “Benavides Born” – Directed by Amy Wendel, written by Wendel and Daniel Meisel. A small-town high school senior hoping to earn a college scholarship by winning a state powerlifting championship. With Corina Calderon, Jeremy Ray Valdez, Joseph Julian Soria, Julia Vera, Julio Cesar Cedillo.

  • “Circumstance” – (U.S.-Iran, directed and written by Maryam Keshavarz. A wealthy Iranian family’s struggle to contain a teenager’s sexual rebellion and her brother’s frightening obsession. Toplines Nikohl Boosheri, Sarah Kazemy, Reza Sixo Safai, Soheil Parsa, Nasrin Pakkho.

  • “Gun Hill Road” – Directed and written by Rashaad Ernesto Green. An ex-con returning to his estranged wife and teenage son in the Bronx. Features Esai Morales, Judy Reyes, Harmony Santana, Vanessa Aspillaga.

  • “Here” – Directed by Braden King, written by King and Dani Valent. The powerful bond between an American cartographer and an Armenian expat and art photographer. With Ben Foster, Lubna Azabal, Narek Nersisyan, Yuri Kostanyan and Sofik Sarkisyan.

  • “Higher Ground”- – Directed by Vera Farmiga, written by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe. A frustrated young mother who turns to a fundamentalist community for answers. Stars Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, John Hawkes, Dagmara Dominczyk, Norbert Leo Butz.

  • “Homework” – Directed and written by Gavin Wiesen. A quirky, rebellious teen and the girl who inspires him to turn over a new leaf. Toplines Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Michael Angarano, Elizabeth Reaser, Rita Wilson, Blair Underwood.

  • “The Ledge” – Directed and written by Matthew Chapman. A man threatening to jump from a ledge while a cop races against time to figure out what’s going on. Features Charlie Hunnam, Liv Tyler, Patrick Wilson, Terrence Howard, Christopher Gorham.

  • “Like Crazy” – Directed by Drake Doremus, written by Doremus and Ben York Jones. A long-distance love story between an American guy and a British girl. Stars Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Charlie Bewley, Alex Kingston.

  • “Little Birds”- – Directed and written by Elgin James. A friendship between two 15-year-old girls, one of whom follows the other from the Salton Sea to Los Angeles. With Juno Temple, Kay Panabaker, Leslie Mann, Kate Bosworth, Kyle Gallner.

  • “Martha Marcy May Marlene” – Directed and written by Sean Durkin. A woman struggles to reassimilate into her family after fleeing an abusive cult. Stars Elizabeth Olsen, Brady Corbet, Hugh Dancy, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson.

  • “On the Ice” – Directed and written by Andrew Okpeaha MacLean. Two teenagers trying to get away with murder on the Arctic tundra. Features Josiah Patkotak, Frank Qutuq Irelan, Teddy Kyle Smith, Adamina Kerr, Sierra Jade Sampson.

  • “Pariah” – Directed and written by Dee Rees. The sexual odyssey of a Bronx teenager forced to choose between losing her best friend and destroying her family. Features Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Kim Wayans, Charles Parnell, Aasha Davis.

  • “Take Shelter” – Directed and written by Jeff Nichols. A working-class family man whose apocalyptic dreams may be the result of an inherited mental illness. Stars Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Katy Mixon, Kathy Baker.

  • “Terri”- Directed by Azazel Jacobs, written by Patrick deWitt and Jacobs. Titular protagonist is an outcast who strikes up a friendship with his school’s dreaded vice principal. With Jacob Wysocki, John C. Reilly, Creed Bratton, Olivia Crocicchia, Bridger Zadina.

  • “The Untitled Sam Levinson Project” – Directed and written by Sam Levinson. The story of two reckless siblings dealing with a chaotic family wedding. Features Demi Moore, Kate Bosworth, Jeffrey DeMunn, Ellen Barkin, Ellen Burstyn, Thomas Haden Church.

DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

The 16 films in this section are world premieres.

  • “Beats, Rhymes and Life” – Directed by Michael Rapaport. About the rise and influence of hip-hop collective a Tribe Called Quest.

  • Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey” – Directed by Constance Marks. A portrait of Kevin Clash, the man behind the beloved “Sesame Street” character.

  • “Buck” – Directed by Cindy Meehl. About the nonviolent methods of master horse trainer Buck Brannaman.

  • “Connected: An Autoblogography About Love, Death and Technology” – Directed by Tiffany Shlain, written by Shlain, Ken Goldberg, Carlton Evans and Sawyer Steele. A stream-of-consciousness tour of the interconnectedness of humankind, nature, progress and morality at the dawn of the 21st century.

  • “Crime After Crime” – Directed by Yoav Potash. Pic follows the case of Debbie Peagler, imprisoned for her involvement in the murder of her abuser.

  • “Hot Coffee” – Directed by Susan Saladoff. Film follows people whose lives have been devastated by an inability to access the courts.

  • “How to Die in Oregon” – Directed by Peter D. Richardson. Pic is about subjects looking to die with dignity in the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

  • “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” – Directed by Marshall Curry. An examination of the radical environmental group dubbed America’s “No. 1 domestic terrorist threat” by the FBI.

  • “The Last Mountain” – Directed by Bill Haney, written by Haney and Peter Rhodes. A look at the clash between a coal-mining corporation and a tiny community for the last great mountain in Appalachia.

  • “Miss Representation” – Directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, written by Newsom and Jessica Congdon. About the media’s role in the under-representation of women in positions of power.

  • “Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times” – Directed by Andrew Rossi, written by Rossi and Kate Novack. A look at the Times newsroom and the changing media landscape.

  • “The Redemption of General Butt Naked” – Directed by Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion. About a warlord seeking to make amends after murdering thousands during Liberia’s 14-year civil war.

  • “Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles” – Directed by Jon Foy. Film concerns one man’s quest to piece together hundreds of cryptic messages that have been appearing across the U.S. and South America.

  • “Sing Your Song” – Directed by Susanne Rostock. A portrait of Harry Belafonte’s contributions to the civil-rights movement and social justice globally.

  • “Troubadours” – Directed by Morgan Neville. Follows the lives and careers of James Taylor and Carole King, pillars of the California singer-songwriter scene in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

  • “We Were Here” – Directed by David Weissman. A look back at the arrival and impact of AIDS in San Francisco.

WORLD CINEMA DRAMATIC COMPETITION

The 16 films in this section are world premieres.

  • “Abraxas” (Japan) – Directed by Dai Sako, written by Sako and Naoki Kato, about a depressed Zen monk with a heavy-metal past. Features Suneohair, Rie Tomosaka, Manami Honjou, Ryouta Murai, Kaoru Kobayashi. International premiere.

  • “All Your Dead Ones” (Colombia) – Directed by Carlos Moreno, written by Moreno and Alonso Torres, in which a peasant awakens to find a pile of bodies among his crops. Toplines Alvaro Rodriguez, Jorge Herrera, Martha Marquez, Harold Devasten, John Alex Castillo.

  • “The Cinema Hold Up” (Mexico) – Directed by Iria Gomez Concheiro, written by Concheiro and Juan Pablo Gomez), about four childhood friends considering robbing a cinema in Mexico’s tough Guerrero neighborhood. With Gabino Rodriguez, Juan Pablo de Santiago, Angel Sosa, Paulina Avalos.

  • “A Few Days of Respite” (Algeria-France) – Directed and written by Amor Hakkar, concerning a pair of gay men who have escaped Iran to seek safe harbor in a small French village. Features Hakkar, Marina Vlady, Samir Guesmi.

  • “The Guard” (Ireland) – Directed and written by John Michael McDonagh, the story of an Irish small-town cop pulled into a surreal chain of events. Stars Don Cheadle, Brendan Gleeson, Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot, Fionnula Flanagan.

  • “Happy, Happy” (Norway) – Directed by Anne Sewitsky and written by Ragnhild Tronvoll, concerning a sex-starved housewife who struggles to keep her emotions in check when an attractive family moves in next door. With Agnes Kittelsen, Henrik Rafaelsen, Maibritt Saerens, Joachim Rafaelsen.

  • “Kinyarwanda” (Rwanda-U.S.) – Directed and written by Alrick Brown, based on true accounts of Rwandans who turned mosques into places of refuge during the 1994 genocide. With Edouard Bamporiki, Cassandra Freeman, Cleophas Kabasiita, Hadidja Zaninka, Kennedy Mazimpaka, Hassan Kabera.

  • “Lost Kisses” (Italy) – Directed by Roberta Torre, written by Torre and Laura Nuccilli, about a 13-year-old girl who wows her Sicilian hometown by pretending to hear messages from the Virgin Mary. Features Donatella Finocchiaro, Pino Micol, Giuseppe Fiorello, Carla Marchese, Martina Galletta, Tony Palazzo. International premiere.

  • “Mad Bastards” (Australia) – Directed by Brendan Fletcher, written by Fletcher in collaboration with Dean Daley-Jones, Greg Tait and John Watson), in which an urban street warrior meets his match in a cop in a northern Australian frontier town. Stars Daley-Jones, Greg Tait, John Watson, Ngaire Pigram, Lucas Yeeda. International premiere.

  • “Restoration” ( Israel) – Directed by Yossi Madmoni and written by Erez Kav-El, the tale of an antique furniture restorer struggling to keep his workshop going. Stars Sasson Gabay, Henry David, Nevo Kimchi, Sarah Adler.

  • “The Salesman” (Canada) – Directed and written by Sebastien Pilote, about a car salesman experiencing the harsh new realities of doing business in his fading industrial town. Toplines Gilbert Sicotte, Nathalie Cavezzali.

  • “Ticket to Paradise” (Cuba) – Directed by Gerardo Chijona Valdes, written by Valdes, Francisco Garcia Gonzalez and Maykel Rodriguez Ponjuan), a story of young runaways set against the impoverished backdrop of 1993 Cuba. With Miriel Cejas, Hector Medina, Dunia Matos, Jorge Perugorria, Luis A. Garcia.

  • “Tyrannosaur” (U.K.) – Directed and written by Paddy Considine, about a man plagued by fits of self-destructive violence and the woman who offers him a shot at redemption. Stars Peter Mullan, Eddie Marsan, Olivia Colman.

  • “Vampire” (Japan-Canada) – Directed and written by Shunji Iwai, in which a seemingly normal young man prowls online chatrooms and message boards for the perfect girl who will ensure his survival. Stars Kevin Zegers, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rachael Leigh Cook, Kristin Kreuk, Aoi Yu, Adelaide Clemens.

WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

Unless otherwise noted, the 12 films in this section are world premieres.

  • “An African Election” (Ghana-Switzerland-U.S.) – Directed by Jarreth Merz, an examination of issues facing a Third World democracy set against the 2008 presidential elections in Ghana, West Africa. North American premiere.

  • “The Bengali Detective” (India-U.S.-U.K.) – Directed by Phil Cox, a portrait of chubby, dance-obsessed private investigator Rajesh Bharti.

  • “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975″ (Sweden-U.S.) – Directed by Goran Olsson, a synthesis of old and new footage covering the Black Power movement in America.

  • “Family Portrait in Black and White” (Canada-Ukraine) – Directed by Julia Ivanova, about the harsh realities facing 16 black orphans raised in a small Ukrainian town.

  • “The Flaw” (U.K.) – Directed by David Sington, a sharp indictment of capitalism and its role in recent U.S. economic woes. North American premiere.

  • “The Green Wave” (Germany) – Directed by Ali Samadi Ahadi, a mixed-media documentary about Iran’s tumultuous elections in June 2009. North American premiere.

  • “Hell and Back Again” (U.S.-U.K.) – Directed by Danfung Dennis, an examination of “unconventional” warfare as seen from the p.o.v. of a Marine on a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

  • “Knuckle” (Ireland-U.K.) – Directed by Ian Palmer, a history of violent feuding rival clans in the world of Irish Traveler bare-knuckle fighting.

  • “Position Among the Stars” (Netherlands) – Directed by Leonard Retel Helmrich, the last docu in the helmer’s trilogy following a working-class Indonesian family. International premiere.

  • “Project Nim” (U.K.) – Directed by James Marsh, pic follows the story of Nim, a chimpanzee who was taught to communicate with language and raised like a human child.

  • “Senna” (U.K.) – Directed by Asif Kapadia, written by Manish Pandey. A profile of Brazilian racing driver Ayrton Senna. North American premiere.

  • “Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure” (Australia-U.S.) – Directed by Matthew Bate, the story of two friends who tape-recorded their neighbors’ fights and inadvertently created a viral pop-culture sensation.

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