Returning helmers include Todd Louiso, Eugene Jarecki, Kirby Dick

“I’m almost starting to think a bad economy makes for better artists,” John Cooper noted as he unveiled the lineup of the 28th annual Sundance Film Festival, marking his third year as director of America’s premier independent-cinema event. “When things start to get crazy, it’s actually good for them. They start making the films they want to make.”

Certainly the economic slump has had little impact on the numbers. Set to unspool Jan. 19-29 in Park City, Utah, Sundance will present 111 features (88 of them world premieres) culled from a pool of 4,042 submissions; given that last year the fest received fewer submissions (3,812) yet accommodated more titles (115), the selection process can be termed the most competitive in recent memory. Packages and passes have sold out as quickly as ever, and sponsorship has held steady, director of programming Trevor Groth said.

“The filmmaking community out there is alive and well, pushing each other to make better and more challenging films, and we’re seeing that,” Groth said.

Cooper and Groth noted that, artistically, filmmakers have responded to the economic slump in subtly but decidedly positive ways, revealing not only a greater urgency and sense of purpose in their storytelling, but also heightened resourcefulness and a greater commitment to long-term viability. Forced to work with tighter budgets than ever, directors and producers have had to take the notion of career sustainability more seriously.

“They’re not just looking for that big-ticket film, but for a career where they get to make movies,” Cooper said, alluding to the old days when titles like “Son of Rambow” and “Hamlet 2″ set off frenzied bidding wars and pricey pickup deals, only to have a tough time fulfilling high hopes at the box office. Now that the bubble has burst, Cooper said, expectations are more reasonable and the system is correcting itself: Sales have remained healthy, and distribs have seen a decent return on their investment.

And with several dramatic offerings from Sundance 2011 — namely “Like Crazy,” “Margin Call,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Take Shelter” — having opened to solid specialty returns, critical acclaim and some awards buzz, distribs will certainly be on the lookout for fresh, commercially accessible talent, especially among the 58 competition titles unveiled today.

For Cooper, the high number of Park City alums in the 2012 selection is an encouraging sign. Returning talents on the U.S. dramatic front include Todd Louiso (“Love Liza”), back with Melanie Lynskey starrer “Hello I Must Be Going”; Ira Sachs (2005 grand jury prizewinner “Forty Shades of Blue”), returning with Gotham gay relationship study “Keep the Lights On”; So Yong Kim (“In Between Days”), bringing her Paul Dano-starring drama “For Ellen”; and James Ponsoldt (“Off the Black”), cracking the competition with the boozy marital drama “Smashed.”

Groth noted the unusual number of comedies in the dramatic competition, with notable elements of light humor in Ry Russo-Young’s “Nobody Walks,” Colin Trevorrow’s “Safety Not Guaranteed” and “Hello I Must Be Going”; oddly enough, the one film that’s titled “The Comedy,” from helmer Rick Alverson, is one of the section’s darker entries.

On the American documentary side, Cooper’s “repeat offenders” include Eugene Jarecki (2005 grand jury prizewinner “Why We Fight” and last year’s “Reagan”), who will unspool “The House I Live In,” a critique of America’s war on drugs; Kirby Dick (“This Film Is Not Yet Rated”), tackling the subject of rape in the U.S. military with “The Invisible War”; and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (“12th & Delaware”), returning with their urban elegy “Detropia.”

While at least one docu competition entry, Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce’s corporate-malfeasance expose “We’re Not Broke,” chimes with the increasingly embattled Occupy protest movements, Cooper said the financial crisis was not a dominant theme. Instead, he observed that in contrast with the more personal, character-driven documentaries of Sundance 2011, the latest batch of nonfiction filmmakers tended to offer “a more comprehensive study of big problems,” running the gamut from the health-care crisis to hunger in America to the environmental movement.

The World Cinema dramatic competition is dominated by an unusually rich strain of Latin American filmmaking, encompassing pictures from Brazil, Argentina and Chile such as Luciano Moura’s “Father’s Chair,” Armando Bo’s “The Last Elvis,” Andres Wood’s “Violeta Went to Heaven” and Marialy Rivas’ “Young & Wild.” The rising interest in Greek cinema has also made itself felt with the programming of Babis Makridis’ absurdist-sounding “L,” co-written by Makridis and “Dogtooth” scribe Efthymis Filippou.

During the two years since he replaced longtime Sundance topper Geoffrey Gilmore, Cooper made numerous refinements to the structure of the program, including the launches of Documentary Premieres and the best-of-fests Spotlight slate. Few such changes are in evidence for the 2012 edition, and Cooper said he and his staff plan to work within the present model for a few years, or “until the independent world tells us to change it again, which could happen next year.”

Once again, the fest will forego a traditional opening-night film and instead kick off with screenings of four competition titles and a shorts program. The first-day features are “Hello I Must Be Going” (dramatic), Lauren Greenfield’s “The Queen of Versailles” (docu), Kieran Darcy-Smith’s “Wish You Were Here” (World Cinema dramatic) and Malik Bendjelloul’s “Searching for Sugar Man” (World Cinema docu).

The festival will announce its Spotlight, Park City at Midnight, Next and New Frontier titles Thursday, while Premieres and Documentary Premieres lineups will be unveiled Monday.

DRAMATIC COMPETITION

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


“Beasts of the Southern Wild” – Directed by Benh Zeitlin, written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar. The tale of a 6-year-old named Hushpuppy, who lives with her father on the edge of the Louisiana Delta. With Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry.


“The Comedy” – Directed by Rick Alverson, written by Alverson, Robert Donne and Colm O’Leary. An aging hipster searches for meaning in a world that values status, popularity and good looks above all else. Stars Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, Kate Lyn Sheil, Alexia Rasmussen, Gregg Turkington.


“The End of Love” – Directed and written by Mark Webber. A young man unravels after losing the mother of his child. Stars Webber, Shannyn Sossamon, Michael Cera, Jason Ritter, Amanda Seyfried and Frankie Shaw.


“Filly Brown” – Directed by Youssef Delara and Michael D. Olmos, written by Delara. A Mexican girl achieves musical fame while coping with her mother’s incarceration in this hip-hop-driven drama. Features Lou Diamond Phillips, Gina Rodriguez, Jenni Rivera and Edward James Olmos.


“The First Time” – Directed and written by Jonathan Kasdan. A story of two high schoolers who meet at a party and fall in love for the first time over the course of a weekend. Stars Brittany Robertson, Dylan O’Brien, Craig Roberts, James Frecheville and Victoria Justice.


“For Ellen” – Directed and written by So Yong Kim. A struggling musician fights his estranged wife for custody of their young daughter. With Paul Dano, Jon Heder, Jena Malone, Margarita Levieva, Shay Mandigo.


“Hello I Must Be Going” – Directed by Todd Louiso, written by Sarah Koskoff. A childless, 35-year-old divorcee moves back in with her parents, only to experience the unexpected attention of a teenage boy. Stars Melanie Lynskey, Blythe Danner, Christopher Abbott, John Rubinstein, Julie White.


“Keep the Lights On” – Directed by Ira Sachs, written by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias. Two men share a passionate long-term relationship in this fact-inspired drama. With Thure Lindhart, Zachary Booth, Julianne Nicholson, Souleymane Sy Savane, Paprika Steen.


“Luv” – Directed by Sheldon Candis, written by Candis and Justin Wilson. An 11-year-old orphan must face unpleasant truths over the course of a day in Baltimore. Stars Common, Michael Rainey Jr., Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton.


“Middle of Nowhere” – Directed and written by Ava DuVernay. A woman struggles to hold onto her marriage and identity when her husband is incarcerated. Features Emayatzy Corinealdi, David Oyelowo, Omari Hardwick, Lorraine Touissant, Edwina Findley.


“Nobody Walks” – Directed by Ry Russo-Young, written by Lena Dunham and Russo-Young. A young artist visiting from New York disrupts the home of a hip Los Angeles family. With John Krasinski, Olivia Thirlby, Rosemarie DeWitt, India Ennenga, Justin Kirk.


“Safety Not Guaranteed” – Directed by Colin Trevorrow, written by Derek Connolly. Three magazine employees investigate a classified ad from a paranoid loner seeking a time-travel partner. Stars Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson and Karan Soni.


“Save the Date” – Directed by Michael Mohan, written by Jeffrey Brown, Egan Reich and Michael Mohan. A woman experiences an intense post-breakup rebound in this look at modern-day relationships. Stars Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, Martin Starr, Geoffrey Arend and Mark Webber.


“Simon Killer” (France-U.S.) – Directed and written by Antonio Campos. A recent college grad heads to Paris and falls in love with a young prostitute. With Brady Corbet, Mati Diop, Constance Rousseau, Michael Abiteboul and Solo.


“Smashed” – Directed by James Ponsoldt, written by Susan Burke and Ponsoldt. Young marrieds Kate and Charlie share a love of music, laughter and alcohol, until Kate decides to get sober. Stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally.


“The Surrogate” – Directed and written by Ben Lewin. A 36-year-old poet and journalist in an iron lung decides to shed his virginity. Features John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy.

DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

The 16 American films in this section are world premieres.


Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” – Directed by Alison Klayman. A portrait of provocative, internationally recognized Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei.


“The Atomic States of America” – Directed by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce. Examines the fierce debate over the safety and viability of nuclear power in the wake of the recent Japanese earthquake and Fukushima power-plant disaster.


“Chasing Ice” – Directed by Jeff Orlowski. Uses time-lapse photography of glaciers over several years to provide evidence of climate change.


“Detropia” – Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Recounts the woes of Detroit and its people and the collapse of the U.S. manufacturing base.


“Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare” – Directed by Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke. Charts the rising movement to save the broken medical system in the U.S.


“Finding North” – Directed by Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson. A look at the looming American hunger crisis.


The House I Live In – Directed by Eugene Jarecki. An inquiry into the failure of the war on drugs.


“How to Survive a Plague” – Directed by David France. The story of the efforts that turned AIDS into a manageable condition in the wake of mass death and political indifference.


“The Invisible War” – Directed by Kirby Dick. Investigates the rape of soldiers within the U.S. military and the institutions that have tried to cover it up.


“Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” – Directed by Matthew Akers. Follows the artist as she prepares for a major retrospective of her work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.


“Me at the Zoo” – Directed by Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch. A portrait of controversial Tennessee video blogger Chris Crocker.


“The Other Dream Team” – Directed by Marius Markevicius. An account of how the 1992 Lithuanian national basketball team emerged from communist rule to participate in the Summer Olympics in Barcelona.


The Queen of Versailles – Directed by Lauren Greenfield. The rags-to-riches story of two people trying to construct the biggest house in America.


“Slavery by Another Name” – Directed by Sam Pollard. Examines the system of involuntary servitude that took the place of slavery after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.


“The Truth Will Set You Free” – Directed by Macky Alston. Chronicles the battle of an openly gay bishop who refuses to leave the church or the man he loves.


“We’re Not Broke” – Directed by Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce. A critique of multibillion-dollar corporations concealing profits overseas to avoid paying U.S. income tax.

WORLD CINEMA DRAMATIC COMPETITION

The 14 films in this section are world premieres unless otherwise noted.


“4 Suns” (Czech Republic) – Directed and written by Bohdan Slama. A young man is unable to overcome his immaturity in the wake of new responsibilities as a husband and father. With Jaroslav Plesl, Ana Geislerova, Karel Roden, Jiri Madl, Klara Meliskova.


“About the Pink Sky” (Japan) – Directed by Keiichi Kobayashi. Unexpected consequences ensue when a girl finds a wallet full of money and tracks down its owner. Stars Ai Ikeda, Ena Koshino, Reiko Fujiwara, Tsubasa Takayama and Hakusyu Togetsuan. International premiere.


“Can” (Turkey) – Directed and written by Rasit Celikezer. A young married couple in Istanbul decide to illegally procure a child, threatening their future. Features Selen Ucer, Serdar Orcin, Berkan Demirbag, Erkan Avci.


“Father’s Chair” (Brazil) – Directed by Luciano Moura, written by Elena Soarez and Moura. A man tries to find his runaway teen son and confronts his own identity as a son and father. With Wagner Moura, Lima Duarte, Mariana Lima.


“L” (Greece) – Directed by Babis Makridis, written by Makridis and Efthymis Filippou. A man who lives in his car gets caught in the war between car drivers and motorcycle riders. With Aris Servetalis, Makis Papadimitriou, Lefteris Mathaios, Nota Tserniafski and Stavros Raptis.


“The Last Elvis” (Argentina) – Directed by Armando Bo, written by Nicolas Giacobone and Bo. An Elvis impersonator in Buenos Aires believes he is the reincarnation of teh King. Stars John McInerny, Griselda Siciliani and Margarita Lopez.


“Madrid, 1987″ (Spain) – Directed and written by David Trueba. The balance of power and desire continually shifts when an older journalist meets with a young student. With Jose Sacristan, Maria Valverde and Ramon Fontsere. International premiere.


“My Brother the Devil” (U.K.) – Directed and written by Sally El Hosaini. Two British Arab brothers try to get by in London gang territory. Features James Floyd, Said Taghmaoui, Fady Elsayed.


“Teddy Bear” (Denmark) – Directed by Mads Matthiesen. A painfully shy 38-year-old bodybuilder looks for love in Thailand. With Kim Kold, Elsebeth Steentoft, Lamajporn Sangmanee Hougaard, David Winters and Allan Mogensen.


“Valley of Saints” (India-U.S.) – Directed and written by Musa Syeed. A man plans to flee war and poverty in his Kashmir village until a beautiful young woman changes his mind. With Gulzar Ahmad Bhat, Mohammed Afzal Sofi, Neelofar Hamid.


“Violeta Went to Heaven” (Chile-Argentina-Brazil-Spain) – Directed by Andres Wood, written by Eliseo Altunaga, Rodrigo Bazaes, Guillermo Calderon and Wood. A biographical portrait of famed Chilean singer and folklorist Violeta Parra. With Francisca Gavilan, Thomas Durand, Luis Machin, Gabriela Aguilera and Roberto Farias. International premiere.


“Wish You Were Here” (Australia) – Directed by Kieran Darcy-Smith, written by Felicity Price and Darcy-Smith. Four friends go on holiday, but only three return home. With Joel Edgerton, Teresa Palmer, Felicity Price, Antony Starr.


“Wrong” (France) – Directed and written by Quentin Dupieux. A guy has a series of mysterious encounters while searching for his lost dog. Features Jack Plotnick, Eric Judor, Alexis Dziena, Steve Little and William Fichtner.


“Young & Wild” (Chile) – Directed by Marialy Rivas, written by Rivas, Camila Gutierrez and Pedro Peirano. A teenager raised by a strict evangelical family struggles to find her own spiritual path. With Alicia Rodriguez, Aline Kuppenheim, Maria Gracia Omegna and Felipe Pinto.

WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

The 12 films in this section are world premieres unless otherwise noted.


“1/2 Revolution” (Denmark-Egypt) – Directed by Omar Shargawi and Karim El Hakim. A look at the Egyptian revolution beyond the view of the world’s media. North American premiere.


“5 Broken Cameras” (Palestinian Territories-Israel-France) – Directed and written by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi. A Palestinian journalist chronicles his village’s resistance to the building of a separation barrier. International premiere.


“The Ambassador” (Denmark) – Directed by Mads Brugger. In which Brugger pretends to be a diplomat and infiltrates Africa’s blood diamond trade. North American premiere.


“Big Boys Gone Bananas!*” (Sweden) – Directed by Fredrik Gertten. The behind-the-scenes story of Dole’s attempt to suppress “Bananas!*,” Gertten’s 2009 docu about Nicaraguan plantation workers. North American premiere.


“China Heavyweight” (Canada-China) – Directed by Yung Chang. A look at the New China through the eyes of poor rural teenagers training to be Western-style boxing champions.


Gypsy Davy (Israel-U.S.-Spain) – Directed by Rachel Leah Jones. The story of a white boy from Alabama who transforms himself into an Andalusian flamenco guitarist. International premiere.


“The Imposter” (U.K.) – Directed by Bart Layton. Chronicles the disappearance and finding of a teenage boy from San Antonio, Texas.


“Indie Game: The Movie” (Canada) – Directed by Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky. Charts the efforts of indie game developers.


“The Law in These Parts” (Israel) – Directed by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz. A dissection of Israel’s 43-year military legal system in the Palestinian Territories. International premiere.


“Payback” (Canada) – Directed by Jennifer Baichwal. Examines debt as a central organizing principle in our lives.


“Putin’s Kiss” (Denmark) – Directed by Lise Birk Pedersen. Tracks the journey of a 19-year-old spokesperson for a strongly nationalistic Russian youth movement. North American premiere.


“Searching for Sugar Man” (Denmark-U.K.) – Directed by Malik Bendjelloul. Recounts the up-and-down career of ’70s musician Rodriguez.

Gallery: Sundance Competition 2012

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